The Heterotic Society

In biology, heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred individual to show qualities superior to those of both parents. Humans may or may not display biological heterosis, but societies do best when they have a high degree of cultural heterosis: In a heterotic society, we are all to a significant degree mutts in our habits and practices. This makes us flexible, broad-minded, and creative. Individuals in a heterotic society have a wide variety of coping strategies for the challenges they face, and if their toolkits fall short, they know that others, with other cultural resources, are willing and able to help.

In economics, cultural heterosis makes us rich. In foreign policy, it makes us peaceful. In the culture wars… well, a truly heterotic society doesn’t have culture wars. The heterotic society is not litigious. It is patient, curious, and quietly confident. It holds that an elevated taste for novelty is a virtue.

The heterotic society is not a melting pot. In a true melting pot, the end is homogeneity. Distinctive traits from various subgroups are averaged out, or perhaps they are normalized to match the traits of some dominant group. Over time, any given element of the mixture increasingly comes to resemble any other. The melting pot may appeal to conservatives, but it is nearly the opposite of heterosis. As a model, it is to be rejected.

The heterotic society is also not a society of rigidly divided and squabbling identity groups. The legislators of a heterotic society do not insist on the maintenance any tribal identity within it. As a general rule: You may have your identity, but it’s up to you to keep it. In this it resembles but also differs from the more usual multiculturalism of the left. Holders of the heterotic ideal are apt to see a hidden conservatism in the contemporary left’s maintenance of identities within their boundaries.

Heterotic societies welcome much — though not all — of what has disapprovingly been termed cultural appropriation. As Jacob Levy put it, cultural appropriation is a poor umbrella concept, and yet it also covers some things that are blameworthy. There is a world of difference between racist caricature and cross-racial adaptation. It works a great evil to conflate the two, because it strikes at the process by which the heterotic society sustains itself.

Those who cultivate the virtues of heterosis do not regard identity as destiny. They regard it as performance. Identities are always built from a variety of elements derived from previous identities. Their creative combination in any individual’s case is a matter for what Aristotle termed phronesis — the wisdom that relates to practical things.

So what if Aristotle said only men were capable of phronesis. The heterotic society takes his ideas anyway. It gives them to women and says, “here, you do something with this.”

Being mutts makes us more diverse over time. New York in the 1950s was one of the most heterotic cities on the planet, but its inhabitants still had to be cautioned against pronouncing “taco” with a long a. The New Yorkers of the time would be astonished by today’s New Yorkers. Or even by today’s residents of Plano, Texas. The idea that we have a limited capacity to affirm diversity has been falsified again and again.

Some aspects of a person’s identity are inborn and difficult to change, but a heterotic society makes room for those who want to try anyway. Transgender? Heterosis says go for it. Transracial? We might not be ready for that in our world, but perhaps eventually we will be. And already, everybody’s a little transracial sometimes. Are they not?

Wikipedia is perhaps the paradigm heterotic institution of the real world. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the paradigm case in science fiction. The Culture splits down the middle the question of cultural universality and cultural particularity: The Culture cheerfully borrows from others. It lacks all borders. It embraces the ideal of infinite diversity way more than the Vulcans ever did. Its unity consists of a peaceful platform for borrowing and sharing — or for going separate ways, if that’s what’s desired. The Culture is post-scarcity and we are not, but I don’t think it matters.

What I offer is an ideal type. It’s trivial to point out that various real societies fall short, including our own. Yet the heterotic ideal seems so clear and so obvious to me. We Americans have been doing heterosis for most of our history, often badly, and usually without realizing it. A conscious defense looks more and more necessary to me, even if I’m the only one who thinks in these terms. Or… maybe I’m not as crazy as I think. I’m not sure.

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