Rhys' Newsletter #60

Co-evolution of beauty, Casper ter Kuile on the future of religion, and Bo Burnam's new show

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Hello from SF! My dad has been in town this week. It’s always nice to see family. One of the big benefits of opening up from COVID. ❤️

1) Visuals of the Week

Last week I shared the Popper Criterion, which states that the healthiness of any evolutionary system is based on whether it can remove bad actors. (For example, dictatorships are bad because the people can’t remove a bad dictator.)

This heavily draws from a “survival of the fittest” perspective.

One reader pushed back on this idea with a RadioLab podcast, The Beauty Puzzle—how beauty often doesn’t actually align with “survival of the fittest” thinking. Sometimes animals optimize for mating beauty instead of “traditional” evolutionary fitness. A peacock tail is bad for running away from predators but good for mating.

This is similar to other competing desires for fitness. Copycat suicides are memetically fit (they spread quickly in a population) but are not genetically fit (they kill off the DNA of the person).

This talk of beauty in evolution reminds me of Kevin Simler’s A Natural History of Beauty. He shows how beauty is in a co-evolutionary relationship with desire. Peacocks become beautiful because there is a desire (from peahens) for them to become beautiful. Desire chases beauty. Beauty chases desire.

Kevin goes on to define single-player vs. multiplayer beauty. Single-player beauty has no connection to a feedback loop. It just looks nice because of physics, like the Grand Canyon:

Multiplayer beauty has that feedback loop built-in. Cats have become more “beautiful” over time because we have selected them for this desire for cuteness.

tl;dr—Organisms are constantly pulled by multiple types of fitness, not just genetic fitness. As an example, beauty is often created by the co-evolutionary relationship between desire and “looking good” to match that desire.

Hooray feedback loops and evolutionary systems!

2) Podcast of the Week

#87 Casper ter Kuile: How Religion Is Changing

Casper is a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, the co-founder of the startup Sacred Design Lab, and one of the best thinkers on the future of meaning and religion.

How does this podcast relate to Roote? As we transition from the Industrial Age to the Networked Wisdom Age, one of the crucial questions is: How will humans meet our need for meaning, and how will that show up in new networked institutions?

With the decline of institutional religion, there’s a huge meaning vacuum. So whenever you see some new group like BLM or MAGA ask: How is this group providing its members with meaning?

Casper helped me think of spirituality as a remixed and unbundled layer, not some form of congregational religion:

Casper: A multi-faith upbringing, CrossFit competitions, Harry Potter fandom, or yoga and meditation. We're mixing together more and more pieces of a spiritual puzzle.

We can't look in any single place and be like “this is where religion is happening.” It's more like a layer of experience that goes across all different parts of our lives.

We also chatted about the differences between Technoutopianism vs. Social Justice as new religions. I described how many Technoutopians get meaning from the transhumanist longevity movement, turning humanity into a space-faring civilization, and drastic revolutions like crypto.

Casper understood this but provided what makes Technoutopianism difficult for him:

I think the bit of tech that's missing for me is the willingness to just be present to suffering. The world is beautiful and exciting, but it's also awful and painful.

Who wants to be near pain?

For new religions, Casper is pretty excited about what he calls “new models of relational commitments”:

Rhys: What new religious experiments are you excited about?

Casper: I am really interested models of new relational commitments. For example, one of my favorite organizations is Thread, A New Social Fabric in Baltimore, Maryland. On the surface, it’s about supporting young people going through education.

But below, it’s about these obligations. People feeling part of something beyond themselves, which asks things of them that they would not necessarily want to do.

I love this model. It basically helps people allow themselves to be asked to do things that are hard and it makes everyone better.

Finally, thinking about these commitments and obligations, I ask Casper:

Rhys: What does a Distributed Bill of Duties look like?

Casper: I’m excited by covenant. It is an agreement, not on what we're going to do together, but on how we are going to be together. It is co-created from the bottom, rather than top-down from God.

I’d never heard of covenant, but it seems like something we want to move more towards. Like a new form of bottom-up norms and values.

See the podcast link for other topics like how Casper thinks about networked individualism, why religion should center on questions not answers, and more. Thanks Casper!


1) Synthetic Messenger. Cool botnet that artificially inflates the value of climate news. Everyday it searches the internet for news articles covering climate change. Then 100 bots visit each article and click on every ad they can find.

2) Stratechery’s new product, Passport, has a great vision. It’s a Passport for Sovereign Creators on Open Protocols:
- Email (SMTP)
- SSO w/ OpenID
- Podcasts w/ OAuth

3) A Lifetime Of Systems Thinking. Good life advice written by Russell Ackoff at the end of his life (when he was 80). Some of my favorites:

You cannot learn from my mistakes, only from your own. I want to encourage, not discourage, you making your own.

This is Better is Worse. It’s Better to help someone avoid mistakes, but Worse when it stops them from learning from their own mistakes.

Russell then highlights an oft-repeated misconception":

The best thing that can be done to a problem is to solve it. False. The best thing that can be done to a problem is to dissolve it, to redesign the entity that has it or its environment so as to eliminate the problem.

Indeed. As an example, we want to design an information environment where the only memes that can survive are those that are beneficial to humanity.

4) Babylon Bee: In Honor Of Pride Month, Here Are The Babylon Bee's Top 2 Genders

5) The Onion: Woman Unnerved By Group Of Guys Standing Around When She’s Just Trying To Gentrify The Street

6) Rhys: AOC Confused How To Respond To Plummeting Stock Market While World Implodes

7) TikTok of the Week. #UrbanDesign TikTok. @TalkingCities on how to transform a suburban street for festivals.




Bo Burnham has a new Netflix special, Inside. It has twenty songs all recorded inside during COVID.

It’s gotten rave reviews—it is ranked the eighth-highest television show on Metacritic. One reviewer noted:

This might end up as a definitive bit of Western popular art to come out from the pandemic era.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “Welcome to the Internet”. Bo describes the internet as: “A little bit of everything, all of the time.”

(Though similar things could be said about books or libraries when the printing press first came out—a little bit of everything, all of the time.)

Hope you have a good week! Warmth, Rhys

If you like this newsletter, check out my online community of systems thinkers, Roote.

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