The mediocrity of local peaks

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Steve on Extended families and materialism:

Anyway, I have a theory about why West Asian materialism runs in such narrow ruts. If you are Ed Begley, you want to impress other people who share your tastes and values, so you socialize primarily with other environmental fanatics who will be impressed that your house is off the power grid. But if you are from a West Asian group, there’s much pressure on you to socialize mostly within your extended family and their in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. And because extended families are pretty average on average, specialized interests don’t cut much ice. Instead, the common denominators are the surest road to approbation.

You just bought a state-of-the-art kayak? Ho-hum. Sure, your kayak-nut friends will be wowed, but your family? Yawn. In contrast, your cousin Aram just bought the most expensive BMW. Now, that’s something that everybody in the family can be floored by!

I think he’s on to something here. When I visited Bangladesh in 2004 I found myself seeking out my uncle who is a religious fundamentalist for conversation. Trained as a geologist he spends all his marginal time engaging in dawah and harassing less strident Muslims about following all the picayune details of shariah. Why did I seek his company? It wasn’t because I enjoyed chit-chatting about the inanity of Islamic law, or that I agreed with him about the negative implications of Muslim immigration to the West because of inevitable assimilation. No, when a critical mass of Bengali women come together the constant talk about the family-matters makes you want to commit seppuku. I really didn’t give a shit that my second cousin was going to marry some random loser who was from across-the-river and spoke-Bengali-with-a-weird-accent; or whatever banal chatter that they were obsessing over.

There were two ways to escape this sort of mind-asphyxiating conversation. First, seek out people not interested in mundane topics. Despite my secularity my uncle’s rationales and preoccupations were interesting from an academic perspective; his relative admiration of Buddhism for example was not something one might expect from a Sunni fundamentalist (he had traveled to Australia and Southeast Asia with his religious order multiple times). Even better conversation was my cousin who had a master’s degree in math, an interest in cosmology and was employed as a systems administrator. She was much more like the sort of person I would proactively associate with in my natural environment, and despite the fact that we shared relatives in common she didn’t have a great need to review every last incident of gossip that she’d stumbled upon. But there was another way to dampen family-gossip: don’t hang out with family! One of my father’s best friends from college was an engineer, and we went to have dinner at his house one day. His brother, a physics professor at Dhaka university was there, and much of the conversation hinged upon whether the current excitement within the biological sciences compensated enough for the fact that it lacked the elegance and beauty which physics could offer. Now there’s a conversation I could bite into! Of course we weren’t going to talk much family gossip because they weren’t family.

As family sizes shrink within a society I assume that the mind-numbing chatter which emerges from the social-networking of families will slowly diminish. People will associate based on shared-traits instead of shared lineages, mostly because lower fertility means that there’s less lineage to go around. I have on the order of half a dozen aunts and uncles on each side of my family (paternal and maternal). But in my own generation the average number children is about 2 (some have 1, some have 3, etc.). There simply won’t be hordes of cousins in the next generation because the sibling groups are too small (and some of them won’t reproduce, as a few in my parents’ generation have not).

Values, norms and ideas float on a social surface. If one’s local network is saturated with family members…family values will be preeminent. Eccentric interests are not likely to be shared across the family network unless one is totally inbred. So there is a strong selection for banal conversation topics which everyone can participate in, or signalers that everyone can appreciate. There’s a local fitness peak of mediocrity around which a family gathers in terms of topic and creative expression; everyone knows uncle-so-and-so or the terrible thing that happened to that particular cousin. Remove the close relations and the landscape is no longer so regular and coalescence around a local fitness peak no longer as inevitable. An isolated individual you move to a new location and float in and out of social circles based on common affinity. In other words, the non-family world is one of a shifting balance of ideas and an exploration of a more rugged topography. The sample space of possibilities is larger, the risks greater, the comfort zone less incestuous. Depending on your values, that might be a good thing….

Addendum: The point can be generalized. Even shared affinity groups can become too incestuous, to the point where all creativity is removed. As an example, consider that William D. Hamilton believed that the George Price’s formalism, which was far superior and more general than that which he had introduced earlier, was a product in large part of the Price’s ignorance of what had come before in the field of evolutionary biology. Because of his ignorance George Price started in a very strange part of gene land and stumbled upon very startling vistas unknown to mainstream theoreticians who were constrained by the precedents of their elders.

Update: I do want to be clear, the dangers of family conversation isn’t even that family members are that mediocre. It’s that you have so much in common with family that the topics tend to be pretty banal. Even if your brother has a Ph.D. you might be more likely to talk about figuring out how to handle the fact that your parent is succumbing to dementia. These are needful conversations, but if your socialization experience is strong skewed toward family members they start swallowing up all your marginal time. The same dangers are applicable to the tendency for many Americans to spend all their marginal time with their significant other. Diversity is good.

Related: Theresa’s cousin on cousin marriage & corruption. And the famous profile of the Syrian Jews of Brooklyn.



  1. More than 20 years ago Paul Fussel’s book Class noted that socializing primarily with relatives is a marker of lower socioeconomic class (“proles”) in the United States. It’s unlikely that much has changed since then, or that his findings don’t apply in other countries too. 
    I will point out, however, that in the lower SES categories it may be easier to socialize primarily within one’s extended family for the simple reason that the extended family is likely to be larger, and possibly less geographically dispersed.

  2. Its the same way for me when I visit family in Spokane. My brother-in-law is moderate left. His brother and friends are far left. I’m a hard-core libertarian. Yet, I seek these people out when I visit Spokane because they are the only people I can have a fulfilling conversation with. 
    Everyone else yaks about what their kids did in school or what their cat did and what not. I can’t handle this at all.

  3. What! Aram has bought as a 2008/2009 M3 coupe? WOW !!! That BMW features a high-revving V8 powerplant, tuned suspension, a six-speed manual transmission, a carbon fiber roof, and a V8 powerplant with TWO more cylinders than its predecessor, delivering 420 hp from 4.0 litters and maximum torque of 295 lb-ft at 3,900 rpm. In keeping with BMW’s high-revving “M” tradition, maximum engine speed is 8,300 rpm. The engine is the lightest V8 in the world, weighing less than the previous M3′s inline-six. Boy, I would like to have such a BMW ! Aram must be a real mensch!

  4. “As family sizes shrink within a society I assume that the mind-numbing chatter which emerges from the social-networking of families will slowly diminish.” 
    No, it just concentrates it. I have the option of one, two-hour trivial conversation with the nuclear family or several, 20-minute trival conversations with the extended family.

  5. I have the option of one, two-hour trivial conversation with the nuclear family or several, 20-minute trival conversations with the extended family. 
    no, not really. people move. the problem with having a lot of cousins is that if you have enough you don’t need any social circles outside of them. i assume you understand there might be a difference between a relationship/conversation you have with your parent and that you might have with a peer of your own age? or are the only friends you imagine people have are their parents and siblings?

  6. Razib, 
    Great post–and, good insight, I think! I’ve read about how extended families can act as a “tax” that reduces incentives on individuals to work hard. 
    It got linked to on andrew sullivan’s blog–congrats!

  7. Theresa on cousin marriage & corruption. 
    That’s not me but, amusingly given the topic of this post, it is a family member — one that I can usually talk to. ;-)

  8. reihan only linked cuz i’m his 3rd cousin.

  9. ah, ok. confused ;-)

  10. ah, ok. confused ;-) 
    I should be more careful when I use other people’s computers. ;-)

  11. I find that I have in general been able to find family that i could chat with about “serious” topics . 
    i don’t talk to my stepdad often but when we do, after the usual family news we can easily slip into a conversation about various economico-social topics. I especially like to ask him what he thinks about various prospects for his country (a central african country ). We had those conversations even when i was a kid.  
    One of my favorite people to discuss with is my sister. We mostly talk about, once again, various socio/economico/politico topics . She thinks about things, for real and i appreciate that very much. The only problem is that she’s basically a leftist : that can get annoying sometimes. I still enjoy the long , never ending discussions very much !  
    My younger brother is a special case. He loves to read *a lot* and is quite curious about many topics. Like one day we were talking about how the chinese were taking over africa and he gave me his impressions , from trips he took there and things he read . He’s kind of a special case because he’s actually learning disabled and has low IQ. He’s very curious though and would go very far into investigating things, if only he could. Our conversations are more like me teaching him stuff , since he won’t be coming up with many insights himself. But he likes to talk about non mundane things and that counts for something in my book . He was always like this, even as child . 
    I’ve had the pleasure of discussing some historical/social topics with my mother too. I suspect my mom is much more knowledgeable about things than she lets on. She sometimes surprises me .  
    Unfortunately i don’t really have people who are into science , so i can never go really far in that direction with the people i mentionned. 
    My dad enjoys serious conversations. Unfortunately he brings a christian fundamentalist perspective that i was able to ignore when i was younger, but that became really, really annoying with the years , so i don’t get much into discussions with him anymore.  
    I guess people in my family pretty much know that I have very little interest in regular chat. I won’t be *rude* to chit chatters, but it’s probably pretty obvious what i care about. Those who can’t get into good conversations never get very close to me .

  12. og, you’re describing dyadic interactions. those are certainly easier to bargain yourself into a comfortable position….

  13. It may be important that people move around alot. 
    I find it interesting that mindless gossip about Other extended families isn’t possible in Bangladesh. In my Mother’s family, a small new england town, my mother knows about just about every family in that town for 4 generations and will talk with her sister and sister-in-law for hours about who broke her hip, who’s kid got arrested, who’s marrying who, who had an affair, who went bankrupt, etc. In non-mobile places, other families can serve the same purpose as people inside the family.