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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advancing one funeral at a time, unless we can learn to change

by John MacBeath Watkins

Via Matthew Yglesias:
"Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out," said Max Planck, "science advances one funeral at a time."
Yglesias mentions it in terms of the Macro wars -- the conflict between those who think Keynes has been disproved (the "freshwater" school of economics, led by the University of Chicago) and those who think recent events have vindicated him (the "saltwater" school which includes departments at places like Princeton.)

There is a book behind the chair in which I'm writing this titled The Rise and Fall of Keynesian Economics: an Investigation of Its Contribution to Capitalist Development. It was published in 1985, a time when both conservatives and Marxists thought the liberal attempt to salvage capitalism was dead. (Both approved, the conservatives because they were offended by the notion that capitalism is imperfect, the Marxists because they did not want capitalism saved. Ironically, both had contempt for liberals because liberals tried to ameliorate the effects of capitalism.)

Now the New Keynesians, who have incorporated some of the ideas of the monetarists into their thinking, consider Keynes' ideas resurgent, in part because they have been more useful in producing accurate predictions of what would happen in our current economic crisis.

But it happens throughout the culture. There is a wide gap between how older people and younger people regard religion, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and many other issues. I find this tremendously encouraging, because young folks today are moving in the direction of my own beliefs.

Conservatives find it threatening, because young people are moving away from their beliefs. In the end, few people change their minds after a certain age. It happens -- some find God, some find their stock portfolios more important as they age -- but few find Ayn Rand or Karl Marx after their 20s.

Our lives are shaped in other ways as well, with the patterns of our social interaction and ways of using technology shaping our lives, in part. That's an area where I have little in common with younger people, because I've always been, in my view, on the trailing edge of technology. I resisted getting a cell phone for a very long time, for example. Although as a college student I played some video games, I never developed much of a taste for them, and don't play them now. I don't tweet or text.

And yet, when I took the Pew quiz to see how much I differed from the generation known as millenials, that is, those who came of age around the year 2000, I scored 41. The average baby boomer scores 11. The average gen X person scores 33 and the average millenial scores 73 on the test.

How do millenials fail to be exactly like me? (That's a joke, son.) They are more likely to have a tattoo, a piercing somewhere other than their ear, to play video games, have only a cell phone, not read a daily newspaper, and send text messages.

How are they more like me than my own generation? They are more likely to think mixed-race marriage is a good thing, to not consider a high-paying profession important, to be liberal, to not consider living a religious life important, and to not watch television.

In short, while millenials tend to be digital natives and I remain a digital alien, social attitudes in this country are moving in the direction of my own attitudes. This means that as my own cohort dies off, the world will become more like me, which gives me an interesting perspective on death.

Any creature that reproduces sexually dies. Creatures that reproduce by dividing, like bacteria, might be said to live forever. As Richard Dawkins pointed our in his popular book, The Selfish Gene, genes are self-replicating information. In the strange, symbolic world of human thought, there are self-replicating strings of information as well, which Dawkins christened "memes."

If human beings lived forever, the rapidly-changing world of bacteria and viruses would have enough time to fashion perfect attacks on them, which is why large creatures don't live forever. My theory is that the more environmental shocks an organism is likely to face, the more important it is that its population be able to rapidly recover -- meaning greater fertility is more important than longer life spans.

We now live in an age when the  world of information has a rapidly changing environment. Ideally, we would learn to change our minds and adapt to the flood of new memes over the course of our life spans. But the hybrid construct of our biological and ideological minds seems to take too firm a shape for us to adapt quickly in this way.

Instead, we seem to adapt through generations. In our youths, we learn language, social structure, ideas and archetypes, and invent the meaning of our lives. That meaning remains when we are gone, incorporated in the minds of those who remember us, ghosts in the machinery of culture and thought. But we do not remain: New generations must invent the meanings of their own lives, using the tools we have left them, just as we used the tools left to us.

And so, society changes, just as science changes, one funeral at a time, unless we can find ways to adapt more quickly in the course of our own lives.

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