Biology, Ethics, Literature, Philosophy

Book Review: The Righteous Mind

I – Summary

The Righteous Mind follows an argument structure I learned in high school debate club. It tells you what it’s going to tell you, it tells you it, then it reminds you what it told you. This made it a really easy read and a welcome break from The Origins of Totalitarianism, the other book I’ve been reading. Practically the very first part of The Righteous Mind proper (after the foreword) is an introduction to its first metaphor.

Imagine an elephant and a rider. They have travelled together since their birth and move as one. The elephant doesn’t say much (it’s an elephant), but the rider is very vocal – for example, she’s quick to apologize and explain away any damage the elephant might do. A casual observer might think the rider is in charge, because she is so much cleverer and more talkative, but that casual observer would be wrong. The rider is the press secretary for the elephant. She explains its action, but it is much bigger and stronger than her. It’s the one who is ultimately calling the shots. Sometimes she might convince it one way or the other, but in general, she’s buffeted along by it, stuck riding wherever it goes.

She wouldn’t agree with that last part though. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s not in charge, so she hides the fact that she’s mainly a press secretary even from herself. As soon as the elephant begins to move, she is already inventing a reason why it was her idea all along.

This is how Haidt views human cognition and decision making. In common terms, the elephant is our unconscious mind and the rider our consciousness. In Kahneman’s terms, the elephant is our System 1 and the rider our System 2. We may make some decisions consciously, but many of them are made below the level of our thinking.

Haidt illustrates this with an amusing anecdote. His wife asks him why he didn’t finish some dishes he’d been doing and he immediately weaves a story of their crying baby and barking incontinent dog preventing him. Only because he had his book draft open on his computer did he realize that these were lies… or rather, a creative and overly flattering version of the truth.

The baby did indeed cry and the dog indeed bark, but neither of these prevented him from doing the dishes. The cacophany happened well before that. He’d been distracted by something else, something less sympathetic. But his rider, his “internal press secretary” immediately came up with an excuse and told it, without any conscious input or intent to deceive.

We all tell these sorts of flattering lies reflexively. They take the form of slight, harmless embellishments to make our stories more flattering or interesting, or our apologies more sympathetic.

The key insight here isn’t that we’re all compulsive liars. It’s that the “I” that we like to think exists to run our life doesn’t, really. Sometimes we make decisions, especially ones the elephant doesn’t think it can handle (high stakes apologies anyone?), but normally decisions happen before we even think about them. From the perspective of Haidt, “I”, is really “we”, the elephant and its rider. And we need to be careful to give the elephant its due, even though it’s quiet.

Haidt devotes a lot of pages to an impassioned criticism of moral rationalism, the belief that morality is best understood and attained by thinking very hard about it. He explicitly mentions that to make this more engaging, he wraps it up in his own story of entering the field of moral psychology.

He starts his journey with Kohlberg, who published a famous account of the stages of moral reasoning, stages that culminate in rationally building a model of justice. This paradigm took the world of moral psychology by storm and reinforced the view (dating in Western civilization to the times of the Greeks) that right thought had to proceed right action.

Haidt was initially enamoured with Kohlberg’s taxonomy. But reading ethnographies and doing research in other countries began to make him suspect things weren’t as simple as Kohlberg thought. Haidt and others found that moral intuitions and responses to dilemmas differed by country. In particular, WEIRD people (people from countries that were Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Developed and most especially the most educated people in those countries) were very much able to tamp down feelings of disgust in moral problems, in a way that seemed far from universal.

For example, if asked if it was wrong for a family to eat their dog if it was killed by a car (and the alternative was burying it), students would say something along the lines of “well, I wouldn’t, but it’s gross, not wrong”. Participants recruited at a nearby McDonalds gave a rather different answer: “of course it’s wrong, why are you even asking”. WEIRD students at prestigious universities may have been working towards a rational, justice-focused explanation for morality, but Haidt found no evidence that this process (or even a focus on “justice”) was as universal as Kohlberg claimed.

That’s not to say that WEIRD students had no disgust response. In fact, trying to activate it gave even more interesting results. When asked to justify answers where disgust overpowered students sense of “well as long as no one was hurt” (e.g. consensual adult sibling incest with no chance of children), Haidt observed that people would throw up a variety of weak excuses, often before they had a chance to think the problem through. When confronted by the weakness of their arguments, they’d go speechless.

This made Haidt suspect that two entirely separate processes were going on. There was a fast one for deciding and a slower another for explanation. Furthermore, the slower process was often left holding the bag for the faster one. Intuitions would provide an answer, then the subject would have to explain it, no matter how logically indefensible it was.

Haidt began to believe that Kohlberg had only keyed in on the second, slower process, “the talking of the rider” in metaphor-speak. From this point of view, Kohlberg wasn’t measuring moral sophistication. He was instead measuring how fluidly people could explain their often less than logical moral intuitions.

There were two final nails in the coffin of ethical rationalism for Haidt. First, he learned of a type of brain injury that separated people from their moral intuitions (or as the rationalists might call them “passions”). Contrary to the rationalist expectation, these people’s lives went to hell, as they alienated everyone they knew, got fired from their jobs, and in general proved the unsuitability of pure reason for making many types of decisions. This is obviously the opposite of what rationalists predicted would happen.

Second, he saw research that suggested that in practical measures (like missing library books), moral philosophers were no more moral than other philosophy professors.

Abandoning rationalism brought Haidt to a sentimentalist approach to ethics. In this view, ethics stemmed from feelings about how the world ought to be. These feelings are innate, but not immutable. Haidt describes people as “prewired”, not “hardwired”. You might be “prewired” to have a strong loyalty foundation, but a series of betrayals and let downs early in life might convince you that loyalty is just a lie, told to control idealists.

Haidt also believes that our elephants are uniquely susceptible to being convinced by other people in face to face discussion. He views the mechanism here as empathy at least as much as logic. People that we trust and respect can point out our weak arguments, with our respect for them and positive feelings towards them being the main motive force for us listening to these criticisms. The metaphor with elephants kind of breaks down here, but this does seem to better describe the world as it is, so I’ll allow it.

Because of this, Haidt would admit that rationalism does have some purpose in moral reasoning, but he thinks it is ancillary and mainly used to convince other people. I’m not sure how testable making evolutionary conclusions about this is, but it does seem plausible for there to be selection pressure to make us really good at explaining ourselves and convincing others of our point of view.

As Haidt took this into account and began to survey peoples’ moral instincts, he saw that the ways in which responses differed by country and class were actually highly repeatable and seemed to gesture at underlying categories of people. After analyzing many, many survey responses, he and his collaborators came up with five (later six) moral “modules” that people have. Each moral module looks for violations of a specific class of ethical rules.

Haidt likens these modules to our taste-buds. The six moral tastes are the central metaphor of the second section of the book.

Not everyone has these taste-buds/modules in equal proportion. Looking at commonalities among respondents, Haidt found that the WEIRDer someone was, the less likely they were to have certain modules. Conservatives tended to have all modules in a fairly equal proportion, liberals tended to be lacking three. Libertarians were lacking a whopping four, which might explain why everyone tends to believe they’re the worst.

The six moral foundations are:


This is the moral foundation that makes us care about suffering and pain in others. Haidt speculates that it originally evolved in order to ensure that children (which are an enormous investment of resources for mammals and doubly so for us) got properly cared for. It was originally triggered only by the suffering or distress of our own children, but can now be triggered by anyone being hurt, as well as cute cat videos or baby seals.

An expanding set of triggers seems to be a common theme for these. I’ve personally speculated that this would perhaps be observed if the brain was wired for minimizing negative predictive error (i.e. not mistaking a scene in which there is a lion for a scene without a lion), rather than positive predictive error (i.e. not mistaking a scene without a lion for a scene with a lion). If you minimize positive predictive error, you’ll never be frightened by a shadow, but you might get eaten by a lion.


This is the moral foundation that makes us want everyone to do their fair share and makes us want to punish tax evaders or welfare cheats (depending on our political orientation). The evolutionary story given for this one is that it evolved to allow us to reap the benefits of two-way partnerships; it was an incentive against defecting.


This is the foundation that makes us rally around our politicians, community leaders, and sports teams, as well as the foundation that makes some people care more about people from their country than people in general. Haidt’s evolutionary explanation for this one is that it was supposed to ensure coherent groups.


This is the moral foundation that makes people obey their boss without talking back or avoid calling their parents by the first names. It supposedly evolved to allow us to forge beneficial relationships within hierarchies. Basically, it may have once been very useful to have people believe and obey their elders without question, (like e.g. when the elders say “don’t drink that water, it’s poisoned” no one does and this story can be passed down and keep people safe, without someone having to die every few years to prove that the water is indeed poisoned).


This is the moral foundation that makes people on the right leery of pre-marital sex and people on the left leery of “chemicals”. It shows up whenever we view our bodies as more than just our bodies and the world as more than just a collection of things, as well as whenever we feel that something makes us “spiritually” dirty.

The very plausible explanation for this one is that it evolved in response to the omnivore’s dilemma: how do we balance the desire for novel food sources with the risk they might poison us? We do it by avoiding anything that looks diseased or rotted. This became a moral foundation as we slowly began applying it to stuff beyond food – like other people. Historically, the sanctity moral framework was probably responsible for the despised status of lepers.


This moral foundation is always in tension with Authority/Subversion. It’s the foundation that makes us want to band together against and cast down anyone who is aggrandizing themselves or using their power to mistreat another.

Haidt suggests that this evolved to allow us to band together against “alpha males” and check their power. In his original surveys, it was part of Fairness/Cheating, but he found that separating it gave him much more resolving power between liberals and conservatives.

Of these six foundations, Haidt found that libertarians only had an appreciable amount of Liberty/Oppression and Fairness/Cheating and of these two, Liberty/Oppression was by far the stronger. While the other foundations did exist, they were mostly inactive and only showed up under extreme duress. For liberals, he found that they had Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating (in that order).

Conservatives in Haidt’s survey had all six moral foundations, like I said above. Care/Harm was their strongest foundation, but by having appreciable amounts of Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation, they would occasionally overrule Care/Harm in favour of one or another of these foundations.

Haidt uses these moral foundations to give an account of the “improbable” coalition between libertarians and social conservatives that closely matches the best ones to come out of political science. Basically, liberals and libertarians are descended (ideologically, if not filially) from those who embraced the enlightenment and the liberty it brought. About a hundred years ago (depending on the chronology and the country), the descendants of the enlightenment had a great schism, with some continuing to view the government as the most important threat to liberty (libertarians) and others viewing corporations as the more pressing threat (liberals). Liberals took over many auspices of the government and have been trying to use it to guarantee their version of liberty (with mixed results and many reversals) ever since.

Conservatives do not support this project of remaking society from the top down via the government. They believe that liberals want to change too many things, too quickly. Conservatives aren’t opposed to the government qua government. In fact, they’d be very congenial to a government that shared their values. But they are very hostile to a liberal, activist government (which is rightly or wrongly how conservatives view the governments of most western nations) and so team up with libertarians in the hopes of dismantling it.

This section, which characterized certain political views as stemming from “deficiencies” in certain “moral modules –, in a way that is probably hereditary – made me pause and wonder if this is a dangerous book. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt talking about “tolerance” for Jews committing treason in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

It is an attraction to murder and treason which hides behind such perverted tolerance, for in a moment it can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are “racially” predestined to commit certain crimes. Such changes take place whenever the legal and political machine is not separated from society so that social standards can penetrate into it and become political and legal rules. The seeming broad-mindedness that equates crime and vice, if allowed to establish its own code of law, will invariably prove more cruel and inhuman than laws, no matter how severe, which respect and recognize man’s independent responsibility for his behavior.

That said, it is possible for inconvenient or dangerous things to be true and their inconvenience or danger has no bearing on their truth. If Haidt saw his writings being used to justify or promote violence, he’d have a moral responsibility to decry the perpetrators. Accepting that sort of moral responsibility is, I believe, part of the responsibility that scientists who deal with sensitive topics must accept. I do not believe that this responsibility precludes publishing. I firmly believe that only right information can lead to right action, so I am on the whole grateful for Haidt’s taxonomy.

The similarities between liberals and libertarians extend beyond ethics. Both have more openness to experience and less of a threat response than conservatives. This explains why socially, liberals and libertarians have much more in common than liberals and conservatives.

Moral foundation theory gave me a vocabulary for some of the political writing I was doing last year. After the Conservative (Party of Canada) Leadership Convention, I talked about social conservative legislation as a way to help bind people to collective morality. I also talked about how holding other values very strongly and your values not at all can make people look diametrically opposed to you.

The third and final section of The Righteous Mind further focuses on political tribes. Its central metaphor is that humans are “90% chimp, 10% bee”. It’s central purpose is an attempt to show how humans might have been subject to group selection and how our groupishness is important to our morality.

Haidt claims that group selection is heresy in evolutionary biology (beyond hive insects). I don’t have the evolutionary biology background to say if this is true or not, although this does match how I’ve seen it talked about online among scientifically literate authors, so I’m inclined to believe him.

Haidt walks through the arguments against group selection and shows how they are largely sensible. It is indeed ridiculous to believe that genes for altruism could be preserved in most cases. Imagine a gene that would make deer more likely to sacrifice itself for the good of the herd if it seemed that was the only way to protect the herd’s young. This gene might help more deer in the herd attain adulthood, but it would also lead to any deer who had it having fewer children. There’s certainly an advantage to the herd if some members have this gene, but there’s no advantage to the carriers and a lot of advantage to every deer in the herd who doesn’t carry it. Free-riders will outcompete sacrificers and the selfless gene will get culled from the herd.

But humans aren’t deer. We can be selfish, yes, but we often aren’t and the ways we aren’t can’t be simply explained by greedy reciprocal altruism. If you’ve ever taken some time out of your day to help a lost tourist, congratulations, you’ve been altruistic without expecting anything in return. That people regularly do take time out of their days to help lost tourists suggests there might be something going on beyond reciprocal altruism.

Humans, unlike deer, have the resources and ability to punish free riders. We expect everyone to pitch in and might exile anyone who doesn’t. When humans began to form larger and larger societies, it makes sense that the societies who could better coordinate selfless behaviour would do better than those that couldn’t. And this isn’t just in terms of military cohesion (as the evolutionary biologist Lesley Newson had to point out to Haidt). A whole bunch of little selfless acts ­– sharing food, babysitting, teaching – can make a society more efficient than its neighbours at “turning resources into offspring”.

A human within the framework of society is much more capable than a human outside of it. I am only able to write this and share it widely because a whole bunch of people did the grunt work of making the laptop I’m typing it on, growing the food I eat, maintaining our communication lines, etc. If I was stuck with only my own resources, I’d be carving this into the sand (or more likely, already eaten by wolves).

Therefore, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that the more successful and interdependent a society could become, the more it would be able to outcompete, whether directly or indirectly its nearby rivals and so increase the proportion of its conditionally selfless genes in the human gene pool.

Conditional selflessness is a better description of the sorts of altruism we see in humans. It’s not purely reciprocal as Dawkins might claim, but it isn’t boundless either. It’s mostly reserved for people we view as similar to us. This doesn’t need to mean racially or religiously. In my experience, a bond as simple as doing the same sport is enough to get people to readily volunteer their time for projects like digging out and repairing a cracked foundation.

The switch from selfishness to selflessly helping out our teams is called “the hive switch” by Haidt. He devotes a lot of time to exploring how we can flip it and the benefits of flipping it. I agree with him that many of the happiest and most profound moments of anyone’s life come when the switch has been activated and they’re working as part of a team.

The last few chapters are an exploration of how individualism can undermine the hive switch and several mistakes liberals make in their zeal to overturn all hierarchies. Haidt believes that societies have both social capital (the bounds of trust between people) and moral capital (the society’s ability to bind people to collective values) and worries that liberal individualism can undermine these to the point where people will be overall worse off. I’ll talk more about moral capital later in the review.

II – On Shaky Foundations

Anyone who reads The Righteous Mind might quickly realize that I left a lot of the book out of my review. There was a whole bunch of supporting evidence about how liberals and conservatives “really are” or how they differ that I have deliberately omitted.

You may have heard that psychology is currently in the midst of a “replication crisis“. Much (I’d crudely estimate somewhere between 25% and 50%) of the supporting evidence in this book has been a victim of this crisis.

Here’s what the summary of Chapter 3 looks like with the offending evidence removed:

Pictured: Page 82 of my edition of The Righteous Mind, after some “minor” corrections. Text is © 2012 Jonathon Haidt. Used here for purposes of commentary and criticism.


Here’s an incomplete list of claims that didn’t replicate:

  • IAT tests show that we can have unconscious prejudices that affect how we make social and political judgements (1, 2, 3 critiques/failed replications). Used to buttress the elephant/rider theory of moral decisions.
  • Disgusting smells can make us more judgemental (failed replication source). Used as evidence that moral reasoning can be explained sometimes by external factors, is much less rational than we’d like to believe.
  • Babies prefer a nice puppet over a mean one, even when pre-verbal and probably lacking the context to understand what is going on (failed replication source). Used as further proof for how we are “prewired” for certain moral instincts.
  • People from Asian societies are better able to do relative geometry and less able to absolute geometry than westerners (failed replication source). This was used to make the individualistic morality of westerners seem inherent.
  • The “Lady Macbeth Effect” showed a strong relationship between physical and moral feelings of “cleanliness” (failed replication source). Used to further strengthen the elephant/rider analogy.

The proper attitude with which to view psychology studies these days is extreme scepticism. There are a series of bad incentives (it’s harder and less prestigious to publish negative findings, publishing is necessary to advance in your career) that have led to scientists in psychology (and other fields) to inadvertently and advertently publish false results. In any field in which you expect true discoveries to be rare (and I think “interesting and counter-intuitive things about the human brain fits that bill), you shouldn’t allow any individual study to influence you very much. For a full breakdown of how this can happen even when scientists check for statistical significance, I recommend reading “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” (Ioannidis 2005).

Moral foundations theory appears to have escaped the replication crisis mostly unscathed, (as have Tverskey and Kahneman’s work on heuristics, something that made me more comfortable including the elephant/rider analogy). I think this is because moral foundations theory is primarily a descriptive theory. It grew out of a large volume of survey responses and represents clusters in those responses. It makes little in the way of concrete predictions about the world. It’s possible to quibble with the way Haidt and his collaborators drew the category boundaries. But given the sheer volume of responses they received – and the fact that they based their results not just on WEIRD individuals – it’s hard to disbelieve that they haven’t come up with a reasonable clustering of the possibility space of human values.

I will say that stripped of much of its ancillary evidence, Haidt’s attack on rationalism lost a lot of its lustre. It’s one thing to believe morality is mostly unconscious when you think that washing your hands or smelling trash can change how moral you act. It’s quite another when you know those studies were fatally flawed. The replication crisis fueled my inability to truly believe Haidt’s critique of rationality. This disbelief in turn became one of the two driving forces in my reaction to this book.

Haidt’s moral relativism around patriarchal cultures was the other.

III – Less and Less WEIRD

It’s good that Haidt looked at a variety of cultures. This is a thing few psychologists do. There’s historically been an alarming tendency to run studies on western undergraduate students, then declare “this is how people are”. This would be fine if western undergraduates were representative of people more generally, but I think that assumption was on shaky foundations even before moral foundation theory showed that morally, at least, it was entirely false.

Haidt even did some of this field work himself. He visited South America and India to run studies. In fact, he mentioned that this field work was one of the key things that made him question the validity of western individualistic morality and wary of morality that didn’t include the sanctity, loyalty, and authority foundations.

His willingness to get outside of his bubble and to learn from others is laudable.


There is one key way in which Haidt never left his bubble, a way which makes me inherently suspicious of all of his defences of the sanctity, authority, and loyalty moral foundations. Here’s him recounting his trip to India. Can you spot the fatal omission?

I was told to be stricter with my servants, and to stop thanking them for serving me. I watched people bathe in and cook with visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine.

It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in. I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me, and teaching me. Wherever I went, people were kind to me. And when you’re grateful to people, it’s easier to adopt their perspective. My elephant leaned toward them, which made my rider search for moral arguments in their defense. Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.

Haidt tried out other moral systems, sure, but he tried them out from the top. Lois McMaster Bujold once had a character quip: “egalitarians adjust to aristocracies just fine, as long as they get to be the aristocrats”. I would suggest that liberals likewise find the authority framework all fine and dandy, as long as they have the authority.

Would Haidt have been able to find anything worth salvaging in the authority framework if he’d instead been a female researcher, who found herself ignored, denigrated, and sexually harassed on her research trip abroad?

It’s frustrating when Haidt is lecturing liberals on their “deficient” moral framework while simultaneously failing to grapple with the fact that he is remarkably privileged. “Can’t you see how this other society knows some moral truths [like men holding authority over woman] that we’ve lost” is much less convincing when the author of the sentence stands to lose absolutely nothing in the bargain. It’s easy to lecture others on the hard sacrifices society “must” make – and far harder to look for sacrifices that will mainly affect you personally.

It is in this regard that I found myself wondering if this might have been a more interesting book if it had been written by a woman. If the hypothetical female author were to defend the authority framework, she’d actually have to defend it, instead of hand-waving the defence with a request that we respect and understand all ethical frameworks. And if this hypothetical author found it indefensible, we would have been treated to an exploration of what to do if one of our fundamental ethical frameworks was flawed and had to be discarded. That would be an interesting conversation!

Not only that, but perhaps a female author would have given more pages to the observation that woman and children’s role in societal altruism was just as important as that of men (as child-rearing is a more reliable way to demonstrate and cash-in on groupishness than battle) have been fully explored, instead of relegated to a brief note at the end of the chapter on group selection. This perspective is genuinely new to me and I wanted to see it developed further.

Ultimately, Haidt’s defences of Authority/Subversion, Loyalty/Betrayal, and Sanctity/Degradation fell flat in the face of my Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression focused moral compass. Scott Alexander once wrote about the need for “a solution to the time-limitedness of enlightenment that works from within the temporal perspective”. By the same token, I think Haidt fails to deliver a defence of conservatism or anything it stands for that works from within the liberal Care/Harm perspective. Insofar as his book was meant to bridge inferential gaps and political divides, this makes it a failure.

That’s a shame, because arguments that bridge this divide do exist. I’ve read some of them.

IV – What if Liberals are Wrong?

There is a principle called “Chesterton’s Fence”, which comes from the famed Catholic conservative and author G.K. Chesterton. It goes like this: if you see a fence blocking the road and cannot see the reason for it to be there, should you remove it? Chesterton said
“no!”, resoundingly. He suggested you should first understand the purpose of the fence. Only then may you safely remove it.

There is a strain of careful conservatism that holds Chesterton’s fence as its dearest parable. Haidt makes brief mention of this strain of thought, but doesn’t expound on it successfully. I think it is this thought and this thought only that can offer Care/Harm focused liberals like myself a window into the redeeming features of the conservative moral frameworks.

Here’s what the argument looks like:

Many years ago, western nations had a unified moral framework. This framework supported people towards making long term decisions and acting in a pro-social manner. There are many people who want to act differently than they would if left to their own devices and this framework helped them to do that.

Liberals began to dismantle this system in the sixties. They saw hierarchies and people being unable to do the things they wanted to do, so tried to take down the whole edifice without first checking if any of it was doing anything important.

This strand of conservatism would argue that it was. They point to the increasing number of children born to parents who aren’t married (although increasingly these parents aren’t teens, which is pretty great), increasing crime (although this has started to fall after we took lead out of gasoline), increasing atomisation, decreasing church attendance, and increasing rates of anxiety and depression (although it is unclear how much of this is just people feeling more comfortable getting treatment).

Here’s the thing. All of these trends affect well educated and well-off liberals the least. We’re safe from crime in good neighbourhoods. We overwhelming wait until stable partnerships to have children. We can afford therapists and pills to help us with any mental health issues we might have; rehab to help us kick any drug habits we pick up.

Throwing off the old moral matrix has been an unalloyed good for privilege white liberals. We get to have our cake and eat it too – we have fun, take risks, but know that we have a safety net waiting to catch us should we fall.

The conservative appeal to tradition points out that our good time might be at the expense of the poor. It asks us if our hedonistic pleasures are worth a complete breakdown in stability for people with fewer advantages that us. It asks us consider sacrificing some of these pleasures so that they might be better off. I know many liberals who might find the sacrifice of some of their freedom to be a moral necessity, if framed this way.

But even here, social conservatism has the seeds of its own undoing. I can agree that children do best when brought up by loving and committed parents who give them a lot of stability (moving around in childhood is inarguably bad for many kids). Given this, the social conservative opposition to gay marriage (despite all evidence that it doesn’t mess kids up) is baffling. The sensible positon would have been “how can we use this to make marriage cool again“, not “how long can we delay this”.

This is a running pattern with social conservatism. It conserves blindly, without giving thought to what is even worth preserving. If liberals have some things wrong, that doesn’t automatically mean that the opposite is correct. It’s disturbingly easy for people on both sides of an issue to be wrong.

I’m sure Haidt would point out that this is why we have the other frameworks. But because of who I am, I’m personally much more inclined to do things in the other direction – throw out most of the past, then re-implement whatever we find to be useful but now lacking.

V – What if Liberals Listened?

In Berkeley, California, its environs, and assorted corners of the Internet, there exists a community that calls themselves “Rationalists”. This moniker is despite the fact that they agree with Haidt as to the futility of rationalism. Epistemically, they tend to be empiricists. Ethically, non-cognitivist utilitarians. Because they are largely Americans, they tend to be politically disengaged, but if you held them at gunpoint and demanded they give you a political affiliation, they would probably either say “liberal” or “libertarian”.

The rationalist community has semi-public events that mimic many of the best parts of religious events, normally based around the solstices (although I also attended a secular Seder when I visited last year).

This secular simulacrum of a religion has been enough to fascinate at least one Catholic.

The rationalist community has managed to do the sort of thing Haidt despaired of: create a strong community with communal morality in a secular, non-authoritarian framework. There are communal norms (although they aren’t very normal; polyamory and vegetarianism or veganism are very common). People tend to think very hard before having children and take care ensuring that any children they have will have a good extended support structure. People live in group houses, which combats atomisation.

This is also a community that is very generous. Many of the early adherents of Effective Altruism were drawn from the rationalist community. It’s likely that rationalists donate to charity in amounts more similar to Mormons than atheists (with the added benefit of almost all of this money going to saving lives, rather than proselytizing).

No community is perfect. This is a community made up of people. It has its fair share of foibles and megalomanias, bad actors and jerks. But it represents something of a counterpoint to Haidt’s arguments about the “deficiency” of a limited framework morality.

Furthermore, its altruism isn’t limited in scope, the way Haidt believes all communal altruism must necessarily be. Rationalists encourage each other to give to causes like malaria eradication (which mainly helps people in Africa), or AI risk (which mainly helps future people). Because there are few cost effective local opportunities to do good (for North Americans), this global focus allows for more lives to be saved or improved per dollar spent.

This is all of it, I think, the natural result of thoughtful people throwing away most cultural traditions and vestiges of traditionalist morality, then seeing what breaks and fixing those things in particular. It’s an example of what I wished for at the end of the last section applied to the real world.

VI – Is or Ought?

I hate to bring up the Hegelian dialectic, but I feel like this book fits neatly into it. We had the thesis: “morality stems from rationality” that was so popular in western political thought. Now we have the antithesis: “morality and rationality are separate horses, with rationality subordinate – and this is right and proper”.

I can’t wait for someone other than Haidt to a write a synthesis; a view that rejects rationalism as the basis of human morality but grapples with the fact that we yearn for perfection.

Haidt, in the words of Joseph Heath, thinks that moral discourse is “essentially confabulatory”, consisting only of made up stories that justify our moral impulses. There may be many ways in which this is true, but it doesn’t account for the fact that some people read Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and go donate much of their money to the global poor. It doesn’t account for all those who have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and then abandoned their possessions to live a monastic life.

I don’t care whether you believe in The Absolute, or God, or Allah, or The Cycle of Rebirth, or the World Soul, or The Truth, or nothing at all. You probably have felt that very human yearning to be better. To do better. You’ve probably believed that there is a Good and it can perhaps be comprehended and reached. Maybe this is the last vestiges of my atrophied sanctity foundation talking, but there’s something base about believing that morality is solely a happy accident of how we evolved.

The is/ought fallacy occurs when we take what “is” and decide it is what “ought” to be. If you observe that murder is part of the natural order and conclude that it is therefore moral, you have committed this fallacy.

Haidt has observed the instincts that build towards human morality. His contributions to this field have helped make many things clear and make many conflicts more understandable. But in deciding that these natural tastes are the be-all and end-all of human morality, by putting them ahead of reason, religion, and every philosophical tradition, he has committed this fundamental error.

At the start of the Righteous Mind, Haidt approvingly mentions those scientists who once thought that ethics could be taken away from philosophers and studied instead only by them.

But science can only ever tell us what is, never what ought to be. As a book about science, The Righteous Mind is a success. But as a work on ethics, as an expression of how we ought to behave, it is an abysmal failure.

In this area, the philosophers deserve to keep their monopoly a little longer.

Advice, All About Me, Biology

Not Making That Mistake Again: A Quick Dive Into Vegetarian Nutrition

[Content Note: Discussion of diet]

The first time I tried vegetarianism, I ended up deficient in B12. Since then, I’ve realized just how bad vitamin B12 deficiency is (hint: it can cause irreversible neural damage) and resolved to get it right this time.

I’m currently eating no meat, very little milk, almost no eggs, and a fair amount of cheese. I consider clams, oysters, and mussels to be morally (if not taxonomically) vegetables, but am too lazy to eat them regularly. To figure out what this diet put me at risk for, I trolled PubMed [1] until I found a recent article arguing for a vegan diet, then independently checked their nutritional recommendations.

Based on this, I’ve made a number of changes to my diet. I now take two vitamins in the morning and a slew of supplements in sugar-free fruit juice when I get home from work [2]. I hope the combined effect of this will be to protect me from any nutritional problems.

Pictured: the slew. Next: The science!

Once I went to all the work of collecting information and reading through paper abstracts, I realized that other people the same situation might find this research helpful. I’ve chosen to present everything as my diet, not my recommendations. This is what is currently working for me, not necessarily what is “correct” or what would work for anyone else. Diet is very personal and I’m no expert, so I’ve taken great pains to avoid the word “should” here.

That caveat out of the way, let’s get into the details!


Eating cheese gives a relatively easy (and low suffering) source of complete protein, but I didn’t want all of my protein to come from cheese. Therefore, it was heartening to find there are many easy ways to get complete protein from plants. These include combinations (like hummus + pitas or rice + beans) or quinoa.

I try to make some of my lunches revolve around these sources, rather than just cheese.

I’ve decided to supplement my protein intake with protein powder, because I found it hard to get enough protein (I’m aiming for 1g/kg daily, to be on the safe side, estimates of the minimum daily requirements range from at least 0.83g/kg/d to 0.93kg/day and I’m rather more active than the average North American, especially in the summer) with my limited appetite even when I was eating meat. I first tried whey, but found this incredibly hard on my stomach, so I’ve shifted to an unflavoured multiple source vegetable protein that I find not at all unpleasant when mixed with fruit juice.


It seems to be kind of hard to become iron deficient; the closer anyone gets to deficiency, the more effective their body becomes at pulling in iron and holding onto what it already has. This is good for vegetarians, because iron from plants is generally not very bioavailable and it’s harder to get iron when consuming significant calcium at the same time (e.g. a spinach salad with cheese or tofu isn’t that great a source of iron, until your body gets desperate for it).

Even better than this is the fact that iron is one of the rare things that is actually subject to “one weird trick”, namely, iron absorption is greatly aided by vitamin C, even in the presence of calcium. I expect to meet my iron needs via a combination of leafy greens salads + orange slices, protein powder + fruit juice, and oatmeal.

Vitamin B12

As far as I can tell, my diet doesn’t include adequate B12 on its own, so I’m supplementing with 1000mcg sublingually each morning. If I did more of my own cooking, I’d consider nutritional yeast grown in B12 rich media, which seem to be effective in small scale trials and anecdotally among people I know. I can’t figure out if probiotics work or not; the study above says no. Another study I found said yes, but they were giving out the probiotics in yoghurt, which is naturally a good source of vitamin B12. This baffling decision makes me consider the study hopelessly confounded and has me overall pessimistic about probiotics.

I was frightened when I learned that folic acid fortification is very effective at preventing B12 deficiency driven anemia, but not effective against B12 deficiency driven neural damage (so the neural damage can sneak up with no warning). The NIH recommends keeping folic acid consumption below 1g/day, which can be difficult to do when many fortified foods contain much more folic acid than they claim to. If I was eating more breads or cereals I’d be worried about this. For now, I’m just filing it away as a thing to remember; if I ever start eating more bread and cereal, I’m going to want to be very careful to ensure I’m consuming enough B12.

I take B12 especially seriously because I take proton pump inhibitors, which have been associated with an increased risk of B12 deficiency.


Calcium is a mess.

Here are studies I’ve found about calcium:

One explanation for this is that the meta-analysis that finds no significant relationship between fracture risk and calcium intake didn’t find anyone with calcium levels low enough to observe significant effects. That would mean that the study that found vegans broke bones more often found the effect because the vegans they studied were so low on calcium.

Except that study is barely significant (the relative risk lower bound includes 1.02). Barely significant study + meta-analysis that turns up nothing points pretty strongly at “this was only significant because of P-hacking”.

Since yoghurt is apparently an ideal protein source for cycling recovery and three small containers of yoghurt provides an ideal amount of protein for cycling recovery (and Walmart gives a deal if you buy three cases of 4 of these, which makes it cheap to mix and match flavours), I will probably continue to have significant amounts of yoghurt (and therefore lots of extra calcium) whenever I’m cycling. This will make me feel a bit better about my mountain biking related fracture risk. Otherwise, I’m not going to worry about calcium intake (remember: I am eating plenty of cheese).

I am glad I looked into calcium though, because I found something really cool: Chinese vegetables (like Bok Choi, Chinese cabbage flower leaves, Chinese mustard greens, and Chinese spinach) provide calcium that is much more bioavailable than many western vegetables. I wonder if this is related to prevalence of milk drinking across cultures?

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for increasing absorption of calcium. Since Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin in response to light and I live in Canada, I’m pretty likely to be deficient in it, at least in the winter (something like 1 in 35 Canadians are). There was a story going around that the government wouldn’t pay for most vitamin D testing because Canadians are assumed to be deficient in it, but according to the Toronto Star article above, the real reason is that so many charlatans have claimed it can do everything under the sun that demand for tests was becoming a wasteful drain on funds.

My plan is to take a D3 supplement in the months where I don’t regularly wear shorts and a t-shirt. Given that I cycle to work and frequently walk around town, I expect to get more than enough D3 when my skin is actually being exposed to sunlight.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

From what I read, the absolute level of these is less important that the ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6 fatty acids. An ideal ratio is close to 1:1. The average westerner has a ratio closer to 16:1. While it is clear that this isn’t just a vegetarian problem, it seems like omnivores who eat a lot of fish have a healthier ratio. Given that a good ratio is associated with pretty much every good thing under the sun (is this why Japan has such high life expectancies?), I’m pretty motivated to get my ratio to the sweet spot.

As far as I could tell, there was once controversy as to whether non-animal sources of Omega-3 fatty acids could be adequate, but that looks to be cleared up in favour of the vegetarian sources. This is good, because it means that I can follow the recommendations in this paper and consume about 6g of unheated flaxseed oil daily to meet my Omega-3 needs. This goes pretty easily into my fruit juice mixture with my protein powder and creatine.


There’s some evidence (although no meta-analyses that I could find) that creatine improves cognitive performance in vegetarians (although not in omnivores, probably because it is present in meat [3]). I’ve decided to take 5g a day because it seems to be largely risk free and it also makes exercise feel somewhat easier.

That’s everything I was able to dig up in a few hours of research. If I’ve made any horrible mistakes, I’d very much like to hear about them.


[1] I like PubMed because it doesn’t index journals unless they meet certain standards of quality. This doesn’t ensure anything, but it does mean I don’t have to constantly check the impact factor and editorial board of anything I read. ^

[2] The timing is based on convenience, not science. The fruit juice is actually important, because the vitamin C in it makes the iron in my protein powder more bio-available. It also makes the whole mixture palatable, which is what I originally chose it for. ^

[3] Although people I know have also speculated that this might just be the effect of poor diet. That is to say, if you’re studying university vegetarians, you might be primarily studying people who recently adopted vegetarianism and (like I was the first time I tried it) are deficient in a few important things because they’re restricting what already tends to be a somewhat poor student diet. A definitive mechanism will probably have to wait for many more studies. ^

Biology, Politics

Medicine, the Inside View, and Historical Context

If you don’t live in Southern Ontario or don’t hang out in the skeptic blogosphere, you will probably have never heard the stories I’m going to tell today. There are two of, both about young Ontarian girls. One story has a happier ending than the other.

First is Makayla Sault. She died two years ago, from complications of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was 11. Had she completed a full course of chemotherapy, there is a 75% chance that she would be alive today.

She did not complete a full course of chemotherapy.

Instead, after 12-weeks of therapy, she and her parents decided to seek so-called “holistic” treatment at the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida, as well as traditional indigenous treatments. . This decision killed her. With chemotherapy, she had a good chance of surviving. Without it…

There is no traditional wisdom that offers anything against cancer. There is no diet that can cure cancer. The Hippocrates Health Institute offers services like Vitamin C IV drips, InfraRed Oxygen, and Lymphatic Stimulation. None of these will stop cancer. Against cancer all we have are radiation, chemotherapy, and the surgeon’s knife. We have ingenuity, science, and the blinded trial.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. If they are profiting from the treatments they offer, then they are profiting from death as surely as if they were selling tobacco or bombs.

Makayla’s parents were swindled. They paid $18,000 to the Hippocrates Health Institute for treatments that did nothing. There is no epithet I possess suitable to apply to someone who would scam the parents of a young girl with cancer (and by doing so, kill the young girl).

There was another girl (her name is under a publication ban; I only know her by her initials, J.J.) whose parents withdrew her from chemotherapy around the same time as Makayla. She too went to the Hippocrates Health Institute. But when she suffered a relapse of cancer, her parents appear to have fallen out with Hippocrates. They returned to Canada and sought chemotherapy alongside traditional Haudenosaunee medicine. This is the part of the story with a happy ending. The chemotherapy saved J.J.’s life.

When J.J. left chemotherapy, her doctors at McMaster Children’s Hospital [1] sued the Children’s Aid Society of Brant. They wanted the Children’s Aid Society to remove J.J. from her parents so that she could complete her course of treatment. I understand why J.J.’s doctors did this. They knew that without chemotherapy she would die. While merely telling the Children’s Aid Society this fact discharged their legal duty [2], it did not discharge their ethical duty. They sued because the Children’s Aid Society refused to act in what they saw as the best interest of a child; they sued because they found this unconscionable.

The judge denied their lawsuit. He ruled that indigenous Canadians have a charter right to receive traditional medical care if they wish it [3].

Makayla died because she left chemotherapy. J.J. could have died had she and her parents not reversed their decision. But I’m glad the judge didn’t order J.J. back into chemotherapy.

To explain why I’m glad, I first want to talk about the difference between the inside view and the outside view. The inside view is what you get when you search for evidence from your own circumstances and experiences and then apply that to estimate how you will fare on a problem you are facing. The outside view is when you dispassionately look at how people similar to you have fared dealing with similar problems and assume you will fare approximately the same.

Dr. Daniel Kahneman gives the example of a textbook he worked on. After completing two chapters in a year, the team extrapolated and decided it would take them two more years to finish. Daniel asked Seymour (another team member) how long it normally took to write a text book. Surprised, Seymour explained that it normally took seven to ten years all told and that approximately 40% of teams failed. This caused some dismay, but ultimately everyone (including Seymour) decided to preserver (probably believing that they’d be the exception). Eight years later, the textbook was finished. The outside view was dead on.

From the inside view, the doctors were entirely correct to try and demand that J.J. complete her treatment. They were fairly sure that her parents were making a lot of the medical decisions and they didn’t want J.J. to be doomed to die because her parents had fallen for a charlatan.

From an outside view, the doctors were treading on thin ice. If you look at past groups of doctors (or other authority figures), intervening with (they believe) all due benevolence to force health interventions on Indigenous Canadians, you see a chilling litany of abuses.

This puts us in a bind. Chemotherapy doesn’t cease to work because people in the past did terrible things. Just because we have an outside view that suggest dire consequences doesn’t mean science stops working. But our outside view really strongly suggests dire consequences. How could the standard medical treatment lead to worse outcomes?

Let’s brainstorm for a second:

  • J. could have died regardless of chemotherapy. Had there been a court order, this would have further shaken indigenous Canadian faith in the medical establishment.
  • A court order could have undermined the right of minors in Ontario to consent to their own medical care, with far reaching effects on trans youth or teenagers seeking abortions.
  • The Children’s Aid society could have botched the execution of the court order, leading to dramatic footage of a young screaming indigenous girl (with cancer!) being separated from her weeping family. Indigenous Canadians would have been reminded strongly of the Sixties Scoop.
  • There could have been a stand-off when Children’s Aid arrived to collect J.J.. Knowing Canada, this is the sort of thing that could have escalated into something truly ugly, with blockades and an armed standoff with the OPP or the military.

The outside view doesn’t suggest that chemotherapy won’t work. It simply suggests that any decision around forcing indigenous Canadians to receive health care they don’t want is ripe with opportunities for unintended consequences. J.J.’s doctors may have been acting out of a desire to save her life. But they were acting in a way that showed profound ignorance of Canada’s political context and past.

I think this is a weakness of the scientific and medical establishment. They get so caught up on what is true that they forget the context for the truth. We live in a country where we have access to many lifesaving medicines. We also live in a country where many of those medicines were tested on children that had been stolen from their parents and placed in residential schools – tested in ways that spit on the concept of informed consent.

When we are reminded of the crimes committed in the name of science and medicine, it is tempting to say “that wasn’t us; it was those who came before, we are innocent” – to skip to the end of the apologies and reparations and find ourselves forgiven. Tempting and so, so unfair to those who suffered (and still do suffer) because of the actions of some “beneficent” doctors and scientists. Instead of wishing to jump ahead, we should pause and reflect. What things have we done and advocated for that will bring shame on our fields in the future?

Yes, indigenous Canadians sometimes opt out of the formal medical system. So do white hippies. At least indigenous Canadians have a reason. If trips to the hospital occasionally for people that looked like me, I’d be a lot warier of them myself.

Scientists and doctors can’t always rely on the courts and on civil society to save us from ourselves. At some point, we have to start taking responsibility for our own actions. We might even have to stop sneering at post-modernism (something I’ve been guilty of in the past) long enough to take seriously its claim that we have to be careful about how knowledge is constructed.

In the end, the story of J.J., unlike that of Makayla, had a happy ending. Best of all, by ending the way it did, J.J.’s story should act as an example, for the medical system and indigenous Canadians both, on how to achieve good outcomes together.

In the story of Pandora’s Box, all of the pestilence and disease of the world sprung as demons from a cursed box and humanity was doomed to endure them ever more. Well we aren’t doomed forever; modern medicine has begun to put the demons back inside the box. It has accomplished this by following one deceptively simple rule: “do what works”. Now the challenge is to extend what works beyond just the treatments doctors choose. Increasingly important is how diseases are treated. When doctors respect their patients, respect their lived experiences, and respect the historical contexts that might cause patients to be fearful of treatments, they’ll have far more success doing what it is they do best: curing people.

It was an abrogation of duty to go to the courts instead of respectfully dealing with J.J.’s family. It was reckless and it could have put years of careful outreach by other doctors at risk. Sometimes there are things more important than one life. That’s why I’m glad the judge didn’t order J.J. back into chemo.


[1] I have a lot of fondness for McMaster, having had at least one surgery and many doctors’ appointments there. ^

[2] Doctors have a legal obligation to report any child abuse they see. Under subsection 37(2)e of the Child and Family Services Act (CFSA), this includes “the child requires medical treatment to cure, prevent or alleviate physical harm or suffering, and the child’s parent refuses to consent to treatment”. ^

[3] I’m not actually sure how relevant that is here – Brian Clement is no one’s idea of an expert in Indigenous medicine and it’s not clear that this ruling still sets any sort of precedent, given that the judge later amended his ruling to “make it clear that the interests of the child must be paramount” in cases like this. ^

Biology, Falsifiable, Science

Skepticism About X-Risk: Viruses and Prions Edition

There are a lot of living things that are quite good at killing humans. Tigers, anthrax, lions, cows, bears, and other people do away with thousands of us each year.

There are a few non-living things that are also quite good at offing us. Good old water manages to take quite a few. In good years, we don’t lose anyone to the nerve gasses sarin or VX (Unfortunately, the last few years haven’t been good ones in that regard).

What about those liminal critters though? Viruses and prions aren’t really alive in the traditional sense. They can replicate, they can even evolve, but they lack the hallmarks of life, foremost among them the ability to reproduce. Both of them find ways to hijack the machinery of living organisms and use them for their own ends.

These self-replicating patterns and their potential to wipe us out are the subject of this blog post.

This blog post grew out of a conversation with my friend Malcolm Ocean. We were discussing all the ways the world could end and our conversation drifted towards the biological. We started with proteins (where my background is) and moved on from there towards viruses (where I make a whole bunch of assertions; if you’re a virologist, please correct me).

Can you engineer a protein to wipe out humanity?

When Malcolm posed this question, my first thought went to Ricin, the incredibly deadly protein poison. A favourite of communist assassins, less than 2mg of Ricin can kill an adult human. But while Ricin is active when inhaled, it’s not the easiest to disperse. Nerve gasses like VX are far more deadly and much easier to deliver and disperse to boot.

For a protein to have any advantage over these tailor made weapons, it would need the ability to self-replicate and jump from person to person as it kills them. Anything short of that and you may as well use something else. When it comes to death, we live in an age that’s a grim parody of a cell phone advertisement ­– whatever you desire, there is almost certainly already a weapon for that.

Unfortunately, there exist self-replicating protein patterns. They are called prions and they’re still poorly understood.

The first prions were probably caused by genetic mutations. These mutations still exist – they’re the cause of diseases like fatal familial insomnia (so named because it is passed down in families, it causes its sufferers to lose the ability to sleep, and because it is invariably fatal).

Prions are mis-folded proteins that somehow catalyze other proteins mis-folding in the same way. This leads to aggregates of proteins. Many neurodegenerative diseases have an element of protein aggregation in them – it’s been implicated in both ALS and Alzheimer’s, for example.

But what makes prion disease unique is their transmissibility. If someone else’s prions get into your brain, they’ll cause the same aggregation process to occur. Suddenly, you have a prion.

We hear about these cases on occasion. Mad Cow (or Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease) is a prion disease. In cows, it’s known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), while it takes on the Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease (CJD) moniker in humans. Like FFI, it’s invariably fatal. Outbreaks of BSE/CJD occurred because factory farming can involve feeding dead cows to living cows. When cows eat BSE tainted beef, they too contract BSE. One cow with BSE can end up infecting many other cows if it enters the feed supply.

If humans consume any part of the brain of an infected cow, the prion can end up in us. Evidentially, there is enough similarity between the underlying protein for the cow prion to catalyze the formation of aggregates in human hosts.

We’ve gotten better at not feeding cows with symptoms of BSE to other cows, which has cut down on the incidences of CJD. In the interim, it killed about 200 people.

It is maybe within the realm of possibility that you could make a prion more transmissible than BSI. Currently the only method of human-human prion transmission is cannibalism (more on that in a moment). This is ill suited to wiping us all out, because cannibalism is uncommon [citation needed].

Perhaps some villainous biochemist could design a prion that gets out of the brain, enters systemic circulation, irritates the lungs, and gets coughed into other people’s faces, where it goes up their nose and (maybe) right past the blood-brain barrier. This is the best I can come up with and I’m pretty skeptical (the Wikipedia article points out we’ve yet to successfully transmit anything therapeutically relevant across the blood brain barrier).

But begging the question of plausibility and assuming this could happen, has our biochemist created a civilization destroying plague?

Enter the Fore people. They live in Papua New Guinea and they practiced ritual cannibalism – they ate their dead relatives. Like out BSE infected cows, some of these relatives had prions. In this case, the culprit prion is known as Kuru.

Eating prion laced brains is not a recommended survival strategy. It tends to lead to contracting prions yourself. And indeed, many of the Fore people contracted Kuru from their cannibalism.

Remember how I said that prions are invariably fatal? So is being alive (at least, for now). Sometimes people with prions don’t die of prions because something else kills them first.

Evolution optimizes for reproductive success. In the funeral practices of the Fore, children and the elderly ate the brains. Prions tend to kill people in a few years. A few years really isn’t enough time for young children to beget the next generation.

Imagine the spread of Kuru. The first sufferer dies from it and is consumed. Years later, those who ate her begin to show the same symptoms. They in turn die and are consumed. The infection spreads exponentially, but slowly, first in bursts every few years, but eventually continuously as the differing survival times lead to staggered deaths.

But humans are wonderfully diverse. In each group of infected, there would be those who, by some quirk of biology, survive longer. Invariable or inevitable doesn’t mean quick. Those who survived would reproduce. And whatever quirk of their physiology allowed them to last longer against Kuru would be passed down to their offspring.

If you aren’t a member of the Fore people, Kuru would kill you in a few years. But if you’re a member, you might survive thirty years after contracting it. Thirty years is plenty of time to die of something else.

Even in a small, isolated ethnic group in Papua New Guinea, there was enough genetic variation for the genes that protect against Kuru to be “found” and amplified.

Imagine our hypothetical prion plague spreading across the globe. It would kill many, many people, but it would kill most of them slowly. They would have time to pass down their skills, to shut down any reactors they were in charge, etc.; essential to prepare for the end of their lives in an orderly fashion.

And among these people, there would be some who are mostly unaffected and some who are completely immune. It would be a crap-shot ­– we’d need immense amounts of coordination and altruism to pull through this sort of prion pandemic. Or rather, our current society would require desperate measures if it were to survive. Humanity would come out – if not fine, then alive. Living without running water and antibiotics isn’t pleasant, but we pulled it off for half a million years and we can (hopefully) do it for another half a million if we have to.

What about a virus?

Ebola killed roughly 8,000 people in 2014. Influenza killed about 4.5 times that many people. In the USA alone.

Ebola infected about 30,000 people in its worst outbreak ever. Influenza infects 200,000 people in the USA each year. The common cold infects an incalculable number of people.

Ebola grabs all the headlines. The flu is the target of a new vaccine every year. And yet the common cold is more reproductively successful, when we look at total number of people it infects.

The common cold is successful because it is so mild. You get the cold and feel like shit, but you’re still mostly okay to go out and work. Your partner will still kiss you. People might still sit next to you on the train. And so the virus gets passed on.

When you get influenza (the real deal, not the 24 hours of stomach pain sometimes called the flu but in reality caused by food poisoning), it tends to floor you. Even partners do their best to limit their exposure to you and your boss wants you well away from her, thank you very much. And so you pass it on to fewer people.

When Ebola is in a city, people become scared to even leave their homes. All non-essential social contact stops. Transmission is rare.

I know I’m comparing apples to oranges here – influenza and the common cold are both airborne and Ebola is not.

But stop and think about what these case numbers mean. We often portray viruses as an inimical threat, as organisms hell-bent on our destruction. This is false. This is false for reasons beyond the inherent mistake of ascribing agency to non-sentient machines.

Viruses are replicating patterns that need the machinery of another organism to replicate. They are the simplest possible parasite. Viruses without hosts are just inert RNA or DNA in a thin protein coating. Viruses need their hosts, insomuch as they need anything.

Ebola isn’t particularly dangerous to human civilization because outbreaks of Ebola tend to burn themselves out. It kills more quickly than it can be transmitted. And so transmission stops and the viral particles again become inert.

Viruses that kill their hosts too quickly face selective pressure to slow down. This can occur over the course of an outbreak too. Is it any wonder that the strain of Ebola that caused a particularly large outbreak ended up being less likely to kill than most other strains?

Maybe this is actually just the result of better care. We’d need to run a lot of sequencing of a lot of Ebola samples to be sure. But we know how selective pressure on viruses work and those models would predict that this strain of Ebola evolved to be less virulent over the course of the epidemic or was more successful because it was less virulent from the start.

There’s an opposite pressure that bears mentioning here as well. Viruses can’t go too far in the other direction. They need to be fairly virulent if they want to spread successfully. Each virus particle is another chance to infect another host. They want their current host to make a lot more of themselves. They’re just incentivized by evolution to do it at a reasonable pace.

I came at this point the long way around, but here it is:

Any “super” virus created in a lab will face this selective pressure.

In parallel to this pressure, humans will face an immense selective pressure for immunity or resistance.

The end result of the release of any virus engineered to kill all of humanity would probably be a new equilibrium. The virus would tend to become less virulent with each case and many survivors (and everything we know suggests there would be survivors; even HIV and rabies don’t get everyone) would probably have an innate resistance that they could pass on to their children.

Perhaps you’ve come up with a super-virus and are aware of this problem. You know your virus will eventually betray you and become less virulent, so you decide to trap it in amber, so to speak.

Viruses tend to have poor DNA or RNA replication machinery. This results in lots of errors every time they reproduce. With many viruses, you can tell the number of them inside a cell by the number of variations in the genome. Their copying machinery is so error-prone than every single virus has a mutation.

But you don’t want that, so you give your virus the best possible DNA/RNA replication and repair machinery. Its DNA/RNA will be exactly as you intended it in every single copy. It won’t become any less virulent now!

You’ve done two things. First, we’ve already established that some people will be immune. If your virus doesn’t evolve at all (and evolution requires variation for selection, which requires mutation), then these people (and all their descendants) will always be immune.

You’ve also just given whoever has to come up with the vaccine and other treatments for it an orgasm.

You know the flu shot that you don’t get? The one that you’re supposed to get every year because the surface of the influenza virus changes every year and you lose any immunity to it? This is because of influenza’s bad RNA replication mechanisms. It’s the same with the common cold. This isn’t true for many viruses. Once you get chicken pox, you’ll probably never get it again. Your body has learned its surface markers and knows to kill them on sight. These markers change very rarely, so your immunity doesn’t expire.

These changing markers are the best (and only) defense a virus has against vaccination. Take that away from them and vaccination becomes much easier.

Vaccination isn’t the only thing that becomes easier when viruses don’t evolve. We’ve had designer drugs for fighting viruses for a while now. Spurred on by the crystal structure of HIV integrase, scientists have begun to figure out how to take the structure of a virus and develop molecules likely to stop it.

It is true that HIV can evolve around some drugs. This is why we’ve switched to regimes of drugs, which combine several medicines with different routes of action. This strategy is much more effective at preventing resistance. Instead of needing one mutation to develop resistance, the virus must develop several, all at once. This almost never happens, even in fairly fast changing viruses. In one that was deliberately fixed it would be almost impossible.

Here’s what the response to a large scale bioengineered pandemic would look like:

  1. People would start showing signs of infection. Doctors, confused by the mortality rate and the rapidity of the spread would eventually send it off for sequencing (I’m eliding a host of difficulties here, but they’re solved difficulties; simple doesn’t mean easy).
  2. Sequencing results would come back and show that this virus is something new.
  3. There’d be a quarantine. In addition, people in unaffected areas would reduce the time they spend outside their houses as a precaution.
  4. As the death toll mounts, more and more scientists would begin working on the virus. Several avenues would be exploited in parallel.
    • A vaccine would be developed using conventional techniques
    • Large scale, massively parallelized and automated efforts would be undertaken to get the virus crystal structure
    • Antiretrovirals, antivirals, and the kitchen sink would be tried on affected patients in the hopes that something would serendipitously work.
  5. Something would work. We’ve done this too many times now not to have the process figured out. At this stage:
    1. Either the pandemic had good DNA/RNA repair machinery, in which case scientists would be slightly surprised by the lack of resistance to treatment. Not having to work around resistance would allow doctors to give patients only the cheapest or best tolerated treatments, reducing the economic or human toll of the disease.
    2. Or the pandemic is free to evolve. In this case, we’ll see a steadily decreasing lethality rate. Part of this would be natural evolution and part would be the effort of scientists. Fully annihilating it would be hard and will probably take decades, but increasingly effective combinations of therapies would be developed, killing off even highly resistant strains.

If your next work of fiction involves a virus or prion killing all the world’s population, I’m sorry. May I suggest writing about nukes instead?

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable