Sunday 17 November 2013

Modernity: social differentiation but biological de-differentiation


The systems theorist Niklas Luhmann defined modernity in terms of functional differentiation - that social functions become increasingly specialized and autonomous (yet coordinated) - for example the division of labour in a factory, or the economy; or the specialization of philosophy from theology, science from philosophy, biology from science, and zoology from biology.

When exactly this differentiation began is difficult to be sure, but clearly it accelerated from the industrial revolution.

However, shortly afterwards it seems that the biological specialization between human beings may have begun to undergo accelerating de-differentiation.


The theory runs like this: for almost all of human history, there was a very powerful selection pressure acting upon infants and children - far more babies reached advanced pregnancy and were born than  survived to adulthood and themselves reproduced (this especially applied to males, among whom losses were greater at every stage - unless this pattern was specifically affected by contrary social practices).

But from the industrial revolution onwards, this stopped happening. A greater and greater proportion of infants reached adulthood, until in some parts of the world it approached 100 percent - and (probably) the major selection pressure of human history all-but ceased to operate.

Since each human is born with a few new and damaging genetic mutations, this implies a generation-upon-generation accumulation of deleterious genes.


What effect would this have? Well, as Geoffrey Miller has described - since about half of genes are involved in brain function, the brain is a huge 'mutational target' - so deleterious mutations probably affect brain function more than anything else.

This, I guess, is a major cause for the substantial decline in intelligence (measured objectively by simple reaction times) since the industrial revolution. (I am assuming that intelligence is something related to speed and efficiency of central nervous system processing; impaired by the same process that impairs reaction times).

But another affect would (I think) be a reduction in specialization; a reduction in the differences between people in terms of their specialized abilities - a reduction in high levels of specific excellence.

This would mean that differences between people in terms of functional ability would become more a matter of random variation (merely due to the deleterious effects of genetic mutations, pulling each person down from optimal functioning in different ways and by different degrees simply according to the actions of these mutations); and less a matter of different people having different specifically evolved adaptations.


So, it may be that the same broad period of human history - the modern era, post-industrial revolution - has been witnessing an increase in social complexity (differentiation) but a decrease in biological complexity (of differences between people related to specialized human abilities).

And perhaps that the reduction in biological complexity is now affecting social complexity - first causing a plateau in social complexity, then a decline in social complexity - a simplifying, a de-differentiation of society - for example in the imposition of crude political ideas over all functional social systems (ie political correctness/ New Leftism).



Crosbie said...

Is it possible that the number of intelligent men has *not* declined in absolute terms since 1889? The population of less intelligent men may have increased greatly since 1889 due to the lack of selective pressures you describe, leading to reduced average intelligence in the population, but perhaps the population of more intelligent men has at least remained constant.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crosbie - Number one: it seems obvious that there are not any/ many geniuses now - this could be due to reduced intelligence or to reduced creativity; but reduced intelligence is a possibility.

So I think observation suggests that the population of the most intelligent men has not been sustained, but rather has either gone down a lot or is at near-zero.

But the other thing is that I suspect that being in a population within-which higher intelligence is being selected (downwardly mobile) results in a different kind of intelligent person than one in which lower intelligence is being selected (upwardly mobile) - the two situations are not symmetrical.

Some of these differences are not due ton individual ability, but due to social context - an upwardly-mobile society has most people over-promoted (not competent for their social level) while a downwardly-mobile society has most people over qualified (in cognitive terms) for their jobs.

An over-qualified society might perhaps be necessary for genius to be recognized and have the greatest effect.

I think this is upslope/ downslope distinction is probably significant; but I can't quite explain why at present.

baduin said...

When leaders of an institution are over-promoted the thing they are most afraid of are competent people - which could replace them. They will try to do two things:
- remove all competent people from that institution,
- avoid fulfilling the purpose of the institution (since they cannot do that well, and their incompetence would be obvious to all), and instead do anything else which is popular.

For that reason, every incompetent institution has no choice but to follow current Party Line.

Each such institution will need a small group of semi-competent people who will take care of its internal functioning. However, in the selection of them will the greatest care will be paid to removing all people interested and competent in performing the function of the institution. Only two kind of people will be able to succeed:
- at middle levels obedient and intelligent followers, who do what they are told intellingently, but do not trouble themselves about wider implications,
- at top levels - intelligent sociopaths, who are able to manipulate the incompetent leadership to promote themselves.

Gottlieb said...

When I read what you say ... there are no more geniuses now than before ... I wonder how you came to that conclusion . For starters , it is not clear what really is a genius . Would be what a gifted person , high iq ?
I think it's not only that . The geniuses are a little different from ordinary people with high IQ , I do not see much similarity in personality among the first and most graduate students .
The idea of genius , for you , I believe, is mainly based on high scores on tests of intelligence and achievement. Many millions of geniuses throughout human history , for various reasons could not shine and fly as high as they could manage their mental faculties , and those geniuses who have completed recognized . For each internationally renowned genius , like, three other candidates to recognition could not be so lucky. And the detail that , for most of those exceptional people who have been recognized as such , this fact did not occur while alive .

Therefore, I advise everyone humbly if possible, to have more caution to point genius, because as well as all human traits, this one is exceptional, should come in varying degrees, from the pure genius (a Da Vinci) to a type, hybrid between giftedness (high intelligence) and genius (high creativity and high intelligence).
For the tests of intelligence, I think we should also be concerned with the kind of intelligence that we may be dealing with, because there are many cases of very smart people that have large differences in scores, for example, a verbal IQ of 140 and a non-verbal 90, and as a consequence, the result depressed to its mean. The problem of many psychometricians, is the emphasis that they have given to the g factor for many people it becomes irrelevant to accurately measure their skills

Bruce Charlton said...

@baduin - that fits my observations.

Most institutions have now gone a long way beyond the tipping point - such that it seems utterly inconceivable that they could self-reform, since the competent people (if any) are such a small minority.

And they cannot be reformed from outside, by pressure from other institutions, because they are in the same state.

Hence de-differentiation becomes inevitable - and in fact specialization is not really possible, since nobody is capable of diving-up the functions in a useful way, nor of coordinating multiple specialists.

dearieme said...

"And they cannot be reformed from outside, by pressure from other institutions, because they are in the same state."

Oxford and Cambridge went through a lengthy period of being bloody awful, and were saved largely be pressure from outside, partly to the credit of Prince Albert.

As a consequence, Cambridge had a lengthy spell as the best university in the world - perhaps the best there will ever be, if you think it unlikely that the Cavendish at its height will ever be emulated.

And that in spite of the fact that the best university system at the time was undoubtedly the German.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Yes Cambridge after 'reform' would be a good example of what Luhmann meant - because it focused much more on its specific function in advanced elite education linked to research, which it did superbly.

The aspect that Luhmann does not cover is 'what happens next'; and in science the relentless process of unintegrated specialization (down to a micro-level) fairly soon led to incoherent useless but irrefutable nonsense breaking-out all over the place - as I describe in Not Even Trying.

So I would regard Cambridge as you describe it, but as a necessarily transitional phase, a sweet spot, between under- and over-specialization.