Friday 12 February 2021

When I was featured in the New York Times and a Michael Crichton novel - or, why Bad ideas are the ones that go viral

Psychological Neoteny By Clay Risen New York Times Dec. 10, 2006 

The next time you see a mother of three head-banging to death metal or a 50-year-old man sporting a faux-hawk, don't laugh. According to Bruce Charlton, a doctor and psychology professor at Newcastle University in Britain, what looks like immaturity -- or in Charlton's kinder terms, the "retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood" -- is actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological neoteny. 

In a recent issue of Medical Hypotheses, a journal he edits, Charlton argues that unlike previous, more settled societies that could afford to honor a narrow and well-defined worldview (that is, a "mature" one), modern life is tumultuous and ever-changing. Accordingly, it rewards those who retain a certain plasticity of mind and personality. "In a psychological sense, some contemporary individuals never actually become adults," he writes. 

Charlton's argument is still just a hypothesis, but it makes intuitive sense. For one thing, he notes, education in the modern era -- which now routinely extends into an individual's 20s -- rewards a mental openness that could once be safely discarded in the midteens. As he explained in a recent e-mail message, a "likely cause" of the widespread delay in the onset of maturity today was "more prolonged higher education for ever more people, leading to an increase in the 'unfinished' personalities that are adaptive to learning." 

Furthermore, he argues, social roles have become less fixed in modern society. We are expected to adapt to change throughout our lives, both in our personal relationships and in our careers, and immaturity, as Charlton added, is "especially helpful in making the best out of enforced job changes, the need for geographic mobility and the requirement to make new social networks." In fact, he speculates, the ability to retain youthful qualities, now often seen as folly, may someday be recognized as a prized trait.


This NYT article originated as an editorial I published in in Medical Hypotheses - and was followed the next year by my further reflections - and modification. Following the NYT feature - the "psychological neoteny" idea was rapidly enshrined in Wikipedia

This idea was perhaps the most successful I launched; and it makes an interesting case study. I wrote the original editorial very quickly - in maybe two or three hours, and based on a notion I got from seeing a photograph of the physicist-tuned-biologist Max Delbruck. It was published as my regular monthly editorial in a modest circulation, specialist medical journal.

Yet, without the slightest effort at attaining publicity, the idea was picked-up and went viral and remained somewhat influential. For instance; the large circulation German weekly magazine Der Spiegel did a multi-page, colour illustrated account of the idea. It was also featured, with a whole page description, in Michael Crichton's novel, Next

Why? Well, as you can see - my idea was one that endorsed Establishment ideology. I was suggesting that the typical modern state of permanent adolescence might be overall adaptive in a changing and mobile modern society; might have psychological and economic advantages. 

This was (for what now seem obvious, and evil, reasons) an idea that the Establishment wanted to be propagated - and so it was picked-up from obscurity and splashed across the global media.  

Such is the power of the mass media/ Global Establishment - and such is the nature of the ideas that they choose to highlight. 

In a nutshell; I published a pretty-bad, certainly superficial and trivial, idea - with net-harmful implications; and it therefore got more coverage, more easily, than any of my much better and more useful ideas.  

If you examine the first and second Medical Hypotheses editorials, you can see the point of inflexion at which I began to turn away from my Establishment-supporting atheism; and towards Christianity - leading-on to my current view that the Establishment is a literal tool of the devil. 

If I deserve criticism for the first editorial, perhaps I deserve some small credit for the second? - which a year later (and following further reflection) gives some data to suggest some possible causes of psychological neoteny (delayed marriage and late family); and links these causes to the most obvious harmful effect of psychological neoteny: subfertility

It was then I realised that - biologically speaking - modernity was maladaptive, indeed lethal; and the more 'modern' a person was, the more maladaptive. In other words, a biologist primarily looks at reproduction not survival, not happiness, not social 'adaptation'. 

And in our world higher social status, class, wealth, power, education, intelligence, health... are all causally correlated inversely with reproductive fitness; and tend towards sub-fertility and extinction - especially in women. 

In our world: the more socially successful - the less biologically successful. 

Anything that lowers reproduction below replacement fertility can be considered a disease, and a lethal one. 

Because the best brief biological definition of a disease is that which tends, causally, to lower fitness

And so I realised that psychological neoteny is a disease (a pathological state) - especially in women. Over generations, subfertility is lethal - so psychological neoteny is a genetically-fatal disease. 

In sum; the most famous idea I ever published was a bad one - being an endorsement and advocacy of a disease state.

It was precisely this bad idea that was picked from obscurity and promoted to become viral. 

Think about that when you participate in the officially approved 'talking points' of the day. 


Francis Berger said...

For me, this post serves as a lucid counterpoint to some commentary I recently added to Wm Jas's interpretation of the moral behind the feeding of the five thousand in the Fourth Gospel - do good things, however small, and leave the rest to God.

The idea is that God works to amplify and spread the effect of apparently inadequate but ultimately good actions and thoughts. Thus, our motivation should focus on doing good rather than on making a big impact.

It seems this works conversely as well - that is, if we do or think bad things, however small, they may very well be amplified and spread by the other side - even in the absence of desiring or aspiring to the extra attention/amplification.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Yes, that's it. I think I was probably triggered in writing this by your post - .

Your point about God amplifying our good acts is made very well by William Arkle in Geography of Consciousness, Chapter 16 - The Will, towards the end of the chapter.

Since God is the creator, and creation is ongoing - God can easily amplify any good act that he wishes to; 'publicity' is no problem!

However, God cannot make people understand it, or act upon it.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Went “viral” — how appropriate!

Otto said...

This is effectively saying that it would have been better if the dysgenic memes in the editorial would have reproduced at subfertility rates. That sounds awfully dysmemic . . . a memetically-fatal disease!

a_probst said...

In the past, an immature person who was aware of his state had the examples of mature people around him so at the very least he could 'fake it till he made it' by imitation.

Now maturity is seen as the acquiring of wealth, status, power with a youthful swagger, preferably at a young age. I think of one of the characters in Ross Thomas's Missionary Stew who was willing to at last acknowledge his real age to himself only after he amassed sufficient money.

A said...

I thought the NYT quotes didn’t sound like the Dr. Charlton I’m used to reading. I suppose you could have made a choice at that point the become another political “Doctor” character for more fame.