Hard to Change

Razib Khan’s post on why change is difficult:

One of the things I instinctively hated about my “ancestral culture,” that of Bangladesh, is that there wasn’t that great of an emphasis on individual independent thought. Why, for example, was it important never to drink water while you were eating, as opposed to after you were done? The response was simple: that’s the rule. Even if there was a functional rationale, there wasn’t even any pretense at offering a reasoned explanation for why a custom was a custom. It’s just how it was.
But there are reasons for this mindless following of rules passed down from generations past. In behavior ecology it is understood that organisms in extremely static environments and extremely variant environments don’t gain any benefit from determining their own optimal strategy independently, as opposed to simply following what’s been done before or is done by con-specifics. The reason is that if the environment does not change, you are reinventing the wheel. If the environment changes constantly, then you will always be a step behind in terms of adapting to the last crisis, and you’ll be expending time and energy learning. Better to just continue with mindless but cheap sub-optimal strategies, rather than mindful but expensive sub-optimal strategies.

Why am I bringing this up? A few anthropologists (e.g., Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Joe Henrich, etc.) have pointed out that the same logic may apply to humans. Independent thought is expensive, and is only optimal in particular environments. If nothing ever changes then it is futile and wasteful. If things change far too fast for an individual alone to “track” their environment then it is also futile and wasteful. This insight may explain the prevalence of collectivist conservatism and reaction at particular points in history. When change never occurs then following tried & tested habits pays. When change is too fast there isn’t any benefit for independent thinking, and people fall back on cheap collective strategies which allow them to gain at least some purchase is a protean world. The liberal individualist world then may be the world of the golden mean in between. Change, but not too much.


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  • Kyle

    This is easier to graft onto the lower orders of the animal kingdom, where most behavior is more closely linked to the quest for survival as opposed to the more human urge to flourish. Apparent environmental immutability domain doesn’t necessarily stifle creativity. After all, our history is defined by one genius after another railing against the establishment for its failure to investigate a better way. (Whether that better way is implemented promptly is separate from whether man, or a subset of man, is innately driven to generate the better idea in the face of extraordinary odds against that idea’s survival.) And the same holds true for environments of rampant change; geniuses arise and assert themselves as well as their ideas without fail. What certainly suffers in these areas of stagnation or great flux is a community of likeminded scholars or thinkers capable of producing fertile soil for ongoing conversation about and cultivation of these great ideas. But independent thinking is inevitable, for this thinking eventually stabilizes the anarchy or conversely evolves the homogeneity. In either extreme scenario, the group becomes the baseline while the outliers perform the initial stages of moving the group to better ground. This ability of a few individuals to remain faithful to uneconomical strategizing may, from an evolutionary standpoint, describe man’s unique fitness to overcome a broad range of environmental obstacles.

  • Deets

    My daughter at age 9 said, “The problem with change is it is always so different.”

  • Mark E. Smith

    There’s always reasons for customs. What gets lost is the reason for them. In his example, I’m sure there used to be a perfectly good reason to not drink while eating, but the reason has gotten lost.