Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Human culture in a nutshell

I published this article some time ago on my pal slittyeye´s blog  I’m quite proud of it so I’ll cross post it over here. 


There’s this question I’ve wondered about forever. We are all told humans are individuals who think independently and are totally creative and unique.

But I grew up and read, travelled, went to museums. And I thought: if all humans are individuals with individual souls and fully capable or whatever,

Why are cultures so uniform? And why do they vary so much? Why do Egyptians cut clitorises? Why do Chinese worship money? Why do Indians worship bullcrap? Why do Moroccans drink mint-tea? Etc.

The answer to cultural diversity between cultures, uniformity inside them; and to the world’s utter dysfunction in the postmodern age is,

Most people are stupid. As individuals, most people are pretty dumb. I won’t show the Bell curves here. But it’s pretty well known. Or it should.

Well dumb people can’t do anything by themselves. They have to be taught. Repeatedly. Drilled mercilessly on their brains until they reach basic competence.

And that’s what most cultures do: the same fucking thing over and over again for generations. Attach some mystical value to the whole thing (some God fucked a sheep and its son invented the technique), some ancestor worship (they came up with doing that on the first place), and over time you have a people who have become very proficient in, say, falcon hunting, horse-archery, cow worship, temple building, oil painting, whatever.

Of course this works at all levels: nation-level, tribe-level, caste-level,  art school level. It’s the only way to really acquire proficiency at anything, to practice forever under people who have practiced forever. Indians took it too far and even force you to marry only other people who have practice the same thing forever. The average human can only do something with an acceptable level of proficiency if he does that and ONLY that for, well, ever. Over time come marginal changes, little evolutionary changes which cause what we call cultural change, i.e. that which we write on history books, or how we arrange museum expositions. Of course cultures have different degrees of change, some are quite fast (post Black-death Europe) some are pretty much static (Eskimos). Different variables influence that rate of change. I remember seeing in the Louvre museum those cylinder seals the ancient Middle-easterners used to decorate their clay tablets. They used those for over 3000 years!  A damn cylinder carved as to print a relief in clay when you turn it forward. I’ m sure it was pretty neat when one Mesopotamian relief artist got fed up with carving every single clay tablet once by one, and invented the thing back in 3500BC. I bet all other artisans were blown away. But when Alexander’s armies 3000 years later went through the area the local artisans were still busy carving their cylinders. Now that’s what I call tradition.

rollin' for 3k years

My hunch is that IQ is the defining factor in the rate of cultural change. Some people just can’t really come up with new stuff. Say Papuans, who have been probably decorating their penis sheaths forever.

Meanwhile Europe was always busy destroying everything the previous generation had left over.

Yet again East Asians are pretty smart, yet aren’t as unfilial as Europeans. The thing is cultural change is not an unmitigated good: it destroys the proficiency-by-drilling thing, i.e. if you stop drilling you stop making good stuff. Japanese artisanship is a good example of what boring practice is capable of. Of course Europeans invented machines so there’s little need for practice-based artisanship, but that has caused widespread misery for those who need to be drilled to make anything useful, not to mention awkwardness for the older generations who can’t keep up with the new stuff.

Well that awkwardness is what Asians will NOT stand. Old people are in charge there, and young people accept the need to wait to be in charge. And when they are in charge they will make sure that the cycle is not broken and they get the respect they waited for so damn long. Cultural change in a sense is a form of disrespect over what was left over by forebears, and breaks the drill cycle (cultural transmission). I’m sure the old man wouldn’t be happy if its son decides to make fishing nets in a different way. Or stop making nets altogether. If you allow kids to stop making nets you may end up without the knowledge to make them and force the whole hamlet to starvation.

Breaking the drill cycle brings good and bad things. Good is it creates progress! You stop teaching something, people stop being able to do it. So you need to come up with something else. Better. Voila, steam machine. Voila, airplanes. Voila, penicilin. Voila, smartphones. It’s pretty cool and we all owe a lot to it.

The bad thing is that it causes the vast majority of the people (those unable to come up with things, those who NEED the drilling to be able to do anything) to become miserable inefficient workbots. The solution is more effective drilling (what we used to call ‘education’) to make them proficient at whatever productive industry there is at the moment. It worked while 1. The rate of change was pretty much generational, i.e. you could expect to use the skills learned in school when you become an adult; 2. Schools drilled kids with merciless efficiency and brutality. So kids actually learned 1. Manners 2. A trade.

But now? We have become so enamored with ‘progress’ (cultural change) that we came up with the fantastic idea that if you stop ALL drilling at all, and just teach instead some abstract nonsense about queer history and democratic values, people will come up with new things all the time! Ain’t that awesome? So there’s some stupid idea out there that the innovation rate is not enough (tell that to Mesopotamians which decorated their houses the same way for 3000 years), so we need to come up with even more new stuff, but people just can’t keep up. Why could that be? Real Answer: people just aren’t that smart. Mainstream answer: Kids get bored at school with drilling, so we need to stop drilling and they’ll become super creative!

This has been done since around the 70s, with the predictable results of a complete breakdown of traditional manners and culture, making dumb people (= left half of the Bell Curve) totally unproductive, ultimately becoming junkie welfare addicts. Smart people still somehow come up with enough things to keep the economy going, but demographics predicts it can’t last much longer. The 3rd worlders we are importing to replace our useless new underclass are even dumber than the natives, and we aren’t educating them either, so we are just creating a doubled up junkie welfare addict plebeian mass. And don’t get me started with Jihad.

So European obsession with change (‘progress’)  made it deny the most basic human way of cultural transmission, that is: focused drilling. Asians are still pretty much for it (too much, as they drill also their smart kids, which become boring workbots), so they’ll probably keep some level of civilization while Europe strives to get its shit together. If it ever does.


20 responses to “Human culture in a nutshell

  1. Pingback: On Drilling | Bloody shovel

  2. zhai2nan2 January 22, 2012 at 03:53

    Asians seem to recognize that they must adapt the best Western methods and techniques. However, they seem pretty confident that their cultures will survive.

    The bizarre thing about Asia is that they seem to be smart, but they seem to make bad decisions because they don’t criticize their premises enough.

    • spandrell January 22, 2012 at 13:15

      The people at the top have no incentive to change the system. Young people will lose the incentive by the time they get to the top, so nothing ever changes.

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  5. Alrenous March 10, 2014 at 19:19

    I think you overestimate how much drilling is needed compared to an effect of the environment that happens to cause drilling. Namely, competence and expertise is made up of a thousands of little contingent facts.

    I notice this in house building. There’s how to build a house, and there’s how to build it right. To build it right, you have to attempt to make a house over and over and fix all the little issues. There’s no way to logic out these issues in advance. For example, eavestroughs apparently keep water away from the foundation? But they can also damage the house directly, so that needs solving.

    However, once done, the drilling per se is unnecessary. It’s just that you(pl) have to keep building the same house, you have to teach an apprentice to build it too, or all these details will be forgotten or become obsolete.

    Not that I disagree that a 100 IQ needs a few repetitions to learn a thing. But public school drilling is Prussian drilling is military drilling, and mainly about obedience and breaking the spirit, not education. Also so it is reflexive during battle…such drilling is a waste at best for civilians.

    • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 04:55

      With drilling I just mean doing the same thing over and over again, not necessarily in the context of Prussian style formal education.

      Ever saw the Sushi Jiro documentary? He has the apprentices making omelettes for 5 years before he even lets them grab a knife and start cutting fish. That’s drilling.

      • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 06:59

        That is indeed drilling. But does it in fact create better omelettes? I would have thought it would max out a couple months in at most. Especially if they have to make ‘the’ omelette and aren’t allowed to experiment. It would max out in weeks if Jiro told them the common pitfalls, so they don’t have to figure it out themselves. Drilling for five years seems to be about status, obedience, and buy in, not technical skill. You ask for that to weed out status addicts who just want to schmooze with fame.

        The transgenerational thing is important, but for tinkering and remembering the results, not drilling.

        I was worried you would bring up reading, which self-reinforces. But then those who don’t enjoy reading in the first place aren’t likely to start once they’re forced to read enough to get competent.

        • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 07:33

          Well there’s the whole Zen and the Art of Archery thing of killing self-awareness through drilling so that a skill becomes subconscious, i.e. automatic and thus flawless, or at least less prone to failure. I guess it takes more than 2 months to achieve that, although perhaps not 5 years. That’s as you say more of signaling the willingness to take shit.

          Reading also self-inforces but up to a point. 20 years of daily reading doesn’t make you faster than 10 years. All skills plateau at a certain level, depending on your abilities/motivation.

          But anyway I’m losing what are we disagreeing about. I don’t think the amount of drilling is important per se; just that some degree of drilling is necessary to learn any skill, and probably the lower the IQ the longer the required drilling.

          • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 07:55

            Disagreeing about this:

            The solution is more effective drilling (what we used to call ‘education’) … Schools drilled kids with merciless efficiency and brutality. So kids actually learned 1. Manners 2. A trade.

            Educating someone to make an omelette or waffle should be what, a few days at most? Having zen mastery of an omelette is hardly necessary, and will come automatically if your job actually means making omelettes.

            On the other hand, a full trade is thousands of these things. All domain specific: how to not screw up an omelette is not a transferable fact. But that basically means: screw education, what idiot scrapped the apprenticeship system?

            Endless drilling does teach all the ways to screw up a thing, but once known it’s usually faster to teach those directly and allow actually cooking the omelette for customers to double as drilling.

            • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 08:01

              The market killed the apprenticeship system, as parents don’t want their kids to become apprentices, and thus signal they are unfit for higher cognitive work. And so everybody gets sent to college, to signal how smart they are and how much their parents care about “education”.

              Educating someone to make a Jiro-class omellette takes years. And that’s important for Jiro because he has his reputation on the line. An OK omellette won’t do. And the kids want that reputation for themselves, even if it takes 10 years of making omellettes 24/7.

              Everybody who comes to Japan is amazed at how civil and polite the people are. You think that’s the work of days or months? No, it’s years and years of merciless drilling at home, at school, at the sports club, at the part-time convenience store job you get. You need to kill self-awareness to make people actually focus on the task at hand instead of constantly think of building a narrative where they have high status.

              BTW check your blog too, or we might continue this through email if the discussion gets too long-winded.

              • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 08:14

                Even a Jiro-class omelette is just a particularly complicated recipe, unless it relies on particular motor skills. Can’t teach motor skills verbally, of course. It should be possible to make a Jiro-omelette machine. It’s not cost effective…but it’s possible.

                I also disagree that Japanese politeness is from drilling. Yes it takes that long, but they’ll pick it up automatically – mimicry of their elders is just what kids do. (Elders or other successful status whores.) Unlike the omelettes, punishment is also automatic.

                • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 08:20

                  No, take my word on it. Kids not drilled on it never learn it properly. And you can tell those miles away. Companies have special bootcamps to drill them military style on proper manners, and even after it you can always tell who was drilled early and who had to take remedial classes.

              • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 08:21

                Can I get an example of the etiquette?

                • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 08:25

                  Having the proper smile, being attentive to your superiors, mastering the proper greetings for everyone, how to utter them without fail and in the proper volumr and tone, bowing and how low to whom.

                  Japanese has a whole separate system of inflection to express reverence, called Keigo. Every verb has to be conjugated differently, there’s lots of special vocabulary and you’re supposed to use it with a higher pitch of voice.

                  It’s hard.

              • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 08:30

                Ah. Motor skills.

                Well, I must concede.

                I want to move the goalposts, though; seems like that etiquette is overboard. You can overload the mimicry system’s information gathering rate by drilling, but I doubt it’s worthwhile.

                On the other hand, you reminded me about prodigies. What is a prodigy? it’s someone who started learning omelettes at age five. They will be absolute demons in the kitchen, similar to crib bilinguals being just better at the talkings.
                But that requires knowing what job you’ll take twenty years in advance, and is a pretty painful sunk cost to eat if you get it wrong.

                Put together: adult drilling is probably a waste of time, and it’s real tough to drill the kids on the worthwhile things.

                • spandrell March 11, 2014 at 08:37

                  Overboard is putting it mildly. But given that next door you have China where they don’t drill their people to be polite, well you learn to appreciate the overboard drilling.

                  Adult drilling is not a waste of time, given the alternative. Yes most won’t be prodigies but they usually learn to be very skilled. Precision manufacturing in Japan is still often done manually, and they don’t start making steel parts at 5. Same with carpenters or Sushi chefs.

                  The opportunity cost of a 100 IQ becoming a skilled worker is close to nil. It’s either drilling them into Zen mastery of some menial task or doing nothing worthwhile at all, ever.

                  I’d rather have my house built by a 100 IQ carpenter drilled on house building than having a 150 IQ modern architect make yet another brutalist house.

              • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 08:45

                Precision manufacturing == motor skills. They should start sushi chefs at age 5. Carpenters probably need to be a little older, most five year olds won’t have enough coordination yet.

                The sunk cost in the modern world is that you don’t know what the demand for the menial task will be in twenty years. It might suck due to oversupply; it might go the way of the buggy whip. Though come to think I’ve already solved this: everyone gets two trades. (Neither of which are piano.) Plus you can sell a ten-year-old’s carpentry. Not for very much, sure, but it’s a worlds different experience for the child than piano.

                Sure overboard manners are good, but the overlooked opportunity is probably better. E.g. drilling in carpentry instead.

                It’s disingenuous to say ‘the market’ killed apprenticeships when you mean colleges, and colleges & attendance were expanded something like tenfold with government money.

  6. spandrell March 11, 2014 at 09:07

    Funny how the government is always inefficient, but their promotion of college was an instant hit. Of course it was, in a democratic society without caste or guild, nobody wants to settle in the second class. Apprenticeship only survive in Germany or Japan because they run on families, and the family business supports the tradition. Otherwise everybody goes to college to study communication or whatever is hip.

    I don’t now about 5 year olds. Surely there’s such a thing as aptitude and interest. A 5 year old drilled in omellettes might become reasonably proficient but he all the same may turn out not to have any talent or interest in cooking. So waiting until the teenage years or whatever timeframe people become aware of their interests or aptitudes seems reasonable. I’m sure there are studies made about that.

    And the drilling for manners isn’t negotiable; it’s part of the tribe’s identity. Which is important. Remember people use to wear the same exact hairdo and clothing all across the country. They’d rather give up (and often do) on any other productive form of drilling, rather than stop imposing a different language when you talk to your superiors or clients. Same with piano or whatever the higher class drills their kid with. Signaling is important, the more important the less you can get away without productive skills given your wealth or cognitive ability to make wealth without specific drilling.

    • Alrenous March 11, 2014 at 09:32

      Government is inefficient. The private sector could have expanded universities just as much for a third of the cost or less. Similarly, expanding colleges is itself an inefficient thing to do, which is why nobody but the government wanted to. But it can certainly be effective, just not at anything except self-aggrandizement.

      Interest is the other sunk-cost driver. You train up a carpenter and they just say ‘screw it’ and go study under Jiro. What a waste. But, if it is possible, training really early is the best way.

      Paragraph 3: fair point. Uniformity is a value. And it can be hard to argue with as a value.
      Piano is special for being bad, though. Nobody who takes these things plays for each other.

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