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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Nov 17, 2023

On this episode of Unsupervised Learning, Razib talks to Michael Muthukrishna about his new book, A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. Muthukrishna is Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics, an affiliate of the Developmental Economics Group at STICERD and Data Science Institute, Azrieli Global Scholar at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Technical Director of The Database of Religious History, a fellow at the Charter Cities Institute and board member of the One Pencil Project. Of Sri Lankan extraction, he trained as an engineer in Australia, but later became interested in anthropological and cultural questions. He studied for his Ph.D. under Joe Henrich in Canada. Like his mentor, Muthukrishna cross-applies toolkits from evolutionary biology and population genetics to questions of variation and change in human cultures.

A Theory of Everyone is an ambitious book with arguably galactic ambitions. The chapters jump from topics like the Cambrian Explosion to the ever-increasing amount of energy needed to get at the fossil fuels that power our civilization. But to start off, Razib asks Muthukrishna about his background as a “third culture kid” and how that might have influenced his anthropological interests. Muthukrishna observed firsthand social and political chaos in Papua New Guinea, while his family’s background in Sri Lanka illustrated for him the salience of ethnic tensions, even when differences might seem minimal to outsiders. Then Razib talks about A Theory of Everyone’s fixation on energy and its role in powering organic life, about our technology-driven civilization and about our potential interplanetary future. Here, Muthukrishina thinks like an engineer, albeit with a broad historical and evolutionary perspective. He and Razib also discuss the problems of “degrowth economics” and why it is a dead-end for a dynamic civilization’s flourishing. Razib also probes Muthukrishna for his views on IQ, its utility as a psychological measure, the variation between individuals and groups, and how those might relate to cultural evolutionary frameworks for considering cognitive aptitudes. The conversation concludes with a consideration of future possibilities as we hurtle past our current energy constraints as a civilization (Muthukrishna is bullish on nuclear), and the role of decentralized political experimentation in improving our social technology.