Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Selfish Meme

Ross Douthat observes that:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
(ht Marginal Revolution)

Douthat seems to think that we just have to pull ourselves together and the retreat will be reversed. Wishful thinking, methinks. What he fails to recognise (though some commentators on his column and on Tyler Cowen's post do) is that the 'decadence' he describes is the result of a revolution in sexual economics which is not about to go into reverse any time soon. As Baumeister and Vhos note in their seminal essay:
The social trends suggest the continuing influence of a stable fact, namely the strong desire of young men for sexual activity. As the environment has shifted, men have simply adjusted their behavior to find the best means to achieve this same goal. Back in 1960, it was difficult to get sex without getting married or at least engaged, and so men married early. To be sure, this required more than being willing to bend the knee, declare love, and offer a ring. To qualify as marriage material, a man had to have a job or at least a strong prospect of one (such as based on an imminent college degree). The man’s overarching goal of getting sex thus motivated him to become a respectable stakeholder contributing to society. 
The fact that men became useful members of society as a result of their efforts to obtain sex is not trivial, and it may contain important clues as to the basic relationship between men and culture. Although this may be considered an unflattering characterization, and it cannot at present be considered a proven fact, we have found no evidence to contradict the basic general principle that men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more. (One of us characterized this in a previous work as, “If women would stop sleeping with jerks, men would stop being jerks.”) If in order to obtain sex men must become pillars of the community, or lie, or amass riches by fair means or foul, or be romantic or funny, then many men will do precisely that. This puts the current sexual free-for-all on today’s college campuses in a somewhat less appealing light than it may at first seem. Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.
Add to the sexual revolution the newly dominant religion of progressivism (which treats the past as evil and our ancestors as stupid), and the loss of the optimistic vision of politics and you begin to realise that the Selfish Meme is taking us in a scary new direction that leads not just to Douthat's 'exhaustion' but even to reversal and decline. 

A process that will, like Mark Twain's description of his own bankruptcy, proceed 'at first, very slowly, then, very quickly'. Nature has a way of weeding out unsuccessful memes as it does unsuccessful genes.

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