[Question] Social Capital Paradoxes

[Credit for hori­zon­tally trans­mit­ting these ideas to my brain goes mostly to Jen­nifer RM, ex­cept for the bits at the end about Bowl­ing Alone and The Mo­ral Econ­omy. Apolo­gies to Jen­nifer for fur­ther hori­zon­tally spread­ing.]

Ver­ti­cal/​Hori­zon­tal Transmission

The con­cept of ver­ti­cal and hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion felt like a big up­grade in my abil­ity to think about co­op­er­a­tive/​non­co­op­er­a­tive be­hav­ior in prac­tice. The ba­sic idea is to dis­t­in­guish be­tween sym­biotes that are passed on pri­mar­ily along ge­netic lines, vs sym­biotes which are passed on pri­mar­ily be­tween un­re­lated or­ganisms. A sym­biote which is ver­ti­cally trans­mit­ted is very likely to be helpful, whereas a sym­biote which is hori­zon­tally trans­mit­ted is very likely to be harm­ful. (Re­mem­ber that in biol­ogy, “sym­biote” means any kind of close re­la­tion­ship be­tween differ­ent or­ganisms; sym­bio­sis which is use­ful to both or­ganisms is mu­tu­al­is­tic, while sym­bio­sis which is use­ful to one but harm­ful to an­other is par­a­sitic.) (This is dis­cussed here on LW in Martin Sus­trik’s Co­or­di­na­tion Prob­lems in Evolu­tion.)

We can ob­vi­ously gen­er­al­ize this quite a bit.

  • In­fec­tious dis­eases tend to be more deadly the higher their trans­mis­sion rate is. (Diseases with a low trans­mis­sion rate need to keep their hosts rel­a­tively healthy in or­der to make con­tact with other po­ten­tial hosts.)

  • Memes which spread ver­ti­cally are more likely to be benefi­cial to hu­mans than memes which spread hori­zon­tally (at least, benefi­cial to those hu­man’s genes). Reli­gions which are passed through fam­ily lines have an in­cen­tive to en­courage big fam­i­lies, and in­clude ideas which pro­mote healthy, wealthy, sus­tain­able liv­ing. Reli­gions which spread pri­mar­ily to un­re­lated peo­ple have a greater in­cen­tive to ex­ploit those peo­ple, squeez­ing ev­ery last drop of pros­ely­ti­za­tion out of them.

  • Long-term in­ter­ac­tions be­tween hu­mans are more likely to be mu­tu­al­is­tic, while short-term in­ter­ac­tions are more likely to be preda­tory.

  • In gen­eral, co­op­er­a­tive be­hav­ior is more likely to arise in iter­ated games; moreso the more iter­a­tions there are, and the more prob­a­ble con­tinued iter­a­tion is.

Ver­ti­cal trans­mis­sion is just a highly iter­ated game be­tween the genes of the host and the genes of the sym­biote.

Hori­zon­tal Trans­mis­sion Abounds

Wait, but… hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion ap­pears to be the norm all over the place, in­clud­ing some of the things I hold most dear!

  • Reli­gion and tra­di­tion tend to fa­vor ver­ti­cal trans­mis­sion, while sci­ence, ed­u­ca­tion, and rea­son fa­vor hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion.

  • Free-mar­ket economies seem to fa­vor a whole lot of sin­gle-shot in­ter­ac­tions, rather than the time-tested iter­ated re­la­tion­ships which would be more com­mon in ear­lier economies.

    • To this day, small-town cul­ture fa­vors more highly iter­ated re­la­tion­ships, whereas big-city cul­ture fa­vors low-iter­a­tion. (I’ve had a de­cent amount of ex­pe­rience with small-town cul­ture, and a com­mon sen­ti­ment is that you have to live some­where for 20 years be­fore peo­ple trust you and treat you as a full mem­ber of the com­mu­nity.)

Para­dox One: A lot of good things seem to have a hori­zon­tal trans­fer struc­ture. Some things which I tend to re­gard with more sus­pi­cion have a ver­ti­cal fla­vor.

Hori­zon­tal Trans­mis­sion Seems Wonderful

  • The abil­ity to travel eas­ily from com­mu­nity to com­mu­nity al­lows a per­son to find the work, cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment, and set of friends that’s right for them.

  • Similarly, the abil­ity to work re­motely can be a huge boon, by al­low­ing sep­a­rate se­lec­tion of work­place and liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

  • The first thing I want to do when I hear that ver­ti­cally-trans­mit­ted re­li­gion has benefi­cial memes is to try and get more of those memes for my­self!

  • Similarly, I’ve read that many bac­te­ria have the abil­ity to pick up loose ge­netic ma­te­rial from their en­vi­ron­ment, and in­cor­po­rate it into their own genes. (See hori­zon­tal gene trans­fer.) This can be benefi­cial if those genes are from or­ganisms adapted to the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

Para­dox Two: In an en­vi­ron­ment where hori­zon­tal trans­fer is rare, open­ing things up for more hori­zon­tal trans­fer is usu­ally pretty great. But an open en­vi­ron­ment gives rise to bad dy­nam­ics which in­cen­tivize clos­ing down.

If you’re in a world where peo­ple only ever trade with highly iter­ated part­ners, there is prob­a­bly a lot of low-hang­ing fruit to be had from trad­ing with a large num­ber of un­trusted part­ners. You could ar­bi­trage price differ­ences, get goods from ar­eas where they’re abun­dant to ar­eas where they’re scarce, and gen­er­ally make a big profit while le­gi­t­i­mately helping a lot of peo­ple. All for the low price of open­ing up trade a lit­tle bit.

But this threat­ens the en­vi­ron­ment of trust and good­will that you’re rely­ing on. An en­vi­ron­ment with more free trade is one with more scam­mers, in­fe­rior goods, and out­right thieves.

YouTube is great for learn­ing things, but it’s also full of ab­solutely ter­rible demon­stra­tion videos which pur­port to teach you some skill, but in­stead offer ab­surd and un­der­de­vel­oped tech­niques (these videos are of­ten called “life­hacks” for some rea­son, if you’re un­fa­mil­iar with the phe­nomenon and want to search for it). The videos are be­ing op­ti­mized for trans­mis­sion rather than use­ful­ness. Ac­quiring use­ful in­for­ma­tion re­quires pru­dent op­ti­miza­tion against this.

So­cial Capital

So­cial Cap­i­tal is, roughly, the amount of trust you have within a group. Bowl­ing Alone is a book which re­searches Amer­ica’s de­cline in so­cial cap­i­tal over the course of the 1900s. Trust in the good­will of strangers took a dra­matic dive over that time pe­riod, with cor­re­spond­ing nega­tive con­se­quences (EG, the de­cline in hitch­hik­ing, the rise of he­li­copter par­ent­ing).

You might think this is due to the in­creas­ingly “hori­zon­tal” en­vi­ron­ment. More travel, more free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, big­ger cities, the de­cline of small towns; more hori­zon­tal spread of memes, by print, ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, and in­ter­net; more sci­ence and ed­u­ca­tion.

And you might be right.

But, coun­ter­point:

Para­dox Three: Free-mar­ket so­cieties have higher so­cial cap­i­tal. Ci­ta­tion: The Mo­ral Econ­omy, Sa­muel Bowles.

More gen­er­ally: a lot of things are a lot bet­ter than naive hori­zon­tal/​ver­ti­cal think­ing would sug­gest. I’ve already men­tioned that a lot of the things I hold dear seem to have a pretty hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion model. I don’t think that’s just be­cause I’ve been taken over by viru­lent memes.

By the way, my fa­vorite ex­pla­na­tion of the de­cline in so­cial cap­i­tal over the 1900s is this: there was, for some rea­son, a huge burst of club-mak­ing in the late 1800s, which con­tinued into the early 1900s. Th­ese clubs were of­ten very civi­cally ac­tive, con­tribut­ing to a com­mon per­cep­tion that ev­ery­one co­op­er­ates to­gether to im­prove so­ciety. This cul­mi­nated in an ex­tremely high de­gree of so­cial cap­i­tal in “The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion”—how­ever, that gen­er­a­tion was already start­ing to for­get the club-mak­ing/​club-at­tend­ing cul­ture which had fuel­led the in­crease in so­cial cap­i­tal. Tele­vi­sion ul­ti­mately kil­led or put the damper on the clubs, be­cause most peo­ple wanted to catch their fa­vorite shows in the evening rather than go out. So­cial cap­i­tal grad­u­ally de­clined from then on.

(But, doubtless, there was more go­ing on than just this, and I have no idea how big a fac­tor club cul­ture re­ally plays.)


  1. Why do so many good things have hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion struc­tures?

  2. How should we think about hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion, nor­ma­tively? Speci­fi­cally, “para­dox two” is an ar­gu­ment that hori­zon­tal-trans­mis­sion prac­tices, while en­tic­ing, can “burn the com­mons” of col­lec­tive good­will by open­ing up things for preda­tory/​par­a­sitic dy­nam­ics. Yet the con­clu­sion seems se­vere and coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

  3. Why do free-mar­ket so­cieties have higher so­cial cap­i­tal? How can this be fit into a larger pic­ture in which hori­zon­tal trans­mis­sion struc­tures /​ few-shot in­ter­ac­tions in­cen­tivize less co­op­er­a­tive strate­gies?