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Epistemic status: deliberately written in simplified tale/myth mode. I could go off on so many tangents on the actual complexity and nuance of everything, but I wanted to keep it tight. I encourage you to 'unpack' the points by comparing them to things you know, and/or framing what I say in different ways, to see if the main theme/message makes any sense to you.

1: Monkeys Become Ants

In the beginning there were monkeys. Individuals had their own models of physical reality, and desired things, and took actions based on their desires and reality models. This often involved fighting the other monkeys to get something. Life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

And then something happened. Some monkeys became more cooperative and social. They formed packs, and the packs were more successful than the individuals. The monkeys in packs coordinated their actions and learned from each other. Homo sapiens crushed its competition and filled the world.

Making the pack work required a lot of psychological engineering. People had to be programmed to replace their own desires and world models with the shared desires and models of the pack, at least when it was necessary for the pack to cooperate and do something. People who were unable or unwilling to do this were selected against.

Over time, cultures and religions and ideologies learned new tricks to enable cooperation at larger scales. They became more aggressive about replacing the desires and world-models of people with those of the group. People were acculturated to deeply internalize the group's desires and have faith in the group's description of reality, such that going against either was somewhere between morally abhorrent and unthinkable.

The groups that were capable of generating cooperation/brainwashing at scale crushed the ones that had less ability to do this. Eventually giant hiveminds formed, after figuring out how to brainwash millions of people into useful cooperation. They came to rule the world, and people who were unable or unwilling to be assimilated into these mega-hiveminds were selected against.

In short, monkeys were psychologically manipulated into sometimes acting like ants. It didn't matter how traumatizing this process was, because the hive minds that did it won the fight against those who did not, and filled the world with their genes and memes.

Because of this, most people usually operate on a level of social reality, rather than physical reality. The hivemind doesn't want you to have your own model of the physical world, unless you are one of the few ordained specialists in having that job. Having your own model is a rebellion, a rejection of the cooperation protocol, and marks you out as a cancerous or treasonous element.

Similarly, having any desires not programmed or approved by the hive marks you as a threat. You are rebelling by doing the abhorrent/unthinkable thing. If the hive learns about this, you are in trouble. If you make it common knowledge that you have this, and are proud and open about it, such that you are making a public challenge to the cooperation protocol, you are in very deep trouble.

2. Evolved Hypocrisy

But humans did not become completely eusocial; we continued to reproduce as individuals. And there was plenty of opportunity to steal from the hive for personal gain, for those clever enough to do so without getting caught.

In addition, being one of the people with power at the top of society requires you to act as an individual monkey. You have to see the world as it is, and take action and make actual decisions. Hiveminds that completely destroyed the ability of their leaders to act as agents did not last very long. In addition to the leaders, the successful hive minds also allow a small number of artists or inventors who think creatively, if they prove their loyalty and quality in other ways.

So there was always a trade-off in incentives; a complicated tension in strategies. Someone who was too individual was rejected by the hive and exiled or killed for being a criminal or misfit. But someone who was too much of a drone, who sacrificed too much of themselves to the hive, also failed to reproduce. The only people who survived were the ones who managed to resolve this tension and manage the trade-offs appropriately. Everyone else was selected against. 

And the ones that really prospered were the 'sleeper agents' who rose through the ranks, or gained acclaim, while seeming to be very loyal to the hive and following its commands, and once they got enough esteem and resources, acted as a self-interested monkey (ideally while making the hive more powerful, but this is at most a secondary goal).

This manifests itself in several ways, such as widespread hypocrisy, self-deception, and hidden motivessocial desirability bias. But the main evidence is Near/Far Thinking. Roughly, far mode is the hive's programming, and near mode is taking care of yourself and your genes. People who cannot manage this switch appropriately will be selected against, and one of the better predictors of being able to do this fluently is your brain lying to your conscious awareness about what you are doing. Another piece of evidence is how easily and thoroughly organizations or subcultures can suborn individuals and turn them into drones who only value the hive.

So, for hundreds of generations, people were selected for their ability to be hypocritical, play social games, and selectively violate rules when necessary while pretending to follow these rules in public. 

They were also selected for their ability to deploy appropriate strategies. Being more monkey-like (being an agent with unique goals and ideas) is the high-variance play. If you fail because you are not good enough, you're a misfit and criminal and get eliminated. But if you succeed, you rise to the top. Acting like an ant, maintaining pious or bourgeois respectability and following the rules for a non-elite existence, was usually the safe strategy if you had the ability to follow the rules and be productive, but not the skills to play the game of thrones.

3: Mythologies of Desireless Reaction

All of this has been happening for thousands of years. But recently, the hive's programming changed in ways that further crush individual desire and agency, disrupting the balance that previously existed and causing even more psychological damage.

One of the main tools that hive minds use to acculturate and brainwash people is narrative fiction. The widely shared foundational stories and myths of their society tell people what they should desire and how they should behave. In this way people are deeply programmed at an early age to act in a certain way.

In the past, most stories were heavily gender-coded. Boys were told to act a certain way, which usually involved having desires and being actors or subjects, but in a responsible and controlled way. Girls were told a different set of stories, which usually involved following the rules and being passive objects of desire. This was bad and hurt people, but as I've said before, the systems that made themselves more powerful were selected for, regardless of the harm to individuals, and systems that made more of their people more ant-like had a competitive advantage.

For most of history, whatever the medium, from Odysseus to Tom Sawyer to pulp magazines, the male stories told of heroes who had desires and took action to achieve those desires, but who did so in a virtuous way, while respecting the (more important) rules of society. In this way they modeled good behavior, teaching people to strive for things without hurting others. In this fiction, the importance of following certain social rules was emphasized, often much more so than in modern fiction, but the heroes were allowed/encouraged to follow their goals as well.

And then The Lord of the Rings was published, and everything changed.

This was a huge cultural event. It spread widely. More and more content creators started to imitate it in various ways, consciously or not. More and more narrative fiction published since then has followed its basic pattern:

The hero does not have personal desires. The hero does not wish to do anything other than live a normal boring life according to society's rules. And yet, they are forced to take action by an outside evil force that wishes to impose a change on their society. For some reason, the hero is chosen, through no merit or virtue or action of their own, to be the one person who must protect their society. But they are quite clearly an object of the story or its situation, rather than a subject.

Star Wars mostly follows this pattern. The hero is living on a farm, evil people force him into action, and he acts for the benefit of others with magic powers that he did nothing to earn or deserve. Harry Potter follows this pattern even more so, as does basically every superhero story.

In the very earliest superhero stories, they were, somewhat, proactive agents of change. They cleaned up the criminals that were the normal part of their society. But nowadays, superheroes are always reacting to some kind of super villain who has an evil plot to change the world. Their success is defined by returning to the status quo. (Avengers: Endgame is especially notable for this; they have unlimited power and just use it to restore what was lost. Nobody even mentions improving things; the least they could have done is to get rid of Malaria, AIDS, and TB in the process.)

In all of these works, which have become the de facto civic religion of our society, the heroes are all fundamentally both reactive and reactionary. They're not trying to accomplish anything; all they're doing is stopping someone else from taking action. It's vetocracy as a foundational myth.

And so, through an incredibly powerful multi-sensory experience, repeated many times and in many variations in many narratives, all young children nowadays are trained to believe that the ideal behavior is to want nothing, to take no action, but to rise up in arms against anyone who would change the structure of your society. They are taught that taking initiative is bad, that researching technology is bad, that making changes is bad, and that all good people must resist these things, but of course you should not take the initiative to resist them, some situation outside you must force you to take action. We are brainwashed to want nothing more than to be a high-status protagonist in a story written by someone else.

And it is not just the fiction. Many other tools of social programming are also saying the same thing.

As you might suspect, this messes people up a lot. And as you should expect from knowing that your conscious brain is mainly a PR agent, people will not know that they are messed up, or why.

It's not a coincidence that our most successful people don't consume fiction, and that some of our more original and agent-like thinkers were socialized by old science fiction rather than modern narratives.

If you are trying to raise a child to be individual and sapient, to have its own desires and goals and to believe that it is okay to work to achieve those goals based on a personal model of the world, practically your only hope is to have no screens they can access, and keep a library of nonfiction scientific books and maybe some old science fiction and even older stories about responsible heroes with initiative.

4: The Over-Programmed People

Even with the change in social programming, most baseline humans are hard-wired with enough subconscious cynicism to figure things out, and enough hypocrisy to act for themselves in spite of the rules. Thousands of generations of evolution have shaped them to handle this situation. They act according to the rules and standards in public, while maintaining some capacity for private action that breaks the taboo against initiative. Usually they do this by arranging situations of plausible deniability (humor and irony are used heavily here), or simply breaking the rules after sending or receiving signals that the other person is willing to break the rules with them.

But some people don't figure out how to play these complicated games, and they suffer.

There's a behavior cluster that I've noticed that I don't think we have a name for. There is a lot of correlation between having this behavior and having scrupulosity or being a high-functioning autistic, although neither is quite the same thing. Basically the behavior cluster is acting too much like an ant and not enough like a monkey.

Even without the cynicism and hypocrisy, most neurotypicals have a defense against the anti-agent programming. They have a high baseline of selfish-monkey traits, which means that when society's behavioral programming forces or trains them to follow the rules and be obedient, they end up somewhere in the middle. They restrain their instincts for grasping desire when necessary, and follow them when appropriate.

But some people don't have this. They believe the rules, internalize them deeply, and follow them without adding in any monkey instinct. They think that if all they ever do is follow the rules properly, then they will be taken care of. They are too nice, too agreeable, too passive, too much like a drone. They share information instinctively freely and honestly, and jump to follow the commands of a perceived authority.

(Things can get especially rough for someone who believes the rules taught in school science classes about using evidence and the scientific method. They end up as too much of a drone, without significant individual desires other than the desire to be respected and accepted by the hive. But they are also too much of a monkey, because they insist on using their own mental model of reality rather than deferring to society's.)

The normal people reject the over-programmed people for being freaks, even though the over-programmed are doing exactly what everyone around them says everyone should be doing. This is partly because of an instinctive revulsion for anything that is seen as different, because most mutations are bad and people who made friends with mutants were usually selected against. But it is also true that, compared to a clever hypocrite, the over-programmed do not make good friends or partners. They're less likely to obtain resources, and less likely to preferentially give those resources to their friends. When you are an obedient drone, equally giving to every member of your society, and displaying no preferences or nepotism, nobody in your society has any incentive to be your friend.

It's likely that a lot of people reading this are over-programmed people. I personally am and/or was one. In the past, I would rage against the unfairness of the world. But the more I learn about the way the world works, and how selection has inevitably shaped human behavior, the more I learn to replace my moral indignation over other people's hypocrisy with an understanding that I'm just a dysfunctional mutant.

Epilogue: The Future of Humanity

Some people, who have internalized the old system of gendered stories that program people in different ways, call the result of the new programming 'the feminization of society'. A lot of men have noticed this process and complained about it, and feel nostalgic for the old model of civilization where only women were programmed to lack desire and agency.

I think that it was bad in the past when women were robbed of agency and desire, and that it is even more bad now when everyone is suffering this kind of brainwashing and programming. 

It is possible that civilization can only function when most people are turned into ants. But it seems to me that if you have more state capacity, and fair and automatic systems of law enforcement, then brainwashing people is much less necessary. They just need to be smart enough to understand that hurting people or stealing things will lead to automatic and overwhelming force directed against them.

However, it may not be possible to arrange this, and it may be true that the old gendered model is more sustainable than denying agency to everyone, by which I mean it is better able to project power and crush its opponents. If some non-Western civilization figures out how to combine technological competence, high economic productivity, good epistemology and strategic thinking, and an above-replacement fertility rate, then they will eventually win, and future societies and generations will see 'late Western civilization' as a warning sign or a failed experiment.

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Marvel "morality" is definitely poison.

It has a strong "in-group vs. out-group" vibe. And there are basically no moral choices. I've watched every Marvel movie and all of Agents of Shield, and outside of "Captain America: Civil War" (and spinoffs from that like the Winter Soldier series) I can hardly think of any choices that heroes made that had actual tradeoffs. Instead you get "choices" like:

  • Should you try hard, or try harder? (You should try harder.)
  • Which should we do: (a) 100% chance that one person dies, or (b) 90% chance that everyone dies and 10% chance that everyone lives? (The second one. Then you have to make it work; the only way that everyone would die is if you weren't trying hard enough. The environment plays no role.)
  • Should you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? (Yes.)
  • Should you allow your friend to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? (No. At least not until it's so clear there's no alternative that it becomes a Plot Point.)

Once the Agents of Shield had a choice. They could either save the entire world, or they could save their teammate but thereby let almost everyone on Earth die a few days later, almost certainly including that teammate. So: save your friend, or save the world? There was some disagreement, but the majority of the group wanted to save their friend.

(I'm realizing now that I may be letting Agents of Shield color my impression of Marvel movies.)

Star Trek is based on mistake-theory, and Marvel is based on conflict-theory.

Oh I remember now the game we played on later seasons of Agents of Shield.

The game was looking for a character---any non-civilian character at all---that was partially aligned. A partially aligned person is someone who (i) does not work for Shield or effectively work for Shield say by obeying their orders, but (ii) whose interests are not directly opposed to Shield, say by wanting to destroy Shield or destroy humankind or otherwise being extremely and unambiguously evil. Innocent bystanders don't count, but everyone of significance does (e.g. fighters and spies and leaders all count).

There were very few.

Life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

And then something happened. Some monkeys became more cooperative and social.

The claim that we have any monkey-like ancestor that was mostly living alone and not as part of a group is new to me. Do you have any sources for it?

Lemur's who share non-monkey ancestors with us are also social creatures.

Despite the inaccuracy, I used 'monkey' rather than ape for the connotations and imagery. And yes, our ancestors were never completely solitary, but the general trend is that we went form something kind of like an orangutan to something that could be ordered into the trenches of WW1.

Do you have any evidence that we had ancestors that were as solitary as orangutans? Why do you believe that any pre-homo ancestor was more solitary?

I like the convincing though as you said simplified story that you tell. I considered forwarding to my son - esp. because of the references to MCU heroes. Instead I just talked to him about claims you made. It seems some don't hold up - at least not generally.

Tony Stark is an entrepreneur who improves the world with lots of technology, e.g., medical, fusion, AI - and that goes wrong sometimes, or exploited by third parties. There are others Brenner, Wayne who also fit this.

In Civil War Captain America refuses to conform to the Sakovia Accords.

The tech-using superheroes all have 'tech bro' as their backstory, but this has almost nothing to do with the plot or their on-screen actions. They are occasionally shown doing product launches etc. because that it a thing that tech millionaires do, but all of the on-screen action is defending against change, not causing it. And the 'tech going wrong or being exploited' outcome is approximately 100% of the portrayal of events, there is almost no screen time on an invention making the world better. 


Civil War is interesting because it is the only time they put any effort into showing a conflict where both sides had good reasons for their beliefs. And it is framed as 'defend the liberty of individuals' vs 'defend society from powers'.

Ask yourself, "Who in a superhero universe most closely matches the protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Who tries to use their advanced technology to actually alter the world, and change society so it aligns with their values? Is the person you imagine portrayed as a hero or a villain?

Any recommendations for works of fiction where the protagonist is sufficiently strategic and agenty? Limitless, Death Note, and HPMoR come to mind.

Both are reincarnation isekai where the protagonist uses memories from her past life to her strategic advantage.

  • Crystal Trilogy

It may not be as memetically optimized for the modern LW audience as ingroup-written rationalfic, but I recommend reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It is (one of?) the first-ever 'engineer uses technical knowledge to fix a primitive society and instill modern values' stories.

Your links are broken and lead me to an "onboarding" page. The links when I use the original page on Blogger do, however.

I have the same issue. I think this is caused by the broken links being to "edit" versions of the posts.

Fixed, thanks for pointing that out. 

The main place I think the model breaks down (though still in broad strokes looks correct) is in the Role of the Sperg. The high functioning autistic is painted as the Über-Ant, but, as you mention, the independent world model is very much return-to-monkey. But it seems that this undermines the whole Archetype of the Autist: a being that, unlike normies, has not balanced its Ant-Monkey nature. Normie hypocrisy seems to be the standard way of balancing it, increasing social prowess at the cost of accurate world models. Might not autismo minor be yet another balancing act, earnestly accepting the ideas of the ant, yet with the agency and independence of the monkey, sometimes even controlling the ant? They endure the opposite set of trade offs.

The whole bit about post-LotR narratives is interesting and troublesome... as is the epilogue. The hopeful part of me believes that in the long run, humans with good epistemics will tend towards noble values. The open attitude of questioning that seems to promote good thinking seems to also undermine the acceptance of cruelty. But I am not so rosy-eyed as to think that this is inevitable.