Solutions to Problems You Don't Know Exist
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic grapples with what’s really behind tradition and what the challenges are when we remove them without considering what problems they are solving. Yes, some old expectations or behaviors need to be adapted. Yes, we also need to be careful at how quickly we change things so we don’t unlock chaos.
“Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.” — Donald Kingsbury
These days one thing pops up over and over in business, politics, and society that manifests in two different ways. First, we keep trying to do things in new or novel ways without understanding the implications of why we did things the old way. Second, we continue to do things the way we always have for the exact same reasons. Neither manifestation is going to fix the problems we face and both will certainly make things worse.
Digging in, we’ll address a couple of examples from both and then provide a key insight to apply to mitigate the negative consequences.
That’s the way we’ve always done it
The first thing that pops into my mind with Tradition is the wonderful song from Fiddler On the Roof. The entire movie is an exploration of traditions, where they work, and where they need to change.
There are a ton of examples of ways of doing things that you find out later, were relics of a past limitation. One classic story is about the man who cuts the ends of the pot roast off because “That’s the way my mom did it.” So they ask the mom and find out “That’s the way my mom did it.” So they ask the grandmother and she says, “The oven was too small and the pan didn’t fit the entire roast so I trimmed it.”
Foot binding in China is a great example of catastrophic physiological damage that was done for hundreds of years. It is said to have been inspired by a 10th-century court dancer named Yao Niang who bound her feet into the shape of a new moon. She entranced Emperor Li Yu by dancing on her toes inside a six-foot golden lotus. Soon other women, vying for the attention of the Emperor followed suit and it wasn’t until the early 20th Century that it passed away.
Yet it was painful, debilitating, could not be reversed, and yet supported by a weird acceptance of “This is the way we’ve always done it.” To add another complexity, it was enforced by women more than men. There’s another layer here that showed status by being debilitated and being able to afford not having to have the women working. Needless to say, archaic, but not without some social benefits.
Tear it all down
On the flipside, we have a tendency to want to tear down things we perceive as being in our way and sometimes our modern sensibilities get in the way of ancient wisdom. Corn (maize) is a great example. Corn is cheap to produce, has high yields, and has lots of energy. The Native American thrived on it for thousands of years and it rapidly became an important food crop in Italy, Spain, and later the southern United States. But with corn consumption came pellagra. Pellagra manifests first as a skin disease, but untreated it can lead to dementia and even death.
‘Modern medicine’ thought that the Pellagra was caused by contamination but in reality, it was caused by the dismissal of an American native tradition of processing the corn with water made alkaline with ash. The civilized Europeans wouldn’t soak their corn in dirty water and so missed an important process whereby the alkalinity chemically altered the corn to free the B-Vitamin known as Niacin. Pellagra is a Niacin deficiency, not contamination of the corn.
The process of soaking the corn in water mixed with alkaline ash creates an effect known as Nixtamalization which, as well as freeing niacin, also increases its nutritional value, improves flavor and aroma, and nearly eliminates mycotoxins. Coupled with Pellagra was also malnutrition even though the Europeans were eating plenty of corn. They just threw away the tradition that solved the problem.
Joseph Henrich explores a ton of these examples in his book The Secret of Our Success. In his exploration, we learn how so many things that traditions held have only very recently been explained by modern science. In fact, Dr. Joseph Goldberger didn’t rediscover the cure to corn-based Pellagra, that was known for millennia, until 1937, and even then, was roundly criticized for his findings before even more research finally confirmed it. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands died and millions were sickened by a problem that had a solution. Just one we couldn’t explain yet.
To give a modern example that we don’t quite know the consequences of yet are the structures we colloquially call The Patriarchy. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the patriarchy is the traditional structure that created our business and political world globally. As women strive to gain equal standing with men, they too want to enter these structures. Yet these were designed by men, for men, and don’t scale well for everyone. So, something has to change.
Yet tearing the structures out, or ‘burning down the patriarchy’ is just as silly as not soaking your corn in the water.
The unacknowledged truth is that the Patriarchy exists MORE to control men than it does to control women. (the women have the matriarchy that controls them) This is counterintuitive, so we’ll poke a bit more.
Within the population of males are those that have Dark Triad behaviors. (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) The patriarchy puts structures of teamwork, professional behavior, and behavior toward women around the entire population of men in a culture that protects that society from these negative influences. Even more interesting is that the patriarchal behaviors, by and large, are designed to protect the women from these poor behaving men (what we might call chivalry)
This is not to say that the Patriarchy is perfectly healthy for either men or women. There are a lot of issues that do need to be addressed. Yet tearing down the patriarchy because it restricts women without understanding that it is designed to actually restrict men unleashes a lot of problems we learned to control. This doesn’t mean to accept it, it means we have to better understand it.
Luckily there’s a very nice tool we can use to solve both the problems of keeping things past their usefulness AND avoiding unlocking the problems traditions have figured out how to solve. It’s called Chesterton’s Fence. Based on Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Think of it this way. The fence is a pain and it’s obstructing your goal of progression. But if you don’t know why that fence exists you don’t know what the true consequences are. For example, maybe that fence is keeping you out of something. A toxic waste dump, a hidden mineshaft, landmines… who knows? Or maybe that fence is keeping something in. Velociraptors? We all know how badly that went in the original Jurassic Park when antagonist Dennis Nedry powers down and unlocks the fences holding in all the dinosaurs so he can make an attempted escape with stolen embryos. Needless to say, he didn’t follow Chesterton’s Fence and unleashed chaos.
It often feels like a period of time when everything is being torn down or we feel everything is in our way. While there is a laudable attempt to progress beyond our history, sometimes our history and the traditions it contains do hold sets of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems.
The solution isn’t to do nothing. The solution is to step back, apply Systems Thinking (insatiable curiosity, humility, and reframing) invite the Polymaths who have broader ranges of knowledge, and look at things holistically. You might end up pulling down the fence but at least you’ll know what’s behind it, what its intent is, and what the consequences are. But maybe you’ll just put in a gate. Or maybe, it isn’t worth unleashing the velociraptors and you leave it alone. But you’ll at least know why.
As a bonus, this topic is also explored in my new book Paradox: Book One of The Singularity Chronicles. The failure to understand the traditions is a key vulnerability I exploit in the battle over AI to unleash the maximum chaos on the humans.
Here is an excerpt for your preview:
“And not having those personal connections means you don’t have real safety and because there are too many people, you are prone to manipulation by bad actors.”
“Cults of personality.” Kira stood up. “Or in this case the cult of AI.” She paused. “But they aren’t following the AI like a leader, they are dancing to the AI like a puppet.”
Noah stretched. “That’s because they don’t feel safe and the AI is feeding all their fears. So, the mob is reacting.”
“Pink Elephants on parade.” Kira quoted Noah’s saying.
“What?” Alex’s eyebrows crossed.
Kira explained the elephant analogy of emotion vs. reason to Alex as Noah stepped down to the water’s edge. AI could clearly be used for incredible advancement, but he couldn’t quite accept that humans were ready for it. It broke too many barriers too quickly. It shifted too many social structures without replacing them.
It was like on a farm. Just because a gate was across your path didn’t mean it was an impediment. You had to understand why that gate was there and what was behind that gate.
He thought back to when he was living on his uncle’s farm in high school after Grandmother passed. He’d been jumping fences to take a shortcut home from school and decided to pass through a gate only to find it quite secured. While his frustration mounted trying to figure out how to open it, the neighbor farmer came up.
“Whatcha doin’ son?”
“The gate won’t open.”
“Do ya reckon there’s a reason for that?”
“I need to get through.”
“I see that, but what’s that big gate there for?”
“I don’t know.”
“When you figure that out, I’ll tell you how to open it.”
The farmer had sat back on his four-wheeler and watched. Noah shook the gate, still missing the point in his stubbornness. Suddenly, he felt a presence behind him and turned. Under the trees off to the left, a massive form rose up from the ground and turned.
“Let me out!” Noah screamed as the massive bull shook himself and started to walk over. “Let me out!”
The farmer chuckled and hopped down from the four-wheeler. “That there fella is Hank, my prized breeder. He's as gentle as a little lamb, but he's got a real talent for escapin'.” He paused for a moment. “Actually, it's his mission in life to break free. If you ain't watchin' closely, he'll wait for ya to let your guard down and then make a run for the gate. Once he's out... Good Lord above... tryin' to wrangle that one-ton bull back in is no easy task. Do ya have any idea how tough it is to make a bull go where he don't wanna go?"
The farmer walked up to the fence. “It’s always smart knowin’ why something is there before ye go on an open it, or tear it out.”
He opened the gate slightly and let Noah slip out. “Never tear down somethin’ if ya can’t explain why it’s there. Likely, it’s either keep’n something in, or out, that you don’t want to deal with.”
The farmer muttered under his breath. “Wish people could figure that out stead of attacking all the old traditions.”
“Because traditions are solutions to problems you don’t know exist.” The farmer started in his eyes. “Some are good, some aren’t needed, but til you can explain that, don’t go ripping things apart just cause ya don’t understand ‘em.”
That was the first time Noah had met his future father-in-law. It had become the go-to story that his father-in-law would share with anyone about Noah. Everyone needed a story like that to keep them humble he supposed. Alexandra and he had been neighbors and friends but it wasn’t until long after high school that they started dating.
It wasn’t until years later he found out the idea had a name; Chesterton’s Fence. A logical razor to consider when making changes to a system. Until you could fully explain how the current system worked, you shouldn’t make any changes because it would likely not result in the effect you desired.
“What are you thinking about?” Kira startled Noah out of his recollection.
“Oh, nothing. Just hoping we don’t tear down too much societal structure in this chaos. It’s going to be hard enough to rebuild from here.”
“We are silly tribal monkeys who have figured out how to establish rules, traditions, and culture that structure, control, and direct our actions toward something more.” Kira looked back as Alex joined them at the pond’s edge.
“Yet still monkeys… Oddly hubristic monkeys who don’t even understand how they work.” Alex skipped a rock across the surface.
“It kills me to see what people can be, and yet watch them so easily manipulated by AI.”
“AI merely made it faster; these things have been going on forever. Only not at this scale.” Kira corrected.
“Fair, but when one tribe goes crazy, it’s not as big of a deal. When an entire society goes crazy, it turns and attacks itself and its systems.”
“Because we ignorantly believe we have overcome our base instincts?” Alex asked.
“Kind of. We see all the great things going on around us and we have this massive aspiration for what ‘could’ be, or worse ‘should’ be, and yet we ignore how we actually operate.” Noah skipped his own rock.
“It's why politics is always such a mess. People vote for ‘could’ or ‘should.’ And we don’t like to accept things as they are. We certainly don’t like to think we are sacks of meat driven primarily by hormonal responses and our low brain stems.”
You can pick up copies of the book here!
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