But face it. You're weird. And I mean that in a bad way, evolutionarily speaking. How many of you have kids? Damn few. The LessWrong mindset is maladaptive. It leads to leaving behind fewer offspring.

It's surprisingly not weird. Birthrates in the developed world have plummeted precisely because achievements other than sex and children have become markers of status. Having a large family is no longer seen as an indicator of high status but as something that makes you a bit of a cultural oddball, and that attitude is spreading. Cultural evolution happens much more quickly than its biological counterpart, and the trend away from cultural success being defined in terms of reproductive success is currently dominating genetic pressures towards organizing our lives around increasing genetic fitness.

EDIT: I tried to keep this comment fairly brief, since it's only tangentially related to why people might want to die, but it seems to have engendered a fairly lively discussion, so it may be worth adding the following clarification to this top-level comment:

In traditional human cultures, family size is pretty well-correlated with social status. While the exact cause of this correlation can be debated, having a large family is typically regarded as high status. Much of human culture is driven by individuals copying behavior they perceive to be common and high status, and the correlation between status and family size leads to norms and traditions that promote family and family size as important sources for status within many human cultures. In light of this, and also the genetic adaptiveness of large families referred to in the original post, it's somewhat surprising to see that this correlation has been inverted. High status individuals very rarely have large families, despite being easily able to support additional children. Because culture is based on imitation and is self-reinforcing it's not particularly important how this inversion came about, but it will serve to normalize behavior that focuses on education and career at the expense of child creation/child rearing, a norm which appears to still be spreading/gaining strength based on demographic data on birth rates over time.

My speculative hypothesis, although it is certainly not original, is that the falling birthrate is the culmination of a set of cultural pressures that are rooted in the rise of industrialization. As industrialization spreads, there is a decoupling of economic wealth and family, since wealth production is no longer tied to land, titles, and other generational resources. Because wealth increases over time in industrial economies, individuals are incentivized to delay marriage because their increasing wealth affords them access to high status mates if they wait longer. The delayed marriages both directly decrease family size, and result in a population of unmarried individuals who can't use legitimate family size as a status measure. These individual then compete for status on the basis of wealth, education, etc. This self-reinforcing cycle erodes cultural norms that say having a large family is a mark of status and replace them with norms that reward to respect to people with money, important jobs, advanced degrees, or a large number of twitter followers.

While having less offspring is obviously genetically maladaptive, copying high status behaviors has traditionally been a very effective strategy in the human gene pool. Over long time periods we may see genetic adaptations that encourage the production of offspring and a corresponding rise in human family size, but the cultural shift towards more education and less children that we have observed so far has happened too quickly for genetic selection to really offset. While LW may differ from the larger culture in many ways, in this instance, LW is very normal, very much a product of the larger cultural attitude drift.

because achievements other than sex and children have become markers of status

The usual explanations are even simpler:

  • Birth control is widely available;
  • Social safety nets (and middle-class wealth) reduce the need for children as someone who feeds you in your old age;
  • If your children's chances to survive to adulthood are very high you don't need to give birth to that many;
  • Women have attractive alternatives to just being a mother.

Why people want to die

by PhilGoetz 1 min read24th Aug 2015175 comments


Over and over again, someones says that living for a very long time would be a bad thing, and then some futurist tries to persuade them that their reasoning is faulty.  They tell them that they think that way now, but they'll change their minds when they're older.

The thing is, I don't see that happening.  I live in a small town full of retirees, and those few I've asked about it are waiting for death peacefully.  When I ask them about their ambitions, or things they still want to accomplish, they have none.

Suppose that people mean what they say.  Why do they want to die?

The reason is obvious if you just watch them for a few years.  They have nothing to live for.  They have a great deal of free time, but nothing they really want to do with it.  They like visiting friends and relatives, but only so often.  The women knit.  The men do yardwork.  They both work in their gardens and watch a lot of TV.  This observational sample is much larger than the few people I've asked.

You folks on LessWrong have lots of interests.  You want to understand math, write stories, create start-ups, optimize your lives.

But face it.  You're weird.  And I mean that in a bad way, evolutionarily speaking.  How many of you have kids?

Damn few.  The LessWrong mindset is maladaptive.  It leads to leaving behind fewer offspring.  A well-adapted human cares above all about sex, love, family, and friends, and isn't distracted from those things by an ADD-ish fascination with type theory.  That's why they probably have more sex, love, and friends than you do.

Most people do not have open-ended interests the way LWers do.  If they have a hobby, it's something repetitive like fly-fishing or needlepoint that doesn't provide an endless frontier for discovery.  They marry, they have kids, the kids grow up, they have grandkids, and they're done.  If you ask them what the best thing in their life was, they'll say it was having kids.  If you ask if they'd do it again, they'll laugh and say absolutely not.

We could get into a long argument over the evolution of aging, and whether people would remain eager to have kids if they remained physically young.  Maybe some would.  Some would not, though.  Many young parents are looking forward to the day their kids leave.

A lot of interests in life are passing.  You fall in love with a hobby, you learn it, you do it for a few years, then you get tired of it.  The things that were fascinating when you were six hold no magic for you now.  Pick up a toy soldier and try to play with it.  You can't.  Skateboarding seems awesome for about five years, and then everyone except Tony Hawk gets tired of it.

Having kids might be like that for some people.  Thing is, it's literally the only thing humans have evolved to be interested in.  Once you're tired of that, you're done.  If some of you want to keep going, that's an accidental by-product of evolution.  And there was no evolutionary pressure to exempt it from the common waning of interest with long exposure.

The way to convert deathists isn't to argue with them, but to get them interested in something.  Twist them the way you're twisted.