posted on 2021-12-09

freedom and diversity in Albion's Seed

considering my interest for america and for human cultures in general, ever since reading the Slate Star Codex review of Albion's seed i'd been meaning to read the whole thing (as has happened several previous times).

i was not disappointed, but the main two takeaways i got from this fascinating book about the four main early british colonial cultures in america are only tangentially related to america or the british; they are about freedom and diversity, great topics of fascination, as well as intrinsic valuing, for me.

for a general idea of what the book is about, you might want to read that Slate Star Codex book review before reading this post.


the book consists of four sections (one for each of the main cultures of early british colonies in america), each consisting of a sequence of parts going over how each of those cultures relate to a variety of aspects: geographical and socioeconomic origin in the british isles, food, clothing, religion, architecture, life, death, time, magic, marriage, sex, politics, etc…

the last part of each section is about how each of those four cultures views freedom. it's particularly interesting because the book seems to be making a point about how those four radically different visions of freedom contributed to the general modern american understanding of freedom: it is a pluralist view where many people have different meanings about what freedom means to them.

in fact, the book contains a conclusion after the four main sections, whose very last part is about this very notion: cultural views on freedom in america, and how they've been contributed to by those four cultures.

i don't think it can just be reduced to "actually they're four different cultural values that all have the word freedom or liberty attached to them", either: there does seem to be some freedom-ey core invariant to all four visions, even if it takes more effort to see it in some.

this makes me pessimistic about trying to come up with a single unifying definition, but maybe that's to be expected: value is complicated and fragile after all, and the scope of "freedom" in human caring has been particularly big. indeed, look into history and you'll find numerous peoples from all kinds of cultures describe what they're fighting for as "freedom", and there probly is a way to understand those as still a perspective on some essence of freedom if one is open-minded enough, even if it's hard to pin down what that essence is.


a friend of mine once pointed out how in the video game Mass Effect, the difference between humans and other alien cultures, who have spent almost all their existence on completely different planets, are lesser in the game than differences between human populations, on the earth, in real life, right now.

this isn't a point about how those aliens look, though it may be part of it: it's largely a point about how they talk, how they think, how they view the world and transmit knowledge, etc…

in addition, when i talk to people, i see them make what seem to me like insane underestimatings of human diversity. "if someone does this, then they'll say this"; "if this happens to a people, they will do this"; "people would enjoy a single society like this"; and so on. as for me, i've come to increasingly believe that the breadth of human diversity is immense, and that very few assumptions can be held about how a population, let alone a person, can think, or act, or react, in general — almost all such assumptions are bound to be anchored in the culture of whichever local culture the person making those claims is from. this is kind of akin to what happened when linguistics discovered languages like Pirahã that wildly break assumptions about invariants in human language — there are some invariants we should believe in still, but they are much lesser than what we originally assumed.

Albion's Seed makes a great case study in diversity, and has become my go-to example for it: all four of the cultures depicted are broadly protestant british peoples existing at about the same time period, and yet their historical and environmental circumstances makes them have such a different cultural core than when they move to america and are able to implement their culture and lifestyle to a much greater extent, the results end up being wildly different and alien to one another.

to point out individual differences would be underselling the sheer scope of their quantity, so i'll just ask you to read the Slate Star Codex book review for an idea of just how much these four cultures differed. and again, all that differences is just within four protestant british peoples from the era of colonialism in america! imagine what it must be on the whole of earth, or what it could be once we multiply beyond earth (whether that be in space or in some uploaded form).

posted on 2021-12-09

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