Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin

The following excerpts are from Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House.

People under assault, and hopelessly overmatched, often do the opposite of what propriety might suggest: they dig in when they ought to accommodate. We call this behavior siege mentality. Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Co. won posthumous immortality by their intransigence at the Alamo, but an honorable surrender (given their hopeless situation and the certainty of carnage with continued fighting) might have secured the more worldly privilege of telling good war stories over a beer at a Texan bar (for independence from Mexico would have been won in any case) some twenty years later. The embattled traditionalist [buy and holder] must therefore stand his ground on the right tail of his natural habitat. He must adopt a siege mentality and dig in to protect his own restricted turf. The right tail, he must now admit may be small and merely consequential. But grant me, he pleads, this last potential natural comfort: ‘May I not at least be a king in my own restricted castle?’ Give me, then, at least, this one remaining solace in a parody of a fine old song: ‘It had to be me, wonderful me; it had to be me.’ Let me, in short, live like Pio Nono (the nineteenth-century Pope Pius IX). My predecessors held temporal power over much of Europe. I once ruled a good part of Italy, though I am now confined to a tiny principal – Vatican City – within Rome. But at least my rule here is absolute and I can proclaim my infallibility!

TurtleTrader comment: Gould makes the clear point on human psychology: Most people do not want to reach outside their knowledge area (or comfort zone). What most people want (at often the expense of their best interest) is their own little kingdom. Not a good way to be if you desire to profit from the market.

Human Culture

A potential for inherent progress provides no guarantee of realization in actuality. The radical contingency of all history can intervene in a thousand potential ways. A capacity for technological accumulation does not guarantee that all cultures will avail themselves of this potentially mixed blessing. In fact, several great societies have made conscious decisions not to pursue technological progress to the inevitable destruction of an old order. At a crucial point in the history of human life, imperial China decided to scrap the technology of interoceanic shipping and navigation that, if pursued, might well have converted the central historical theme of European westward expansion to an alternative tale of Oriental eastward exploration in the New World. In the early 1640s, after a century of relative openness to Western inventions, especially to the musketry that permitted their assumption and consolidation of power, Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate severed all future accumulation and banned most of what had been imported. So complete and sudden was the cutoff that Japanese inhabitants of various trading cities established abroad were not even allowed to return home. All Western trade was reduced to the merest trickle. Only two Dutch ships could arrive each year. They could dock only at Nagasaki, and all Dutch traders had to live on the artificial island of Dejima, connected to the rest of Nagasaki by a narrow and easily guarded causeway.

TurtleTrader comment: There are many reasons when people are faced with better opportunities (or strategies) they run the other direction. Good traders take advantage of that weakness. Even if you think you are avoiding the fight, you still lose. The fact that one doesn’t want to face reality doesn’t make reality go away.

Read Gould’s Full House.

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