Rational Ritual

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* Book: Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge. by Michael Suk-Young Chwe.


"a discussion about a mechanism that makes it possible to coordinate very, very large groups of people, potentially millions".


Daniel Mezick:

"So book number one, and this was a book suggested by Daniel, it’s titled Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, who studies how people coordinate their actions when each person wants to participate only if enough others do. Book number two, which I suggested, is Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Chris Boehm. Regular listeners to this show will know this is one of my favorite books and one I often recommend. Chris, who I just discovered this morning when I was pulling together my show notes, recently passed away at the age of 90. That’s too bad, he was a really good person. I had dinner with him several times, great guy. He was a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California. And his research focused on the origin of human conscience, the development of altruistic behavior in human beings, and the evolution of political behavior in apes and humans. So Daniel, let’s get started. Why do you think the book Rational Ritual is important?

Daniel: The primary reason is that because it opened up a discussion about a mechanism that makes it possible to coordinate very, very large groups of people, potentially millions. That’s an interesting mechanism if it’s real. So when I found this book, I don’t know exactly how I stumbled upon it, but it’s one of those things when I reached the book, I was like, “Well, yeah, this explains a lot of what I’ve often felt intuitively about ritual.” And he goes so much deeper on it. So for example, he cites sources that have applied mathematical modeling to common knowledge and have built up an algebra of common knowledge. And on page 18, he mentions a researcher who has done this. So the book for that reason is extremely interesting to me. Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to maintain civil discourse and coordinate people, align people. And the book provides tools for doing exactly that.

Jim: And it was interesting, I actually did enjoy reading it quite a bit. What he starts off with is getting into what is the essence of the problem, and he calls it the coordination problem. Which is, how do you get people to do things particularly, and this seems to be his hobby horse, is when our natural instincts or self-interest or psychology would want us to do things only when other people would also commit to do things? Why do you think that is a particularly important class of cooperation?

Daniel: My gut reaction to this is that the human species is a mimicking species. From a very young age, we mimic others to learn how to be human. And when you talk about doing what others are doing, we’re actually valuing what others value. And René Girard the philosopher has mentioned and discussed this in detail, that mimicry, specifically mimicry in what’s valuable, is what humans do. We don’t know what’s valuable till we find out what other people think is valuable. And this is exactly what happens in the coordination space."