Family Besmirch Council

Feb 18 2008 @ 5:12pm

by Reihan

Razib Khan, my favorite science blogger, is a rare bird: a Bangladeshi-born neo-paleocon who is deeply knowledgeable about subjects ranging from genomics to anthropology to computer science. He also firmly believes that assortative mating and shrinking families are a good thing. But why? Well, it seems that Razib finds a lot of his relatives deadly dull. And by deadly dull I mean "mind-asphyxiating." For those of you who’ve been trapped in endless gossip with your “aunties,” this post will have special resonance.

Values, norms and ideas float on a social surface. If one’s local network is saturated with family members, family values will be preeminent. Eccentric interests are not likely to be shared across the family network unless one is totally inbred. So there is a strong selection for banal conversation topics which everyone can participate in, or signalers that everyone can appreciate. There’s a local fitness peak of mediocrity around which a family gathers in terms of topic and creative expression; everyone knows uncle-so-and-so or the terrible thing that happened to that particular cousin. Remove the close relations and the landscape is no longer so regular and coalescence around a local fitness peak no longer as inevitable. As an isolated individual, you move to a new location and float in and out of social circles based on common affinity. In other words, the non-family world is one of a shifting balance of ideas and an exploration of a more rugged topography. The sample space of possibilities is larger, the risks greater, the comfort zone less incestuous. Depending on your values, that might be a good thing….

That’s a fairly strong case for the supposed anomie of modern urban life. Down with the family! Except I suppose I see at least some of these banalities in a more positive light, which accounts in part for my family valuesism. Razib continues:

Even shared affinity groups can become too incestuous, to the point where all creativity is removed.

This reminds me of the much-derided (unfairly, in my view) Pauline Kael remark,

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

At a dinner party a few weeks ago, a friend and I had a heated yet mostly playful exchange (about privacy norms and social graph gluttony) that mortified all of our other friends. After I had said my peace, one of my best friends said to my interlocutor, “I can’t believe you let him say that!,” almost as though I had knifed someone in the chest. It occurred to me that my core social group is diverse enough that what strikes some of us as bantery disputatiousness strikes others as monstrously rude. Which is interesting. I do try to keep my combativeness in check.