When independent thought flourishes

One of the things I instinctively hated about my “ancestral culture,” that of Bangladesh, is that there wasn’t that great of an emphasis on individual independent thought. Why, for example, was it important never to drink water while you were eating, as opposed to after you were done? The response was simple: that’s the rule. Even if there was a functional rationale, there wasn’t even any pretense at offering a reasoned explanation for why a custom was a custom. It’s just how it was.

But there are reasons for this mindless following of rules passed down from generations past. In behavior ecology it is understood that organisms in extremely static environments and extremely variant environments don’t gain any benefit from determining their own optimal strategy independently, as opposed to simply following what’s been done before or is done by con-specifics. The reason is that if the environment does not change, you are reinventing the wheel. If the environment changes constantly, then you will always be a step behind in terms of adapting to the last crisis, and you’ll be expending time and energy learning. Better to just continue with mindless but cheap sub-optimal strategies, rather than mindful but expensive sub-optimal strategies.

Why am I bringing this up? A few anthropologists (e.g., Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Joe Henrich, etc.) have pointed out that the same logic may apply to humans. Independent thought is expensive, and is only optimal in particular environments. If nothing ever changes then it is futile and wasteful. If things change far too fast for an individual alone to “track” their environment then it is also futile and wasteful. This insight may explain the prevalence of collectivist conservatism and reaction at particular points in history. When change never occurs then following tried & tested habits pays. When change is too fast there isn’t any benefit for independent thinking, and people fall back on cheap collective strategies which allow them to gain at least some purchase is a protean world. The liberal individualist world then may be the world of the golden mean in between. Change, but not too much.

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