Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 11
A Science of Culture
Featuring Michael Muthukrishna
How much are cultures crucial for progress, and can we deliberately create ones that lead to particular outcomes? What is it really about humans that separates us from animals? And how does the climate crisis fit into all this? Michael Muthukrishna, author of “A Theory of Everyone,” explores the distinctiveness of human beings and draws on his interdisciplinary research to argue that cultural evolution has propelled humanity to its current prominence—and will help us face our current challenges, if we know how to apply it properly.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly podcast, What Could Go Right? where we talk about the news of the day and interview fascinating folks who have distinctive views about, yes, what could go right, or at least views of how we should handle what is going wrong.
And today, we’re gonna talk to someone, as we have talked to a few people on this program who are trying to connect lots of dots and trying to create a unified field theory of who we are and how it is that human beings have, yes, in the past actually solved challenges, problems. What is it about human beings and human societies that has allowed us, unlike other animals that we are aware of on this planet, to act collectively? Sometimes that collective action has been destructive. No doubt. Often that collective action has been constructive. We’ve been able to galvanize our collective resources in order to solve problems. And what is it about human beings that allows that to happen? And so we’re gonna talk to someone today who has, if not a unique theory, then certainly a new and compelling one of what it is about humans and how humans have done this. So, Emma, who are we gonna talk to today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we are gonna be talking to Michael Muthukrishna, who’s an Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Technical Director of The Database of Religious History. He’s also a board member of the One Pencil Project, which is dedicated to the intersection of education, scientific research, and philanthropy. So today, we’re gonna be talking to him about his book, A Theory of Everyone, which goes over what Zachary just described. So let’s go talk to Michael.
ZK: Michael Muthukrishna, or should I say Dr. Michael Muthukrishna, you have a fascinatingly eclectic and heterodox background, and you have an insanely modestly titled new book called A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. So tell us the story of you. What was your background and training? How did you get to where you are?
Michael Muthukrishna (MM): Yeah, sure. So when I was in high school, I was like, I wanna study physics or, I don’t know, philosophy or computer science or something like that. I decided human behavior was underneath it all. But I’m also a person who likes managing risk, and I was like a degree in psychology isn’t the most marketable thing, so I’m gonna do this with something else like law, medicine, or engineering. And so I started working, did a dual degree at the University of Queensland in Australia, where I did engineering and psychology. And in the psych degree, at first, I was really into it. I was like, this is really interesting. It’s about human behavior. But I kind of got a bit disillusioned. I felt like everything I was learning in engineering and other sciences weren’t being applied to the study of human behavior. There wasn’t this kind of overarching theoretical framework.
And so I started applying the insights that I could believe to engineering design. And then around 2007, I watched Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and I started reading more about climate change. You know, the IPCC reports, the Pentagon reports, and it seemed to me that everyone was really focused on mitigation. And I was like, okay, this is reasonable. I mean, if we can slow the economy to save the planet, that would be great, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen. It seems to run against so many things to do with human nature and you know, a competition in which every country is trying to outcompete every other country. Every company is trying to outcompete every other company, and everybody wants more than their neighbors. So it just seemed unlikely that was gonna happen.
And so when you read the reports, there were all kinds of challenges that we were heading towards. And it didn’t seem like we were prepared to deal with things like mass migration, the energy crisis, or any of these things. We didn’t have a good science. So I wanted to try to develop a science of culture, not to be an academic, but just to have better tools for tackling the challenges of how do you build a harmonious society? How do you get people to work together? How do you build successful organizations? How do you increase innovation? Those kinds of challenges. Eventually, I realized that people had been working on this. We had made some major breakthroughs that I describe as a theory of human behavior or a theory of everyone, this kind of revolutionary shift in our understanding that happens sometimes in a science that really causes the science to mature.
As an example of this, Newton is a bright guy. He already understands, you know, he’s developing models in physics, but he’s trying to turn lead into gold. And he’s doing that not because he is stupid, but he doesn’t have an understanding that the world is made up of elements. And you can’t turn lead into gold. You can do all kinds of chemistry, but that doesn’t count. That’s alchemy. But for alchemy to turn into chemistry, you need the periodic table. And there’s a particular set of conditions under which that happens. I go into the details in my book, I’ll spare you. But the idea is that the reason that humans are so different to other animals is that we aren’t just reliant on genetic instincts or what we can learn over our lifetime. But this kind of culturally, socially acquired software running on our hardware.
So the human brain hasn’t changed all that much in the last few million years. It tripled in size, and then it kind of leveled off at around several hundred thousand years ago. And if anything, it’s kind of shrunk. But we have gotten clever and we have gotten clever not because our brains change, but because the software running on those brains change. So our ability to reason, our ability to count, all of those mental tools that we have are socially acquired. And so we have nice math for describing how that software evolves, how it is that humans acquire that software, how innovations take place, and it has implications for how we work together.
And so, as I was kind of putting these pieces together, I realized this is making major, major shifts within the behavioral sciences. It’s moving over into economics, it’s moving all into other adjacent sciences, biological sciences. But a lot of people in the public don’t know about it yet. And yet it affects everything about our decisions that we have to make in the coming century.
EV: That reminds me a lot of kind of like the Progress Studies call that Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen I think put out a few years ago. It’s like that same kind of question of how do you optimize for a certain set of conditions, how do you optimize society to get you to X, Y, Z place? But before we get into all of that, your answer for how we do that, can you talk a little bit more, you know, you mentioned climate change earlier, why you feel like answering this question is sort of the game changer in terms of where we are in history, ’cause that seems really important as to why you would dive into this theory in the first place.
MM: Yeah, so that was the starting point. The starting point was that, as economists, when there are shocks to a system, a lot of institutions fail or there’s a big change that can take place. And there were clearly changes that were coming as a result of climate change. So I’ll give you an example. When a million Bangladeshis are underwater and they’re kind of streaming large number of refugees into India, can India deal with that? Does the infrastructure, can they deal with it? Can the institutions deal with it? And I think we saw most recently at Europe’s doorstep, the Syrian migration crisis was a climate change-precipitated disaster of the kind that had been commonly happening in Africa but doesn’t really quite make the news until it’s at your doorstep, right?
So there, there were droughts, people flooded in from rural areas into cities in order to find jobs. There weren’t the jobs for them, the infrastructure couldn’t cope. And so people eventually rioted and you have a refugee crisis. And so that has knock-on effects, right? So when you have a million people at your door, this isn’t an ideal case where you can design a wonderful immigration policy. It’s a humanitarian case and you deal with it as best you can, but it’s like guests turning up in your house and you haven’t bought enough groceries. Are you gonna be able to tackle that problem? And so when you put people under resource constraints, everything becomes more difficult. It becomes more difficult to govern them. And this can lead to feedback loops where everything becomes a little bit more challenging.
Alongside that, Emma, one of the big puzzles that I work on is the puzzle of large-scale cooperation of the kind that we see in the modern world. So we’re doing this as a podcast, but we could have been in the same room, and you might take that for granted, but it’s a very strange thing, actually. From a cross-species perspective, if we were, four chimps, we’d be kind of four dead and maim chimps. It’s kind of weird from a historical perspective. If this was a few hundred years ago, we’re from very different places. It would be a threatening situation. And even geographically today, there are some places that are much safer than others. So the question is, how did that happen?
And the answer seems to be that cooperation goes hand in hand with excess energy availability. And when we discovered millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight in the ground during the Industrial Revolution, thanks to cheap and available coal, we were able to use that to kind of supercharge human ingenuity. And it incentivized, it created a posit of some world where it incentivized people working together to do great things, you know, build an internet, engage in massive innovation, but also terrible things like colonization and wars of conquest. So when those things were tearing in hand, that was great, we had this huge energy explosion, but we’re facing a slightly different situation today, particularly since the 1970s, where the numbers, both artificially thanks to OPEC, but also in reality, energy availability is kind of decreasing.
So in the book, what I call the space of the possible, which is created by our energy ceiling and the innovations and technological efficiencies, is shrinking on us. And so that alongside all of these crises and just increasing number of people makes everything a little bit more difficult. But because we do have a kind of theory of everyone, we have a deeper insight than we’ve ever had, we have a kind of periodic table for people, I think we’re also, for the first time, able to tackle some of those challenges.
ZK: Yeah, I mean, you do have an inherently optimistic/problem-solving DNA in human history and maybe in human DNA, or at least in the human social organization, in that a lot of what you point out is this ability to learn and work collaboratively. There have been philosophers and evolutionary biologists and all who have pointed out that most of the particulars that human beings do, at least one of those things, other animals do. But that it’s impossible to find an example of any other species that we are aware of currently on this particular planet who are able to combine all of those into some lattice or framework, let alone a cognitive framework that allows for knowledge transmission, whether that’s through writing or oral history, or I guess now whatever we call this digital transmission system, right? I mean, that to me, augurs for the ability to solve collective problems. I suppose a pushback would be it also augurs for our ability to magnify the problems that we create, right? So the two-edged sword part of it. Do you come out more on the, because we’ve collectively been able to come together more or less and solve the problems that we’ve created that we are likely to continue to do so, or are you more agnostic about it could go either way?
MM: Yeah, so I mean, from my perspective, it’s like any financial advice you get, past results are no guarantee of future performance, right? So what I’m trying to do in the book is to say, it’s not sufficient to just say, hey, look, we’ve always been able to technologically magic our way out of things. We need to understand how exactly that happened, like what are the levers of innovation, and why is it that if you look at just about any marker of progress—You know, I like the way Ian Morris puts it. The Industrial Revolution makes a mockery of everything that came before. It’s an almost vertical takeoff in declines in violence, child survival rates, lifespan, health, whatever you want. And the last time we saw a phase shift like that was the agricultural revolution.
If you wanna say that we’re always gonna be able to make our way out of this, you need some kind of theory, some mechanism, some explanation for what happened in that moment, what happened in previous moments like that. And then you need to look at those metrics and say, okay, well what does that mean for our future? Is it going to be a situation—The agricultural revolution was a major shift. The last one, I suppose, was fire, right? With fire, we were able to kind of predigest food, save the mechanical movement of our jaws, and shrink our guts and grow our brains. But after that, still as hunter-gatherers in terms of our populations, it was a one-to-one return on your time going out and hunting and gathering. With agriculture, we had a solar technology, so we switched from hunting and gathering to, if you like, harvesting and grinding where you can grow things, it’s far more efficient.
And at first, that’s great because you grow your populations, you push hunter-gatherers to the margins, you’ve outcompeted them, but then eventually, abundance turns back to scarcity as your population size meets your new carrying capacity, and then agriculturalists start fighting with one another. And then you’re in this Malthusian world where it’s a zero-sum world where your loss is my gain, wars of conquest, and, you know, this kind of flat line in terms of very slight increase, if anything, blips, if anything, in terms of progress until you hit the Industrial Revolution where, again, you see this massive takeoff. And as I said, that’s because you had jewels upon jewels of compressed photosynthesis turned to chemical form and compressed into coal, oil, and natural gas.
And so we’ve been in the rising phase for a long time. But that same pattern, that abundance eventually turns to scarcity as population size, carrying capacity catches up is where we are now. You know, this is What Could Go Right? If we want to kind of reach that next level of abundance, it actually does require the next energy revolution. If you look at the numbers, so there’s a particular metric that I wanna share is energy return on investment from the energy sciences. So this tells you how much energy you get back from how much you put in. And in an ideal world, you want a kind of small, tiny energy sector of your economy and a very large all the other stuff the energy is buying you, the vacations, the food, the going out with your friends, all of that stuff.
And so if you look at, for example, all the metrics look like this, but I’ll give you like oil discovery rates, right? So in 1919, 1 barrel of oil found you another 1,000. By 1950, 1 barrel of oil found you another 100. And then by 2010, 1 barrel of oil found you another 5. So in other words, our civilization, I mean, as a species, excess energy is shrinking. The literal amount of that excess stuff is decreasing. And that’s what drives growth, that and the innovations with which we can—the things we can do with energy, those are the two things that drive growth. And so it’s shrinking. The nuclear age was kind of stillborn for a fear of previous generations. And I think that would’ve kept us on that path, but we didn’t invest. And now’s the time to do it.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: Jigar Shah, who now leads the Department of Energy’s loan program for large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly for new energy, who we had a conversation with, I think his perspective would be, and many people’s, that we really aren’t in a scarcity moment. We are, as you point out, in a we may have passed peak oil, but we certainly are producing enough and also demand globally is going down. So there’s that match as well, because the ability to substitute new sources of energy, some of which are renewable, some of which are still carbon-based, has exceeded that particular scarcity abundance dynamic. So I do wanna push back and ask, it may be true that in any one particular vertical, abundance is giving way to scarcity, but on a aggregate basis, whether that’s human calories produced, whether that’s energy of any form—hydro, nuclear, solar, coal, gas—we seem to be still outpacing whatever demands that we have globally.
MM: Yeah. So in my reading of the energy sciences, we still have plenty of energy at the moment. And if there’s a decline, it’s a decline in kind of the second derivative, right? It’s the rate of that or the return is what’s decreasing. If you look at the energy return on investment numbers, not all the technologies look alike. So if you have, for example, hydropower, that’s amazing, it’s got nice returns. Something like solar, because the panels are getting cheaper and their lifespans are outstripping what we expected, they’re great. You still have the battery problem, and you also have the problem that it requires an investment upfront that isn’t paid off for quite some time. So as a society, you’re using some amount of energy to get some amount of energy back in the future. Nuclear technologies, there’s an issue ’cause it depends on the size of what you’re doing. I mean, I guess the overall point is, you’ve got small modular reactors, you’ve got microreactors, the big ones, we’re not amazing at building them, but the Koreans seem to be doing a fine job.
There are all these technologies that are available to us, but where we find ourselves in this particular moment is a slowdown. So there’s plenty to go around, but when there’s less available to us—So before every major recession in the last 50 years, there’s been a spike in energy prices or there’s been a restriction in the amount of excess energy available to civilization. And those are the moments where you trigger people’s kind of zero-sum biases ’cause there’s an economic slowdown and it makes everything much more difficult. It’s easier to be nice when there’s more to go around.
In the book, I use this analogy of buses coming along. So if you imagine the amount of energy available to you is the rate of buses coming along and there’s buses coming every five minutes, there’s still gonna be mumblings and grumblings, right? So people are going to be upset that there’s a 1% who always get their way to the front of the line, and they’re gonna be upset that some people let other members of their group to the front of the line. But it’s just mumbling and grumbling as long as the buses are coming every five minutes. What we’re seeing is a slight slowdown. So it’s maybe every 10 minutes, every hour. But when that gets too slow, suddenly that mumbling and grumbling kind of breaks out into something more. It’s like driving around a car park for a very long time and someone takes that place, how you’re gonna react depends on how many more spaces are available. So all of that makes it more difficult to engage in or invest in the technologies that are available to us today that will solve this crisis in the longer term. We face kind of a social cooperative breakdown in the shorter term, whenever there’s a shock on that. That’s the argument that I make in the book.
So it’s a fundamentally optimistic book because these technologies do exist and even more promising technologies like nuclear fusion, for example, right? It’s perpetually between Monday and 30 years away. We have for the first time some promising technologies and a startup ecosystem around that and lots of investment in the private and public sector. That’s exciting. And that would set us on a path that would—you know, we’d be the first generation of a galactic civilization in terms of the excess energy.
EV: I mean, so whether or not we agree with your point, this is all coming from energy scarcity. I think that’s how people feel at the moment, that there’s a little bit of a breakdown of social cooperativeness, as you put it, and people do feel like other people are cutting the line and there’s not so much to go around. So regardless of the source of that, absent nuclear fusion suddenly working, or the green revolution, which is not going to occur in the next at least five years, what’s a humankind to do? Meaning what are the suggested solutions as far as using human behavior to get us to all get along a bit better?
MM: There’s two sides to it. So in evolutionary biology, we talk about ultimate and proximate causes. So, as an example, why do people like chocolate? Proximately, it sets off endorphins in your brain and it’s pleasurable to eat and so on. But at an ultimate level, it’s because your genes are tuned to pick up on fruits when they are kind of optimal calories and vitamins. And so that sweetness is what you’re detecting in your genes, and that’s the kind of an ultimate explanation for it. So the case I’m making, and, again, this is a debate for the energy sciences, how much excess energy is available to us in terms of energy return on investment is, from my perspective, the ultimate cause of this, even if there’s plenty in aggregate. But at a proximate level, you can get stuck in psychological traps of beliefs in zero-sumness, whether the reality reflects that or not.
So if you believe that the world is zero-sum, then you start to behave in destructive competitive ways. If someone else’s win is your loss and your win is their loss, it means that the only way to get ahead, because we’re all in a status competition, is to not work harder, work better, but to harm someone else. And often, humans are a competitive species, but we’re also a cooperative species and we cooperate to compete. So it’s not necessarily like me against everyone else, it’s my group versus your group. And so I think if you’ve got good data that actually there is plenty to go around and that we’re not in a reality of this situation, then making people aware of that can help. But it’s not telling people, it’s actually showing people, look, the economy is growing, things are going well, there are jobs available that can help break people out of it if there is a true reality. But otherwise, their own psychology can create that reality because if the, if the country is more difficult to govern, for example, things start to fall apart. That’s one side of it.
I mean, the other side of it is that in general, we face a more difficult governance challenge today because we live in more diverse culturally and politically diverse societies. So it’s easier to make good decisions when you are on the same page in terms of fundamentals. Like if you are Denmark and you agree that socialized medicine is the way to go, then you can elect the best person to push forward that agenda. But if you don’t agree on those fundamentals, you can’t pick the best person, you have to pick your person because your person is very different to someone else. And so the more diverse and clustered our society has become, the more cracks and fractures exist, and then, for ultimate reasons, if there’s any pressure put on society, everything falls apart.
ZK: Yeah, it’s funny, I was thinking when you were speaking just now of the negative side of the social learning strength that you’ve pointed out in your work even before this book, that has characterized human evolution or human societies, right? In that one of the things that is evident, or at least it feels evident in the moment about social media, about these technologies of communication, is that never before have so many people had access to so much collective information, and never before have so many individuals been able to add their voice to that collective information, the aggregate of which is often cacophonous and confounding noise. Nonetheless, that just remains true. And it’s almost testing out the theory of if we are all individually and collectively exposed to too much information, that we are predisposed to ingest and digest.
One, what’s the danger of individual and collective short-circuiting? Meaning is one of the reasons that people now filter out in their filter bubbles information that doesn’t scan with their worldview, is that there’s just too much information so there’s a tendency of, it’s like, well, I can’t take that in? And B, is there a risk that there will be too much negative feedback loops and negative learning, whereas the history before this has been the filtering out of the negative, more or less, right? I mean, we’ve had some pretty horrific moments, so I’m just wondering about that as you speak.
MM: Yeah, so I mean, the kind of problem that you’re describing, in my world, I call it the paradox of diversity. And that is that diverse sources of information, and diversity in general, is kind of the fuel for recombinatorial innovation, like seeing the world differently, things like intellectual arbitrage, like taking a solution from one discipline or domain and applying it to another for great effect. But diversity is by definition also divisive, right? So if you feel like your two groups are in conflict, or if you don’t speak the same language, then those ideas are not flowing. One of the characteristics of the world, especially thanks to social media and the internet, it’s exactly what you said, we are at once exposed to a greater array of ideas, and algorithms shape our vision of that, so we only see a certain portion of that, and we’re also able to create new tribes as never before.
So in the past, if you had strange views or you were part of a minority, you wouldn’t be able to find other people like you. Like you’re into collecting porcelain plates, or in the book, I used some examples from subreddits, right? Like, are you into carrying sand in your pocket and interested in all of the benefits of pocket sand? Maybe not, but 30,000 people are. Do you like stapling bread to trees? Probably not. But there’s 300,000 people on that subreddit who regularly post pictures of these things. So those are silly examples, but the internet enables you to find other people like yourself. If you suffer a particularly rare medical condition, you can find other people in terms of those treatments.
But what you’re creating are new, different cultural groups, tribes. And the trouble is that I don’t think it’s about more information, I think it’s about whom you trust, like what are the boundaries of your trust? Where does trust turn into mistrust in terms of your group? One of the insights from this idea that most of our intelligence comes from our software is that we are happy, we are very willing to hold crazy ideas in our head if we got that information from those we trust.
So I’ll give you a couple of examples. So one is that you believe that illness is created by invisible animals, these germs that surround us at all times, right? You personally may have never seen a germ. Maybe you remember seeing something under a microscope, but you don’t have a real understanding of that. But you live in a world where the smartest people and most people and everyone behaves with these costly displays of washing their hands and so on. And so at an aggregate level, it’s very true, but that’s at an aggregate level. As an individual, you don’t have access to that truth. So that one’s kind of unintuitive because you don’t see these germs all the time, but you also believe things that violate your everyday experience. Like you see a flat earth and you see a sun tracing the sky from east to west, but you’ll swear up and down that you’re on a spheroid rotating around a star, one of many stars in the Milky Way. My point is that what we believe to be true, the things that we decide are worthy of acting on and behaving with, these things are acquired through trust, not more or less information.
EV: I’m gonna leave that very thorny issue aside for now, although we can [laughs] jump into it at a later point if we want to, and jump into another incredibly thorny issue, which is immigration. We talked a little bit about this in the beginning, but one thing that comes to my mind as we’re talking about, as you said, most of our human intelligence coming from the software, right? So coming from the culture around us, that automatically leads into the next step of, well, some cultures are better than others, right? Like some cultures, they get to the endpoint that you wanna get to faster or with fewer human rights violations, or in a way that we prefer. And of course that gets into the heart of a lot of immigration debates. So for you, how do you see this? Particularly if you are looking at a world where if climate change does lead to mass migration, we’re gonna be seeing a lot of the same issues that we’re seeing now.
MM: So it comes down to this kind of paradox of diversity, right? Like to build a great society is not unlike building a great organization. It matters who you’re hiring and it matters how you onboard those people and how they get along and so on. In general, if you look at the data, immigrants have been America’s super serum that has led to, you know, super advances in technology and so on. But a lot of that data comes from a time when immigrants were from more culturally close places. What America does well—So I have this quote from Lee Kuan Yew in the book, Singapore’s founder. And he knew, he had a hard time. Singapore’s a tiny place, but it’s made up of people of Malay origin, people of Indian origin, people of Chinese origin, different religions, and he is trying to build a society. And he says, China could draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States could draw on the world’s 7 billion people and recombine them in a diverse culture that exudes creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.
I don’t know if you wanna say that some cultures are better than others, but on any particular metric—like educational outcomes, efficiency, productivity economic outputs, maybe even care and concern—different societies do have different outcomes. And one of the benefits of a multicultural society is judging one another actually, but judging one another in view of borrowing the best things and recombining them into something brand new that’s better than what any particular culture has on its own. The challenge there is that you get these large cultural distances, and it’s more difficult to cross that barrier when people see the world in entirely different ways.
We have new methods of measuring cultural distance, and in some new work, it’s highly predictive of things like labor force participation in more socialist countries where it’s easier to be on social benefits. And you can see that the fiscal contributions of more culturally close migrants is higher than the fiscal contributions of culturally more distant migrants. And I don’t think that’s a call to say, well, we should have culturally close migrants, is that if you are going to design a policy that takes advantage of the recombinatorial benefits of more highly skilled but more culturally distant migrants, you’re gonna have to have some kind of onboarding so that they can bring those skills. Language is the most obvious example. They have to speak the same language, or there’s gonna be no communication.
So in the book, I describe immigration policies, like I say in immigration policies, you think about it as kind of a sampling strategy from different cultures, and cultures are not homogenous holes. There’s actually a lot more regional diversity in China than there is in the United States. So you’re not picking from a homogenous hole. You’re thinking about, okay, what criteria could I use in my immigration policy to, as I would, in terms of employing people for a great organization, how can I pick the best people? And then you start to look at what those things are.
So high levels of education. So education is a cultural download. It automatically makes you culturally closer. We have data to support that. It automatically makes you culturally closer and also allows you to fit the gaps. Finding people who are bringing skills that are missing in the economy means that people who are already in this organization recognize we need more hairdressers, or we need more fruit pickers, or we need more doctors, or we need more engineers. And so it’s easier to onboard people when there’s clearly a job available to them. Age matters too, right? Point-based systems like those you find in Canada and Australia aim for the 25 to 36 age groups. So they already have an education and they have a large working life ahead of them. The numbers that people come in matter, right? If you have people coming in very large numbers, it’s easier for them to segregate from the rest of society. If they’re coming in in smaller numbers, they’re more likely to integrate. It’s like if you imagine the dynamics of a kid going to school, you’re gonna be matching—A kid’s into Pokemon, they’ll find other kids who like Pokemon. But if they have large people who also share their ethnicity, not only will they find a kid who likes Pokemon, but also has their background.
So what you want is people to be more diffused so that they don’t form these kind of segregated community. But the overall point is that you’re trying to solve this paradox of diversity, which is you’re trying to say, okay, what aspects of diversity are good for that recombinatorial effects on innovation and economic growth? And what are the things that we need to have in common so that we don’t have these conflicts when it comes to communication and coordination and just collaborating with one another.
ZK: So final question. Simple, really easy softball kind of question. How do you apply all of this to the real world, meaning as a theory of individuals, how do you close the gap, and maybe you don’t close the gap between the awareness of this is how human societies function, and then the devilishly difficult details of how do you actually solve problems? And not everyone has to do everything. I do not think it is incumbent upon you or anyone who is shaping theories of how we function to also then come up with the solutions for specific problems. So don’t get me wrong on that. I think ideas and frameworks shape things in ways that are either inherently constructive or inherently imperative. But that doesn’t mean that all of us have to then solve particular problems. I mean, I can talk about energy supply, but I don’t have to be the guy coming up with small pebble nuclear reactors. That being said, you do have an interesting—We began this with the heterodox background, and you are aware of some of the applications of this. So in a short way, even though this could be the beginning of an entirely other conversation, what are some of the ways you could apply your observations to actual problem-solving?
MM: Yeah, so a lot of my work is policy advice. And my interest is—I’m not a huge fan of admiring the problem and looking at how great it is and just kind of describing it. I wanna be able to turn that into real actions. And I think I say in the book, the difference between utopia and a better world is the acceptance of constraints about who we are and how we got here and where we are in this moment. And so part one of the book is exactly that. It’s like, who are we? How do we get here? Where are we in this moment? Then part two is all about direct policy application. So what does that imply for how should we be thinking about innovation? How should we be thinking about inequality or tax policies? Inequality isn’t necessarily a problem, but it matters what’s creating that inequality, whether it reflects some kind of contribution or not. We should be taxing things that are unproductive rather than things that are productive, less on the income and capital gains and sales and more on things like land value or something like that.
To answer the question more quickly, I suppose, is to say that we aren’t—One of the lessons in the book, and one of the lessons is that we’re not always very good at designing policies, but we are good at designing evolving policies if you’d like. What we see in terms of successful policies are the ones that made it. And what you can do is you can design a system like the United States is designed as a system that searches through policies thanks to its federal structure.
So Justice Brandeis once described each state as a laboratory. You try different things at each state, and if it works, you bubble it to the top, and if it doesn’t, you discard it. It failed at a local level. It’s the same way that Silicon Valley works. You think of it as a bastion of success. It’s a graveyard of failure. It’s just that the few successes, we call them unicorns ’cause they’re so rare, they pay for all of the rest that you’ve long forgotten. And I point to other places like Estonia, for example, that now tops the PISA student performance tables in terms of mathematics, reading, and science, so all of them in the western world. And it went from—In 1991, after the Soviet occupation, half the country didn’t have a telephone and now they have the highest number of unicorn companies per capita in the world. And they do it in the same way. They have radical decentralization where schools and municipalities have a lot of control to try different things. They’re bubbling the best solutions to the top.
EV: Michael just gave us little tastes of all the other stuff in the book that the conversation didn’t cover ’cause this conversation could have gone in a lot of different ways. So go out and read the book, and you can give Michael your feedback.
MM: I look forward to it. Thank you so much for having me on the show.
EV: Thank you, Michael.
We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: Well, that was enlivening and eye-opening. We’ve had a number of conversations with people who are intellectually eclectic and heterodox and open. I think one of my beefs with academia, we didn’t get into this with Michael, has been that that kind of heterodox thinking is not usually supported within traditional departments, although increasingly many schools and different parts of different schools are embracing a more open or interdisciplinary approach. And it’s only when you have that intellectual curiosity across predetermined silos that you get these interesting theories about how human beings function. It’s a little bit of economics and it’s a little bit of political science and it’s a little bit of psychology and it’s a little bit of physics. It’s a little bit of all these things.
EV: Right. I mean, otherwise, we’re just like a bunch of dots and certain people have really deep knowledge on one dot or maybe two dots, but there’s no one to connect the dots, right?
EV: And I feel like there’s that slightly pejorative phrase, well not slightly, it is pejorative, jack of all trades, master of none. But you could be a master of one and then also try to connect the dots for other people. And I think that anyone really attempting to do that is admirable because I think the connect-the-dotness is what a lot of people are missing these days. So we give thanks to people like Michael that help us connect the dots.
ZK: And look, if any one theory actually did explain everything, it would be religion and then we would reject it. So let’s pivot now from the sublime to the mundane, from the theories of who we all are to some of the specific news and ideas and things going on in the world that we have noticed and you might have missed.
EV: All right, let’s do it.
ZK: All right. So news, news, news you can use, what have we got this week?
EV: I don’t know if this is news you can use, but it’s just an absolutely wild story and I felt that we needed to talk about it. It’s from The Washington Post, and it’s about a topic that we have both discussed at length and completely not discussed at all, that being vaccinations and the Taliban, but you weren’t expecting that combo.
ZK: We have discussed each separately. We might have discussed them sequentially. I doubt we have discussed them collectively.
EV: So this is one of those stories like the one I told about Egypt and hepatitis C. And this one also involves hepatitis, by the way. It’s kind of really bad until it starts to turn good. But we’re on the cusp of turning good right now, which is why we are highlighting it. People might not be aware that there are only two countries left in the world that have polio, that have endemic polio, and those two countries are Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Audio Clip: This is one of the busiest border crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And that’s why it is also a key battleground in the fight against polio. Medical staff try to vaccinate as many children as they can under the age of five, two drops of the vaccine, a mark on the finger, and they’re on their way in less than a minute.
Audio Clip: I know about polio. I know that the vaccine prevents paralysis in children. We have seen what health benefits it can bring to children on TV adverts.
EV: For the last, let’s say 20 years or so, the Taliban has been very anti-vax and they have been stopping the WHO efforts to vaccinate particularly kids in Afghanistan against polio. So you might think to yourself, well, maybe the Taliban has an ideological reason to be against these vaccines, and you would be wrong. The reason why the Taliban had been preventing these vaccines from happening, and in fact even attacking the vaccinators, is because the CIA was running a fake hepatitis vaccination program next door in Pakistan. Around the time they were trying to find Osama bin Laden, they were trying to collect a DNA sample that was close to his or matches his, something like that. So because of that, the Taliban was like, listen, we can’t trust these vaccination campaigns, or so they say, but now, they have done an about-face, and this is what The Washington Post article is about.
The Taliban says that it is a priority for us—now, that’s what their spokesman told The Washington Post—to get these vaccinations throughout the country. And like I said before, they confirmed they did not have an ideological problem with it, which is helpful for people that may worry that the vaccines are anti-Islamic. If the Taliban says it’s okay, you could probably assume that it is fine ’cause it doesn’t get much more conservative than the Taliban. I’m kind of hoping that they stick to their word on this, they let the vaccinators do their thing. They actually say the Taliban is now overseeing the vaccinations in a positive way, and I’m hoping that maybe we can finally wipe out endemic polio with Afghanistan and then maybe eventually Pakistan as well.
ZK: Yeah, that is a wild story, and one example amongst many of CIA and covert operations having, let’s say, unintended consequences, blowback, on things that are otherwise healthy and good. So it’s hard usually to be sympathetic to the Taliban’s position on most things, [laughs] although in this particular case, I suppose there was a degree of legitimate wariness on the part of the Taliban’s leadership that these vaccines weren’t in fact vaccines at all, but were simply a way for some kind of intelligence gathering and infiltration. And in this particular case, they would have been correct. Again, this is not meant, to anyone listening, as a full-throated endorsement of Taliban leadership in Kabul and Afghanistan, but it is an indication that once you’re in a position of having to actually be responsible for people and their lives, it leads to a different set of calculations. So here’s to no CIA vaccination programs and more polio eradication.
EV: Pakistan does not seem to be on board this, by the way, the Pakistani Taliban is not on board, but the Afghani Taliban is. So we’re gonna take that part.
ZK: First steps.
EV: [laughs] So moving on from Afghanistan, we are gonna go to Greece. I very rarely have good news stories about Greece, but we have one this time. A lot of people might not be aware that the Greek diaspora until very recently, meaning 2021, could not vote unless they flew back into the country. If you moved out of Greece, and Greece has pretty bad brain drain, you have not been voting in Greek elections. By the way, they were the only country in Europe and perhaps the entire western world with a law like that. They did change that in 2021, but the restrictions were so burdensome that it didn’t really make a whole lot of real difference. But Prime Minister Mitsotakis has now announced new voting reforms, and these haven’t been put through yet, but they said that they will be in place before elections next year.
And that is that they have opened mail-in voting for both Greeks inside and outside the country, which is really big. But even for people inside the country that are seasonal workers, let’s say you’re out working on the islands and you’re registered to vote in Athens or Thessaloniki, which is in northern Greece, you can’t vote right now. if you’re elderly or disabled, you can’t vote right now because they need you to vote in person. So they are finally changing that, and that should be in effect, like I said sometime in 2024.
ZK: It’s gonna be interesting to see how just the world of increasing digitization also changes voting. The United States is, I suppose, oddly behind on this, when it comes to utilizing technology to ease voting. Mail-in voting is probably not a technology, meaning that you could have done that 60 years ago if there was a way or a law that allowed you to do it. But I think the next wave of all this, obviously, is gonna be, will you allow for more digital voting? Will you allow for more remote voting? And yes, there are huge concerns about people hacking into systems, identity authentication, all the legit questions that arise if you were to allow for that. I hadn’t realized that Greece was still in the, unless you can show up to an actual physical place and vote, you can’t vote. Because I think many countries obviously have created some elasticity for either expats or, as we know, mail-in voting in the United States, which remains hugely controversial.
It’s probably gonna be a big issue in 2024, particularly in that it’s like, how do states tabulate these votes? They’re not allowed to tabulate them until they’re all in on election day. Some states can’t, some states can. So that’s obviously gonna be an issue for Greece too. But I think we probably are in the camp of—we, meaning, I don’t wanna speak for you, but I’m gonna assume what you think, Emma, that more voting is better than less voting, easier voting’s better than hard voting, and greater participation’s better for democracy than less participation.
EV: Yeah, and I’ll just say too as a extra fun fact, because people are used to the mail-in voting conversation being split, right, left in the US. Mitsotakis is center-right, so this is coming from actually the right side in Greece, these changes.
So University of Oxford just put out an update on the status of the saiga antelope, probably not something that people have heard about before, but they’re very cool.
ZK: Of course they did. Yes, of course.
EV: Yes. All right. [laughs] It’s just me then. No, yeah, I have no idea. But it’s a cool animal. It’s an antelope. So imagine an antelope body, but their heads kind of look like a camel. It’s a funny look. And what’s neat about them is that they have been around since the Ice Age. So they were rolling around with woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers at some point. So they’d be old. They have been moved, the red list status has been moved from critically endangered to near threatened. Right now, the populations of the saiga antelope are in Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan. This recovery has primarily been in Kazakhstan. So in 2005, there were only 39,000 saiga antelope. Today’s estimated population is nearly 2 million. So that’s from a lot of conservation efforts from Kazakhstan, NGOs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Most of that was from poaching, illegal trade, poaching for the horns and the meat. Also disease, climate change, infrastructure development, that plays a role as well.
Audio Clip: Protected areas defend the saiga from a range of threats such as poaching and livestock diseases. In these areas, the saiga find what they need to thrive.
Audio Clip: It was a great achievement of Kazakhstan when the number of saiga antelope was enormously increased there.
EV: But just goes to show, and we’ve talked about this in the newsletter before, the interesting thing about conservation efforts is when the effort is actually made, they do tend to work. So still lots more to be done, particularly in Mongolia, Russia, and Uzbekistan, where the populations are much smaller. But Kazakhstan has seen the return of the Ice Age.
ZK: You know, having looked that up when you were speaking, an image of the saiga antelope, it does look awfully like a cross between a camel and an antelope body with a bunch of horns, strange looking beast. But this whole story, not just the saiga antelope, but the story of respeciation or whatever word one wants to use for this, where there have been actually major strides in preserving, saving, and restoring what had been endangered species. So as a global effort around endangered species, there’s actually been substantial movement and progress in a positive direction. It is certainly true that there are plenty of insect species and others that become extinct ’cause we probably didn’t even fully know they existed given the plethora of insect species. But a lot of mammals, at least, we’ve done a pretty good job of identifying where they are endangered and making sure that they are preserved.
EV: Yep. Scientists do get mad about this, by the way. They don’t like it when we focus on the cool-looking mammals to save and not the less mythologically looking creatures.
ZK: There clearly are image issues in the animal kingdom as well, so, sorry scientists, but human beings respond to visual cues.
EV: They do. And one last thing before we go, a few episodes back, I had brought on some figures about stay-at- home dads in the UK. Zachary, you were less than impressed by this change in numbers. And I would just like to report that we have US numbers now. Pew Research Center just did a study on this. Do you wanna guess how many parents are stay-at-home Dads?
EV: Yeah. One in?
ZK: One in, one in—
EV: One in five.
ZK: That’s a lot.
EV: Yeah. If people go and look at that data, if they look at the breakdown, that is not all from positive conditions. Some of that is dads in poverty, dads with disabilities. Okay. That part is not positive, but some of it is. And we’ve had this discussion before, so we don’t need to reiterate it, but I just thought I would add in those US numbers.
ZK: So thank you all for listening. We will have a Christmas, New Year’s holiday break, which is all for the best, although you and friends and family should feel free to listen to back episodes of What Could Go Right? to spread the holiday cheer. If everybody is in the doldrums about all that is going wrong, there is things that have been happening over the past two years that we have highlighted, highlit, highlightened, and that full archive is available. So if you wanna scroll back through What Could Go Right? to spread some feeling of like, huh, maybe next year will in fact be better than we fear, maybe even as good as we hope, probably somewhere in between. So on those various notes, we wanna wish you all a constructive, peaceful, restful, restorative, contemplative, communicative, collective, community-oriented end of 2023. And we will revisit all of this in 2024. Thank you, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. Happy holidays to everyone. Happy New Year. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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