Open Questions

Some anomalies/questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing explanations to be unsatisfying.
biology, cats, politics, history, genetics, nootropics, psychology, sociology
2018-10-172019-08-13 finished certainty: possible importance: 3

A list of some ques­tions which are not nec­es­sar­ily impor­tant, but do puz­zle me or where I find exist­ing ‘answers’ to be unsat­is­fy­ing, cat­e­go­rized by sub­ject (along the lines of Patrick Col­lison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas).

? ? ?


  • Why do humans, pets, and even lab ani­mals of many species kept in con­trolled lab con­di­tions on stan­dard­ized diets appear to be increas­ingly obese over the 20th cen­tu­ry? What could explain all of them simul­ta­ne­ously becom­ing obe­se? (Is it some­thing lit­er­ally in the water?)
  • Does mod­er­ate alco­hol or con­sump­tion have any health ben­e­fits, or not?

Jeanne Calment

Jeanne Cal­ment holds the ver­i­fied record for human longevity at ~122.5 years at her death over 22 years ago: Cal­ment is his­to­ry’s first & only 122 year old; and also the first & only 121 year old; and also the first & only 120 year old. No chal­leng­ing cen­te­nar­ian has come close to her record, and arith­meti­cal­ly, they will not for years to come: she will have held the record for a min­i­mum of 3 decades, despite count­less coun­ter­vail­ing fac­tors. Some sta­tis­ti­cal sim­u­la­tions sug­gest that Cal­men­t-­like record gaps are not expected from the dis­tri­b­u­tion of human life expectan­cies, and as time pass­es, her record becomes increas­ingly anom­alous.

This truly remark­able longevity raises the ques­tion of whether Cal­men­t’s longevity is due to the same fac­tors as all other cen­te­nar­i­ans: did she ben­e­fit from some unique fac­tor like genetic muta­tions, or, as accused in late 2018 of being, is she, in fact, merely a fraud which has escaped pre­vi­ous ver­i­fi­ca­tion?

Why did live so many more years than other cen­te­nar­i­ans (to 122 years & 164 days), break­ing all records and set­ting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been bro­ken, but not even approached? As of 2019-08-17, the old­est per­son record is held by , then age 116 years, 227 days (2,128 days less than Cal­men­t), who would have to sur­vive until 2025-06-14 to match Cal­ment; in other words, even if Tanaka turned out to be the first per­son to break Cal­men­t’s record, Cal­men­t’s record would have stood from ~1995 to 2025, a remark­able min­i­mum of 30 years.

Graph of time each “old­est per­son” record holder held record before dying (2013 Geron­tol­ogy Research Group data); out­lier is Jeanne Cal­ment (her pre­de­ces­sor Flo­rence Knapp died in 1988, she died in 1997)

Which is extra­or­di­nary con­sid­er­ing that she smoked & loved her & choco­late (the secret to longevi­ty‽), med­i­cine has con­tin­u­ously advanced, the global pop­u­la­tion has increased, life expectancy in gen­eral has increased, and the implies that, with mor­tal­ity rates approach­ing 50%, cen­te­nar­i­ans should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have occa­sional enor­mous per­ma­nent >3 year gaps between the record set­ter (Cal­ment) and every­one since then. (I did some Gom­pertz curve sim­u­la­tions, and Cal­men­t-­like records .)

It isn’t nec­es­sar­ily odd that the first well-­val­i­dated longest-lived per­son might exceed pre­vi­ous records from sparse poor­ly-kept datasets by a large mar­gin (much as it is not odd now to see Olympics sports or weather records shat­tered by large mar­gins1), but it is odd that decades are pass­ing and still no val­i­dated cen­te­nar­i­ans have reached, much less sur­passed, Cal­men­t’s record. (I had a sim­i­lar ques­tion about the “Dream Mar­ket” dark­net mar­ket, as its longevity was extremely anom­alous, espe­cially when one looks at how .) Typ­i­cal­ly, if one looks at record datasets such as the , as one would expect from order sta­tis­tics, the ‘gap’ between each suc­ces­sive record holder is smaller and small­er, par­tic­u­larly as the num­ber of ‘com­peti­tors’ increas­es; in run­ning, the num­ber of run­ners has increased dra­mat­i­cally over time, it has become a major sport/profession with con­comi­tant improve­ments in train­ing and so on, and this resulted in records being reg­u­larly set but by smaller inter­vals each time, as the extreme of what is humanly pos­si­ble is approached. Sim­i­lar­ly, with longevi­ty, we should see early on large gaps between suc­ces­sive ver­i­fied record hold­ers as a small num­ber of rea­son­ably-re­li­ably ver­i­fied super-­cen­te­nar­i­ans from the most indus­tri­al­ized & bureau­cra­tized coun­tries (as opposed to the enor­mous num­ber of frauds/errors pre-­doc­u­men­ta­tion: /) reach the longevity fron­tier, with gaps reg­u­larly shrink­ing as the rest of the world ‘comes online’ with proper doc­u­men­ta­tion, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple start com­pet­ing for the record, improved med­i­cine pushes out the aver­age life expectancy & makes it much more prob­a­ble to reach an extreme, there is greater sci­en­tific & pub­lic inter­est in track­ing the extremes, and so on. Instead, what we see is this steady order sta­tis­tic effect of shrink­ing record break­ers—except for Jeanne Cal­ment, who smashes the record and con­tin­ues to hold it despite decades of chal­lengers from an expo­nen­tially grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

The eas­i­est answer is that she is a fake like so many sup­posed cen­te­nar­i­ans, but against that, she does­n’t fit the usual fake pro­file of exist­ing only like paper like the fraud­u­lent Japan­ese cen­te­nar­i­ans, being male, or being in a Third World illit­er­ate coun­try where old age is extremely cul­tur­ally val­ued, dates exhibit bla­tant , no con­tem­po­rary paper records exist or their paper trail only began late in life, etc; she was female, born in Third Repub­lic France in a highly bureau­cratic well-or­ga­nized well-­doc­u­mented lit­er­ate soci­ety which did not espe­cially value extreme old age, was appar­ently fairly social & not an unknown recluse, was known for longevity in her life­time (as opposed to after­ward­s), was vet­ted by the & oth­ers, etc.

On the other hand, Valery Novoselov & Yuri Dei­gin (1/2) & in 2018–2019 accused Cal­ment of hav­ing been a fraud, specif­i­cal­ly, hav­ing died and been replaced by her young daugh­ter Yvonne Cal­ment who sup­pos­edly died unex­pect­edly in 1934. The fraud the­ory orig­i­nally pos­tu­lated that the motive for the fraud would be evad­ing the estate taxes which would have been due (on top of the estate taxes paid due to two deaths in the fam­ily just 3 years before) & Jeanne Cal­men­t’s later annu­ity (which would’ve been con­sid­er­ably under­priced since she was sup­pos­edly much old­er); aside from the obser­va­tion that Cal­ment is such an out­lier and was remark­able healthy & youth­ful-look­ing for her osten­si­ble ages (but more con­sis­tent with how old the daugh­ter Yvonne would’ve been), Novoselov notes the sus­pi­cious­ness of the Cal­ment fam­ily archives being destroyed by them, some anom­alies in Cal­men­t’s pass­port, odd­i­ties in fam­ily arrange­ments, appar­ent incon­sis­tency of Cal­men­t’s rec­ol­lec­tions & tim­ing of events & pho­tos, facial land­marks like ear fea­tures not seem­ing to match up between young/old pho­tos, and an obscure 2007 accu­sa­tion in a French book that a French bureau­crat and/or the insur­ance com­pany had uncov­ered the fraud but the French state qui­etly sup­pressed the find­ings because of Cal­men­t’s national fame.Robert Young has crit­i­cized some of the points, sev­eral claims like the estate tax motive have been aban­doned by fraud the­o­rists entire­ly, and . (Pre­sum­ably DNA test­ing offers a defin­i­tive answer, if the Cal­ment fam­ily coop­er­ates, and allows access to extant blood sam­ples.)

Over­all, the fraud the­ory seems highly unlikely to explain the Cal­ment anom­aly, but the renewed atten­tion & attempts to vin­di­cate her record have unfor­tu­nately also shed lit­tle light on what alter­na­tive expla­na­tions might be true.

Cats & Earwax

While pet­ting cats, I acci­den­tally dis­cov­ered cats are fas­ci­nated by the smell & taste of , par­tic­u­larly that of humans, and this inter­est can last indef­i­nite­ly. Dogs & humans, for com­par­ison, are not. A num­ber of anec­dotes have reported this over the years, but no for­mal research appears to have been done on this. What makes ear­wax attrac­tive to cats? Pheromones? Some nutri­ent?

Mas­sag­ing cat ears while pet­ting them, I acci­den­tally dis­cov­ered that cats can enjoy fin­gers inserted into their ears, per­haps because, like humans, ear­wax can build up to uncom­fort­able lev­els (and I once dis­cov­ered undi­ag­nosed in a kit­ten this way); after test­ing about 7 cats, I then dis­cov­ered that cats are fas­ci­nated by the smell and taste of their own ear­wax. (I’m not entirely sure if they exhibit a , as Kolb 1991 claims. Most of my tests occurred before I learned what a Flehmen response was.) This has held true of most cats I have tested this on. Search­ing, I’ve found a num­ber of com­ments in pub­li­ca­tions and online also not­ing this phe­nom­e­non. There are not many con­texts a cat owner would notice cats’ inter­est in ear­wax, and many of them are actively dis­cour­aged (a cat lick­ing your ear hurt­s!), but when there is, it appear that ear­wax inter­est is often not­ed. I’ve found that cat ear­wax is not even the most inter­est­ing ear­wax: cats are more inter­ested in dog ear­wax, and human ear­wax most of all: the reac­tion can be quite strong—­given the oppor­tu­ni­ty, a cat will lick a hear­ing aid for quite a while, and I’ve had to take away hear­ing aids from my cats because the inten­sity of their lick­ing made me worry about them dam­ag­ing it. Aside from the cost of replace­ment, this is a safety con­cern: hear­ing aids, ear­phones, or (espe­cial­ly) dis­pos­able foam earplugs are small enough to be eaten & endan­ger cats’ health.

I first thought that it might be like sniff­ing butts, a way to learn about the health/status of another cat2, but that does­n’t explain why dog & human ear­wax is more inter­est­ing, and cats don’t seem to seek out ear­wax even after they know about it (with the excep­tion of one of my cats who’d some­times try to lick my ears when I was in bed)—I find that I some­times have to touch their noses with a waxy fin­ger before they abruptly become inter­ested (sug­gest­ing that what­ever the odor is, it does­n’t travel far). Dogs, on the other hand, typ­i­cally nei­ther appre­ci­ate fin­gers in ears nor show much inter­est in smelling or lick­ing ear­wax.

What is it about ear­wax that fas­ci­nates cats? Is there a par­tic­u­lar chem­i­cal respon­si­ble, like a fat or salt or ?3 Ear­wax in humans comes in ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ forms, dif­fer­ing by race and I would describe cat/dog ear­wax as being like ‘wet’ human ear­wax; do cats like ‘dry’ ear­wax as well? (While there is no short­age of con­fi­dent asser­tions that the rea­son is the “incred­i­bly high con­cen­tra­tion of fatty acids and cho­les­terol” or salt in ear­wax and sim­i­lar claims, exactly zero evi­dence is ever offered for these expla­na­tion­s.)

Search­ing Google Scholar/Google (cat earwax OR "ear wax" smell OR taste -"CAT scan"), I’ve found the fol­low­ing anec­dotes:

  • Arny 1990, “A Crav­ing For Wax”: let­ter to Nature ask­ing if any­one knew any­thing after not­ing

    I dis­missed this as a curios­ity until I found that our sec­ond Siamese cat also liked it. In fact, the sec­ond cat leaps on the bed in the morn­ing hop­ing to be offered some. I men­tioned this odd behav­iour to 3 other peo­ple and have learned from them that their cats also liked the wax.

    I emailed Arny in Novem­ber 2019, and he said he “got a few replies from peo­ple who had noticed the same behav­ior with their pet.” but oth­er­wise noth­ing use­ful.

  • Kolb 1991, “Chap­ter 25: Ani­mal mod­els for human PFC-related dis­or­ders. The Pre­frontal Its Struc­ture, Func­tion and Cor­tex Pathol­ogy”, a paper which notes in pass­ing that:

    The most com­mon com­po­nents of the response pat­tern include approach­ing, sniff­ing, and touch­ing the urine source with the nose, flick­ing the tip of the tongue repeat­edly against the ante­rior palate behind the upper incisors, with­draw­ing the head from the urine, and open­ing the mouth in a gape or ‘Flehmen response’, and lick­ing the nose. This behav­ioural pat­tern appar­ently allows olfac­tory stim­uli to reach the sec­ondary olfac­tory sys­tem, which appears to be spe­cial­ized to analyse odours that are species-rel­e­vant. Cats show this response to urine of other cats, and oddly enough to humans, but they do not show it to urine of rhe­sus mon­keys, dogs, rats, or ham­sters. They also do not show it to cat fecal mat­ter or cat fur, although they do show it to cat ear­wax!

  • 2007, “Aug­mented Fish Real­ity”, an inter­view with an artist who men­tions:

    At one time we had 13 cats and 7 dogs. I began being very inter­ested in com­mu­ni­ca­tions with cats and dogs and the sub­tle body lan­guages that ani­mals use to com­mu­ni­cate. We had a cat named Que tu bu who loved to lick the ear­wax out of our ears, which was a strange scratchy affair, though clearly a cat show­ing affec­tion and love toward a human. Lat­er, as a teenager I became inter­ested in Marine Biol­o­gy…

    Rinaldo also men­tioned this in a 2016 essay:

    After min­utes of stroking, Catabu would sud­denly pop up on his back paws and place his front paws on my shoul­der. He would then begin to probe my inner ear with his scratchy tongue. His whiskers tick­led as he dug fur­ther, lick­ing my ear slowly and delib­er­ate­ly. This was some­how a plea­sur­able expe­ri­ence, though his tongue was sticky. Cat behav­ior­ists, would spec­u­late he was claim­ing me as lit­ter-­mate. I think we were exchang­ing love and affec­tion. This was my first tran­s-species expe­ri­ence. Here was a cat, find­ing plea­sure in the taste of my ear­wax while we pro­vided mutual affec­tion. This cat/human rela­tion­ship eft a last­ing legacy and deep­-prob­ing ques­tions for me about ani­mal-hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, sym­bio­sis and the con­tem­po­rary notion of the com­puter inter­face.

  • Lynch 2007, “‘No Writer Nor Scholar Need Be Dull’: Rec­ol­lec­tions Of Paul J. Kor­shin”, in a mem­oir of Eng­lish pro­fes­sor Paul Kor­shin, rec­ol­lects:

    At the Osage house, Paul revealed him­self as a dot­ing cat lover. He and Debra had adopted brother and sis­ter tab­bies he’d named Oscar and Sher­win for his under­grad­u­ate men­tor at City Col­lege. Oscar, the color of an orange cream­si­cle, would jump into Paul’s lap and purr dur­ing the sem­i­nars. Paul would cra­dle him, say­ing, “He likes to be made much of.” Both cats had free run of his exquis­ite suits, though he kept lint tape handy to pick up the fur. When Paul met my tuxedo cat Edgar, I men­tioned that Edgar was par­tial to ear­wax. Intrigued, Paul said, “I don’t know if I have any,” but he put a fin­ger to his ear and allowed Edgar to lick off the spoils. In time, Gay­lord and Holly would join Paul and Debra’s cat fam­i­ly. We exchanged Christ­mas cards over the years “from our cat house to yours.”

On the gen­eral Inter­net, some cat own­ers have noted this behav­ior:



  • What is “per­sonal pro­duc­tiv­ity” and why does it vary from day to day so much? And why does it not seem to cor­re­late with envi­ron­men­tal vari­ables like or sleep qual­ity (at least using my non-sleep­-de­prived ), nor man­i­fest as the usual kind of latent vari­able in my fac­tor analy­ses? Is it some­thing much weirder than the usual kind of latent vari­able, like a set of zero-­sum mea­sure­ments draw­ing on a generic pool of ‘energy’ or ‘mana’?

  • Does lis­ten­ing to music while work­ing serve as a ?

  • one of the best stim­u­lants on the mar­ket: legal, cheap, effec­tive, rel­a­tively safe, half-life much less than 6 hours. It also affects one of the most impor­tant and well-s­tud­ied recep­tors. Why are there no attempts to develop ana­logues or replace­ments for nico­tine which improve on it eg by mak­ing it some­what longer-last­ing or less blood­-­pres­sure-rais­ing, when there are so many vari­ants on other stim­u­lants like amphet­a­mines or modafinil or caf­feine? (The one excep­tion I cur­rently know of is a biotech com­pa­ny, Tar­ga­cept, which attempted to develop nico­tinic recep­tor drugs for ADHD/depres­sion/Alzheimer’s/bladder prob­lems such as vari­ants on , but their drugs failed in clin­i­cal tri­als and they were acquired in 2015. Given the highly risky nature of drug devel­op­ment, it’s unclear how much to infer from their fail­ure about whether bet­ter nicotines exist—Alzheimer’s dis­ease is where excit­ing drugs go to die, and a use­ful stim­u­lant may not have so large a ben­e­fit as to be com­pelling in tri­als for ADHD or depres­sion—I doubt caf­feine or modafinil could jus­tify large Phase III tri­als on the basis of their effects on ADHD!)

  • does modafinil build tol­er­ance, or not? The aca­d­e­mic lit­er­a­ture’s con­sis­tent claim that it does­n’t com­pletely con­tra­dicts the equally con­sis­tent anec­dotes from most modafinil users that it does, and seems a pri­ori implau­si­ble.

  • Why does (anec­do­tally so far) seem to be so effec­tive for writ­ers, even ones who are not morn­ing per­sons? While pro­gram­mers, which seems like a sim­i­lar occu­pa­tion, are invari­ably owls?

  • Richard Feyn­man made a famous cri­tique of poor exper­i­men­tal con­trols in psy­chol­ogy exem­pli­fied by flaws/side-channels in mouse exper­i­ments, as demon­strated by a “Mr Young”; but who was Mr. Young & what research was it?. It’s not like Feyn­man to make things up, but all attempts to find the orig­i­nal research in ques­tion have failed and it’s unclear who Young was.

  • in 1935, the psy­chol­o­gist David Wech­sler com­piled a dataset of human per­for­mance on every­thing from run­ning to punch-­card pro­cess­ing, where absolute/cardinal mea­sure­ments were pos­si­ble (rather than ordi­nal ones like IQ) and observed that the absolute range of human capa­bil­i­ties is ~2–3x (best/worst out of 1000 healthy peo­ple): The Range of Human Capac­i­ties. Look­ing through the rare cita­tions of it, his gen­er­al­iza­tion does not appear to have been mean­ing­fully gain­said since.

    Since run­ning across this in, I believe, Epstein 2013’s The Sports Gene, I have felt like this is a neglected obser­va­tion that should tell us some­thing impor­tant about human biol­ogy or genet­ics or intel­li­gence—why only 3x? and so con­sis­tently 2–3x?—but noth­ing has ever gelled.

  • dis­so­cia­tive traits:

    • how com­mon are, and what is going on psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, in the occa­sional erup­tion of large shared fan­tasy worlds () among chil­dren & ado­les­cents?

      There are many cases of a (typ­i­cally pubes­cent, typ­i­cally female) child or ado­les­cent build­ing such an intense fan­ta­sy-­world that they wind up suck­ing in & con­vinc­ing friends/classmates. They typ­i­cally go unre­ported except in extreme cases (such as the 4, the , the Man­ches­ter stab­bing), often reported only in pass­ing5 or via anec­dotes—I have been told of 3 cases (2 from acquain­tances, one indi­rect­ly), all of which fol­low the same pat­tern of a young female teenager build­ing up a fan­tasy world (with heavy input from dreams) and engross­ing friends/classmates.

      But there does­n’t seem to be any rec­og­nized name for this pat­tern (“”? “ com­plex”? ) or dis­cus­sion of epi­demi­ol­o­gy. Is it an expan­sion of ? Is preva­lence under­es­ti­mated due to (sim­i­lar to how s are not anom­alous but may be had by the major­ity of chil­dren, though they for­get as adult­s)? Are the dynam­ics the same as pro­to-re­li­gions (the ways in which the para­cosms are extend­ed, par­tic­u­larly by dream­ing, bear a great deal of resem­blance to the ori­gins of reli­gions like Chris­tian­i­ty)?

    • speak­ing of dreams, a curi­ous Inter­net sub­cul­ture is : using imag­i­na­tion and med­i­ta­tive prac­tices to envi­sion & cre­ate an so strongly that one can hal­lu­ci­nate them & per­ceive them as act­ing autonomously (typ­i­cally done to cre­ate a friend or advi­sor); one ‘tul­pa­mancer’ I know remarked that suc­cess seemed to cor­re­late with an above-av­er­age abil­ity to engage in or to be , sug­gest­ing that tul­pa­mancers are unusu­ally able to . (Would day­dream­ing, or mal­adap­tive day­dream­ing, be also more com­mon?)

      This imme­di­ately reminded me of Luhrman­n’s 2012 When God Talks Back, which doc­u­ments evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian and other cult prac­tices which enable the believer to actu­ally hear God’s voice and ‘befriend’ Jesus through a vari­ety of auto-­sug­ges­tive med­i­ta­tive prac­tices. Are these believ­ers engaged in lit­er­ally the same psy­cho­log­i­cal task as tul­pa­mancers, and the prac­tices effec­tively make a Jesus tul­pa? (What would brain imag­ing scans show the neu­ro­cor­re­lates of hear­ing a tulpa vs hear­ing God, one won­der­s…)

  • What is with red color per­cep­tion being so impor­tant that red is the first named color in pretty much every cul­ture stud­ied & for mil­len­nia, when humans actu­ally see green (a vastly more com­mon col­or) most eas­i­ly?


Mouse Utopia

One of the most famous exper­i­ments in psy­chol­ogy & soci­ol­ogy was John Cal­houn’s Mouse Utopia exper­i­ments in the 1960s–1970s. In the usual telling, Mouse Utopia cre­ated ideal mouse envi­ron­ments in which the mouse pop­u­la­tion was per­mit­ted to increase as much as pos­si­ble; how­ev­er, the over­crowd­ing inevitably resulted in extreme lev­els of phys­i­cal & social dys­func­tion­al­i­ty, and even­tu­ally pop­u­la­tion col­lapse & even extinc­tion. Look­ing more closely into it, there are rea­sons to doubt the replic­a­bil­ity of the growth & patho­log­i­cal behav­ior & col­lapse, and if it does hap­pen, whether it is dri­ven by the social pres­sures as claimed by Cal­houn or by other causal mech­a­nisms at least as con­sis­tent with the evi­dence like dis­ease or muta­tional melt­down.

What really hap­pened in “Mouse Utopia” exper­i­ments? Mouse Utopia is a leg­endary exper­i­ment in which mice were put in a high­-­den­sity enclo­sure (“Uni­verse 25”) with unlim­ited food, a ‘mouse utopia’—only to see the ini­tial pop­u­la­tion growth be fol­lowed by a pop­u­la­tion col­lapse gen­er­a­tions lat­er, while the late mouse pop­u­la­tion exhib­ited bizarre phys­i­cal & social abnor­mal­i­ties such as autis­tic-­like behav­ior & homo­sex­u­al­ity & fail­ure to repro­duce. Mouse Utopia is inter­preted as illus­trat­ing the dam­ag­ing effects of the envi­ron­ment & over­crowd­ing by John B. Cal­houn and oth­ers. After he pub­lished an extremely pop­u­lar arti­cle in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can in 1962 describ­ing the first phase of Mouse Utopia exper­i­ments, it became a stock exam­ple employed by lib­er­als in appli­ca­tion to human pop­u­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly for global & urban pop­u­la­tion growth and any human prob­lem that might be caused by envi­ron­ments, such as the urban decay and riots and spik­ing crime rates of that era.

As WP puts it, describ­ing the most famous Mouse Utopia (not to be con­fused with the also-­du­bi­ous & high­ly-pop­u­lar exper­i­men­t), Uni­verse 25:

Ini­tial­ly, the pop­u­la­tion grew rapid­ly, dou­bling every 55 days. The pop­u­la­tion reached 620 by day 315, after which the pop­u­la­tion growth dropped marked­ly, dou­bling only every 145 days. The last sur­viv­ing birth was on day 600, bring­ing the total pop­u­la­tion to a mere 2200 mice, even though the exper­i­ment setup allowed for as many as 3840 mice in terms of nest­ing space. This period between day 315 and day 600 saw a break­down in social struc­ture and in nor­mal social behav­ior. Among the aber­ra­tions in behav­ior were the fol­low­ing: expul­sion of young before wean­ing was com­plete, wound­ing of young, inabil­ity of dom­i­nant males to main­tain the defense of their ter­ri­tory and females, aggres­sive behav­ior of females, pas­siv­ity of non-­dom­i­nant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against.[2]

After day 600, the social break­down con­tin­ued and the pop­u­la­tion declined toward extinc­tion. Dur­ing this period females ceased to repro­duce. Their male coun­ter­parts with­drew com­plete­ly, never engag­ing in courtship or fight­ing and only engag­ing in tasks that were essen­tial to their health. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed them­selves—all soli­tary pur­suits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars char­ac­ter­ized these males. They were dubbed “the beau­ti­ful ones.” Breed­ing never resumed and behav­ior pat­terns were per­ma­nently changed. The con­clu­sions drawn from this exper­i­ment were that when all avail­able space is taken and all social roles filled, com­pe­ti­tion and the stresses expe­ri­enced by the indi­vid­u­als will result in a total break­down in com­plex social behav­iors, ulti­mately result­ing in the demise of the pop­u­la­tion.

Cal­houn saw the fate of the pop­u­la­tion of mice as a metaphor for the poten­tial fate of man. He char­ac­ter­ized the social break­down as a “sec­ond death,” with ref­er­ence to the “sec­ond death” men­tioned in the Bib­li­cal book of Rev­e­la­tion 2:11.[1] His study has been cited by writ­ers such as Bill Perkins as a warn­ing of the dan­gers of liv­ing in an “increas­ingly crowded and imper­sonal world.”[3]

If Cal­houn had merely found that rat/mouse pop­u­la­tions had an opti­mal equi­lib­rium pop­u­la­tion den­sity which they nat­u­rally reached when per­mit­ted, and that if a pop­u­la­tion was forced beyond this den­si­ty, var­i­ous things began to get worse to some degree, I do not think any­one would have been too sur­prised or his research so world-­fa­mous & text­book mate­r­i­al. What he found was more dra­mat­ic: the mouse pop­u­la­tion was not self­-reg­u­lat­ing and would grow to unsus­tain­able lev­els, result­ing in not just mod­er­ate decrease in qual­ity of life, but an explo­sion of all sorts of strange & novel patholo­gies fol­lowed by total pop­u­la­tion col­lapse and pos­si­bly extinc­tion. This nar­ra­tive of growth→­pathol­o­gy→­col­lapse→ex­tinc­tion fed into anx­i­eties over the appar­ent melt­down of Amer­i­can cities and wide­spread fears like Ehrlich’s 1968 that the had totally failed, human pop­u­la­tions were increas­ing expo­nen­tially with­out bound, and within years there would be global mass famine deaths of “hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple”.

So Mouse Utopia quickly became one of the most famous exper­i­ments in psy­chol­ogy (and highly influ­en­tial on not just psy­chol­ogy but soci­ol­o­gy, urban plan­ning, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and sci­ence fic­tion, inspir­ing eg The Rats of NIMH), and con­tin­ues to be dis­cussed (eg by Down the Rab­bit Hole); as “Escap­ing the Lab­o­ra­to­ry: The Rodent Exper­i­ments of John B. Cal­houn & Their Cul­tural Influ­ence”, Rams­den & Adams 2008/2009 put it:

Cal­houn pub­lished the results of his early exper­i­ments with the rats at NIMH in a 1962 edi­tion of Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can. That paper, “Pop­u­la­tion Den­sity and Social Pathol­ogy”, went on to be cited upwards of 150 times a year.9 It has since been included as one of “Forty Stud­ies that Changed Psy­chol­o­gy,” join­ing papers by such fig­ures as Freud, Pavlov, Mil­gram, Rorschach, Skin­ner, and Wat­son ([pg249, ch32: “Crowd­ing into the Behav­ioral Sink”, ] Hock 2004). Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skin­ner’s pigeons, Cal­houn’s rats came to assume a near-i­conic sta­tus as emblem­atic ani­mals, exem­plary of the ways in which behav­ioral exper­i­men­ta­tion at once marks and vio­lates the human-an­i­mal dis­tinc­tion. The macabre spec­ta­cle of crowded psy­chopatho­log­i­cal rats and the avail­able com­par­isons with human life in the dense­ly-­packed inner cities ensured the exper­i­ments were quickly adopted as “sci­en­tific evi­dence” of social decay. Ref­er­enced far out­side of the fields of ecol­ogy and men­tal health, Cal­houn’s rats have—or cer­tainly had—­come to seem part of the com­mon cul­tural stock, short­hand for the prob­lems of urban crowd­ing just as Pavlov’s dogs were for respon­dent con­di­tion­ing. Along with their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty, the exper­i­ments played a crit­i­cal role in the devel­op­ment of dis­ci­plines and research fields, so much so that soci­ol­o­gist and human ecol­o­gist Amos Haw­ley (1972) would remark that the extent of their influ­ence was itself a “curi­ous phe­nom­e­non.”

Like any sym­bol, it has shown adapt­abil­i­ty—in 2015, now some rein­ter­pret it to reflect con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal debates and explain it not as about crowd­ing & social break­down but as being about sex­ism & inequal­ity:

…To­day, the exper­i­ment remains fright­en­ing, but the nature of the fear has changed. A recent study pointed out that Uni­verse 25 was not, if looked at as a whole, too over­crowd­ed.10 Pens, or “apart­ments” at the very end of each hall­way had only one entrance and exit, mak­ing them easy to guard.11 This allowed more aggres­sive ter­ri­to­r­ial males to limit the num­ber mice in that pen, over­crowd­ing the rest of the world, while iso­lat­ing the few “beau­ti­ful ones” who lived there from nor­mal soci­ety. Instead of a pop­u­la­tion prob­lem, one could argue that Uni­verse 25 had a fair dis­tri­b­u­tion prob­lem.

How­ev­er, there are red flags:

  • the imme­di­ate and long-en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity in lib­eral pol­i­tics & pop cul­ture was fed by Cal­houn’s own high­ly-an­thro­po­mor­phized descrip­tion of the var­i­ous kinds of mice, and he fully endorsed the grand appli­ca­tions of Mouse Utopia to con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can prob­lems (even­tu­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in an angry NIMH res­ig­na­tion let­ter in 1986 heavy on ref­er­ences to George Orwell’s 1984).12

    One might note that his­tor­i­cal­ly, a num­ber of high­-pro­file ide­o­log­i­cal­ly-friendly psy­chol­ogy results dat­ing ~1950–1970, often used to jus­tify pol­i­cy, have proven to be seri­ously flawed (even more so than one would expect from the con­tem­po­rary social psy­chol­ogy repli­ca­tion cri­sis): the Pyg­malion effect, the , the bystander effect/Kitty Gen­ovese, the Third Wave, Zim­bar­do’s Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment, the dou­ble-bind & refrig­er­a­tor-­mother the­o­ries of schiz­o­phre­nia, Project Nim etc fre­quently fail to work in the long run or repli­cate, and involved heavy ana­lytic bias or out­right inter­fer­ence by the exper­i­menter to make the exper­i­ment ‘work’ and tell the desired sto­ry.

  • ani­mal stud­ies in gen­eral often than sim­i­lar human stud­ies: even smaller n, large between-s­train genetic dif­fer­ences (in addi­tion to all the between-species dif­fer­ences)13, pseudo-repli­ca­tion from group housing/relatedness, typ­i­cally non-blinded rat­ings, heavy pub­li­ca­tion bias, etc.

  • Mouse Utopia is almost com­pletely unpub­lished. Despite work­ing on it and sim­i­lar exper­i­ments with NIMH fund­ing for decades (he “con­tin­ued to work on his research results until his death on Sep­tem­ber 7, 1995”), Cal­houn appears to have pub­lished almost noth­ing sub­stan­tive about his research, lim­ited to a hand­ful of short sum­mary arti­cles or pass­ing ref­er­ences. (Cal­houn’s 1963 book The Ecol­ogy and Soci­ol­ogy of the Nor­way Rat describes only his “quar­ter-acre” exper­i­ments which ended in June 1949, before the NIH exper­i­ments on over­crowd­ing.) The major cita­tion for his Mouse Utopia exper­i­ments is the afore­men­tioned 1962 Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can arti­cle (pub­lished 33 years before his death), which con­sists of 9 pages of pop­u­lar writ­ing, of which about half is generic illus­tra­tions of mice (rather than data-based fig­ures or plots or tables). Cal­houn 1963, “The Social Use of Space” touches briefly on behav­ioral sinks & mor­tal­ity in some of the ear­lier exper­i­ments. Cal­houn 1971, “Space and the Strat­egy of Life” presents a brief dis­play of data from “Uni­verse 14” and “Uni­verse 15” but goes into more detail about 25 unspec­i­fied uni­verses done to fol­lowup the Kessler 1966 the­sis and men­tions that they are fol­low­ing Uni­verse 25, still wait­ing for it to actu­ally col­lapse.14 The arti­cle Cal­houn 1973, “Death Squared: The Explo­sive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Pop­u­la­tion”, begins with an extended anal­ogy to the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, and presents some lim­ited infor­ma­tion on Uni­verse 25, which has only halved in pop­u­la­tion at this point. His 1970 arti­cle, for exam­ple, is just a redac­tion of the 1962 one, and despite appar­ently con­sult­ing Cal­houn’s man­u­scripts at the NLM, Rams­den & Adams 2009 shed lit­tle light on Cal­houn’s research or cite much beyond the 1962 arti­cle. (Con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle he pub­lished, it’s sur­pris­ing that NIMH funded Cal­houn until 1983, lead­ing to what Rams­den & Adams 2009 describe as a “forced retire­ment” in 1986—ap­par­ently Cal­houn was unable to get fund­ing any­where else.)

    This causes con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion in read­ing since it’s unclear what papers refer to what. The 1962 arti­cle describes high infant mor­tal­ity but not col­lapse in uniden­ti­fied ‘uni­verses’, which are not the famous Uni­verse 25, which was started lat­er; Cal­houn 1971 had not yet seen a col­lapse in Uni­verse 25; Mars­den 1972 describes a pop­u­la­tion in slight decline and extrap­o­lates out to pos­si­ble col­lapse in a sin­gle unspec­i­fied uni­verse; while Cal­houn 1973 arti­cle shows a graph of a uni­verse’s pop­u­la­tion def­i­nitely decreas­ing and appar­ently doomed by steril­ity & aging, which is iden­ti­fied as Uni­verse 25. Are these all the same pop­u­la­tion, and if not, how many dif­fer­ent ‘series’ or ‘uni­verses’ are being described? How many exhib­ited the ‘senes­cence’ phase, much less pop­u­la­tion col­lapse? (In­deed, how many were done in total?)

  • it is unclear just how many exper­i­ments Cal­houn had to run to get the one result which is always talked about; the name “Uni­verse 25” implies at least 24 prior exper­i­ments, and Cal­houn speaks vaguely of mul­ti­ple “series” of exper­i­ments, ref­er­enc­ing ear­lier exper­i­ments with sta­ble pop­u­la­tions (un­like Uni­verse 25), some which were appar­ently con­trolled to fixed pop­u­la­tion sizes and some which appar­ently were not. Nor did all of the over­pop­u­lated uni­verses develop the “behav­ioral sink” phe­nom­e­non Cal­houn lays so much stress on, which he attrib­utes to an oth­er­wise-un­ex­plained change in the food type. The num­ber of exper­i­ments Cal­houn ran implies that vari­ance in out­comes was high, and in Kessler 1966, the two exper­i­men­tal group repli­cates were nev­er­the­less dif­fer­ent on many mea­sures.

  • aside from 2 stud­ies on brain hor­mones prior to 1973 in “mice selected (by Dr Cal­houn, Dr Mars­den, and their asso­ci­ates) to rep­re­sent spe­cific behav­ioural states exist­ing dur­ing the declin­ing crowded pop­u­la­tions”, there appear to be no fol­lowup or sec­ondary analy­ses of any kind, so there are no archived bio­log­i­cal sam­ples any­where which could be checked; Cal­houn’s 1973 claim that remov­ing mice for analy­sis would dis­turb the colony dynam­ics sug­gests that few or no sam­ples were kept in the first place

  • no fol­lowup lit­er­a­ture: only 2 par­tial repli­ca­tions have ever been done by third par­ties that I know of15; like­wise, if unique aspects of Cal­houn’s exper­i­ment like the “beau­ti­ful ones” have been reported since, I have not encoun­tered any ref­er­ences to them.16 They do not con­vinc­ingly sup­port the Uni­verse 25 Mouse Utopia nar­ra­tive. They are:

    1. Kessler 1966 the­sis, : Kessler used 4 strains of mice simul­ta­ne­ously (rather than Cal­houn’s use of a sin­gle kind of mice), in 2 sep­a­rate exper­i­men­tal high­-­den­sity groups (plus a con­trol) and achieved a remark­ably high & appar­ently sta­ble pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty. Cal­houn 1971‘s sum­mary does not men­tion any pop­u­la­tion col­lapse nor whether there were Cal­houn’s patholo­gies like the ’beau­ti­ful ones’. Kessler’s abstract reports that he achieved den­si­ties “sev­eral times greater” than prior exper­i­ments, with sta­ble pop­u­la­tions main­tained by low preg­nancy & high infant mor­tal­ity rates; while Kessler notes “aber­ra­tions of sex­ual behav­ior”, the high­-­den­sity mouse behav­ior nor­mal­ized (eg they were able to repro­duce) when trans­planted to low­er-­den­sity envi­ron­ments or when envi­ron­ments were con­nected in an ‘emi­gra­tion’ exper­i­men­t’. The two exper­i­men­tal groups showed vari­ance, dif­fer­ing from each other in many ways (“Cohorts in Pop A and B dif­fered with respect to repro­duc­tion phys­i­ol­o­gy, mor­tal­i­ty, and behav­ior, and inter­co­hort dif­fer­ences per­sisted at all lev­els of pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty.”), despite being gen­er­ated the same way & put into the same kind of envi­ron­ment. Kessler fur­ther saw signs of nat­ural selec­tion, as indi­cated by changes in genet­i­cal­ly-in­flu­enced coat color pro­por­tions (which were con­sis­tent in both group­s). Kessler sums up as:

      The large sizes and unusual degree of crowd­ing attained by the freely grow­ing pop­u­la­tions in this study com­pared with pre­vi­ous stud­ies may be related to the types of ani­mals used, to the num­ber of indi­vid­u­als in the founder nuclei, and to the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the enclo­sures. Extreme crowd­ing was com­pat­i­ble with gen­eral phys­i­cal health. The decline of fer­til­ity and fecun­di­ty, the decreased sur­vival of new­borns, and the appear­ance of behav­ioral aber­ra­tions—rather than dis­ease or an increase in adult mor­tal­i­ty—rep­re­sented the major self­-reg­u­la­tory mech­a­nisms that even­tu­ally lim­ited pop­u­la­tion growth. The growth of indi­vid­u­als was not inhib­it­ed. Social with­drawal and the decline of social inter­ac­tion rather than a rise of inter­ac­tion char­ac­ter­ized the pop­u­la­tions. Such find­ings cast doubt about the gen­er­al­ity of the so-­called “Stress” the­ory of social ecol­ogy that empha­sizes increased inter­ac­tion and pitu­itary-a­drenal hyper­ac­tiv­ity as the prin­ci­pal mech­a­nisms involved in self­-reg­u­la­tion of ver­te­brate pop­u­la­tions.

      Over­all, despite achiev­ing a den­sity far higher and one that would be expected to have a far larger harm­ful effect, Kessler 1966 only some­what resem­bles Cal­houn’s results: while Kessler does describe deviant mice behav­ior dri­ven by den­sity (such as homo­sex­ual mat­ings) and high infant mortality/cannibalism, on the other hand, there are no pop­u­la­tion crashes or ces­sa­tion of repro­duc­tion but sta­ble pop­u­la­tions after ini­tial growth, there are no behav­ioral sinks, any ‘beau­ti­ful ones’ or ‘drinkers’ or ‘autis­tic’ mice are not described as such by Kessler, the mice are healthy over­all, and trans­planted mice revert. Fur­ther, Kessler’s obser­va­tion of con­sid­er­able between-pop­u­la­tion vari­ance & genetic changes raise ques­tions about sta­tis­ti­cal power & inter­pre­ta­tion of any effects.

    2. Ham­mock 1971, “Behav­ioral changes due to over­pop­u­la­tion in mice”: uses a dif­fer­ent mouse strain, Swiss Web­ster, and in the pri­mary exper­i­ment, fol­low­ing up a pilot, obtained “a total lack of over­pop­u­la­tion.”

      The groups reached a cer­tain pop­u­la­tion and then main­tained it, bounc­ing back after any culling (and rais­ing ques­tions about Cal­houn’s claim that a pop­u­la­tion which had stopped repro­duc­ing after reach­ing an equi­lib­rium must be doomed). Ham­mock notes exten­sive pathol­ogy in the pilot sim­i­lar but not iden­ti­cal to Cal­houn’s (eg no ‘beau­ti­ful ones’ but instead the pilot mice began to groom only their head), some indi­ca­tion of a pop­u­la­tion decline dur­ing the short dura­tion, and no appear­ance of harems/territories/behavioral sinks. In the main exper­i­ment, how­ev­er, the exper­i­men­tal pop­u­la­tion quickly reached a low-­den­sity equi­lib­rium and no patholo­gies were observed other than high infant mor­tal­ity (pri­mar­ily from can­ni­bal­ism, main­tain­ing the equi­lib­ri­um). Ham­mock notes “No other exper­i­ment reviewed had this phe­nom­e­non occur. In all other research, the pop­u­la­tions first over­pop­u­lated then reduced their num­bers. This exper­i­ment sug­gests an inborn pop­u­la­tion con­trol mech­a­nism based upon the den­sity avail­able per mouse…”

  • other research on ani­mal social dynam­ics & pop­u­la­tion den­sity find that there are (of course) rela­tion­ships between them, and changes in social pat­terns with den­si­ty, but noth­ing like Cal­houn’s results of explo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, utter social decay, wide­spread steril­i­ty, uniquely patho­log­i­cal types emerg­ing, and com­pletely collapse/extinction (eg com­pare Mouse Utopia with the changes observed in Berman et al 1997 for a colony of rhe­sus mon­keys).

  • Cal­houn fails to con­sider alter­na­tive expla­na­tions other than pure­ly-­den­si­ty-based social break­down:

    • dis­ease: for exam­ple, the steril­ity noted is also a side-­ef­fect of many con­ta­gious dis­eases or par­a­site load, which are greatly assisted by den­sity in spread­ing, and den­sity fos­ters “evo­lu­tion towards vir­u­lence” of exist­ing dis­eases as dis­eases can be more lethal to spread faster (while infec­tions in more iso­lated indi­vid­u­als must be more care­ful to not kill their hosts before infect­ing another host). Noth­ing was done to pre­vent dis­ease nor to check for its pres­ence, and Cal­houn sim­ply denies it could be a fac­tor.17

    • genet­ics: the described col­lapse closely resem­bles exper­i­ments (which also fea­ture steril­ity and sub­se­quent pop­u­la­tion col­lapse); that is typ­i­cally demon­strated in asex­ual organ­isms by remov­ing all repro­duc­tive con­straints like resources and so elim­i­nat­ing nat­ural selec­tion as much as pos­si­ble, allow­ing the con­tin­u­ous buildup of muta­tions until finally organ­isms are no longer even able to repro­duce, but should be pos­si­ble in sex­u­al­ly-re­pro­duc­ing organ­isms as well.

      Melt­down should be much harder to induce in sex­ual organ­isms (the recom­bi­na­tion the­o­ret­i­cally allows much greater selec­tion and is part of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the extremely com­plex, expen­sive, error-prone process of sex­ual repro­duc­tion) and it’s unclear if Uni­verse 25 ran enough gen­er­a­tions to plau­si­bly gen­er­ate muta­tional melt­down, but it will be faster in tiny pop­u­la­tions (eg Cal­houn men­tions that some used 56 rats as a seed but not which strain—­many lab­o­ra­tory strains are unhealthy & repro­duc­tively unfit to begin with, highly adapted to the lab envi­ron­ment, and highly inbred or even clon­al)18. Uni­verse 25 appears to have been begun with just “4 pair of mice”, based on fig­ure 2 in Cal­houn 1973. (Based on Mars­den 1972, they were prob­a­bly mice; the WP arti­cle describes them as inbred & notes that they tend towards anx­i­ety & males towards aggres­sion.) Fur­ther increas­ing inbreed­ing, Cal­houn 1962 describes ‘harem’-like behav­ior where the dom­i­nant male could ensure near-ex­clu­sive access to all the female in one sub­di­vi­sion of the cage, dubbed “brood pens”, and force out rival males. Cal­houn appears to admit in dis­cus­sions that they would be highly inbred but denies any pos­si­bil­ity of rel­e­vant genetic change.19

      As well, highly social organ­isms with com­plex colony mech­a­nisms, depen­dent on sub­tle inter­ac­tions between mem­bers (eg proper use of alarm pheromones and bor­der guard­ing), where mem­bers can inflict a great deal of harm on each oth­er, may be espe­cially sen­si­tive to genetic muta­tions, as the genes of indi­vid­ual mice affect cage mates (, Baud et al 2018), caus­ing “indi­rect genetic effects” (IGEs) or “social epis­ta­sis”.

      Cal­houn did not do any­thing to check or avoid these alter­na­tive mech­a­nisms, such as run­ning fos­ter­ing exper­i­ments with the sur­vivors (if the prob­lem is genet­ic, the off­spring of the sur­vivors would, even if fos­tered into a nor­mal healthy mouse colony, still be unhealthy, while if it’s a con­ta­gious dis­ease, intro­duc­ing a few sur­vivors into a healthy colony should result in notice­able colony-wide dam­age); Cal­houn notes a qua­si­-­fos­ter­ing exper­i­ment in his 1962 paper (8 of the health­i­est from one unspec­i­fied uni­verse were spared culling, had fewer lit­ters & no sur­viv­ing off­spring), but does not note that this more strongly sup­ports a genetic rather than social dys­func­tion­al­ity expla­na­tion, as the rest of the colony had been removed and could no longer exert any neg­a­tive effects. Cal­houn 1971 describes the Kessler 1966 the­sis, “Inter­play between social ecol­ogy and phys­i­ol­o­gy, genet­ics and pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics of mice” as using 4 dif­fer­ent strains (16 pairs total) as founders (in­creas­ing total genetic vari­ance great­ly) and had “unusual attain­ment of very high den­sity” with­out any col­lapse despite “less than three square inches per mouse”; Cal­houn assumes that it is again due to the envi­ron­ment, related purely to social effects stem­ming from the num­ber of founders (rather than the great increase in genetic vari­ance from using more indi­vid­u­als from more strain­s), ignor­ing Kessler’s other find­ing of nat­ural selec­tion oper­at­ing on the mouse pop­u­la­tions (show­ing that notice­able genetic change is pos­si­ble within a sin­gle exper­i­men­t), and in describ­ing his fol­lowup exper­i­ments to Kessler (with unclear use of strains but almost cer­tainly only 1 strain as Cal­houn’s papers seem to typ­i­cally only use the BALB/c mice, so changes in founder pop­u­la­tion would not be as effec­tive as in Kessler 1966), and finds lit­tle effect from vari­a­tion in founder size and again does a qua­si­-­fos­ter­ing exper­i­ment where again despite the absence of their toxic envi­ron­ment the sur­viv­ing mice had only a few pups & are often ster­ile & unable to even get preg­nant by nor­mal mice.

      One won­ders what Cal­houn would have found if the uni­verses had been run with wild-­type mice in a ful­ly-s­ter­il­ized envi­ron­ment, uni­verses fol­lowed until actual extinc­tion, and all uni­verses were fully report­ed.

Over­all, Mouse Utopia is a sketchy and unre­li­able result: it is selec­tively and scant­ily report­ed, it is unclear how often the claimed behav­ioral sinks or pop­u­la­tion col­lapses hap­pen even just within Cal­houn’s exper­i­ments, whether any such prob­lems are due to exoge­nous­ly-­forced den­sity increases rather than the colonies nat­u­rally reg­u­lat­ing pop­u­la­tion den­sity close to their opti­mum, the few repli­ca­tions repli­cate only parts of it (if at all), it is entirely pos­si­ble that it is a fluke of that par­tic­u­lar mouse colony or mouse strain, and if the exper­i­ment ever was repli­cated exactly (as­sum­ing the unpub­lished mate­ri­als are ade­quately infor­ma­tive), it would be unclear what the actual causal mech­a­nism of the col­lapse would be as the design & analy­sis is ambigu­ous and Cal­houn tested no hypothe­ses (much less the most likely ones of dis­ease or genet­ics, which he res­olutely ignored)20. I am left con­fused what hap­pened in Mouse Utopia, to what extent it reflects any real nat­ural dynam­ics involv­ing pop­u­la­tion growth & den­si­ty, and extremely doubt­ful of the peren­nial attempt to link it to humans.


  • Face-­to-­face meet­ings, even brief ones, appear to cement per­sonal con­nec­tions of trust and lik­ing to an extent not achieved by even years of more medi­ated con­tact like phone calls or Inter­net text dis­cus­sions / emails / chat; this appears to be true in almost every con­text, even ones like British inven­tors meet­ing their heroes (in a dif­fer­ent field) just once, with large step func­tions in con­nec­tions despite the appar­ent near-zero mar­ginal infor­ma­tion con­veyed by a brief phys­i­cal visit after long-term inter­ac­tions & track records. (This might be related to “21.)

    Is there some­thing qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent about per­sonal meet­ings, and if so, where is it? Is it eye con­tact? Body lan­guage? (It’s prob­a­bly not .)22 Is it mere phys­i­cal prox­im­ity and a cer­tain “inabil­ity to sus­pend dis­be­lief” about a tech­no­log­i­cally medi­ated per­son? Can large wal­l-­sized TV screens for tele­con­fer­enc­ing achieve the same effects as reg­u­lar con­fer­enc­ing? Or do they need to be 3D? What about VR head­sets, are they ade­quate already with avatars and hand-­track­ing ges­tural con­trol, or do they require eye­track­ing, or facial expres­sion map­ping? How much is enough?

  • Given the cru­cial role of trust and shared inter­ests in suc­cess sto­ries like Xerox PARC or the Apollo Project or cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tions in gen­er­al, why are there so few extremely suc­cess­ful pairs of iden­ti­cal twins, and rel­a­tively few exam­ples of duos like the Win­klevoss twins, or Hol­ly­wood’s & ? The reader will strug­gle to think of more than a hand­ful, or even any other exam­ples (the , over half a cen­tury ago? some ran­dom foot­ball or base­ball peo­ple?). As iden­ti­cal twins are ~0.5% of the pop­u­la­tion, and a large frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has at least one sib­ling, and the ben­e­fits seems so clear (thus lead­ing to enor­mous elite over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by the usual tail/order sta­tis­tic effects eg Jews/East Asians which have sim­i­lar base-rates as iden­ti­cal twin­s)—where are they?

    Iden­ti­cal twins should have col­lab­o­ra­tive super­pow­ers, between shared genet­ics & upbring­ing, in their much-en­vied abil­i­ties to com­pletely implic­itly trust each oth­er, pre­dict what the other would agree to or be inter­ested in, and so on (col­lab­o­ra­tion taken to the point of iden­ti­cal twins report­edly some­times devel­op­ing a pri­vate lan­guage or cre­ole in child­hood); sib­lings should also have sim­i­lar (but much small­er) advan­tages in col­lab­o­ra­tion com­pared to work­ing with strangers. Is the answer some­thing rel­a­tively bor­ing like “the slight health/IQ penalty for being an iden­ti­cal twin plus the low base-rate of iden­ti­cal twins plus their remain­ing vari­ance mean­ing that one of the pair won’t clear var­i­ous thresh­olds means you would­n’t expect to see many and this is con­sis­tent with what we see” or is there some deeper les­son here about greatness/creativity/risk-taking? (The most amus­ing expla­na­tion, of course, would be “most suc­cess­ful peo­ple are in fact secretly iden­ti­cal twins”.)

  • Why did it take until the late 20th cen­tury for to develop and the crush almost all other unarmed mar­tial arts at the start of (or per­haps ), when humans have engaged in unarmed com­bat for mil­lions of years and every major coun­try has long lin­eages of spe­cial­ized com­pet­i­tive mar­tial arts and tremen­dous incen­tive to find mar­tial arts which worked and quick feed­back loops? (Re­gard­less of whether the Gra­cies’ early achieve­ments were over­hyped, it still seems like MMA had a enor­mous impact on the prac­tice of tra­di­tional mar­tial arts and that MMA con­tin­ues to resem­ble BJJ much more than most things pre-MMA.)

  • Is phys­i­cal beauty rel­a­tive or absolute and if the lat­ter, is it objec­tively increas­ing over time? Pho­tographs of excep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful women from the 1800s or early 1900s, or nude/erotic paint­ings from before then, strike most peo­ple are being drab and unat­trac­tive. Given the sta­bil­ity and cross-­cul­tural con­sis­tency of beauty rat­ings (), it seems unlikely that it is merely a mat­ter of shift­ing norms or pref­er­ences or fash­ion but rep­re­sents a real ‘absolute’ gain in attrac­tive­ness.

    What is going on? Has cos­met­ics and hair­dress­ing really advanced that much or should we look at expla­na­tions like vastly supe­rior vac­ci­nes, elim­i­na­tion of child­hood dis­ease, supe­rior nutri­tion, elim­i­na­tion of hard (espe­cially agri­cul­tur­al) labor23, poverty etc? (Large gains in means would not be unprece­dent­ed: when we look at pho­tos of chil­dren or peo­ple from those time peri­ods, one com­mon obser­va­tion is how short, scrawny, and stunted they look—and indeed, as an objec­tive fact about an accu­rate­ly-mea­sured car­di­nal mea­sure with absolute val­ues, they were short & scrawny, and things really have improved that much.) If phys­i­cal beauty is not zero-­sum, how far can it go? Can we expect weird effects akin to or the Spear­man effect where after suf­fi­cient base­line gains, ‘beauty’ starts to diverge in orthog­o­nal directions/specialized types? Or might, like the Flynn effect and height, we already be expe­ri­enc­ing a rever­sal due to the obe­sity cri­sis or other fac­tors like muta­tion load and we have already seen ‘Peak Beauty’ (at least for the aver­age per­son, of course CGI/growing populations/cosmetic tech implies that mod­els & actors will con­tinue their evo­lu­tion into super­stim­uli)?


  • What, algo­rith­mi­cal­ly, are math­e­mati­cians doing when they do math which explains how their ?

    Is it equiv­a­lent to a kind of tree search like or some­thing else? They would­n’t seem to be doing a lit­eral tree search because then there would almost never be mis­takes in the proof (as the built-up tree of the­o­rems only explores valid infer­en­tial step­s), but if they’re not, then how are they han­dling ‘log­i­cal uncer­tainty’? Are they doing some­thing like MCTS’s ran­dom play­outs where lem­mas are not proven but sim­ply heuris­ti­cally given a truth value to short­cut explo­ration and the heuris­tic is accu­rate enough to usu­ally guess cor­rectly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the results are right?

  • NN over­pa­ra­me­ter­i­za­tion: We can train large deep slow neural net­works to human-level per­for­mance on many tasks, and we can then train small shal­low fast ver­sions of those NNs to save energy/enable mobile deploy­ment, so why can’t we train small shal­low fast NNs in the first place? And what would hap­pen if we did fig­ure it out?


  • Who com­mit­ted the 2013 and why? Fur­ther, why have there been no sim­i­lar attacks since?

  • What­ever hap­pened to Blake Ben­thall (“Def­con”) of Silk Road 2? In almost all other cas­es, arrested DNM staff/operators have been extra­dit­ed, tried, plea-bar­gained or con­vict­ed, and largely done with within a few years and were well-­doc­u­mented pub­licly through­out. In the case of Ben­thall, how­ev­er, 4 years lat­er, not only is the res­o­lu­tion of his case unknown, his PACER docket has­n’t updated since shortly after his arrest though the case remains open & charges pend­ing. In May 2019 leaks finally indi­cated Ben­thall was still alive and it seemed like he would be pros­e­cuted only for tax eva­sion‽ If he has been coop­er­at­ing with LE, what on earth did he have to offer them all this time when the SR2 server was seized in its entire­ty, and SR2 quickly became ancient his­tory for the DNMs and any per­sonal con­nec­tions or inside info have long since gone stale?

    • On a sim­i­lar note, how did the FBI really find the Silk Road 1 server in Ice­land—which was so key to find­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia backup server and then Ross Ulbricht him­self in SF? Agent Tar­bel­l’s story never made sense (sound­ing sus­pi­ciously like an obfus­cated SQLi attack, rais­ing ques­tions about legal­i­ty) and he decamped bizarrely quickly for the pri­vate sec­tor after what should have been a career-defin­ing tri­umph, nor has the FBI ever gone into any detail about it (it did not come up at trial due to major strate­gic errors by the defense). It is also highly sus­pi­cious that some fake IDs Ross Ulbricht bought to rent servers were inter­cepted & he was inter­viewed in SF by LE not long before the server was sup­pos­edly locat­ed—quite a coin­ci­dence in tim­ing. The SR1 inves­ti­ga­tion was rid­dled with cor­rup­tion and ques­tion­able actions, and the find­ing of the SR1 server smells like another case, of a rogue agent or per­haps par­al­lel con­struc­tion. What really hap­pened in Ice­land?
  • How does the , where any adver­tise­ment on a web­site appears to reduce broad­ly-de­fined usage by ~10%, work when most users can­not be both­ered to install adblock and don’t seem to care? Is there a sub­tle aver­age effect on all users, who are sim­ply unaware of the irri­ta­tion or have never expe­ri­enced the alter­na­tive and so are sim­ply mis­taken in claim­ing to not mind & not using adblock, or is there het­ero­gene­ity where a rel­a­tively small frac­tion of users do mind intense­ly, and that dri­ves the effect?

  • What hap­pened to short sto­ries? Short sto­ries used to be one of the most dom­i­nant medi­ums, pub­lished in count­less mag­a­zi­nes, and mak­ing the fame (and for­tune) of writ­ers like F. Scott Fitzger­ald. A new­bie writer could eas­ily write solid short sto­ries in rel­a­tively small amounts of time, giv­ing them feed­back and money and a cor­pus and a rep­u­ta­tion while grad­u­ally prepar­ing them for the rig­ors of an extended nov­el, Par­tic­u­larly in SF/F, the clas­sic career path was to pub­lish sev­eral short sto­ries, sta­ple them together into a nov­el, and start a tril­o­gy. One could even become a mil­lion­aire off sales to places like the Sat­ur­day Evening Post. All of that has com­pletely van­ished. Short sto­ries are writ­ten for the love of it, and for aca­d­e­mic pur­pos­es; the idea of read­ing shorts for enter­tain­ment is unfath­omable. How did such lucra­tive eco­nom­ics just van­ish?


Physical Beauty

Is , mas­cu­line or fem­i­nine, a neg­a­tive-­sum, zero-­sum (po­si­tion­al) or pos­i­tive good? And has beauty increased or decreased over time? Think­ing over var­i­ous anec­dotes and exam­ples and changes in pub­lic health and envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors like nutri­tion and infec­tious dis­ease and den­tistry, I sug­gest that phys­i­cal attrac­tive­ness of men & women in the West is not purely posi­tional & rel­a­tive, but has increased in an absolute sense over the past few cen­turies (al­beit pos­si­bly decreas­ing recently as a con­se­quence of trends like obe­si­ty).

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, com­ing up from the wash­ing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone.”

4:2 (prais­ing the beauty of the beloved for still hav­ing all her teeth)24

In look­ing at his­tor­i­cal paint­ings & stat­ues, I’ve always been struck by how, ath­letes & war­riors look sub­par by con­tem­po­rary stan­dards (eg knights), and even in erotic art­work or work meant to depict the epit­ome of human beauty or art­work intended to flat­ter a patron (or serve as an adver­tise­ment for a pos­si­ble betrothal), they just aren’t that beau­ti­ful. (Yes, them being ‘Rube­nesque’ may be part of it but the mod­ern age of obe­sity should have long ago negated that.) The dis­par­ity gets worse when you look at Amer­i­can pho­tographs from the 1800s onward, such as in biogra­phies; a woman might be described as stun­ningly beau­ti­ful but look quite aver­age in the pro­vided pho­to­graph. Or when read­ing about clas­sic Hol­ly­wood star­lets such as , after mak­ing allowance for the fash­ions like hideous eye­brows and fry­ing their hair, I can only find them odd look­ing; was really “the most per­fectly formed woman in the world”? Or when highschool/college class pho­tos are pro­vided from the early 1900s, I can com­pare them to my own high school class pho­tos, and the sets are almost dis­joint in attrac­tive­ness—per­haps the top quar­ter of the old pho­tos over­laps with the bot­tom quar­ter of the new pho­tos. But on the other hand, Amer­i­can mate­r­ial from the 1970s or 1980s, does not strike me as any worse than in the 1990s or 2000s (per­haps even bet­ter), with most of the increase being per­haps in the 1920–1960 time range. (There may have been increases before then, but while related things like adult life expectancy & height can be doc­u­mented to have increased con­sid­er­ably before the 1920s, there are no high­-qual­ity pho­tographs from before then to judge beauty by.) So if I can see such a clear trend in increas­ing beauty over time, does that mean that beauty is increas­ing?

Few would deny that Olympic ath­letes have, objec­tive­ly, become much bet­ter over the past few cen­turies—the run­ners run far faster, the pow­er­lifters lift far heav­ier weights, and so on, due to pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion, bet­ter equip­ment, bet­ter train­ing, larger pop­u­la­tions to recruit from, and many other points of progress. Sim­i­lar­ly, box­ers and body­builders are objec­tively far more impres­sive than they were less than a cen­tury ago in the 1930s (thanks to ultra­-cheap pro­tein and gyms every­where and drugs and improved train­ing): who would bet a bent penny on box­ing world champ , who toured the USA punch­ing out chal­lengers in sec­onds against a Mike Tyson, much less a MMA star? (Sul­li­van hardly even looks like he ‘lifts’—be­cause he did­n’t.) puz­zle solvers have dropped solve times from min­utes to sec­onds, and video game play­ers or speedrun­ners have achieved sim­i­lar improve­ments, and moun­tain climbers or cliff climbers make impos­si­ble climbs now, and all of these are quite objec­tive and dif­fi­cult to dis­pute. If all of these can improve so much, why not beau­ty? Surely phys­i­cal attrac­tive­ness should ben­e­fit from many of the same things: more knowl­edge about phys­i­cal fit­ness and diet, cheaper food and trav­el, bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the spread of ‘tricks’ (like lub­ing a Rubik’s cube for speed), a larger pop­u­la­tion to draw from, etc.

If it has, then there are many pos­si­ble rea­sons. The 20th cen­tury in par­tic­u­lar saw major progress in nutri­tion (eg iodiza­tion elim­i­nat­ing goi­ters, which surely are not beau­ti­ful), vac­ci­na­tions elim­i­nat­ing harm­ful and dis­fig­ur­ing dis­eases like small­pox, an almost total shift from out­doors work to indoors work (bring­ing with it pro­tec­tion from the sun and the ele­ments), delayed entry into the work­force, far less man­ual labor25, cheaper cloth­ing and cos­met­ics (not to men­tion a rad­i­cal expan­sion in the kinds of cos­met­ics avail­able such as the cre­ation from almost noth­ing of the plas­tic surgery indus­try), lower life­time birth rates etc. Many of these changes hap­pened dur­ing the 1920–1960 time win­dow, in which iodiza­tion went nation­wide, key vac­cines like polio were rolled out or used to erad­i­cate dis­eases in the USA, almost dou­bled, per capita GDP dou­bled, etc.

All of these could be expected to improve phys­i­cal beau­ty, and we can see first-­hand proof of how ‘aging’ life in poor coun­tries can be when we look at pho­tographs of wom­en: for exam­ple, there is a famous pho­to­graph “Migrant Mother” from the Great Depres­sion of a , who one might guess was in her 40s or 50s—she was 32. An inter­est­ing dat­a­point comes from Amer­i­can high school year­books (“A Cen­tury of Por­traits: A Visual His­tor­i­cal Record of Amer­i­can High School Year­books”, Ginosar et al 2015); high school year­books are homoge­nous por­traits that stu­dents pre­pare for, which haven’t changed much over time, cover most of the pop­u­la­tion then and now, offer­ing a rel­a­tively con­trolled com­par­ison, par­tic­u­larly using composite/average faces, and the dif­fer­ences in attrac­tive­ness over time is strik­ing—it looks to me like attrac­tive­ness increased from ~1910 to ~1980 and has per­haps fallen towards ~2000s (where over­weight­ness is clearly tak­ing a tol­l). The main argu­ment of Ginosar et al 2015 is that smil­ing has increased, but look­ing at them, I am con­vinced that the dif­fer­ence between the 1900 aver­age and, say, 1970, is not merely a mat­ter of smil­ing, and of course, why did smil­ing or longer hair length become pop­u­lar? ‘Pho­to­graphic improve­ments’ aren’t an answer since cam­eras got bet­ter rapidly and were effec­tively instan­ta­neous for most of that sam­ple. Improved nutri­tion and over­all health, and optom­e­try & den­tistry espe­cial­ly, or cost/quality improve­ments of soap & indoor plumb­ing, might have had some­thing to do with that… (Pos­si­bly because they could—­some­one miss­ing most of their teeth, or unable to grow more than scrag­gly clumps of hair, is not going to be so eager to smile or adopt long styles.)

Over­seas, a strik­ing exam­ple is pro­vided by the before/after of the famous : from the orig­i­nal pho­tograph, one might guess at her 20s (she was 12), and when she was refound 17 years later at age 30, one might guess she was in her 60s from how hag­gard and worn her face is. , trav­el­ing in impov­er­ished cen­tral Japan in 1878, was struck in the moun­tains by the sight of the peo­ple: “The mar­ried women look as if they have never known youth, and their skin is apt to be like tanned leather. At Kayashima I asked the house­-­mas­ter’s wife, who looked about 50, how old she was (a polite ques­tion in Japan), and she replied 22—one of many sim­i­lar sur­pris­es.” (Unbeaten Tracks in Old Japan, pg94, Let­ter XII) com­par­ing them unfa­vor­ably to the women of the , who “look cheer­ful, and even merry when they smile, and are not like the Japan­ese, pre­ma­turely old, partly per­haps because their houses are well ven­ti­lat­ed, and the use of char­coal is unknown.” One can also see this phe­nom­e­non in other coun­tries like Rus­sia with jokes about how ‘devushkas’ turn into ‘babushkas’ overnight on their 30th birth­day. In the 1800s, King col­lected a “”, a col­lec­tion of por­trait paint­ings of the most beau­ti­ful women he could find regard­less of sta­tion, rang­ing from an accoun­tant or cob­bler or pawn­shop clerk’s daugh­ter to his own daugh­ter, includ­ing sev­eral mis­tresses famed for their beau­ty, such as or ; a sim­i­lar 1600s gallery, the , depicts many mis­tresses of (eg , “one of the most beau­ti­ful of the Roy­al­ist women”), and there is the some­what later ()—my own impres­sion is that they are clearly try­ing towards beauty con­sis­tent with mod­ern stan­dards but don’t get too far, despite Lud­wig in par­tic­u­lar cast­ing a wide net. I was struck watch­ing by how the care­ful­ly-re­stored video footage of WWI-era Eng­land revealed many of the drafted men—those who were not rejected for rea­sons of health—were stunted and short, with teeth already miss­ing (per­haps because of—shades of —all that jam on white bread we see them eat­ing), and draftees report­edly gained “1 stone” of weight on aver­age due to being fed real food & exer­cise. Even as late as 1968 in Eng­land, 36% of the pop­u­la­tion aged >16yo were “eden­tu­lous” ie had no nat­ural teeth left; this is not merely dri­ven by the elder­ly, either, since 25–34yos aver­age ~8%, and by the 35–44yo age brack­et, the rate reaches ~20% (Gray et al 1970); this makes the occa­sional claim of total teeth extrac­tion for den­tures as birth­day & wed­ding presents not so implau­si­ble. (Need­less to say, Eng­lish den­tal health has improved dras­ti­cally since.) In the US, only came about some­time later as a result of draftees not fit­ting in their uni­forms due to the preva­lence of goi­ters (never mind the cre­tinis­m); France was lit­tle bet­ter, with trav­el­ers not­ing whole vil­lages of retarded cretins26, where a quar­ter of young (rel­a­tive­ly) healthy men were rejected by the mil­i­tary and many men were insane, hunch­back, bow-­legged, or club-­footed due to con­di­tions which were lit­tle kinder to young rural women either, who one con­tem­po­rary called often, “a Venus [with] the face of an old mon­key”.27 Life expectancy increases appear to have rel­a­tively lit­tle to do with head­line med­ical treat­ments like can­cer, and more to do with pub­lic health mea­sures like reduc­tions in pan­demics, with reduc­tions in child­hood ill­nesses pre­dict­ing increases in adult life expectan­cy; and dis­eases like demen­tia have been in remark­able decline. All of this points to large improve­ments in over­all “bod­ily integrity”: every­thing is more robust and bet­ter due to less accu­mu­lated dam­age from lifestyle and child­hood infec­tions and pol­lu­tants like indoor fires and increased pro­tein con­sump­tion.

This accel­er­ated aging, inci­den­tal­ly, turns out to be rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, as many wealthy coun­tries grant spe­cial immi­gra­tion priv­i­leges to peo­ple under 18 years, but older peo­ple in poor coun­tries can claim to be much younger than they are and prov­ing oth­er­wise is dif­fi­cult. Jean Har­low her­self fur­nishes an inter­est­ing exam­ple, as after long-run­ning health prob­lems such as weight gain/fatigue/paleness, she died aged 26 of kid­ney dis­ease (now mostly treat­able) which was prob­a­bly the seque­lae of a child­hood infec­tion by (now cur­able & occur­rence largely sup­pressed by antibi­otic­s).

Some objec­tions come to mind:

  • with an increas­ingly large pop­u­la­tion, the most extreme mod­els and actresses will be much more beau­ti­ful than early on, sim­i­lar to sports. The USA was a smaller pop­u­la­tion in 1900 than in 2016, and Hol­ly­wood & adver­tis­ing have like­wise expanded enor­mous­ly, in addi­tion to recruit­ing glob­al­ly. Early Hol­ly­wood star­lets were big fish in small national pools. Or per­haps mod­ern adver­tise­ments and media are increas­ingly manip­u­lated with Pho­to­shop

    But then why does it also hold true when we com­pare pho­tographs of ordi­nary peo­ple, and why would the art­work, whose artists were lit­tle con­strained by real­i­ty, have been exceeded as well? And can we really say that the elim­i­na­tion of things like small­pox scar­ring makes no dif­fer­ence?

  • beauty is purely rel­a­tive

There are at least 2 pos­si­bil­i­ties for how beauty works:

  1. beauty is (most­ly) relative/ordinal and is per­ceived as rel­a­tive: a beau­ti­ful per­son is merely some­one above the aver­age on some arbi­trary cul­tural mea­sure­ments which are caused by no impor­tant objec­tive attrib­utes like health or strength; in another group of peo­ple, the same per­son would be rated by the same raters as ugly rather than beau­ti­ful. Par­tic­u­larly good exam­ples of the rel­a­tivism include the cen­turies of tooth-black­en­ing and eye­brow-­pluck­ing among the Japan­ese aris­toc­ra­cy, Chi­nese foot-bind­ing, tan­ning vs white skin, gav­age in Mau­ri­ta­nia etc.

    Changes in beau­ty, there­fore, indi­cate no gains to the pos­ses­sors of beau­ty, cause no addi­tional pleasure/displeasure in those around them (as they will per­ceive the same aver­age level of beauty regard­less), will vary wildly from cul­ture to cul­ture, and beauty itself is a harm­ful con­struct in that the biases in favor of beauty can dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm sub­groups and in gen­eral causes waste­ful arms races in time & money spent on tac­tics like cos­met­ics, cloth­ing, or surgery, which leaves the group worse off.

  2. beauty is (most­ly) objective/cardinal and is per­ceived as objec­tive: a beau­ti­ful per­son is above aver­age on objec­tive attrib­utes like , long hair, smooth undis­eased skin, height, energy & health, per­son­al­i­ty, intel­li­gence etc. Hence, entire groups of peo­ple can increase or decrease in their aver­age beau­ty, and rat­ings of indi­vid­u­als will not shift based on ref­er­ence group.

    Changes in beau­ty, there­fore, may be due to objec­tive improve­ments or it may be due to cos­met­ics etc. How­ev­er, since per­cep­tions are not rel­a­tive, peo­ple will enjoy more what they see, so the arms races may be worth­while in the same way that any dec­o­ra­tion or art­work is worth­while—be­cause it looks nicer. On the other hand, to the extent that beauty serves as an indi­ca­tor for objec­tive things, this may be harm­ful: for exam­ple, if beauty & repro­duc­tive fit­ness are to reduce genetic , use of cos­met­ics is harm­ful as it hides the harm being done by bad genes & pre­vents them from being purged.

If #1 is right, then there should be high lev­els of dis­agree­ment about whether a pho­to­graph of an indi­vid­ual is ugly or beau­ti­ful between raters (who will have been raised in dif­fer­ent social groups and have dif­fer­ent stan­dard­s), higher still across eth­nic groups, and almost total global dis­agree­ment across cul­tures; and beauty should cor­re­late min­i­mally with traits because social treat­ment has lit­tle effect on sta­ble traits like height or health or intel­li­gence or per­son­al­i­ty.

, meta-­an­a­lyzes a vari­ety of stud­ies, and on the first point, finds that rat­ings of beauty are remark­ably con­sis­tent and actu­ally increase with dis­tance: with­in-­cul­ture, r = 0.9/.85; cross-eth­nic, r = 0.88; cross-­cul­ture, r = 0.94. (Given the lim­its of such inven­to­ries, this might imply that agree­ment on beauty cross-­cul­tur­ally approaches iden­ti­ty.) Lan­glois et al 2000 also finds that more attrac­tive adults are more employed, date & have sex more and are more socially skilled & extravert­ed, are in bet­ter men­tal & phys­i­cal health, and are slightly more intel­li­gent. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, beliefs that the beau­ti­ful are treated bet­ter by other peo­ple also turn out to be true. (Given that sex did not strongly mod­er­ate the results, this sug­gests that either men pay too lit­tle atten­tion to their appear­ances or women too much.) Com­bined with the other evi­dence for things like fluc­tu­at­ing sym­me­try, #1 can be reject­ed. (The­ory #2 is also more con­sis­tent with my per­sonal obser­va­tion­s.)

The past is a for­eign coun­try, so it seems like a safe assump­tion that the beauty rat­ings of some­one in, say, 1920 would cor­re­late r = 0.94 with ours. Then rat­ings will still be sim­i­lar—eg some­one rated at the 84th per­centile (+1SD) by us would on aver­age be rated 82nd per­centile (+0.94SD) by them. So we would expect that the mod­ern mean of beauty would be higher as long as it’s at least 0.06SDs high­er, which is not much at all.

That would assume the dif­fer­ence is ran­dom, though, and not sys­tem­at­ic: in the worst case, if that remain­ing 0.06 reflects a con­sis­tent cul­tural pref­er­ence & fash­ion of the moment, then some­one in 1920 will rate higher all peo­ple from 1920, and some­one from 2016 will rate higher all peo­ple from 2016. How large would this rat­ing bonus have to be to pro­duce an over­all cor­re­la­tion of r = 0.94? The total vari­ance is , so a binary vari­able totally explain­ing the remain­ing vari­ance must have the effect b = 0.342. So in the worst case, we would have to demon­strate an increase by our stan­dards of +0.342SDs before we could be sure that peo­ple from 1920 would agree there had been an increase. The impli­ca­tion of this increase is that our 50th per­centile would have to match their 63rd per­centile; or to put it another way, in ran­dom pairs, ~59.5% of mod­ern peo­ple would have to be judged the more beau­ti­ful. I think this is a bar that could def­i­nitely be met, so even in the worst case, beauty has increased over time.

  1. And in the case of sports, we also it might not be odd if some records set in the 1960s–1980s haven’t been bro­ken yet, and why Mark McG­wire & Barry Bonds et al astounded saber­me­tri­cians by shat­ter­ing records that had some­times stood since Babe Ruth…↩︎

  2. The Humane Soci­ety of the United States Com­plete Guide to Cat Care, Chris­tensen et al 2004, notes in its ear clean­ing sec­tion that with mul­ti­ple cats who are good friends, it might be unnec­es­sary, because it is a “allogroom­ing (mu­tual groom­ing) task that cats seem to love doing for one anoth­er.” Because of social bond­ing or to learn about each oth­er—or because ear­wax is inter­est­ing & another cat is the eas­i­est source? (I’ve never owned cats which were good enough friends, appar­ent­ly, to see this for myself.)↩︎

  3. Both butyric acid and salt would also explain the inter­est in lick­ing sweaty hands/armpits. I tested out the pos­si­bil­ity of butyrate on my ear­wax-lov­ing cat. A 2006 chem­istry forum dis­cus­sion out­lined a num­ber of strate­gies for obtain­ing butyric acid, of which the sec­ond sim­plest was adding and the sim­plest was ran­cid but­ter. I made ran­cid but­ter by putting a few table­spoons of but­ter into a ziplock bag inside a tup­per­ware and stor­ing it on top of my hot water heater for a week and a half; after a day it had melted and sep­a­rated into a yel­low liq­uid & a solid white mass, and after a week it smelled bad. I stored it in my refrig­er­a­tor, and tested my cat three times by offer­ing two saucers of a table­spoon of ran­cid but­ter and but­ter which I heated simul­ta­ne­ously in my microwave for 10s. All 3 times, if he started with the ran­cid but­ter, he would even­tu­ally lick and eat a lit­tle of the ran­cid but­ter, but slowly and with­out enthu­si­asm, and switch to the fresh but­ter which he would eat more of and much more enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, and vice ver­sa, always leav­ing more of the ran­cid than fresh. The ear­wax-style fas­ci­na­tion was absent for both kinds of but­ter. It’s pos­si­ble that the ran­cid but­ter had other break­down prod­ucts which off­set the appeal of the butyric acid, but I would have expected dif­fer­ent behav­ior if he was simul­ta­ne­ously attracted & repelled. I fur­ther tested ‘caramelized but­ter’ (but­ter heated up to a point where it browns, which can be sweet­ened and used as deli­cious cake frost­ing); my cat liked it, but another cat I tried was almost indif­fer­ent. For a fol­lowup exper­i­ment, I bought some lye and mixed 2tsp lye with a quar­ter stick of melted but­ter (vs another quar­ter, both left to cool to room tem­per­a­ture), which turned it darker yel­low and gave it an odd smell (al­beit not nearly as strong as the ‘rot­ten’ but­ter smelt) even­tu­ally hard­ened to a cracked white crust, and tried it on my cat; again, he showed no inter­est in the treated but­ter com­pared to the nor­mal ‘fresh’ but­ter.↩︎

  4. Per­haps more rep­re­sen­ta­tive than out­right mur­der is the loose­ly-in­spired-by-­Park­er-Hulme Simp­sons episode, “”.↩︎

  5. An exam­ple is Esmé Wei­jun Wang’s The Col­lected Schiz­o­phre­nias:

    As Wang nar­rates the Slen­der­man sto­ry, she revis­its her own mem­ory of a fraught child­hood imag­i­na­tion. Her young mind has been cap­ti­vated by the world of , a 1984 film depict­ing a fan­tasy world that even­tu­ally includes its reader in the nar­ra­tive. Wang describes con­vinc­ing her best friend Jes­sica that their life, too, was just another thread in the sto­ry, craft­ing a com­pli­cated uni­verse of rules to dic­tate their time togeth­er. “We’re just play­ing, right?” Jes­sica finally asks, bemused and a lit­tle fright­ened; Wang’s child­hood self dis­agrees, telling Jes­sica that the imag­i­nary world was, in fact, real: “With my every denial, she became increas­ingly hys­ter­i­cal while I remained calm. I watched her leave in sobs; I remained grounded in the world of my imag­i­na­tion.”

  6. Although wul­frick­son asks if oth­erkin are in decline—hard as these things are to gauge, they do seem to come up less?↩︎

  7. Pg63–64:

    One morn­ing in 1946 in Los Ange­les, Stanis­law Ulam, a newly appointed pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, awoke to find him­self unable to speak. A few hours later he under­went dan­ger­ous surgery after the diag­no­sis of encephali­tis. His skull was sawed open and his brain tis­sue was sprayed with antibi­otics. After a short con­va­les­cence he man­aged to recover appar­ently unscathed.

    In time, how­ev­er, some changes in his per­son­al­ity became obvi­ous to those who knew him. Paul Stein, one of his col­lab­o­ra­tors at the Los Alamos Lab­o­ra­tory (where Stan Ulam worked most of his life), remarked that while Stan had been a metic­u­lous dresser before his oper­a­tion, a dandy of sorts, after­wards he became vis­i­bly sloppy in the details of his attire even though he would still care­fully and expen­sively select every item of cloth­ing he wore.

    Soon after I met him in 1963, sev­eral years after the event, I could not help notic­ing that his trains of thought were not those of a nor­mal per­son, even a math­e­mati­cian. In his con­ver­sa­tion he was live­lier and wit­tier than any­one I had ever met; and his ideas, which he spouted out at odd inter­vals, were fas­ci­nat­ing beyond any­thing I have wit­nessed before or since. How­ev­er, he seemed to stu­diously avoid going into any details. He would dwell on any sub­ject no longer than a few min­utes, then impa­tiently move on to some­thing entirely unre­lat­ed.

    Out of curios­i­ty, I asked , Stan’s col­lab­o­ra­tor in the thir­ties (and, like Stan, a for­mer Junior Fel­low at Har­vard) about their work­ing habits before his oper­a­tion. Sur­pris­ing­ly, Oxtoby described how at Har­vard they would sit for hours on end, day after day, in front of the black­board. From the time I met him, Stan never did any­thing of the sort. He would per­form a cal­cu­la­tion (even the sim­plest) only when he had absolutely no other way out. I remem­ber watch­ing him at the black­board, try­ing to solve a qua­dratic equa­tion. He fur­rowed his brow in rapt absorp­tion while scrib­bling for­mu­las in his tiny hand­writ­ing. When he finally got the answer, he turned around and said with relief: “I feel I have done my work for the day.”

    The Ger­mans have aptly called Sitzfleisch the abil­ity to spend end­less hours at a desk doing grue­some work. Sitzfleisch is con­sid­ered by math­e­mati­cians to be a bet­ter gauge of suc­cess than any of the attrac­tive def­i­n­i­tions of tal­ent with which psy­chol­o­gists regale us from time to time. Stan Ulam, how­ev­er, was able to get by with­out any Sitzfleisch what­so­ev­er. After his bout with encephali­tis, he came to lean on his unim­paired imag­i­na­tion for his ideas, and on the Sitzfleisch of oth­ers for tech­ni­cal sup­port. The beauty of his insights and the promise of his pro­pos­als kept him amply sup­plied with young col­lab­o­ra­tors, will­ing to lend (and risk­ing the waste of) their time.

  8. The rec­ol­lec­tions of Eugene P. Wigner as told to Andrew Szan­ton, Wigner 1992, pg109–110:

    Does it seem odd for a math­e­mati­cian like Hilbert to take a young physi­cist for an assis­tant? Well, Hilbert needed no help in math­e­mat­ics. But his work embraced physics, too, and I hoped to help Hilbert some­what with physics.

    So I was quite excited to reach Göt­tin­gen in 1927. I was quickly and deeply dis­ap­point­ed. I found Hilbert painfully with­drawn. He had con­tracted per­ni­cious ane­mia in 1925 and was no longer an active thinker. The worst symp­toms of per­ni­cious ane­mia are not imme­di­ately obvi­ous, and Hilbert’s case had not yet been diag­nosed. But we knew already that some­thing was quite wrong. Hilbert was only liv­ing halfway. His enor­mous fatigue was plain. And the cor­rect diag­no­sis was not encour­ag­ing when it came. Per­ni­cious ane­mia was then not con­sid­ered cur­able.

    So Hilbert sud­denly seemed quite old. He was only about 65, which seems rather young to me now. But life no longer much inter­ested him. I knew very well that old age comes even­tu­ally to every­one who sur­vives his stay on this earth. For some peo­ple, it is a time of ripe reflec­tion, and I had often envied old men their posi­tion. But Hilbert had aged with awful speed, and the pre­ma­tu­rity of his decline took the glow from it. His breadth of inter­est was nearly gone and with it the engag­ing man­ner that had earned him so many dis­ci­ples.

    Hilbert even­tu­ally got med­ical treat­ment for his ane­mia and man­aged to live until 1943. But he was hardly a sci­en­tist after 1925, and cer­tainly not a Hilbert. I once explained some new the­o­rem to him. As soon as he saw that its use was lim­it­ed, he said, “Ah, then one does­n’t really have to learn this one.” It was painfully dear that he did not want to learn it.

    …I had come to Göt­tin­gen to be Hilbert’s assis­tant, but he wanted no assis­tance. We can all get old by our­selves.

  9. Cal­houn reflects on this in: Cal­houn, J. B. C. 1979. “Employ­ee’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Per­for­mance Assess­ment of his Sci­en­tific Ser­vice. [Draft.]” 4 Decem­ber. John B. Cal­houn Papers, National Library of Med­i­cine (NLM), Bethes­da, MD. n.p.↩︎

  10. The study alluded to by Inglis-Arkell here appears to actu­ally be the dis­cus­sion of the behav­ioral sink in chap­ter 32 of the Hock 2004 text­book.↩︎

  11. Another exam­ple of this inter­pre­ta­tion would be Moore 1999, “Pop­u­la­tion Den­si­ty, Social Pathol­o­gy, and Behav­ioral Ecol­ogy”.↩︎

  12. Cal­houn appears to have main­tained this posi­tion up to his death in 1996, accord­ing to his NYT obit­u­ary: “But his work had its frus­tra­tions as well, she [a col­league] not­ed, because its impli­ca­tions for the future of the human rat race were often met with stud­ied dis­re­gard. But Dr. Cal­houn was con­vinced that his mice and rat pop­u­la­tions were an accu­rate model for humans.”He did­n’t regard it as hypoth­e­sis any more, he regarded it as fac­tu­al," Mrs. Kerr said."↩︎

  13. It’s par­tic­u­larly worth not­ing in this con­text that Rat Park may also have suf­fered from genetic con­founds, as could not repli­cate Rat Park using a dif­fer­ent, out­bred, strain.↩︎

  14. Given the dis­parate results of all these uni­vers­es, it seems, con­trary to the claims of some jour­nal­ists that Cal­houn “had been build­ing utopian envi­ron­ments for rats and mice since the 1940s, with thor­oughly con­sis­tent results. Heaven always turned into hell.”, many of them did no such thing.↩︎

  15. I’ve been told that a UK uni­ver­sity quashed a third Mouse Utopia pro­posal on, iron­i­cal­ly, ‘ethics’ grounds. (The same rea­son Zim­bardo gives for why no one should ever try to repli­cate his Stan­ford Prison Exper­i­ment, inci­den­tal­ly.)↩︎

  16. One is reminded of ’s obser­va­tion that in the hard sci­ences, the­o­ries are built on and pre­dic­tions quan­ti­ta­tively refined or are clearly refut­ed, while in the more patho­log­i­cal social sci­ences, the­o­ries are never refuted but sim­ply fade away, resem­bling more than facts.↩︎

  17. “Dr Cal­houn said that they (the inves­ti­ga­tors) were not very san­i­tary in their hus­bandry, if that was the kind of pol­lu­tion inferred. The envi­ron­ment was cleaned, most feces and soiled bed­ding removed, every six weeks or two months, but noth­ing was ever ster­il­ized. He did not con­sider this nec­es­sary in such a closed sys­tem and the mice had bet­ter sur­vival than in most lab­o­ra­tory colonies.” In claim­ing Mouse Utopia mor­tal­ity rates supe­rior to ‘most’ reg­u­lar lab mice, Cal­houn is pre­sum­ably exclud­ing the extremely high infant or youth mor­tal­i­ty.↩︎

  18. See also the .↩︎

  19. Cal­houn 1973: “Dr Cal­houn felt that there prob­a­bly was some muta­tion. Mice which con­tin­u­ally cir­cled, about a dozen, had been not­ed, but these might have been ‘vestibu­lar’ mice and a result of an infec­tion, not muta­tion. Even if muta­tion rates were known, the first gen­er­a­tion would have been very much like the last. So the real con­clu­sion was that tremen­dous behav­ioural dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion could occur as a result of social envi­ron­men­tal influ­ences even given a high degree of genetic homozy­gos­i­ty.” Mars­den 1972, pre­sent­ing a ‘syn­the­sis’ based on a year with Cal­houn, denies any pos­si­bil­ity of genetic change: "The genetic poten­tial for exploit­ing this mouse par­adise was qual­i­ta­tively and quan­ti­ta­tively present in equal pro­por­tion in each of the orig­i­nal eight col­o­niz­ers and would remain essen­tially unchanged even to the _n_th gen­er­a­tion."↩︎

  20. A , as I doubt that the urban plan­ners or demog­ra­phers or Demo­c­ra­tic politi­cians who took an inter­est in Mouse Utopia would be as inter­ested if the causal mech­a­nism turned out to be “urban den­si­ties increase STDs or genetic muta­tions to the point of col­lapse”. And if it turned out that Mouse Utopia repli­cated in mice but never humans (early attempts to cor­re­late pop­u­la­tion den­sity with social decay in humans appar­ently did not do well, inci­den­tal­ly), I also doubt if most peo­ple cit­ing it, aside from a few zool­o­gists, ethol­o­gists, or mouse breed­ers, would be doing so.↩︎

  21. Although hav­ing become much more cyn­i­cal about psy­chol­ogy and edu­ca­tion in par­tic­u­lar since I first heard of Bloom’s result back in the 2000s, I would sug­gest renam­ing it “Bloom’s 0.5 Sigma prob­lem”…↩︎

  22. Chem­i­cal pheromones have been sug­gested for many things in humans— as a pos­si­ble mob mech­a­nis­m—but as far as I know, the evi­dence they do any­thing in humans is quite weak (the rel­e­vant genes are bro­ken and it’s unclear if we even have a VMO), and some of the rel­e­van­t-seem­ing hor­mones even weaker (like the oxy­tocin lit­er­a­ture turns out to be badly afflicted by pub­li­ca­tion bias). Given the Repro­ducibil­ity Cri­sis, can we really take seri­ously any of these n = 40 stud­ies where “we had some female under­grad­u­ates sniff under­wear and fill out a sur­vey”? In ani­mals, it’s impos­si­ble to mis­take that scents/pheromones are an impor­tant thing, in a way that they are not in human­s—any cat owner will have noticed the ‘’ or ‘gape’, even if they don’t know the name for it (and you don’t have to spend too long around horses to notice it there either).

    And what are the testable impli­ca­tions? For exam­ple, meet­ings held in well-ven­ti­lated areas should be dis­as­trous because any pheromone con­cen­tra­tion would be diluted far below other meet­ings. Meet­ings where you notice body odor, indi­cat­ing potent bod­ily out­put and lit­tle ven­ti­la­tion, should go great. Lead­ers would be well-ad­vised to avoid using deodor­ant, as that reduces the direct route for pheromone emis­sion. Direct inter­ac­tion should be weaker than expected as a pre­dic­tor of bonding/success, because the pheromones are omni­di­rec­tion­al. ‘Mere expo­sure’ effects should be sub­stan­tial. Peo­ple with lower smell acu­ity should be less affected by meet­ings as bro­ken olfac­tory capa­bil­i­ties may break any down­stream pheromone sen­si­tiv­i­ty; anos­mics pre­sum­ably would be entirely indif­fer­ent between vir­tual and real meet­ings. A (very clear) glass pane should elim­i­nate meet­ing effects, while incre­men­tal improve­ments in laten­cy, screen res­o­lu­tion, or audio qual­ity would pro­duce small or no gains over the base­line. Gas chro­matog­ra­phy could prob­a­bly iden­tify pheromones and should be able to pre­dict meet­ing suc­cess—while it’s true the hypo­thet­i­cal pheromones may be unknown, hormones/pheromones are fre­quently in the steroid fam­i­ly, and so my under­stand­ing is that it should be pos­si­ble to mea­sure a “total steroids” con­cen­tra­tion in sam­ples which would pick up on any social pheromone and be used in a regres­sion.

    Many of those have not been con­duct­ed, but some of them don’t tally with my own expe­ri­ences. For exam­ple, one 2018 con­fer­ence I attended was what prompted me to ask this—in sev­eral cas­es, I’d known peo­ple I met there for years online before, and yet, meet­ing them in per­son seemed to make a large dif­fer­ence in how much I trusted or liked them. Good—ex­cept most of it was held out­side because the weather was so nice and there was a pleas­ant breeze; every­one got along despite the con­di­tions being awful for any pheromone effects.↩︎

  23. Nobody looks more pre­ma­turely aged than a sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture peas­ant.↩︎

  24. The Pub­lic Domain Review notes in “The Seri­ous and the Smirk: The Smile in Por­trai­ture” that miss­ing teeth was so com­mon that it was hardly a point of shame:

    It remains a com­monly held belief that for hun­dreds of years peo­ple did­n’t smile in pic­tures because their teeth were gen­er­ally awful. This is not really true—bad teeth were so com­mon that this was not seen as nec­es­sar­ily tak­ing away from some­one’s attrac­tive­ness. , Queen Vic­to­ri­a’s Whig prime min­is­ter, was often described as being dev­as­tat­ingly good-look­ing, and hav­ing a ‘strik­ingly hand­some face and fig­ure’ despite the fact that he had a num­ber of promi­nent teeth miss­ing as a result of hunt­ing acci­dents. It was only in later life, when he acquired a set of flap­ping false teeth, that his image was com­pro­mised. His fear of them falling out when he spoke led to a stop-s­tart deliv­ery of his speech­es, caus­ing to openly poke fun at him in par­lia­ment.

  25. Which one might expect to hurt, but man­ual labor is not as effec­tive as reg­u­lar exer­cise as it is highly repet­i­tive, can be harm­ful, does not spread the work over the body evenly and can­not be cal­i­brated to one’s fit­ness lev­el, and must often be done at rates, times, places, and con­di­tions min­i­mally of one’s choos­ing. So increas­ing gen­der equi­ty, per­mit­ting—even expect­ing—­women to par­tic­i­pate more in sports and use pub­lic gyms etc, could well off­set this reduc­tion. Cer­tainly an Afghanistani woman con­fined to her house by is not bet­ter off for it.↩︎

  26. , Robb 2008; ch5:

    At the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, doc­tors from urban Alsace to rural Brit­tany found that high death rates were not caused pri­mar­ily by famine and dis­ease. The prob­lem was that, as soon as they became ill, peo­ple took to their beds and hoped to die. In 1750, the Mar­quis d’Ar­gen­son noticed that the peas­ants who farmed his land in the Touraine were ‘try­ing not to mul­ti­ply’: ‘They wish only for death’. Even in times of plen­ty, old peo­ple who could no longer wield a spade or hold a nee­dle were keen to die as soon as pos­si­ble. ‘Last­ing too long’ was one of the great fears of life. Invalids were habit­u­ally hated by their car­ers. It took a spe­cial gov­ern­ment grant, insti­tuted in 1850 in the Seine and Loiret départe­ments, to per­suade poor fam­i­lies to keep their ail­ing rel­a­tives at home instead of send­ing them to that bare wait­ing room of the grave­yard, the munic­i­pal hos­pice.

    When there was just enough food for the liv­ing, the mouth of a dying per­son was an obscen­i­ty. In the rel­a­tively har­mo­nious house­hold of the 1840s described by the peas­ant nov­el­ist Émile Guil­lau­min, the fam­ily mem­bers spec­u­late openly in front of Émile’s bed-rid­den grand­mother (who has not lost her hear­ing): ‘“I wish we knew how long it’s going to last.” And another would reply, “Not long, I hope.”’ As soon as the bur­den expired, any water kept in pans or basins was thrown out (since the soul might have washed itself—or, if bound for Hell, tried to extin­guish itself—as it left the house), and then life went on as before.

    ‘Happy as a corpse’ was a say­ing in the Alps. Vis­i­tors to vil­lages in the Savoy Alps, the cen­tral Pyre­nees, Alsace and Lor­raine, and parts of the Mas­sif Cen­tral were often hor­ri­fied to find silent pop­u­la­tions of cretins with hideous thy­roid defor­mi­ties. (The link between goitre and lack of iodine in the water was not widely rec­og­nized until the early nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.) The Alpine explorer Saus­sure, who asked in vain for direc­tions in a vil­lage in the Aosta Val­ley when most of the vil­lagers were out in the fields, imag­ined that ‘an evil spirit had turned the inhab­i­tants of the unhappy vil­lage into dumb ani­mals, leav­ing them with just enough human face to show that they had once been men’.

    The infir­mity that seemed a curse to Saus­sure was a bless­ing to the natives. The birth of a cretinous baby was believed to bring good luck to the fam­i­ly. The idiot child would never have to work and would never have to leave home to earn money to pay the tax-­col­lec­tor. These hideous, crea­tures were already half-cured of life. Even the death of a nor­mal child could be a con­so­la­tion. If the baby had lived long enough to be bap­tized, or if a clever witch revived the corpse for an instant to sprin­kle it with holy water, its soul would pray for the fam­ily in heav­en.

  27. The Dis­cov­ery of France, Robb 2008; ch6:

    In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, over a quar­ter of the young men who stood naked in front of mil­i­tary recruit­ment boards were found to be unfit for ser­vice because of ‘infir­mity’, which included ‘weak con­sti­tu­tion’, a use­less or miss­ing limb, par­tial blind­ness and eye dis­ease, her­nias and gen­i­tal com­plaints, deaf­ness, goitre, scro­fula and res­pi­ra­tory and chest com­plaints. In a typ­i­cal con­tin­gent of two hun­dred and thirty thou­sand, about one thou­sand were found to be men­tally defec­tive or insane, two thou­sand were hunch­backs and almost three thou­sand had bow legs or club feet. A fur­ther 5 per cent were too short (un­der five feet), and about 4 per cent suf­fered from unspec­i­fied com­plaints which prob­a­bly included dysen­tery and vir­u­lent infes­ta­tions of lice. For obvi­ous rea­sons, peo­ple suf­fer­ing from infec­tious dis­eases were not exam­ined and do not appear in the fig­ures.

    This was the health­i­est sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion—y­oung men in their early twen­ties. The phys­i­cal con­di­tion of every­one else might give the trav­eller seri­ous doubts about infor­ma­tion culled from books, muse­ums and paint­ings—even if the painters belonged to the Real­ist school…If one of the liv­ing fig­ures turned around, the trav­eller might find him­self look­ing at what Lieu­tenan­t-­Colonel Pinkney unkindly called ‘a Venus with the face of an old mon­key’. [More pre­cise­ly: “The peas­ant women of France work so hard, as to lose every appear­ance of youth in the face, whilst they retain it in the per­son; and it is there­fore no uncom­mon thing to see the per­son of a Venus, and the face of an old mon­key.”] To judge by the reac­tions of con­tem­po­rary trav­ellers, the biggest sur­prise would be the pre­pon­der­ance of women in the fields. Until the mid- to late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, almost every­where in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hin­ter­land), the north­east and a nar­row region from Poitou to Bur­gundy, at least half the peo­ple work­ing in the open air were women. In many parts, women appeared to do the lion’s share of the work…The report on south­ern Nor­mandy cru­elly sug­gested that women were treated as beasts of bur­den because hard work had robbed them of their beau­ty: a sun-baked, arthritic crea­ture was hardly an orna­ment and might as well be put to work. In parts like the south­ern Auvergne, where soci­ety was patri­ar­chal, women seemed to belong to a dif­fer­ent caste…Her face con­firms the truth of what she says in all but one respect. That evening, at Mars-la-­Tour, the trav­eller remem­bers her face when he writes his account: ‘It speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labour. I am inclined to think that they work harder than the men.’ ‘This wom­an, at no great dis­tance, might have been taken for sixty or sev­en­ty, her fig­ure was so bent and her face so fur­rowed and hard­ened by labour,—but she said she was only twen­ty-eight.’