Is The Blood Thicker Near The Tropics? Trade-Offs Of Living In The Cold

A few cen­turies ago it was be­lieved that the rea­son why peo­ple near the trop­ics didn’t achieve the level of af­fluence of their north­ern con­speci­fics was that the heat made the blood grow thicker, and that slowed down their move­ments, and thoughts (thoughts at that time used to take place not only in the head, but also in the heart).

It’s a funny the­ory, very catchy, as mechanis­tic as the time de­manded and all that. No won­der it was ap­pre­ci­ated for a while.

Many cen­turies have passed now, and we have a lot of bet­ter hy­pothe­ses for why there is less de­vel­op­ment in trop­i­cal ar­eas than el­se­where. Here are a few.

More dis­eases that con­sume fam­ily resources

Lower av­er­age IQ

Cen­turies of ex­ploita­tion by Europe and US

Fewer In­sti­tu­tions (There is a ter­rible pa­per by Daron Ace­moglu, whom I hear oth­er­wise is a great economist, on that)

Shorter east-west axis within a land area (Guns, Germs and Steel)

More fre­quent nat­u­ral dis­asters, in par­tic­u­lar floods, lead­ing to prop­erty dam­age.

Prob­a­bly all of those play a small role. I just want to say that prim­i­tive as it is as an ex­pla­na­tion, I still think that the heat, and sun­sh­ine that comes with it, is a very strong fac­tor, still to­day. Devel­op­ment is not my tar­get though, my tar­get is in­di­vi­d­ual pro­duc­tivity and in­di­vi­d­ual free­dom, here thought of as “amount of things per unit time some­one could be do­ing”, not poli­ti­cal free­dom.

So far I’ve spent three weeks in England, at the Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute in Oxford, this month. Dur­ing those 21 days, I have ex­pe­rienced strictly 08 (eight) min­utes of sun­light. Out­side it is freez­ing. So no won­der that all in­ter­ac­tions I had were had in­side walls. Mean­while talk­ing to friends back home, at the Tropic of Capri­corn, they had out­side par­ties, pic­nics at the park, bike rid­ing days, shop­ping out­side in the streets, free danc­ing at the streets fes­ti­vals, learn­ing to do slack­lin­ing, swim­ming pool etc...

In this grey lowlight world of English weather, with the added fac­tor that by and large in­ter­ac­tion be­tween an­glo­phones is mostly lin­guis­tic, it is not ad­mirable that many come to office even on Satur­days and Sun­days, and also stay late dur­ing week­days. Ba­si­cally, where else would they go?

The same dis­tinc­tion I saw while in Cal­ifor­nia when com­par­ing it to Bos­ton. Both I saw in the win­ter-ish. In Bos­ton you can ba­si­cally choose in which venue you will eat, and in which venue you will read. In Cal­ifor­nia you could go to the park, or to the moun­tains, or hike in the woods, or walk through the beach, or even go to a theme park, or that weird place where peo­ple surf false waves...

Brains are de­vices you can train. If you train them to skate­board, or play with dogs, or play soc­cer in a park, that is what they will learn. If a brain is com­pel­led to think all day long, and read, speak, listen and write, that is what it will get good at.

The cold con­strains, and a lot, what peo­ple do on a daily ba­sis, and thus they be­come more spe­cial­ized, and bet­ter, in the things they do. I think that this plays an enor­mous role on why trop­i­cal peo­ple don’t tend to in­tel­lec­tual/​high pro­duc­tivity lives as much as peo­ple in colder re­gions.

A few more sub­tle con­sid­er­a­tions: There are hu­man drives re­lat­ing to out­side ac­tivity that not even the cold can stop. But it can still sig­nifi­cantly hin­der. Groups of young peo­ple still sum­mon the strength to face the cold in par­tic­u­lar for two ac­tivi­ties: Train­ing for sport com­pe­ti­tions, and stay­ing in line for a danc­ing club. Cu­ri­ously, those are rit­u­al­ized forms of hunt­ing and courtship, some­thing that our most north­ern rel­a­tive, the Ja­panese Ma­caque, finds wor­thy of leav­ing hot baths to do. You’ll find Ja­panese Ma­caques walk­ing around in the snow for the same rea­sons you’ll find some­one walk­ing around in the snow in many of the cold­est cities, and that is say­ing some­thing. Kids in both species also play out­side heated ar­eas. Play­ing, find­ing food (or defeat­ing row­ing arc-ri­vals), and do­ing some sort of rit­u­al­ized courtship are suffi­ciently wor­thy, for us and them,to face the spik­ing thorns of the cold.

The cold trans­forms sport into just sport. Get there quick, en­ter, play, leave. Whichever sur­round­ing rit­u­als could have arisen around sport, ei­ther they are left for the sum­mer time, or they will per­ish cul­turally.

Same with the night­club lines. No one will stay more than one sec­ond longer than nec­es­sary out­side, they be­come only lines, strictly lines, and mini-skirted women pay in pain the price of want­ing to be at­trac­tive/​sen­sual. Men do also wear­ing fewer coats. No ex­tra time be­fore or af­ter the party. And the only kind of mak­ing up that is al­lowed out­side is the re­ally drunk kind, since no one whose periph­eral ner­vous sys­tem is send­ing the right sig­nals to their brain would tol­er­ate that cold, the same periph­eral ner­vous sys­tem that should be de­liv­er­ing ec­static feel­ings of se­duc­tion and de­sire.

Young peo­ple pay quite a price for the cold. But it’s nowhere near the price that older peo­ple pay. In an Ara­bic coun­try, there is a dis­pro­por­tion of males in the streets, and a west­ern eye will fre­quently think that this is prej­u­dice, or some­thing bad, hap­pen­ing against women. Bos­ton and Oxford are uni­ver­sity towns, but even ac­count­ing for that, the ab­sence of peo­ple at the 40-80 age group in the streets is shock­ing. In Buenos Aires, 23:00 on a Tues­day, you’ll see hun­dreds of peo­ple, of many ages, strol­ling around the streets, chat­ting, hav­ing din­ner, drink­ing beer, laugh­ing etc… same for Rio, or São Paulo. Some peo­ple face the cold at older ages in Oxford and Bos­ton, but not so many, they could get a cold af­ter all, and they are mostly done with sport and night­clubs. There are more women walk­ing around in Syria, than 50 year olds walk­ing around in Oxford.

Lightlevels are also higher in in­side ar­eas than out­side ar­eas, as far as I re­call, both in Bos­ton and in Oxford, though not in Cal­ifor­nia, Florida or the Latin cities cited. One more rea­son to stay in­side.

My claim is then that life is more pro­duc­tive in the cold be­cause the cold sig­nifi­cantly con­strains what peo­ple do, and it con­strains it in the way that makes them pro­duce for longer pe­ri­ods out­put of lin­guis­tic sort -in­clud­ing maths and pro­gram­ming and ev­ery­thing that is mostly pars­ing, cod­ing, trans­form­ing sym­bols etc… - I’d fur­ther claim that this effect can­not be ac­counted for by the six fac­tors men­tioned above, and that it will at least be com­pa­rable in in­ten­sity with whichever one ends up be­ing the strongest one among those.

A fur­ther claim is that be­cause life in cold ar­eas is sig­nifi­cantly con­strained, mov­ing to colder ar­eas is a costly sig­nal of will­ing­ness to do lots of work. This could par­tially ex­plain why most of the top 20 uni­ver­si­ties in the world are in very cold ar­eas. You must re­ally love study­ing if you are will­ing to con­strain your life that much, and con­versely, once your life is con­strained, you’d bet­ter love study­ing.

Speak­ing of love, stats fa­mously show that peo­ple in Cal­ifor­nia are not hap­pier than peo­ple in New England. Ju­lia Galef fa­mously dis­agrees. I don’t know if the effect is neu­tral if you com­pare peo­ple born in one place who moved to the other. Like her, I’d bet highly it isn’t. Sure af­ter a long pe­riod there is a re­gres­sion to­wards base level hap­piness, but I’ll bet the re­gres­sion is slow and in­com­plete, and the pro­cess takes very long.

I’ve spent about six months of my life in cold ar­eas, partly trav­el­ling, partly work­ing/​re­search­ing. De­spite all the costs that it en­tails, at this mo­ment my in­cli­na­tion is to de­cide to live in one of those cold lowlight ar­eas for a while. Get some work done, or some more work done, of a re­search kind, now that move­ment build­ing already took some 2 years of me. I wrote this partly to bet­ter un­der­stand the trade-offs, to more clearly think about this de­ci­sion. I hope it helps some­one else who is think­ing about similar, or op­po­site, de­ci­sions, I’ve met at least one per­son here, and one back in the US who were think­ing of do­ing the re­verse.

No won­der I’m writ­ing from Oxford...