Analysis of Sam Harris’ Podcast With Bret Weinstein
One of the few podcasts that I follow…religiously…is Waking Up, by Sam Harris. As a fan of Sam’s from the beginning of his public life, and someone who’s had a number of email exchanges with him over the years, I think his podcast format is just spectacular. He does one guest per show and takes them through where they agree, where they might disagree, he gets them to talk about their main topics they care about, and then gets them to comment on various important issues happening at the time.
Episode #109, with Bret Weinstein, was one of my favorites in a long time—both because of the quality of Bret as a guest (he’s an Evolutionary Biologist) and because of the level of interest I have in the topics they were discussing. The episode was so good that I decided to listen to it again, while taking notes, and this post will be me capturing various parts of it and commenting on them.
Some of this will be direct quotes, other parts will be me paraphrasing, and some of it could be somewhat incorrect since I’m not an expert in Bret’s field.
You don’t have Inuit marathon runners because they’ve been selected to retain heat, whereas Ethiopians and Kenyans have been selected to dissipate heat, and this should not be surprising or controversial.
Culture is units of information transmitted from one member of a species to another.
Humans dominate because we’ve offloaded more of the day to day processing required for success from our computer’s hardware (the brain) to the software (culture).
Humans are evolutionarily odd.
We are the most nurture-based creatures in history.
Our success is determined by nurture far more than any other creature on earth, and this is because it provides a distinct evolutionary advantage.
Humans are basically so amazing because we do so much more in software (which is easier to be upgraded) than in hardware.
Culture can move horizontally, but it normally moves vertically as it’s passed down from parents to offspring.
The cultural piece is every bit as biological and evolutionary as the genetic layer, and it’s a special trick deployed by the genetic layer to solve problems not solved by genetics alone.
Intersectionality is where each group who has some claim of oppression or discrimination against them has a special flavor to it, and the more of those groups you fall into (black, trans, etc.) the higher rank you are in a new, hypothetical world where oppressed people are in charge over their previous oppressors. The basic idea is that each group has some sort of discrimination against it, and if you’re in more of those groups then they stack up. Sam compared this to being a D&D party where you botch your spellcasting and harm the party.
Birth control changes everything in gender roles and gender politics.
Men and women are different. The biggest thing (from Bret) was that women are invested in their children because they can’t keep making kids. Males can keep having kids, so they’re tuned to keep taking risks to have more kids.
It’s not true that every non 50/50% profession has some measure of discrimination.
Gender is the software of sex, and sex is the hardware.
As a biologist, gender is interesting, but as a human the answer is simple: we have to have compassion.
Metaphorical truth is a belief that is factually wrong but you come out ahead if you believe in it.
Religion was valid metaphorical truth because it helped us before (for thousands of years). We’re now at a point where it (often) hurts more than it helps, but that doesn’t change how useful it was in the past.
Sectarian differences in doctrine is basically the same as evolution with mutations, and it’s not that they’re all fighting to win, just as it’s not true that all species are fighting to win. It’s more like they will all be tuned for their times and their environments. So we will co-exist being the best adapted species for that time and place.
The reason genetics has moved to using culture and memes is because it moves so incredibly fast.
Bret thinks kids are just as smart at birth, but that when they’re adults there are cognitive differences. I think that’s a nice idea.
Bret thinks that we need to be extremely cautious because of four characteristics that create adaptive evolution (reproduction, variation, heritability, differential success) which is such a powerful force that we cannot keep unleashing it on ourselves. An example is an evolutionary upgrade of social media sites that optimize for addictiveness. We created this system that adapts to get better and better at holding our attention, and now we have a societal problem with social media addiction.
His point is that you can’t simply make these systems and release them into the world because they’re so incredibly powerful and we’re not smart and thoughtful enough to know what they’re going to optimize for. And because we didn’t know what they’re going to do we obviously couldn’t have a smart conversation about whether or not this is good for us.
If you stop eating farm animals they go extinct.
Wisdom requires delayed gratification. You have to go carefully.
The same parameter that makes a mother love her children also makes them commit genocide.
We have to understand that we’re all running according to this code and find a way to navigate.
We’re going to need drugs to figure out how to get out of our current predicaments because the current contents of our consciousness don’t seem to be enough.
We have to give up on evolution’s purpose for us, because it’s identical for everyone and bad. If you have the same purpose as a liver fluke, and a malaria virus, and a fig tree, we have to recognize that we need to evaluate that purpose and reject us. Good people want to live in a safe, anti-fragile society where we’re free to live their lives in a meaningful way.
Bret is encouraged that the Libertarian Left (liberty, not economics) will start coming out to oppose the Authoritarian Left that’s basically hijacked the non-right part of the spectrum in recent years.
There are a lot of great ideas here, but my favorites are:
Human success is so magnified because we’ve offloaded work from our brain hardware to our culture software.
That culture is passed down from parents to children, and helps a given group succeed even more than their genes.
The biggest difference between men and women is that women biologically have to invest in the children they have (because they can’t make more after menopause) whereas men can just keep taking risk to keep having more and more kids. This probably explains a lot in our society.
Biology is the hardware of sex, and gender is the software.
Metaphorical truth is untrue but useful, but (like religion) it eventually becomes outdated and starts doing more harm than good.
We need to watch out for any system where we release adaptive evolution because it will optimize for SOMETHING very quickly, and we are usually in such a rush that we either don’t know what that something is and/or we won’t have time to discuss whether it’s a good idea.
Evolution’s purpose for us is bad. It’s basically to survive and reproduce at the expense of everyone else. And it’s the same for viruses and trees and maggots. This is not any way to live a life, so we have to find something to replace it with.
Such an unbelievably rich podcast in terms of ideas, good faith, and potential for a better world.
I highly recommend subscribing to Sam’s podcast. Episodes like this make it absolutely worth it. Now I’m off to listen to his brother’s podcast that aired a bit before this one.
I went to the live one with Eric and Sam in SF as well. Quite good.