How Darwin Thought and Some Tough Questions for Neoreactionaries.


Part 1: How Darwin Thought.

Charles Darwin was a great scientist but what was it that made him a great scientist? That is, we are looking, not at Darwin’s theory, but his theorising – his purpose and procedure.

Darwin, as a scientist, thinker and theorist exhibits traits of the “hedgehog” as opposed to the “fox.” The difference between a hedgehog and a fox is that while the fox knows “many things” the hedgehog knows one “great thing.”

What this is supposed to mean, perhaps, is that while the fox knows many things those things are not organised into a single, holistic unity. The hedgehog could know as much as the fox; indeed, the hedgehog could know the same facts as the fox. The difference between the two is that a hedgehog has some sort of system that organises and makes sense of – gives meaning and significance to – the array of facts or things that the hedgehog knows.

According to Isiah Berlin, one can profitably divide most great thinkers into either the hedgehog or fox category. Plato is a hedgehog and Aristotle is a fox; Hegel is a hedgehog, Goethe is a fox; Nietzsche is a hedgehog and Carlyle (arguably) is a fox.

Interestingly, according to Tetlock, while most experts do little better than the informed non-experts when it comes to political forecasting, hedgehogs do worse than foxes. So, stay foxy! However, one could adopt a meta position and deploy a team of foxes and “optimistic” and “pessimistic” hedgehogs.

Now, Darwin knew one great thing – origin of species – but in order to know that one great thing, he knew a great many things – many facts. The difference that made the difference for Darwin was that he organised his facts into a theory that that gave them meaning and significance.

Charles Darwin is an INTP and as one would expect, he was a consummate theorist. However, what is fascinating about Darwin is how he thought and how he regarded himself as a thinker. Darwin confessed that he could not follow a long train of abstract thought, that his mathematical reasoning skills were unexceptional and that he was not particularly quick-witted. Nevertheless, Darwin turned these weaknesses into strengths. One particular habit that Darwin had – one which made him a great thinker and scientist – was that he was always quick to write down (in one of his many notebooks) any facts, observations, ideas or possibilities that contradicted what he believed to be true. Darwin spent inordinate time thinking about and researching the things that told against his theory or that was a surprise – what we here at Imperial Energy call anomalies.

When we say that Darwin spent an ordinate amount of time thinking, preparing and researching we mean decades. For example, Darwin had the fundamentals of his theory nailed down well over a decade before he published anything on it and then only did so because he did not want to be scooped by Wallace.

What was Darwin doing all that time? Researching barnacles for one thing. Darwin believed that unless he became an expert in some area of biology, his fellow scientists would have a harder time taking him seriously. Darwin had to establish, as it where, his priors.

Nonetheless, a good deal of that time was spent acquiring facts from many different sources; writing copious notebooks; redrafting his main ideas and paying attention to things that did not fit his theory.

Chance favours the prepared mind and even before Darwin hit upon his theory his mental discipline helped make his mind a fertile field that, when planted with the right seed – Malthus’s Essay on Problem Population – it would produce brilliant, paradigm-shifting fruit.

The thinking tools and intellectual habits that Darwin had can be used by any reasonably knowledgeable and intelligent person. Here is how one can do so.

One has to keep within one’s mind the outline of a paradigm, theory or basic set of assumptions – whether one’s own or not – or just what is believed to be true by everyone else. Then, one must be alert to any fact, observation, possibility, argument or explanation that contradicts it or undermines it in some way. When one does encounter such a thing, it is vital that one jot it down in a notebook or store it away for future access. Then, later, spend whatever time is necessary thoroughly examining it. Is it accurate? If it is accurate does it really appear to be an anomaly? If it is an anomaly how does it undermine the paradigm or theory? Applying Occam’s razor to the anomaly, what is the simplest explanation? What alternative explanations can be given for the anomaly? Then, finally, how can the preferred paradigm or theory account for the anomaly? In short, steel yourself.

Furthermore, one should try to come up with some sense of anomalies that could be fatal (headshots, as we call them) and anomalies that are only damaging. In other words, anomalies that refute the theory and anomalies that only undermine them.

Finally, one should devote more and more cognitive resources to searching for anomalies, the more confident one is or the more confidence people have in a paradigm – if you are a thinker/theorist and even if you are not. In later post, we examine the duties of the sovereign and one of the duties is to scan for anomalies.

As the paradigm approaches equilibrium and perfection, your scan for anomalies should grow not only wider but deeper, encompassing more and more facts, fields of inquiry and study.


Part 2: Tough Questions for Neoreactionaries.

Part 1 was a propaedeutic for Part 2, in which we present two questions that appear to contain anomalies for neoreactionaries.

Our source for these questions comes from the useful and insightful website Chicago Boyz.

This post (I Am a Barbarian) is a review of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. More than that, however, it is a compare and contrast analysis which provides the premise for the author, Jay Manifold, to claim that America is a barbarian nation, as opposed to a civilised one:

By these criteria, the United States of America is predominately a barbarian nation. 

If you look at the variables on the left side of the box at the blog (coloured red), you see what constitutes “civilisation”, while the right (coloured green) constitutes “barbarian” living.

For example, a “civilisation” is “sedentary”, culturally-politically centralised”, “regimented” where decisions are taken by “elites”; in contrast, “barbarism” is “mobile”, massively de-centralised”, “free” and decisions are “devolved” to local levels.

When we read this, we were nodding along with the compare and contrast box until we encountered the claim about America being a barbarian nation and we were like “what?” – we were surprised.

Not only is America more like a “barbarian” tribe than a civilisation, this is a good thing, according to Manifold.

Here is the argument:

By these criteria, the United States of America is predominately a barbarian nation. In the order given above:

Its population is notoriously mobile, with several percent, well over 10 million people, moving across a county line, typically tens of kilometers, each year. This adds up; two-fifths of Americans do not live in the state they were born in, hundreds of kilometers distant. Most Americans make at least one round trip by air each year, totaling thousands of kilometers. Tens of millions of people travel during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone. (1).

Tocqueville noted the relative absence of a cultural-economic-political center to the US in the 1830s. Although the nation is now far more urbanized, even the “inner elite” of political liberals, as Charles Murray has noted, are concentrated in four metropolitan areas (NYC, DC, LA, SF Bay) rather than one. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck wrote that the assassination of, at most, 25 key figures would have meant the immediate end of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. By contrast, something as drastic as the physical destruction of Washington, DC might not dissolve the United States. And only a third of its state capitals are the largest city in their states; most are built-to-suit “company towns” of the state government and have little or no other significant economic activity.(2).

As I hardly need explain to this audience, our borders are far from closed. Access from Canada is laughably easy, and it’s obviously not much harder in places along the border with Mexico. I doubt that most small watercraft approaching our coasts would, or could, be intercepted. Ordinary Caribbean tourism is of sufficient volume to, as I well know, import vector-borne diseases into the US. At least half a million “visitors” overstay their visas each year.(3).

Every wave of immigration in American history has provoked anxiety about cultural incompatibility and inadequate assimilation. None of the supposed backlashes have resulted in “ethnic cleansing” or large-scale conflicts. Approximately 0.001% of the US population is “White Nationalist”; if evenly distributed geographically, there would be only one such person per county. (4).

For all the complaints, many of which I have repeated over the years, American commitment to freedom of expression remains globally exceptional, and we rank very near the top in feasible environments for entrepreneurship. There is no conscription, and Abolition was carried out over a century and a half ago.(5).

Among many other categories of self-determination, a right to individual self-defense is widely recognized, extending even to personal possession and transport of high-capacity, long-range firearms in most circumstances. Individual empowerment in personal and business decisions is the norm.(6).

The US has avoided the “resource curse” and has little dependence on commodity sales in general. Its economy is mixed and, as part of its geographic variation, immensely diverse. Manufacturing remains significant, more so than many people realize, although automation has limited employment in that sector.(7).

See Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America for a somewhat whimsical but insightful depiction. Advantages conferred by this diversity include vast logistical capabilities and a massive, and massively distributed, storehouse of Hayekian “local knowledge.” Less comfortable, but still advantageous, is the diversity of outlook; New England is not much like South Florida, which is not much like the High Plains, which is not much like the Pacific Northwest. (8).

As I have written elsewhere, meteorological and seismic risks in the US are sizable but well-managed. The death rate from the 2017 hurricane season in the affected areas was ≈10-5; compare the destruction of Galveston in 1900, where it greatly exceeded 10-1. Wildfires in California look scary and certainly cause heartbreak, but their death rates are similarly tiny. Supposedly catastrophic anthropogenic climate change has basically no chance of affecting this. (9).

Actually, the broad sweep of American history appears not merely resilient, but antifragile, gaining strength and capability from shocks. The process, to be sure, may be neither swift nor painless. But—to consider two very different kinds of shock—few people would not prefer 1951 over 1931, or 1988 over 1968. And I’m old enough to remember when the problems of the late 1960s and the entire decade of the 1970s were considered hopelessly intractable.(10).

(One should read on for how Manifold thinks America can be better at barbarism – much of which is sensible.)

If Manfold is correct, then does Manifold’s argument stand as either or both an anomaly and refutation of Moldbug’s thesis regarding the Modern Structure and what Trump and Bannon call the “Swamp”? That is, that America is an overly centralised, bureaucratic and bloated, crisis ridden empire whose citizens have become decadent and despondent, while the Ruling Elite have become effete.

So, how do neoreactionaries respond this this question? How do we account for this anomaly?

Is America a barbarian nation?

If so, does this refute or undermine the neoreactionary critique?

The key claims of Manifold that could refute the critique (or not) are (2) and (10) while (4), (5) and (6) are potential underminers.

We disagree with Manifold’s analysis, but it did help us refine our description of the problem of the Modern Structure. However, we will comment on (1) – it is irrelevant. China sees more internal traffic than America during “Golden Week” (Chinese New Year) and China is not a “barbarian nation”.

Of course, neoreactionaries have a decisive argument against (2) – does everyone know what it is?

Stay Foxy people!


Further Reading.

One good book on Darwin’s intellectual odyssey is the following: The Reluctant Mr Darwin.

The following book provides a useful analysis of Darwin’s mental discipline and habits and much else.

This article, from this excellent website, covers Darwin’s “Golden Rule” of thinking in more detail and was the inspiration for Part 1.


13 thoughts on “How Darwin Thought and Some Tough Questions for Neoreactionaries.

  1. The main point of MM’s critique of the government was that it was incapable of coherent decision making.

    If America is a barbarian nation, that doen’t undermine the claim. Our central government may be complex and incoherent, but you would expect that when it’s not a single entity, but many competing entities.

    Right now, there is no clear rule to follow. That is the essence of the swamp. You have to make your own rules, and following others isn’t even an option. That is the most barbarian system possible, but it’s easy to see why it leads to confusion, laziness, and effeminacy.

    The one possible contradiction I see between the barbarian and swamp theses is that the government has centralized decision making. Clearly it has usurped the right to make a formal decision in most cases. But since it is incapable of deciding most of the time, in practice these decisions are delegated to a committee of the interested parties.

    So really, the problem of the swamp is that the government acts like it is a centralized state, but cannot function as one. The barbarian thesis does not contradict this, or may in fact be necessary in our explanation. It wouldn’t make sense for centralization to be a problem if we were good at it.


    1. Thank you for that comment.

      “incapable of coherent decision making.”

      So this is one of the issues with Moldbug: two possible interpretations.

      On the one hand, there is the claim of incoherence and on the other perversity.

      From a “rational” or effective, efficient, sane and responsible standpoint it is incoherent; however, if one interprets Moldbug as Blue screwing over Red and vice versa then it makes more sense.

      This was an interesting formulation:

      “the problem of the swamp is that the government acts like it is a centralized state, ”

      Centralized without acting in a centralized manner…

      “Right now, there is no clear rule to follow. ”

      Important point. In a crisis, the old ways of doing things “naturally” no longer have any force or safety from challenge. However, when we look at the progressives or the “Power” they do have some sort of code and set of rules, though they keep changing.

      One way of reconciling the two claims is that Manifold is describing the non-progressive elements of America, while the “civilized” descriptors apply to progressives and most of the government.

      Furthermore, Orlov’s Re-Inventing Collapse book would strongly disagree with the claims that Manifold makes.


      1. Sure. There is some difficulty, perhaps, for some new readers to understand that Moldbug at times is referring to “democracy” (voting etc) and the “managerial state”. Then, there is the further issue of the fact that we have this Red V Blue dynamic.


  2. Tetlock is probably discovering that a wrong unifying idea is very bad.
    On average, hedgehogs will perform worse than foxes. The best hedgehogs will outperform the best foxes.
    There is also the problem that politics, the kind of prediction Tetlock studies, doesn’t have a single unifying idea unless you go deep into fundamental physics. “All politicians are made of energy, therefore…” The chain of reasoning is actually impossible without advanced AI.


    1. “Tetlock is probably discovering that a wrong unifying idea is very bad.”

      It has been years since we read the book – perhaps you are right. However, Tetlock seemed to be arguing against a certain cognitive style, not a particular unifying idea.

      Furthermore, even if such an idea or frame was correct – political realism – prediction is difficult for a whole host of reasons.

      “The best hedgehogs will outperform the best foxes.”

      Is this true?

      “There is also the problem that politics, the kind of prediction Tetlock studies, doesn’t have a single unifying idea”

      If it does, which we think it does, it is probably something like this:

      BTW, it is plausible and likely that most wars result from fear and fear of lost honor than optimistic calculations of gain. If this is true, then it is another point in favor of formalism. In a forthcoming, massive piece of work, we present Fnargl’s opposite number: Twilight Mountain who operates from the premise of fear and not greed.


  3. Let’s see if this works…

    “The best hedgehogs will outperform the best foxes.”

    Einstein was hedgehog. You already mentioned Darwin. Computing is the Turing machine. Logic is identity and noncontradiction. And the fact is the universe as a whole is a unified idea. It is (only in principle) possible to write the wavefunction of the physical universe. One single equation. Gnon is a hedgehog, you might say.

    Tetlock thinks he’s investigating differing cognitive styles. Often he is. However, when he says fox > hedgehog, he’s being blinded by (probably) egalitarianism and poor scientific methodology.

    The theory of war definitely needs a lot of work, and I have to agree that looking at fear and lost honour is trailblazing in the right direction.
    Coincidentally, I’ve been saying on Twitter that the West, and it seems every civilization, is fear-based. Only, I also say that’s a problem.


    1. “Einstein was hedgehog. You already mentioned Darwin.”

      The target is “expert political judgement” not “expert natural science judgement”.

      “However, when he says fox > hedgehog, he’s being blinded by (probably) egalitarianism and poor scientific methodology.”

      We intend to re-read the book shortly.

      “Coincidentally, I’ve been saying on Twitter that the West, and it seems every civilization, is fear-based. Only, I also say that’s a problem.”

      Feeling fear is a necessary part of virtue and of making decisions.


  4. There are two kinds of people in the world. Those that divide people into two arbitrary groups. And those that don’t.


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