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Week 3, Gene Expression book club

Readers have been complaining about Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. The issue is that there’s no “there, there.” The author hasn’t really dug into the meat of his arguments, and everything was pretty thin and cursory in the first and second chapters. The third chapter is different.

He reviews the literature that people are gullible, that stupid people are gullible, that children are gullible. And he finds them all wanting. For example, he reviews and dismisses the literature on brainwashing and subliminal messaging. This is fine as far as it goes, from what I know these are not real things, but more public panics. I’m not sure that that is the strongest argument against gullibility.

In contrast, the idea of an evolutionary “arms race” between communicators and communicated speaks more to why we are not gullible. In evolutionary arms races, such as with disease, the two competitors tend to stay in place. Ultimately the equilibrium is maintained. This is obviously not the case for human communication. Rather, there’s a lot of evolutionary theory which suggests that there is a “ratchet” of increased complexity and richness of our cultural repertoire that emerges from social communication. If gullibility was so pervasive, it should have been selected against in this environment. Gullible people are marks.

The other angle that this chapter takes is to attack the relevance of “system 1” and “system 2” thinking that was popularized by Daniel Kahneman in books such as Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow (system 1 and 2 respectively). System 1 is fast, but subject to cognitive biases (it can be deceived), while system 2 is slow, but analysis takes time. One of the implications of this is that more analytical people, who rely on system 2, will be less gullible. I won’t go into the detail, but Not Born Yesterday presents an interpretation of this literature that suggests that gullibility again is not at play here. In fact, the authors suggest that system 2 itself can be easy to deceive or come to the wrong conclusion quite often. In fact, I kept thinking of the author’s previous book, The Enigma of Reason, which presents some arguments for why system 2 originally emerged.


Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is really picking up with the “action” now. To be frank I’m kind of getting frustrated by this, as the personal narrative is not to my taste. Additionally, like the Malazan series the narrative moves in a non-chronological fashion. This is in contrast to the author’s previous book, Imperial Twilight.

Much of this chapter is taken up with backstory about what had happened over the years to the Taiping movement and the kingdom which their prophet had established. The narrative fixates again on the prophet’s cousin and explores the instability which his emergence as a player at court induces. There is some allusion and indication of the social factors which led to the accrual of massive numbers of soldiers to the Taiping movement, but it’s mostly in the background so far. Clearly, some of the generals in the Taiping armies were competent. This was not something like the Children’s Crusade, but more like the rebellion of Spartacus.

There were a catalyst and trigger, but a group of highly trained or natural soldiers coalesced around their “Son of Heaven.” The chapter concludes with the narrative of a daring strategic maneuver which resulted in a rout for imperial forces, and no doubt gave the Taiping regime many more years.

6 thoughts on “Week 3, Gene Expression book club

  1. Nothing to add, but I’m still liking NBY. A lot of books like this don’t “turn out” but I still think it’s quite interesting.

  2. I agree that Not Born Yesterday really picked up steam in the third chapter. I also thought of The Enigma of Reason as the author put forward his argument that communication is evaluated against reasoning. If this is true, then, to the extent variation in gullibility exists, it would be based on (1) variation in reasoning ability and (2) having or lacking the right base knowledge to apply the reasoning against. I especially liked his point that young children would evolve to be trusting since the modal environment they’d be in is one where they’d be surrounded by parents and other kin who had their best interests in mind.

    My suspicion that Hong Rengan would be a key player is confirmed in chapter 3 of Heavenly Kingdom. He reminds me a lot of the apostle Paul in that a relatively unorganized movement unexpectedly lucked into a five-star recruit who was not only highly intelligent and educated but who also had useful international connections.

  3. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: Seems like the story has been knocking on heaven’s door for the first 50 pages, and now we’ve arrived at the Kingdom in 1859, eight years after the start of the rebellion. Hong Rengan reveals himself to be geopolitically savvy. Perhaps the Rebels knew at least intuitively of the Yangtze River’s strategic importance to their struggle, but appear to have been tactically adrift on other fronts and riven by internal factions.

    Hong Rengan also is a modernizer on Western terms, advocating a package of economic improvements and liberal reforms that revere 19th century notions of liberal Protestantism that combine religion, scientific progress and democracy. His treatise gives so much praise to Anglo self-image that one wonders how much of it is primarily for foreign consumption.

  4. Again an interesting contrast to the Sepoy Mutiny in India.

    There the British had been serious players for more than a century. The “rebels” immediately went back and crowned a Mughal as their head. This wasn’t a forward thinking movement, but a backwards one.

    If you think the Heavely Kingdom was a “rebellion” you’ve got some evidence here. No question the Hong regnan was spouting modernism. And again despite the author’s argument religion was a component — smashing and destroying old idols.

    Honestly they sound a bit like the Manson gang. But going back to an old Chinese model — imperial rule.

    Again would be much stronger if he talked a bit about the underlying structures and what they did to make themselves a state.

    Again, to contrast: the Confederates. International recognition was a huge part of the rebellion. Concerted effort to build some state structures although it disintegrated quickly. Never had complete control over monetary and fiscal matters.

    Having a bunch of dudes in long hair terrorizing the countryside does not make a rebellion or liberation movement.

  5. NBY. Agree the third chapter was by far the strongest yet. I didn’t quite follow the reasoning for negating the arms race idea for runaway communication ability, but I did like the analogy to omnivorous diets– and the idea that as such we have to be open to a variety of information and more vigilant because we are taking it in in novel ways. Also thought the point that system 2 can be more gullible than system one because we can reason ourselves into believing in communism, wokeism, etc was good (seems related to the theme of his earlier book, from what I’ve gathered). Hopefully the rest of the book keeps up chapter 3’s pace.

    Autumn. I’m still enjoying the book, but certainly understand why it might seem thin gruel to those of you who know much more history than I do. Might inspire me to read the Keay ebook on China I own or buy the one that inspired Razib’s top 10 list.

  6. Still trying to catch up on “Not Born Yesterday,” but in any case, that’s unlikely to happen in time for this weekend.

    “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”:
    – “…where a cordon of imperial armies was encamped. The armies were effective only by virtue of their massive size; there was scant overarching command, and unskilled officers had gained their posts through patronage rather than talent. Morale among the underpaid troops—many of them addicted to opium—was abysmal.”
    Consistent with the description of the imperial armies from the Osprey book.
    – Maybe the proto-communist interpretation of the Rebellion isn’t so far-fetched: “men and women living in separate communal residences, organized into collective work brigades with shared property and shared worship in Protestant churches.”
    – I wonder if this moniker is going to be ironic later…: “Li himself gained the rank of king a few months later, anointed as the Loyal King.”
    – ‘The “most powerful nation” in Hong Rengan’s eyes was Great Britain, whose ruling house he believed to have lasted a thousand years (making it more enduring than any dynasty in China).’
    I wonder if he was dating it to the Battle of Hastings? Or maybe it was just a total misunderstanding. In any case, there’s more continuity between the British dynasties than I expected.
    – Hong Rengan’s policy suite seems pretty sane to me. The undercurrent of egalitarianism and democracy maybe would have caused problems if it had actually been implemented.
    – ‘The Japanese, unlike the Qing rulers of China, had opened willingly to foreign trade and “will certainly become skillful in the future.”‘
    Loose use of the word “willingly” on Hong Rengan’s part here…but accurate prediction of Japanese convergence.
    – His military strategy also seems pretty good, but frankly, I’m in no position to judge that.
    – “The city’s women, following generations of moral instruction on how to behave in times of chaos, began putting themselves to death—tens of thousands of them by the end. Like other Confucian governments before it, the Qing dynasty had celebrated female suicide as the pinnacle of virtue, and it ramped up its honors for women’s suicide in the course of the civil war.”
    I’m not sure whether “pinnacle of virtue” is really an accurate description of the Confucian point of view, but in any case, the reality of these events is a pretty black mark on Confucianism for me.

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