Speech: Bret Weinstein on cycles of civilizations

The Fourth Frontier: Discovering Humanity’s Future by Bret Weinstein:

I like this speech because of it’s fascinating premise, and various tangents into spin-off topics. It also informs much of other things I’ve written about.

This won’t be the first post about a Bret Weinstein Speech. This is quickly becoming a Weinstein family fan site.

Notes on the speech are below. Not everything here is what he said exactly, but rather, what I’ve learned from this speech.

Frontiers of human growth

  • Organisms are all evolved to pursue something economists would we call growth.
  • Weinstein overviews zero-sum vs non-zero-sum (positive sum) dynamics. This is a topic I explored in my first post.
  • You can think of this in terms of a pie-chart. Zero-sum growth is an expansion of a slice of the pie. Positive-sum growth is growth of the pie.
  • When creatures pursue unexplored opportunities, we experience non-zero-sum dynamics. This is so beneficial that organisms become “addicted” to it.
  • All species have gone through oscillations: periods of zero-sum growth, and periods of positive-sum growth. This means we must have “programs within us that deal with both phases.”
  • If you live in a phase with positive-sum growth, we come to expect that human nature is good. People will compete, but not by unfairly interfering with each other.
  • When a creatures finds a positive-sum opportunity, the population will grow to the point where the opportunity is exhausted. The more food you find, the more mouths you create.
  • An example of a positive-sum opportunity is a geographic frontier. For example, when Paleo Indians discovered the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age.
  • Another example of a positive-sum opportunity is a technological opportunity: doing more with less. Bret gives the example of Inca terracing. Peter Thiel has the most interesting things to say about this; see my post about innovation.
  • In the absence of positive-sum opportunities (new land or technology), people look for alternative avenues of growth. Bret calls this the “transfer frontier”: one population steals resources from another population. This is zero-sum.
  • An example is when the Spaniards discovered the new world (with Amerindians already there).
  • This explains why economic/technological slowdown creates an increase in tribalism. Our political systems are designed on the premise of future growth. When no positive-sum growth is available, people attach themselves to exclusionary groups to corner off resources.
  • Personal conjecture: I believe status is inherently zero-sum; maybe this explains why there is more identify politics surrounding the acquisition of status positions.
  • “Tyranny is the endgame of prosperity.” Bret says the holocaust was “a monstrous act, but interpretable as rational.” Are we born racist, or made racist? The reality is more complicated: we are all born with racism within us as a “dormant” program, to be unleashed when there are no other options.
  • This explains why the same people who are perfectly nice in peacetime can commit atrocities given the right conditioning.
  • I have hypothesized about the rise and fall of civilizations. Bret presents an alternative view. Populations discover new opportunities, and expand to exhaust those opportunities until they reach carrying capacity again. Then when growth runs, out it sparks tribalism and tyranny, destroying the interconnected systems that supported opportunities in the first place.
  • Bret goes on a tangent about the Fermi Paradox. The idea is that most civilizations do not become interstellar because most civilizations destroy themselves after developing too-destructive forces, but maybe we can avoid this by thinking hard about these issues.
  • What does he propose? Something he calls “engineered stable abundance”. We need to maintain the sensation of abundance perpetually.
  • We can take cues from civilizations that were relatively stable and extremely long-lasting. The Mayan civilization existed for thousands of years. They were such a far-sighted civilization that they measured time in very long time scales, thousands of years.
  • The Maya were “prone to building massive monuments that don’t appear to serve any material purpose.” Remember that I said that creatures will grow their populations to exhaust positive-sum avenues of growth? Maybe the Mayan monuments were not all waste: they were a mechanism for diverting resources away from unsustainable growth. In periods of low growth, you can simulate normal growth by reducing spend on temple construction.
  • Personal conjecture: I wonder if Mayan human sacrifice plays into this (population reduction).

Humanity’s Challenges

Bret spends a great deal of the speech pontificating about the various dangers to humanity’s future. It would be a waste to not bring them up.

  • The conditions in which humans evolved are very different than modern environments. To some extent, all species deal with this issue.  The problem for humans is that change is occurring at such a fast rate that our genes do not have time to adapt. I have written about industrialization before; it has utterly transformed society in short time.
  • Ever notice that many civilizations have the origin myth that they are a people descended from survivors of a great calamity? Ever notice that so many cults prophesies the end of the world? Humanity has gone through a series of bottlenecks. We are all descended from those who made through. Small groups that prepare for disaster, seemingly irrationally, are sometimes rewarded for it. Bret worries that today, however, our systems our so interconnected that we would not be able to recover from a bottleneck.
  • Sometimes we create evolving systems. These can present a danger when they don’t do what we want them to. For example, when we develop algorithms designed to hold our attention on social media, even people who design these algorithms cannot overcome them.
  • Novel complexity: we have developed technologies that are vulnerable, and have not had time to learn that from experience.
  • You may have seen the political compass:

political compass.png

  • On the X-axis is classic politics: left vs right wing. On the Y-axis is authoritarians vs libertarians. Bret argues that we are too caught up in partisan debates that we do not see the real enemy: authoritarians. We ought to be talking about questions of values over questions of policy.
  • Bret says there is another danger: utopianism. Utopians make “two errors.” First, they optimize for a single value, to the detriment of other values. Second, they reject iterative improvement and course-correcting, thinking they know exactly what the end-society is going to look like.

2 thoughts on “Speech: Bret Weinstein on cycles of civilizations

  1. It seems odd to me that in this critical look at our “addiction to growth” (Bret’s words) and your take on his thinking that the most pernicious and fundamental element of growth driving these boom and bust cycles is never explicitly discussed – population growth. Isn’t this the “elephant in the living room” that we almost desperately try to ignore, even when it is the most powerful forces driving us into these zero-sum periods of growth? I’d like to pose this question to Bret Weinstein but I have the suspicion that he would try to talk around it as well. I suppose a good case could be made that population growth is only one of many factors involved here but it’s hardly one so minor to ignore altogether.


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