Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

July 25, 2012

Rousseau vs. Descartes & incest

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Evolutionary Psychology,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 12:57 am

Greta Scacchi, cousin-lover

There has been some discussion in the comments why the posts on inbreeding are getting so much attention. I think this is a milder form of the same sort of curiosity about why young males have a fascination with pornography: we are obsessed with sex. This is not an arbitrary fascination, nor is it a loss of innocence which may have been avoided. Sex is our raison d’etre as sexual organisms. Evolutionary psychology gets a bad reputation for positing adaptive explanations for everything under the sun, from dancing to migraines. But, if there is anything which is the target of adaptive constraint and selective pressures, it is the suite of traits which relate to sex and mating in a direction fashion. It is sometimes stated that sex is about power, but the bigger reality is that power is about sex.

But reducing human behavior purely to one explanatory framework is too reductive even for me. An individualist framework where singular males and females operate as evolutionary versions of rational H. economicus, always optimizing fitness through subterfuge and inducement, leaves something to be desired in characterizing the true rich ...

September 25, 2011

Like modestly attracts like

Filed under: I.Q.,marriage,Psychology,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 11:04 pm

I saw this link posted on twitter, IQ and Human Intelligence:

An interesting finding from genetic research, which Mackintosh mentions, only in passing, as posing a problem in the estimation of the heritability of g, is that there is greater assortative mating for g than for any other behavioral trait; that is, spouse correlations are only ∼.1 for personality and only ∼.2 for height or weight, but the correlation for assortative mating for g is ∼.4. In addition to indicating that people are able to make judgments about g in real life, this finding suggests that assortative mating may contribute to the substantial additive genetic variance for g, because positive assortative mating for a character can increase its additive genetic variance.

I’ve seen these sort of results before. The review is from 1999. In general I always wonder if quantitative values for personality are not to be trusted because of issues with the measurement of personality types. But this is clearly not an issue with height or weight. And in the case of height the overwhelming causal explanation for variation in the West is genetic variation. Overall I’m rather surprised by the rather low correlations for some of these traits, such as height and intelligence. I wonder if beauty, perhaps measured by an index of facial symmetry, might exhibit higher correlation values?

May 10, 2011

Nature vs. nurture, again, and again, and again….

Filed under: Evolution,Sociobiology,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 11:58 pm

In The New York Review of Books Richard Lewontin has a long review up of Evelyn Fox Keller‘s last work, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Here’s the blurb from Duke University Press:

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is ...

February 2, 2011

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century

Link to review: The wheel of history turns to the gods.

November 15, 2010

Privacy as a bourgeois privilege

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Facebook,History,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 1:40 am

Ruchira Paul has her own reaction to Zadie Smith’s pretentious review of The Social Network. One of the aspects of Smith’s review which Ruchira focuses upon is her concern about the extinction of the “private person.” I have mooted this issue before, but I think it might be worthwhile to resurrect an old hobby-horse of mine: is privacy as we understand it in the “modern age” simply a function of the transient gap between information technology and mass society? In other words, for most of human history we lived in small bands or in modest villages. These were worlds where everyone was in everyone else’s business. There was very little privacy because the information technology was well suited to the scale of such societies. That “technology” being our own innate psychology and verbal capacities. With the rise of stratified cultures elites could withdraw into their own castles, manses and courtyards, veiled away from the unwashed masses. A shift toward urbanization, and greater anonymity made possible by the rise of the mega-city within the last few centuries, has allowed the common citizen to also become more of a stranger to their neighbors. It is far easier to shed “baggage” by simply moving to a place where everyone doesn’t know your name.

Or it was. Today neighbors can dig through the information trail you’ve left in the great data cloud. You can’t lie about your age if you give people your real name, it’s easy to find it on various services. You can’t lie about where you are  from, the same services usually track that too. Classmates.com can allow someone to confirm whether you actually graduated from the secondary school you claim to have graduated from. If you have left your Facebook friends list open then they can quickly see what sort of people you associate with. It takes 10 seconds to find out how much your house is worth on Zillow, what taxes you’ve paid on it, how much you’ve purchased it for, and, if you have a lien against you. If you dressed up like a ladybug for Halloween then everyone may know.

The power of the new technologies was brought home to me last weekend. Amos Zeeberg, Discover Magazine’s web editor, mentioned my comment moderation style on a panel at a conference in New York City. Someone in the audience tweeted what Amos had said about me, and I saw the tweet since she added @razibkhan to her message. Five years ago I may have heard about this, but only later on from one of the other people in the audience, or another panelist. But there would have been a fair amount of latency. Now the information got to me in ~15 minutes. Not only did I see the tweet, but so did everyone else who was a follower of that individual.

The world is turning into a village. But only from your own perspective; in the aggregate there are millions of distinctive villages.

October 15, 2010

The rise and crash of civilizations

Filed under: Anthroplogy,History,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 12:11 am

480px-Montagem_BrasíliaOne of the questions of interest in the study of the evolution of culture is whether there is a direction in history in terms of complexity. As I have noted before in the pre-modern era many felt that the direction of history was of decline. That is, the ancients were wise and subtle beyond compare and comprehension. In contrast, in our era of rapid and boisterous technological innovation and economic growth we tend toward a “Whiggish” model, where the future is gleaming with potential and possibility. But we live in a peculiar time. The reality is that for most of history for most people there was very little change from generation to generation. Malthus reigned supreme. Values were timeless, and quality of life was unchanging.

There were exceptions. Theodore of Tarsus was born in the year 602, in Cilicia in southern Turkey, a subject of the Byzantine Emperor Phocas. It is Phocas to whom we can offer thanks for the preservation of the Pantheon of Rome down to the modern age (he sponsored its transformation into a Christian church). In his youth Theodore became a subject of the Sassanid Persians, who ruled Cilicia for a time before it was brought back under Byzantine rule thanks to the efforts of Heraclius. Eventually in adulthood he fled the armies of the Muslim Arabs, who conquered Cilicia, and relocated to Constantinople and then Rome. After Rome Theodore eventually settled in to a position as Archbishop of Canterbury, amongst the newly converted English. Theodore of Tarsus lived life at a “hinge of history,” when much changed in understanding of how the world was ordered (though to be honest there is a great deal of evidence that many Christians viewed Islam and the Arabs as but a momentary interruption until the 8th century). But he was very much an exception. In his longevity, his position as a literate man of power, and the radical shifts in the elite culture of his time. In the year of Theodore’s birth the English were a pagan people, and the Near East was staunchly Christian. At his death the English were a stoutly Christian people, and the Near East was crystallizing into what we now term the Islamic World.

ResearchBlogging.orgTheodore gives us a specific personalized window into the coarse general dynamics through which history flows. History is a dynamic of people, but also operates upon people. A new paper in Nature illustrates the insights we may gain from abstraction and formalization of these dynamics. It is a lens upon history which is more crisply analytic and potentially more robust in inferential power, though of course far less rich in gripping narrative. Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific:

There is disagreement about whether human political evolution has proceeded through a sequence of incremental increases in complexity, or whether larger, non-sequential increases have occurred. The extent to which societies have decreased in complexity is also unclear. These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests. We evaluated six competing models of political evolution in Austronesian-speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Here we show that in the best-fitting model political complexity rises and falls in a sequence of small steps. This is closely followed by another model in which increases are sequential but decreases can be either sequential or in bigger drops. The results indicate that large, non-sequential jumps in political complexity have not occurred during the evolutionary history of these societies. This suggests that, despite the numerous contingent pathways of human history, there are regularities in cultural evolution that can be detected using computational phylogenetic methods.

800px-Gate_to_Prambanan_complexThe guts of the paper are really in the supplements. The short of it is that the authors used a phylogenetic framework and statistical methods to smoke out which models were the best fit for how patterns of social complexity mapped onto the branches of the Austronesian language family. The Austronesians are a group whose ethnognesis is understood to a great extent, and, who have expanded across a wide variety of ecologies in the recent past. They range from Madagascar to Easter Island, two points between which the distance is shorter traversing Africa and South America, rather than the Indian and Pacific oceans. In terms of complexity you also have singular groups situated upon Polynesian atolls, all the way up to the complex civilizations of the Javanese, whose polities sometimes spanned the whole breadth of the modern Indonesian archipelago.

There are four rough types of societies being analyzed in terms of their category of complexity. You can see them in figure 3, as well as the stylized model of shifts from one level of social complexity to another:


“Acephalous” means that there’s no level of leadership above the local one. So the clan chief presumably does not report to a superior. “Simple chiefdom” means that there’s a level above the clan chief. “Complex chiefdom” has another level above again. And the state means that there’s a subsequent level, or more.

complex2As noted in the abstract they found that a step-wise incremental move up and down the levels of complexity best explained the patterns across Austronesian peoples which we see today. That is, complex ancestral societies may have devolved toward simpler organizational patterns, and simple ancestral societies may have given rise to complex ones. This is the “unilinear” pattern; what goes up does so gradually, and what goes down does so gradually. Interestingly this model shows that history can go in cycles. Empires can rise and fall. Rome and Angkor are not aberrations. But the second most supported model was a “relaxed unilinear” one, whereby societies still accrue complexity in a gradual step-wise fashion, but they may regress catastrophically. In other words, they can potentially go from being of relatively large scale to much smaller scale, atomizing and shattering.  I believe that this is probably the more interesting finding. It is not surprising that societies change in complexity in an ordered fashion, but that complex systems are fragile and can lose institutional structures in a cascade would have big theoretical implications.

Obviously this sort of study on one set of societies has limitations. What has Java to tell us of Japan? This is a survey of patterns among Austronesians, and one can’t guarantee that they’ll be generalizable. Despite the ecological variation across these societies, it is notable that they all had a strong maritime bias. Perhaps continental polities are subject to different dynamics. Additionally, there is some limitation in the level of aggregation and institutional complexity which we can see among Austronesians. Even at its height Majapahit lacked the force-projection power of Rome, Imperial China, or even the Arab Caliphates. As a hypothesis I will hazard to guess that using a broader sample the relaxed unilinear model would be supported even more. Imperial Rome and Han China squeezed their populations much more than Majapahit on the economic margin to support enormous central cultural complexes. Once the interlocking systems of deference and rent-seeking snapped the regression could be extreme.

We can see the utility of this sort of model after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some regions, such as Anatolia, Italy, Spain and southern Gaul, regressed only so much (at most down to the level of complex chiefdoms, but usually down to a looser state-level political structure). On the other hand, Britain and much of the interior of the Balkans seem to have regressed much further and lost all touch with the institutional power of Roman civilization. Anglo-Saxon England had dozens of “kings” when it reemerged into the light of history in the late 6th century. These were basically complex chiefdoms, likely successors to simple chiefdoms, not states. This implies that much of Britain had gone from being part of an empire, a higher order of organization and complexity than a typical state, to a region characterized by tribalism. Something similar happened in the Balkans with the removal of Roman troops with the invasion of the Avars in the late 6th century. Once the region comes back into the historical record most of the Latin-speaking populations are gone, replaced by Slavic tribes under the hegemony of Ugric and Turkic elites (and possibly Iranian, there is some supposition that the Croats and Serbs may originally have been Iranian tribes which were later subsumed by their Slavic vassals, just as the Bulgars later were). Multiple levels of structure had been swept away, and institutions such as organized Christian religion had to be reintroduced later.

Luckily for Dark Age Europe reservoirs of civilization persisted from which institutions could begin the recolonization process. Isolated societies such as the Maya or Angkor seem to have dissolved more fully. A civilization which lasts clearly needs a commonwealth of states.

Citation: Currie, Thomas E., Greenhill, Simon J., Gray, Russell D., Hasegawa, Toshikazu, & Mace, Ruth (2010). Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific Nature : 10.1038/nature09461

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

October 13, 2010

Facebook & Dunbar’s number

Filed under: Culture,Facebook,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 1:32 am

About 20 years ago the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed his eponymous number:

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It lies between 100 and 230, but a commonly used value is 150

Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again

This preliminary research served as one of the major points of discussion in Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. At least the descriptive model of the rough value of the number seems to have embedded itself into the Zeitgeist. To capitalize on his ideas in the web 2.0 world Robin Dunbar has come out with a new book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. I recently heard him discuss on the radio the phenomenon of people with thousands of Facebook “friends.” Of course these aren’t really friends. People use Facebook for different reasons. Many people use Facebook like a business card, or a way to communicate with their fans or followers. In other words, more like twitter. The majority probably use Facebook the way it was intended, to mimic your real life social graph, and perhaps expand it on the margins.

After a few discussions with people who use Facebook and have given some serious thought to how these social technologies can extend our abilities, three assertions were made which I found intriguing. Below I have reformulated and elaborated upon them (that is, I added my own spin):

1) The number fixates upon a modal/median number of relationships. There is a “long tail” of individuals who have many more meaningful relationships, and this is important to overall network structure.

2) Technology can potentially double Dunbar’s number. In other words, instead of having ~150 meaningful reciprocal relationships you can now have ~300. Presumably because social technology extends our capabilities and introduces efficiencies by removing some of the “dead weight” overhang.

3) Dunbar’s number applies to coherent and self-contained groups. A pre-modern tribe or a Hutterite colony. It is not appropriate for the more multivalent and fluid relationships common in the contemporary word. For example, the same individual may be members of dozens of urban “tribes” with 10-30 members (though the coherency of the tribe may be highly subjective).

What are your thoughts? I ordered them in order of my own personal assessment of the plausibility of the assertion, but inverse order of the importance if the assertion is born out. I think #3 is a revolutionary possibility, a qualitative change of kind. In contrast, #2 is more evolutionary, a quantitative change of degree. #1 is correct to some extent, though the idea of “connectors” with which serve as nexus points within a network has been mooted elsewhere.

July 3, 2010

This time it’s different

Filed under: Economics,Finance,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 1:11 pm

I’ve been hearing about structural adjustment due to technology and gains to productivity from people since the early 1990s. The sort of dynamic which motivated the original Luddites. But this chart from Calculated Risk makes me lean toward the proposition that the time is nigh. In relation to previous post-World War II recessions the big difference in unemployment seems to be in the area of the long term; these are those whose skills will degrade, and are probably least likely to reenter the labor force at an equivalent position.


January 5, 2010

We are a social animal

Filed under: Culture,Psychology,Sociology — David Hume @ 11:52 am

Occasionally we get emails like this:

Up until now I thought I was the rarest of all ducks. A conservative atheist. I read Heather MacDonald’s piece in the Wall Street Journal today and was pleased to find I am not alone. I would love to know more about the organization.

Yours truly,

[name omitted]

One of the reasons that I participate in Secular Right is to simply explicitly demonstrate that Leftism or even libertarianism is not a necessary consequence of irreligiosity. Many people’s views emerge out of socialization and their peer groups, not through a consistent set of inferences from axioms.

When Secular Right first started some emails from individuals active in atheist organizations trickled in, the main question being how to make these organizations more politically inclusive. My main advice was simply not to assume that those who lack religion are uniform in their political views. As a matter of practicality most of the irreligious in Western nations have Leftish politics, and so self-consciously secular organizations or movements will reflect that. That is realistic. A secular conservative is conditioned to being in a minority. There’s no need for special treatment, simply an acknowledgement of existence and validity of the viewpoint. On the one hand we have to deal with religious conservatives who assert that by definition conservatism is connected with religion, while on the other hand there are secular liberals who simply can not understand how those without god might adhere to a conservative position. One might refute our existence through logic, but the empirical realities of the world tend to produce people who lay outside of the clean systems produced by theoreticians. That fact is one of the primary reasons that I am on the Right and not the Left, though I will admit to being troubled by a trend toward a lack of realism in politics in general of late.


December 14, 2009

Who argues the most from authority?

Filed under: academia,Sociology — agnostic @ 1:00 pm

Google results for +”nobel laureate” +X, where X is one of the following:

Chemistry: 317,000
Physics: 415,000
Medicine: 467,000
Economics: 484,000

Of course, there are more winners to refer to in Physics than in Economics, so we should control for that. Dividing the number of Google results by the number of winners gives these per capita rates:

Chemistry: 2032
Physics: 2231
Medicine: 2395
Economics: 7446

If the intellectual merit of a body of ideas is not so well established, you’re more likely to deflect attention by reassuring everyone that, hey, it can’t be that crazy — after all, the guy is a Nobel laureate. Perhaps that’s why physics ranks above chemistry here, what with string theory etc. taking it further into speculation compared to more grounded chemistry.

November 17, 2009

Band of Brothers

Filed under: Sociology — Razib @ 3:20 pm

At Cognitive Daily, Men often treat their friends better than women do:

The researchers say these three studies show that men are more tolerant of their friends’ failings than women. Does this mean that men are more “sociable”? That’s less certain. After all, it could be that women value the friendships more, and so are harsher judges when they perceive a betrayal. Regardless of your interpretation of these results, however, it seems that the stereotype of “men harsh, women friendly” is not always valid. In many cases, it can be said that women are less tolerant than men.

The research focused on college roommates. The only area where males were harsher than females in evaluating their roommates was in hygiene. In any case, there’s other research which I’ve drawn upon to suggest that males are much better are scaling up in terms of social units capable of “collective action” than females.

November 16, 2009

A simple framework for thinking about cultural generations

Filed under: Culture,History,Psychology,Sociology — agnostic @ 12:44 am

In this discussion about pop music at Steve Sailer’s, the topic of generations came up, and it’s one where few of the people who talk about it have a good grasp of how things work. For example, the Wikipedia entry on generation notes that cultural generations only showed up with industrialization and modernization — true — but doesn’t offer a good explanation for why. Also, they don’t distinguish between loudmouth generations and silent generations, which alternate over time. As long as a cohort “shares a culture,” they’re considered a generation, but that misses most of the dynamics of generation-generation. My view of it is pretty straightforward.

First, we have to notice that some cohorts are full-fledged Generations with ID badges like Baby Boomer or Gen X, and some cohorts are not as cohesive and stay more out of the spotlight. Actually, one of these invisible cohorts did get an ID badge — the Silent Generation — so I’ll refer to them as loudmouth generations (e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen X, and before long the Millennials) and silent generations (e.g., the small cohort cramped between Boomers and X-ers).

Then we ask why do the loudmouth generations band together so tightly, and why do they show such strong affiliation with the generation that they continue to talk and dress the way they did as teenagers or college students even after they’ve hit 40 years old? Well, why does any group of young people band together? — because social circumstances look dire enough that the world seems to be going to hell, so you have to stick together to help each other out. It’s as if an enemy army invaded and you had to form a makeshift army of your own.

That is the point of ethnic membership badges like hairstyle, slang, clothing, musical preferences, etc. — to show that you’re sticking with the tribe in desperate times. That’s why teenagers’ clothing has logos visible from down the hall, why they spend half their free time digging into a certain music niche, and why they’re hyper-sensitive about what hairstyle they have. Adolescence is a socially desperate time, not unlike a jungle, in contrast to the more independent situation you enjoy during full adulthood. Being caught in more desperate circumstances, teenagers freak out about being part of — fitting in with — a group that can protect them; they spend the other half of their free time communicating with their friends. Independent adults have fewer friends, keep in contact with them much less frequently, and don’t wear clothes with logos or the cover art from their favorite new album.

OK, so that happens with every cohort — why does this process leave a longer-lasting impact on the loudmouth cohorts? It is the same cause, only writ large: there’s some kind of social panic, or over-turning of the status quo, that’s spreading throughout the entire culture. So they not only face the trials that every teenager does, but they’ve also got to protect themselves against this much greater source of disorder. They have to form even stronger bonds, and display their respect for their generation much longer, than cohorts who don’t face a larger breakdown of security.

Now, where this larger chaos comes from, I’m not saying. I’m just treating it as exogenous for now, as though people who lived along the waterfront would go through periods of low need for banding together (when the ocean behaved itself) and high need to band together (when a flood regularly swept over them). The generation forged in this chaos participates in it, but it got started somewhere else. The key is that this sudden disorder forces them to answer “which side are you on?” During social-cultural peacetime, there is no Us vs. Them, so cohorts who came of age in such a period won’t see generations in black-and-white, do-or-die terms. Cohorts who come of age during disorder must make a bold and public commitment to one side or the other. You can tell when such a large-scale chaos breaks out because there is always a push to reverse “stereotypical gender roles,” as well as a surge of identity politics.

The intensity with which they display their group membership badges and groupthink is perfectly rational — when there’s a great disorder and you have to stick together, the slightest falter in signaling your membership could make them think that you’re a traitor. Indeed, notice how the loudmouth generations can meaningfully use the phrase “traitor to my generation,” while silent generations wouldn’t know what you were talking about — you mean you don’t still think The Ramones is the best band ever? Well, OK, maybe you’re right. But substitute with “I’ve always thought The Beatles were over-rated,” and watch your peers with torches and pitchforks crowd around you.

By the way, why did cultural generations only show up in the mid-to-late 19th C. after industrialization? Quite simply, the ability to form organizations of all kinds was restricted before then. Only after transitioning from what North, Wallis, and Weingast (in Violence and Social Orders working paper here) call a limited access order — or a “natural state” — to an open access order, do we see people free to form whatever political, economic, religious, and cultural organizations that they want. In a natural state, forming organizations at will threatens the stability of the dominant coalition — how do they know that your bowling league isn’t simply a way for an opposition party to meet and plan? Or even if it didn’t start out that way, you could well get to talking about your interests after awhile.

Clearly young people need open access to all sorts of organizations in order to cohere into a loudmouth generation. They need regular hang-outs. Such places couldn’t be formed at will within a natural state. Moreover, a large cohort of young people banding together and demanding that society “hear the voice of a new generation” would have been summarily squashed by the dominant coalition of a natural state. It would have been seen as just another “faction” that threatened the delicate balance of power that held among the various groups within the elite. Once businessmen are free to operate places that cater to young people as hang-outs, and once people are free to form any interest group they want, then you get generations.

Finally, on a practical level, how do you lump people into the proper generational boxes? This is the good thing about theory — it guides you in practice. All we have to do is get the loudmouth generations’ borders right; in between them go the various silent or invisible generations. The catalyzing event is a generalized social disorder, so we just look at the big picture and pick a peak year plus maybe 2 years on either side. You can adjust the length of the panic, but there seems to be a 2-year lead-up stage, a peak year, and then a 2-year winding-down stage. Then ask, whose minds would have been struck by this disorder? Well, “young people,” and I go with 15 to 24, although again this isn’t precise.

Before 15, you’re still getting used to social life, so you may feel the impact a little, but it’s not intense. And after 24, you’re on the path to independence, you’re not texting your friends all day long, and you’ve stopped wearing logo clothing. The personality trait Openness to Experience rises during the teenage years, peaks in the early 20s, and declines after; so there’s that basis. Plus the likelihood to commit crime — another measure of reacting to social desperation — is highest between 15 and 24.

So, just work your way backwards by taking the oldest age (24) and subtracting it from the first year of the chaos, and then taking the youngest age (15) and subtracting it from the last year of the chaos. “Ground zero” for that generation is the chaos’ peak year minus 20 years.

As an example, the disorder of the Sixties lasted from roughly 1967 to 1972. Applying the above algorithm, we predict a loudmouth generation born between 1943 and 1957: Baby Boomers. Then there was the early ’90s panic that began in 1989 and lasted through 1993 — L.A. riots, third wave feminism, etc. We predict a loudmouth generation born between 1965 and 1978: Generation X. There was no large-scale social chaos between those two, so that leaves a silent generation born between 1958 and 1964. Again, they don’t wear name-tags, but I call them the disco-punk generation based on what they were listening to when they were coming of age.

Going farther back, what about those who came of age during the topsy-turvy times of the Roaring Twenties? The mania lasted from roughly 1923 to 1927, forming a loudmouth generation born between 1899 and 1912. This closely corresponds to what academics call the Interbellum Generation. The next big disruption was of course WWII, which in America really struck between 1941 and 1945, creating a loudmouth generation born between 1917 and 1930. This would be the young people who were part of The Greatest Generation. That leaves a silent generation born between 1913 and 1916 — don’t know if anyone can corroborate their existence or not. That also leaves The Silent Generation proper, born between 1931 and 1942.

Looking forward, it appears that these large social disruptions recur with a period of about 25 years on average. The last peak was 1991, so I predict another one will strike in 2016, although with 5 years’ error on both sides. Let’s say it arrives on schedule and has a typical 2-year build-up and 2-year winding-down. That would create a loudmouth generation born between 1990 and 2003 — that is, the Millennials. They’re already out there; they just haven’t hatched yet. And that would also leave a silent generation born between 1979 and 1989.

My sense is that Millennials are already starting to cohere, and that 1987 is more like their first year, making the silent generation born between 1979 and 1986 (full disclosure: I belong to it). So this method surely isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty useful. It highlights the importance of looking at the world with some kind of framework — otherwise we’d simply be cataloguing one damn generation after another.

Powered by WordPress