Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Memento mori

I don't understand people when they say they're okay with death.

"When my time is up, it's up."

Oh really? I'll believe that when you're facing death and saying it.

I'm not saying there aren't good reasons to want death (or, if you're a Spinozist, at least good prima facie reasons). If you're hopelessly trapped or in unceasing agony, I could see preferring death to life.

What I doubt is that anyone gets to some point in their life and says, "Gee, you know, I've experienced enough. I've loved enough and shared enough with other people. There's really nothing else I wanna see. I think now is a good time to stop."

I've never even heard of someone saying anything even like that. In fact, I can't even think of a fictional character who said something like that.

I guess it's different if you believe in an after-life. Then you do go on living, loving, learning, etc., just in a different place. But that puts the cart before the horse, because the whole reason people believe in an after-life is because they fear death in the first place.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The future of sex

It's old news, but SETI is on the lookout for artificial intelligence.
"If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you," he told BBC News.

"But within a few hundred years of inventing radio - at least if we're any example - you invent thinking machines; we're probably going to do that in this century.

"So you've invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you... a 'biological' intelligence."

From a probability point of view, if such thinking machines ever evolved, we would be more likely to spot signals from them than from the "biological" life that invented them.
As a singularitarian and a transhumanist, I'm generally in agreement with this. I believe the non-biological portion of our intelligence will outstrip the biological portion within decades, not centuries. But without biological bodies, what becomes of sex and sexual difference?

From one point of view, there's just no way of knowing. Humans will not only become a new species. The very rules of evolution will change. Intelligence will go off in many new, unpredictable directions. There's nothing we can say about it from our current perspective.

Another point of view says intelligence will have non-biological instantiation, so things like sexual difference will no longer matter. Algorithms will evolve, not males and females. On this view there might be little to worry about when it comes to the relations between the sexes, since sexes won't exist in a few decades anyway.

I think both positions are naive. The first position forgets that there is continuity in life, despite the radical changes it has undergone in transitioning from matter to cells with DNA to eukaryotes and all the way up to talking apes. The superintelligent civilization will still be a human civilization insofar as it is created by us. We can make intelligible predictions about it.

The second position leaves out the tremendous gains that were made by the invention of sexual difference. If what Miller says about sexual selection is true, then it is the source not only of all the variety we see around us; it is also the reason evolution has exhibited accelerating returns over the past 535 million years.

While I wouldn't necessarily put money on it, I'm willing to guess that something analogous to sexual difference will persist after intelligence has made the leap to a non-biological substratum. It's too successful a strategy to abandon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mad Men

I started watching Mad Men. It's a delightful and entertaining show and very well written. It's inspired me to start drinking Old Fashioneds and to wear pocket squares. It's not inspiring me to smoke. Nothing has inspired me to smoke since I quit four and a half years ago.

It's also one of the most interesting shows I've ever watched. It depicts an America arguably at the zenith of its power. The show starts at the end of the early 60s recession when the country was about to move into a period of unprecedented economic growth (which would only be surpassed by that in the 90s). The American middle class was stronger than it has been since, due to (not despite) strong unions and high taxes. Median household income was growing faster than at any other time in history before or since then.

Ideologically things were simpler. There were enemies within and without. Yet this was before the country was shaken by the assassination of the President, and it was before the oppressed and the marginalized rose up and rightfully demanded a fair share in the prosperity enjoyed by white, male America. It was a less self-conscious, more self-assured nation. Or so it seems.

It takes place in a time before the critique of consumerism was widespread. We take consumerism so much for granted now that it's hard to recognize that it represented a revolution in the way capitalism operated. Before the 1950s, capitalism was mostly production-focused. The good factory or company was the one that operated the most efficiently. The Ford factory was the paradigm of this efficiency, though it only produced the Model T in one color. Things like marketing and advertising were almost an after-thought, a way to make sure the thing gets bought and used.

All this changes in the 50s, and there's a big shift. Companies like Proctor & Gamble move from a "production orientation" to a "marketing orientation". Marketing and advertising are no longer an after-thought to production. Connecting with the consumer becomes the goal of production, not merely a way of getting rid of product, and doing so creates astronomical profits. The focus is no longer production. Production matters insofar as it contributes to consumer satisfaction.

Nothing like it had ever been done before, and society arguably became wealthier, in both the broad and the narrow sense, because of it. It led to tremendous economic prosperity. It set the United States on a path which was arguably different (finally) from the Soviet Union, leading to Khruschev threatening to "bury" us—in consumer goods (it never happened, because central planning is comparatively bad at consumer-focused production).

Commodities became more than a mere means to surviving. High wages and rapidly growing income created the economic space for a more leisurely existence in which only one "bread winner" per family was necessary, and in which children could stay in school and enjoy their youth beyond the age of 10 or 11 (when they would usually have to work on the farm). Consumer products filled this space of leisure, giving Americans more ways to discriminate and explore their tastes and subjectivities. There were suddenly more kinds of cars to drive, more kinds of music to listen to, more ways to define oneself and be in the world.

This is the world Mad Men takes place in. And it doesn't take place just anywhere in that world. The show is about ad men. They're the magicians at the center of this entirely new form of capitalism. It's remarkable, because it's probably the first time in all of human history that artistic creativity came to the center of the production process. Artistic creation and aesthetic appraisal are no longer on the side-lines of economic life. They're now the life's blood of it, the center from which it emanates and returns.

I know, Adorno would puke. But I think it's true. And I don't think you can understand the course American history took in the second half of the 20th century unless you also understand why this move toward a consumer-based approach really was a revolution and why it had to happen. It really was a new thing, and it was a better thing.

It's not just "false consciousness" or a colonization of the human psyche by the "culture industry". And I think this comes across beautifully in the show. I've only watched the first two seasons, but one of my favorite parts so far is the presentation Don Draper gives on the Kodak Carousel. The product is initially called the "wheel", and Draper's team initially tries to do some word play on "reinventing the wheel". He eventually comes up with this.

There are a lot of things to love about this scene. The otherwise inscrutable Don Draper's deep love for his family finally surfaces. There's a direct appeal to this desire that most human beings have to be able to return to the beginning, to do things right, to really be there, to have a chance to say "I love you." But what's really twisted about this—at least from our perspective—is that it's done through a commercial! We've all seen and laughed at a hundred stupid coffee or long-distance commercials that try the same trick. But what's brilliant about the carousel scene is that you're able to see that move with fresh eyes.

And I would argue that it's not a trick. You're not being fooled into believing that your identity and self-understanding are tied up with a product. That link really exists. It didn't always exist, but capitalism created it.

And it's not entirely a bad thing. The movement toward machine production in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed women (and children) to move on to the shop floor. As you can see in the show, the movement toward the market orientation brought women and youth in the boardroom. Why? Because their unique perspectives became a sine qua non of moving the product and making a profit. In order to sell, you need to know who you're selling to. In order to know who you're selling to, you need to solicit their perspective, their particular subjectivity. Voices that were initially marginalized began to play a larger role in the mainstream of society. I think it's no accident that the zenith of the marketing and advertising revolution in capitalism coincides with the start of the period of social unrest. This is frequently adumbrated in the show.

The mind as a courtship ornament

Right now I'm reading The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. The author's thesis is that the human mind evolved for the purpose of courtship. The reason we're able to tell jokes, build monuments, compose sonatas, and follow fashion is the same reason peacocks are able to grow such magnificent tails and beetles have such elaborate markings on their bodies.

Central to the author's argument is his distinction between natural selection and sexual selection. Miller uses natural selection to denote "changes in the gene pool of a species due to differences in the ability of individuals to survive and reproduce." By contrast, sexual selection is "evolutionary change due to heritable differences in the ability to attract sexual partners, repel sexual rivals, or do anything else that promotes reproduction." While recognizing this is not the way biologists typically use these terms, he points out that Darwin himself used the terms this way, and that conflating them led to errors in the first 150 years of evolutionary science which we are only beginning to dig our way out of.

According to Miller, evolutionary psychologists have made the mistake of viewing the mind only in terms of what it contributes to our survival, treating it like a "swiss army knife" (Pinker) that evolved to deal with a harsh environment. There are several problems with this view, according to the author, amongst them: If large brains and complex minds are so essential to survival, then why did they arise so late in evolution? Why do so few species have them? Claws, wings, and eyes have evolved separately in many species; yet we're the only species that tells jokes and writes sonatas. Why is there such a long lag between the brain's expansion and its survival payoffs? We seem to have reaped the vast majority of them in only the last few thousand years.

We spend a gross number of our calories every day supporting a giant organ with no immediate survival benefits. Yet while natural selection is rather poor at explaining all the brain's abilities, sexual selection is very good at it. Like the peacock's tail, it's a large, wasteful display. And like the courting behaviors of many animals, our abilities to converse, socialize, get along, treat people with respect, charm, flatter, and know what is appropriate are all good fitness indicators. Sure, we reproduce with people who are nasty and uncouth, and we spread those genes through the population, but it's not like we go out looking to do that. People with normally functioning brains are generally socialized, and we prefer that.

I don't know if I'm wholly convinced by his argument. I read a few reviews of the book, and they repeated some concerns I have with the project. What's gotten my attention in this book is that he proposes a new way to understand evolution generally over the last half billion years.
If many innovations originate through sexual selection, we would expect most micro-innovations that distinguish one species from another to be sexual ornaments. This contradicts some traditional views of how species split apart, but, surprisingly, this is pretty much what biologists see. The vast majority of species-defining innovations seem inconsequential for survival. Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, disparaged the seemingly pointless variety of plants and animals, calling them "the mere Sport of Nature." Darwin was equally perplexed, often wondering why there was so much variety but so little real novelty. If innovations spread through populations because of their survival benefits, why do so few innovations show the survival improvements associated with major innovations and adaptive radiation?
We tend to think of evolution as a series of mechanical "pushes" without any "pulls". Mutations arise each generation because of random copying errors at the molecular level. Most mutations are deleterious to the organism, and if they were allowed to proliferate, species would quickly go extinct. But the environment imposes pressure on organisms. Certain mutations make the organism unable to survive in the environment long enough to reproduce and pass its genes on. Rarely, a mutation will confer some extra survival benefit on an individual, and that new gene may proliferate through the population, creating many individuals who have this gene. When individuals with the new genes are no longer able to reproduce with individuals without them or with different genes, there is a new species.

In place of this purely mechanical view of the history of life where mutations arise by accident, and the environment either favors or rejects them, Miller is suggesting a story in which choice plays a much larger role in the direction of evolution. Novelties arise and survive in species, not for the purposes of survival, but for the purposes of attracting mates.
Sexually selected novelties of this sort could be called "courtship innovations." Most will be nothing more than a slightly novel design for a penis, a minor variation in mating coloration, or a different style of courtship dance. But from these humble origins, a small proportion of courtship innovations and their side-effects may turn out to have some survival benefits in addition to their courtship benefits. They may then become favored by natural as well as sexual selection. Of these survival adaptations, a small proportion may prove significant enough to allow a species to invade many new environmental niches. They produce adaptive radiations, proving themselves over time as major innovations. The ecological success of major innovations may hide the fact that many of them originated as courtship innovations.
And then he goes on to tell a story in which wings may have originated, not for the purposes of flying and evading predators, but as sexual displays for dinosaurs. There is a similar story to tell about the evolution of large brains in hominids.

If this is true, it explains just as much as natural selection does and more. It explains why there is so much novelty in nature, and it explains why this novelty first arises with the invention of sexual difference. For the majority of its time on Earth, life has consisted in single-celled organisms no larger than a millimeter across. We're still outnumbered by them. There are at least 10 times as many bacterial cells in your body as human cells.

But there probably aren't as many species of bacteria as there are of more complex creatures. Considering how few in number more complex creatures are relative to single-celled organisms, it's amazing how much difference we exhibit. Most of the macro-level differences are color of fins, facial hair, feathers, or other sexual displays that confer no obvious survival benefit. Indeed, there appears to be a sublime abundance of types of life above and beyond what mere necessity would predict but which we would expect if sexual selection takes the lead over from natural selection.

The "pushes" (natural selection) may have the final say, but only if the "pull" (sexual choice) egregiously contradicts the demands of the environment. Between what life whimsically craves and what the environment unconsciously rebukes, there appears to be a lot of wiggle room.

And of course sexual selection involves choice. It's minimal with a pair of earthworms, but it becomes quite complex when you get up to insects. Is there something that it's like for a female beetle to be excited by the colorful display of a male beetle? We'll never know, though that display, which is wasteful and dangerous because it attracts predators, plays a function in beetle courtship.

As one moves to more complex forms of life, the choices are also more complex. It's doubtful a male bird of paradise is just exciting a female. I don't think it's excessively anthropomorphic to say he's trying to impress her. There may be no difference between those two things from a purely physical point of view. It's all just neurons firing. But the courtship ritual is more complex and has greater texture of meaning, and the female has to take more things into consideration, so her act of choosing is more complex.

I wrote earlier about Teilhard's law of complexity/consciousness, according to which "mind" is present in all matter, but it increases proportional to the complexity of the arrangement of matter. I think what Miller is arguing might add some depth to that idea. The invention of sexual difference allows choice (a proto-subjective state) to arise for the first time, and it allows for the evolution of greater complexity (and hence more complex and varied distinctions between "inside" and "outside"). That's why life really takes off half a billion years ago.

Did this revolution—call it the original Sexual Revolution—have to take place? Would any planet with life on it have to eventually invent sexual difference? I don't know. However, it's intriguing to think that, given the Sexual Revolution, complex minds had eventually to evolve.

I have to think about this and develop it more, but I'll end with this quote from Miller:
We can see that, once sexually reproducing animals evolved the capacity for mate choice, every animal species would then evolve some sort of fitness indicator; and that some indicators might be costly, exaggerated body parts, and others would be costly, ritualized courtship behaviors. But we could not have predicted that courtship behavior would reach an especially high degree of sophistication exactly 535 million years after the Cambrian explosion (when multicellular animals proliferated) in our particular species of bipedal ape. Nor could we have predicted that the courtship behavior would take the precise form of interactive conversations using arbitrary acoustic signals (words) arranged in three-second bursts (sentences) according to recursive syntactic rules. Perhaps it could have happened in an octopus, a dinosaur, or a dolphin. Perhaps it was likely that it would happen sometime, in some species of large-brained social animal. Rewind the tape of evolution, and the human mind would probably not have evolved, because sexual selection would have taken a different contingent route in our lineage of primates. But I suspect that in any replay of evolution on Earth, sexual selection would sooner or later have discovered that intelligent minds similar to ours make good courtship ornaments and good fitness indicators.
Emphasis mine.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sexual Revolution

When you think about it, the idea of a sexual revolution is bizarre. Most animal species are distinguished by their sexual displays: courting behaviors, feathers, facial hair, markings on carapace, etc. There are plenty of species which would be indistinguishable except on a molecular level were it not for their sexual displays. In the world of biological evolution, a sexual revolution usually means the genesis of a new species.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The singularity is not in our past

I think this person is absolutely right about the significance of the industrial revolution but also misses the point about the technological singularity.

There can be no doubt that the industrial revolution represented a profound break in human history. Adding to what Mr. Shalizi states in his post, we can also include massive movements of population, unprecedented increases in worker productivity and accumulation of wealth, an almost 50% increase in human life expectancy in as little as a century, a radical transformation of the cost and therefore the meaning of war, to say nothing of all the impressive and interesting intellectual advances. Of course the seeds of the industrial revolution can be traced back to the middle ages, even back to Roman times. But there can be no doubt that a large, qualitative shift took place in the 19th century which left virtually no aspect of human existence untouched.

Now, the singularity can mean a lot of things, depending on the author you read. Vernor Vinge's early paper on the subject deals mostly with superhuman intelligence, as did I.J. Good's. J├╝rgen Schmidhuber places emphasis on the acceleration of paradigm shifts in computing, starting back in the 17th century and going to the present. Raymond Kurzweil thinks there will hardly be a single area of life that will not be revolutionized by the singularity.

In no case, though, is the singularity simply about "unpredictable growth of technology", a "profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity", "distributed systems of information-processing", or any of the other things Mr. Shalizi correctly states belong to the present and past of humanity. If that's what is meant by a singularity, then Mr. Shalizi is being conservative. The singularity really took place some time in the early 16th century. Schmidhuber makes this claim somewhere, but I can't find it on his byzantine web page. Basically he argues that, since historians think the European arrival in the New World and the Protestant Reformation were the two most important events of the last 1,000 years, this proves an acceleration of events that should have culminated some time around the middle of the 16th century.

But if you think about it, that's again somewhat conservative. Why not bring it back to the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago? After all, that resulted in civilization: population increase, stratification, science, religion, art, and abstract thought. Isn't everything else a mere footnote to that?

Of course a technological singularity will disrupt history, and of course its effects are unpredictable. And when we look at the past, of course we tend to downplay the disruption and impose necessity, even though, if you lived back then, you would have found events to be neither predictable nor smooth. But I don't think that's the point. Or at least it's not the only point.

What's unique about the singularity is that it represents an exponential increase in the ratio between non-biological and biological intelligence. Merely pointing out that the rate of change in history is increasing doesn't make one a singularitarian. After all, it's easy to point out that it's been increasing for a long time. Merely pointing out that some day non-biological, superhuman intelligence will replace biological intelligence isn't distinctive, either. What makes a person singularitarian is that they believe this transformation will take place on the order of decades, not centuries. On this interpretation, it makes little difference whether you think a machine will pass the Turning Test in 2020, 2030, 2040, or 2080. Most people, if they give the issue thought at all, think it won't happen until 2100 or 2200 or never.

The same goes for the application of information technology to other fields like medicine. It's easy to grasp that life expectancy (and quality of life) have increased drastically in the last 200 years for everyone on earth. And if you read U.S. Department of Health and Human Services papers, you know the government is preparing for a population where people routinely live beyond 100 years of age. What most people do not think about—and what singularitarians do think about—is the inevitability of living indefinitely and what this means for human civilization and for the meaning of an individual life. Since a singularitarian believes this will be achievable in decades rather than centuries, it's a practical problem, not a mere theoretical problem.

So the question isn't whether there have been paradigm shifts which have thrown everything up in the air and have changed everything humans took for granted. There have been many such shifts. (And before humans, there were many such "game-changing" shifts with regard to the rules of life generally.) It's more a question of how close together those paradigm shifts are occurring now. It's a question of the time-scale you're talking about. Are the changes depicted in the wildest science fiction going to occur by the year 2500, or are they going to occur by 2050 or 2100? The scale of 102 is too large to make a difference to an individual human life (as we know it so far). But the 101 scale, well, that's a different story. That's why people who read about the singularity get so excited about it. That believe they'll live to see it and benefit from it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New discovery is not "alien"

The announcement today from NASA that they had discovered a form of life that uses arsenic rather than phosphorus has many implications for the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists don't have to limit their search to areas that only have carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur now. It's at least as important as the discovery of archaea in the 1970s.

But I think the significance of the discovery has been somewhat misconstrued as well, especially leading up to the announcement. The life form Felisa Wolfe-Simon discovered, called GFAJ-1, is not an entirely new form of life. It's a branch of life as we know it. In fact, it is a bacteria. But it's a form of life which has evolved the ability to swap potassium for arsenic. It's a weird form of life, but it is still descended from the last universal ancestor, the parent of every living thing we see around us.

So to say it's an alien form of life is wrong. But it has profound implications in the search for alien life in places other than earth, since it expands the concept of what we mean when we say "life".
This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”
I would say this has few if any implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, since if we find intelligence in the universe, it will likely not even be biologically based.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

story of the world

In some respects I'm an optimist about history, and in some respects I'm a pessimist.

I'm an optimist insofar as I think Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns is probably right, at least in its fundamental intuitions. By that I mean that the sort of technological change most people think will take centuries to realize will in fact take decades. Will a non-biological intelligence pass the Turing Test by 2029? 2050? 2020? The exact year of it doesn't matter that much. Most people think it will happen a hundred or two hundred years from now. The point is that the time it takes from now will be in multiples of 10, not 100, years. It's the exponential dimension Kurzweil has zeroed in on, and in that I think he's right.

Same thing goes especially for developing alternative energy and treatments for diseases. Most people seem to think such problems will take 50-100 years to solve. I follow trends in both these areas closely, and I think the scale Kurzweil projects them on—decades—is more accurate. As far as I understand the trends, it will shock me if my 2030 we have cancer or if we use of fossil fuels accounts for a significant portion of where we get our energy from. So with regard to those three things—AI, energy, and medicine—I'm an optimist.

That makes me and anyone the right age who is reading this pretty lucky. Right? Leaving the metaphysical complexities aside, each of us at least has the inextinguishable intuition he/she could have been born as anyone in any time or in any place. We're pretty lucky to have been born now. Assuming the technologies scale the right way, we might witness and participate in immortality, the transformation into a greater-than-human species, or even more.

This brings me to my pessimistic side.

History is a kind of imperialism of the general over the particular. From a skeptical/empiricist point of view, it doesn't seem that way. There's just a bunch of junk smacking into other junk, and eventually some monkeys come along and stop drooling long enough to imagine there are laws governing all this shit.

Be that as it may, assuming any scientific account of the universe is correct, for most of the world's history (so far as we know), there were just the laws of physics and chemistry operating on matter. Eventually that gave rise to "life", whatever the actual thing designated by the concept "life" is. It was impersonal and unfeeling, up through (perhaps) an RNA world in which there was genus but no species, and then maybe two and a half billion years of stuff you couldn't even see without a microscope. For at least 3/4 of its history, life consists in stuff not unlike what you skim off the top of your pool or scrub out around the drain in your tub.

Eventually, something happens, we know not what, and there exist nervous systems, sentience, consciousnesses, selves, individual rights, words which mean "get a life!", and the realization of the full meaning of personhood.

Ahh, but not so fast!

If the most optimistic pictures of the future are right, we will eventually reverse the tendency of biological evolution. The subject of evolution is the species, not the individual. (It's the general, not the particular.) Anyone who has watched a nature documentary and has sniffled over a cub dying or a rodent being eaten has felt the cold, detached generality of nature. We're observing a still-shot of a larger process which strengthens the species at the expense of the individual creature.

Evolution has created in us love for the individual, even while evolution is diametrically opposed to the individual. For all our intelligence and sensitivity, we still watch one another die. We're conscious of our own deaths. We even kill one another. This has gone on for millennia.

Do you see why I say there can't be a God? There can't be anyone who planned this. There is without doubt intelligence in the universe, even before humans. But the computer in your car or washing machine also has intelligence, about equal to that of an insect, and it has about as much emotional awareness as a hive of insects. If the universe has a plan or purpose, it's evolving one, and we're it.

I'm a pessimist, because I believe we're on the cusp of true individuality, but we might not be near enough to it in order for it to matter to us. We have the idea of individuality, and a series of imperfect institutions set up to shelter it from caprice. So long as technology continues its advance, there's nothing in theory which should be able to stop us from making true individuality—and all the dignity endowed to it—a reality rather than a liberal arts fantasy. But when you consider all the suffering that exists now in the world and which has existed in the past, it gives you a real appreciation for the relative mindlessness which has gotten us here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

rules for complex life

There was an article in yesterday's The New Scientist which lends support to claims I made in an earlier series of posts on evolution. According to the article, once complex organisms come into existence, they're freed from a host of constraints. This might allow their subsequent development to seem meteoric by comparison. The problem is crossing that initial hurdle from simplicity to complexity in the first place.
Once freed from energy restraints, genomes could expand dramatically and cells capable of complex functions – such as communicating with each other and having specialised jobs – could evolve. Complex life was born.

So if Lane and Martin are right, the textbook idea that complex cells evolved first and only later gained mitochondria is completely wrong: cells could not become complex until they acquired mitochondria.

Simple cells hardly ever engulf other cells, however – and therein lies the catch. Acquiring mitochondria, it seems, was a one-off event. This leads Lane and Martin to their most striking conclusion: simple cells on other planets might thrive for aeons without complex life ever arising. Or, as Lane puts it: "The underlying principles are universal. Even aliens need mitochondria."
It's a bit different from what I was saying. I was siding with Peter Ward and his hypothesis that life has a self-destructive tendency. It's not deliberately suicidal of course, but it has had a tendency to go in directions which were "unsustainable", i.e., which led to drastic decreases in genetic diversity and productivity over the long haul. I suggested that if the Medea hypothesis were true, it might explain why it took so long (about 3 billion years) for multicellular life to form on Earth.

Lane and Martin are suggesting something different though complimentary. Putting aside the fact that life often goes off in directions which are unsustainable, there's an energy threshold that has to be reckoned with in order to move from simplicity to complexity in living things. To put their idea in my own words, it's not enough to grow larger; things have to become more internally complex. And it turns out that transition from external complexity (concatenating cells) to internal complexity (adding intracellular parts like the mitochondria) is relatively difficult. Or at least it seems to be, given how long it took to happen after the initial abiogenesis.

One of the intriguing things about Lane and Martin's idea is that it's generalizable. It's just a function of the relationship between surface area and total volume. So as long as the life form in question has to occupy good old 3-dimensional Euclidean space, the same rules are going to apply there. Anything we find in the cosmos above the level of simple organisms like bacteria or archea will have to have something analogous to mitochondria. Though what the odds are of encountering anything that is, is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the size of the universe and the likelihood of intelligence

I recently came across an interesting quote in an article I was reading:
If the universe lasts forever, then any event that can happen, will happen, no matter how unlikely. In fact, this event will happen an infinite number of times.
The article has to do with the laws of physics and why time must eventually end, but I had thought about this idea previously while thinking about abiogenesis and the evolution of intelligence.

The large scale structure of the universe seems uniform. Once you pull out far enough, it's all filaments and voids. Since it's basically the same everywhere, the likelihood of an event occurring in one part of the universe should be the same as the likelihood of it occurring in another part of the universe.

Of course this depends on the type of event and scale we're talking about. Supernovae are a relatively frequent occurrence at the level of individual galaxies. But there might be 100 gamma ray bursts per day across the entire universe (which is considerably larger).

We could generalize this and say that for any cosmological event there's a particular probability density (P) for it which could be expressed as the likelihood of finding such an event occurring in a randomly chosen galaxy the size of our own. For the above two examples, Psupernova > Pgamma-ray-burster, though we don't know by exactly how much.

So what's the P for life? If you chose a Milky Way-like galaxy in the universe at random, how many planets could you expect to find in it, on average, that had ongoing processes of biological evolution taking place?

What's the P for intelligent life? What's the scale of the universe at which Pintelligent-life = 1? What's the average density of intelligent life for the universe as a whole? (Since the universe is roughly uniform in condition, it makes sense that everything is about equally distributed.)

As I mentioned in the previous post, if the Medea hypothesis is true, it might be very difficult for life to evolve even to the level of complexity and order we see in Cambrian biology, let alone intelligent life like our own. The scale of the universe at which Pintelligent-life = 1 might be extremely large, maybe even larger than the observable universe. It would explain why we don't see any intelligent civilizations even though we should if any existed.

It also might explain why the universe is so large. According to some cosmologists, the difference between the size of the observable universe and the actual universe is the same as the difference between an atom and the surface of the earth. (Mind you, the observable universe is already unfathomably large.)

Why do we observe such a large universe? Perhaps it's because that's the only kind of universe that can support the sort of life that would evolve to ask the question, "Why do we observe such a large universe?" Smaller universes might exist, though they never reach a scale large enough for intelligent life to become probable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


For a change of pace, here's some music I've been really into lately:

I like how this one rolls in like low cloud cover. The Raincoats is Ana da Silva, Vicky Aspinall, and Gina Birch. Their drummer Palmolive (formerly of The Slits) quit before they did this album, so they had to make it up as they went along. It's why the percussion sounds so strange and why the overall effect is so non-rock despite their being (ostensibly) a punk rock band. Robert Wyatt and Georgie Born performed on this album (but not this track), which is a nice segue to...

Slapp Happy (Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad, and Jon Greaves) merged with Henry Cow (Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and Tim Hodgkinson) in 1975 to record Desperate Straights. No, cabaret rock was not invented by Dresden Dolls! And no, this is not your dad's progressive rock. The short (2-5 minute form) experimental song form did not come into existence with post-punk. These guys were doing it in the early 70s.

Autoclave was Christina Billotte (of Slant 6), Mary Timony (of Helium), Nikki Chapman, and Melissa Berkoff. They did one album before splitting up, and this is the best track off it. The pinch harmonics, metal scales, shifting time signatures, and compressed punk beat make it an effective import of prog-rock idioms into indie rock. (I guess the term here is "math rock".)

A somewhat obscure post-punk gem. When they kicked sax player Lora Logic out of X-Ray Spex, she went on to form her own band, Essential Logic. They did a few albums before Lora Logic joined the Krishnas and had an arranged marriage (it's gotta beat using OkCupid). They do a lot of odd time signatures and tempo and key changes. Does anyone else hear the similarity between her singing and Danny Elfman's? I think they both stole it from Ludus.


Well, no introduction is necessary for Broken Social Scene. This song doesn't precisely represent what I like best about them, but it's still pretty cool. What's the deal nowadays with bands having, like, 15 people in them anyway? I barely get along with two people at a time...

Another band that came out with an album this year. This band is just amazing. I love them.

sustainability, part 2

I want to clarify the post I wrote on sustainability yesterday. There are many definitions of the word "sustainability", and I don't want to give the impression that I'm impugning environmentalism. I'm not. In some contexts, it's a feel-good buzz-word with little substance, but that's not the case for all uses of the word.

One important, legitimate use of the concept has to do with promoting sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (link) Of course this encompasses a lot, and different organizations and institutions have approached the subject differently. In general what it points to is the need to reconcile social and economic demands with environmental ones. How do we increase human affluence while at the same time dealing with the pressures placed on the environment by population growth, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and depletion, species extinction through deforestation and over-fishing, pollution of fresh water sources, etc.?

These aren't marginal questions. On the contrary, I believe they're the problems demanding the most immediate attention right now. Many of them might be soluble, and their solutions are connected on a deep level with issues of human justice. More on that in a bit.

But there's another definition of "sustainable" I was using in my last post which is separate from but connected with the sense intended by environmentalists. That has more generally to do with how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. It's separate from the environmentalist conception of sustainability in the sense that it's more general, and it does not necessarily imply human decision-making. An ecosystem in this sense might be sustainable or unsustainable in the absence of humans. For example, if you have a closed system in which organism A is the natural predator of organism B, the system (relationship between the two organisms) is unsustainable if A can completely kill off B in a generation or two before B can replenish itself through reproduction. So they're separate concepts.

But the two concepts come into relation when we think about the specific impact human civilization has on the environment. And they're certainly in relation—I would say confused with one another—when someone claims that modern human civilization is the original and sole source of unsustainability in the larger, ecological sense. It was against this latter claim which I was trying to intervene.

Yes, modern civilization as it currently exists is not sustainable. If development continues in a straight line from where it is now, our civilization will in all likelihood collapse.

But it's also true that every civilization which has ever existed—and almost every form of human society above the hunter-gatherer level—was also unsustainable. In some cases it was for internal, economic and political reasons; in many cases it was for ecological reasons. Jared Diamond goes through these examples in detail in his book Collapse.

But what few people appreciate is that some hunter-gatherer societies were also unsustainable in both senses of the word. They wreaked ecological havoc, and their form of development led to their demise. The Clovis culture of North America serves as an example. So do the first inhabitants of Australia. Human life itself appears to become unsustainable in many cases, even in the absence of capitalism and modern industry.

Now, unsustainability does not entail annihilation. I think almost anyone would agree that Roman civilization was unsustainable. It did, after all, collapse! Whether that was for ecological reasons or not isn't important here. What matters is that the techniques of production developed by the Romans were not completely lost. In fact, many of them survived and were developed down through the Middle Ages by European Christians and by Muslims in the Near East. Sometimes techniques are totally lost, like writing when the Mayan civilization collapsed. But it's not as though the collapse of the Roman Empire threw Eurasia back into the stone age. We might say the Roman Empire as a particular kind of human civilization was unsustainable, even while in a more general sense we can say that human civilization itself, as a genus, has sustained itself and continued to develop.

This brings us to the question of the sustainability of life itself. Here we have to deal with the broad, ecological category of sustainability. Does life remain diverse and productive over time?

I would say it depends on the time scale you look at, and it depends when in the history of time you're looking. If you're looking after the Cambrian explosion, and you're looking at a time-slice of a few tens of millions of years, then yes, you're liable to find sustainability. But if you take the Phanerozoic (the last 540 million years) as a whole, the picture looks quite different:

This is a graph of biodiversity since the Cambrian explosion. (The Cambrian explosion marks a radical proliferation of life. It's when modern body plans came into existence.) The yellow triangles on the chart represent the major mass extinctions. They're known as the "big five" because there are five of them: (1) the Ordovician-Silurian event (27% of all families and 57% of all genera wiped out), (2) late Devonian extinction (19% of all families, 50% of all genera and 70% of all species, gone), (3) the Permian-Triassic extinction (mother of all extinction events in which 53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species are wiped out), (4) Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (20% of marine families and 55% of marine genera went extinct), and (5) the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event (this is the one that killed the dinosaurs, but it took 70% of all species with it, too).

The best known of all these is of course the last one, the extinction of the dinosaurs. That's also the one paleontologists are almost certain was caused by an outside event, the collision with the earth of a 15 km wide asteroid. This is probably why many people have been led to believe that extinction events are caused by the intervention of things like comets or volcanos. But there's hardly any consensus as to what caused these extinctions, or the five other minor extinctions (blue triangles on the chart). Is this a case of the smooth, sustainable evolution of life being interrupted by chance bollide impacts or volcano eruptions? Or does life bring these mass extinctions upon itself when it develops too far in a direction which is unsustainable?

The point comes home more emphatically when we switch time-scale. Let's pull back and think about the period before the Cambrian explosion, what used to be called the "Precambrian" period but is now called the Archean and the Proterozoic. Now we're thinking about life on the order of billions or hundreds of millions of years, not tens of millions of years. If we imagine the Earth were only 12 hours old, we would be talking about what happened between about 2:00 (about when life started) and 10:00 (a little after animals came about).

Now we start to notice some drastic events. Starting around 3500 ma, photosynthesis starts. The cyanobacteria in the world's oceans are converting sunlight and CO2 into food, and they're releasing oxygen into the oceans. First the oxygen is absorbed by the water and the rocks in the oceans. After a few hundred million years of that, the oceans become saturated, and the oxygen starts to fill the atmosphere. The theory accepted by the scientific community is that the oxygen oxidized the methane in the atmosphere. The methane could no longer act as a greenhouse gas. So the earth froze. And not just a little bit. The whole thing froze. It may have been the greatest mass extinction in the whole history of life. Even before the drastic increase of oxygen in the atmosphere, the oxygen in the world's oceans would have been toxic to the anaerobic lifeforms that lived there. Whatever managed to survive the first catastrophe was probably wiped out by the second.

So there's widespread scientific consensus that at least once, life went in a direction which was unsustainable, i.e., which created instability and which decreased diversity.

I didn't realize this when I wrote the post yesterday, but there's a book that just came out on this subject by Peter Ward.  Ward also has a TED talk, but it's a bit scattered at the end, in my opinion.

I think there's a lot of evidence in favor of Ward's position. On the long-term scale, we have at least one drastic ecological catastrophe caused by life itself. On the short-term scale (last 540 ma) we have 10 extinction events (5 of them major), and while some of them were caused by outside events, it's unlikely all of them were. It really seems as though life has a tendency to fuck itself over (I'm not using "fuck" here in a technical sense, by the way).

I think there are a few implications of this:
  1. Intelligent design just has to be wrong. Imagine you're an intelligent designer—presumably omniscient and omnipotent and, above all, Good—and you set yourself the task of creating intelligent beings by means of a purely causal process (because for some reason, even though you're omnipotent, you can't just snap your fingers and create them). Not only do you design a system in which 99.9% of all species which ever existed go extinct (to say NOTHING of the individuals who have feelings, personal goals, whatever). You design it so the system is actually suicidal in many, many circumstances. (Imagine that if you ran the experiment a million times, most of the time it would kill itself completely and produce nothing.  We don't yet have other planets to compare ours to, but maybe this is what happens.)  There's no design in this system! Even a person with below-average intelligence could do better.
  2. The likelihood of life evolving from prokaryotes and archaea to eukaryotes and beyond is probably low. It seems if you get above a certain threshold (perhaps represented by the Cambrian explosion), suicide attempts on the part of life are still frequent, but they're less effective. (Assuming the worst mass extinctions were pre-Cambrian.) This might be why so much of the history of life on earth is represented by such simple organisms. It takes a LOT of trial and error to cross that threshold. Once one does, the evolution of complex bodies and sentience might be relatively meteoric (if still highly problematic). But between exoteric catastrophes and suicide attempts by life, it may be hard to cross that line.  So most attempts at sentient beings fail.
  3. If (2) is right, that might explain why we don't see signs of intelligence in the universe. Ward makes just this case in an earlier book. Another possible explanation is that superintelligent civilization is out there, but it has no interaction with electromagnetic radiation (they don't emit it, and they don't use it for energy). That's possible, but then so is anything. Going by available evidence, I'm betting the first life we encounter looks like this and not like this.
  4. From a certain abstract point of view, there's nothing novel about the fact that our way of life is unsustainable. Life may never have been sustainable for very long periods of time. And yet it's evident that life continues. Despite all these catastrophes, life came into existence only once on earth. The experiment has been interrupted many times by ecological catastrophe, but it has continued.
Of course the problem with this last point is that it's true only in a very abstract sense. Sure, cyanobacteria had the power to change the entire ecosystem of the earth and did. But it took them about a billion years to do it. That's roughly the amount of time that elapsed between the invention of the technique of photosynthesis and the first snowball earth. Never before has there existed a force on earth capable of bringing out such widespread catastrophe on the order of centuries. Our technology and our intelligence have collapsed the geological time scale down to the human time scale. We don't only reap the rewards of progress exponentially. We reap the dangers that way, too.

No doubt plenty of people think "So what? Once humans are gone, life will continue without us. There's nothing we can do to the ecosystem worse than what previous forms of life have done.  Maybe it's better to revert back to simple organisms."

Our survival instinct militates against this, of course. But I think there's a good reason to reject fatalism.

For the first time in the history of life—maybe in the history of the universe—someone cares about individuals. God doesn't care about individuals. If He did, he wouldn't have sacrificed 99.9999999% of them in the process of evolution. The process of evolution cares nothing for individuals. All it selects are genes. (As William James pointed out long ago to Herbert Spencer, evolution is survival of the fittest species, not the fittest individual.) I think one could argue about how much even previous human civilizations have cared about individuals compared with this one.

We have an almost endless list of ecological, economic, and social justice problems. Two billion people on our planet still struggle to put shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs. A woman in the United States has to worry about whether or not she'll be assaulted while walking down the street for no other reason than that she was born a woman. We wipe out thousands of species each year. We're a disgusting mess—just like you would expect from any form of life—just more nuanced and satisfied with ourselves over it. It could make one beg for plague or bollide.

But if you extricate yourself and think about it—not optimistically, not pessimistically, but just abstractly and rationally—our suffering is a sublime achievement of the universe. We feel injustice done at the expense of the dignity of the individual. It hurts the body, and it hurts the capacity to reason.

If we leave the universe, there will be no one to champion the rights of the individual. There will be no justice. Certain species will endure, and others will be wiped out. Nothing but the pure mechanism of action and reaction will exist. There will be no justice. Nor will there be pity or forgiveness. There is no God, if by that we mean a rational, moral author of the world. Before us there was no concern with the individual or with purpose, and if we die, they will die with us.

By a (probably) rare stroke of luck, evolution has brought us to this point where we can, at least in one sense, negate the process of evolution. Evolution has valorized the genus over the individual. Maybe we can reverse that. The possibilities are too tantalizing and the implications are too spectacular not to try.

Anyway, I said I would mention something about the relationship between ecology and social justice, and that we might have the capacity to resolve our sustainability problems. Check this out. It's a talk by Hans Rosling on population growth. (I posted something by him before.) You should watch the whole thing. He's one of my favorite TED speakers, and his animated graphs are awesome (though in this one he goes low-tech). Choice quote:
Child survival is the new green. Only by child survival will we stop population growth. But will it happen? I'm not an optimist. Neither am I a pessimist. I'm a very serious possibilist. It's a new category. Where we take emotion apart and we work analytically with the world. It can be done. We can have a much more just world. With green technology and investments to end poverty and global governance, the world can become like this.
I want to return to this topic, but I'm exhausted from writing tonight (2 hours straight now—I wonder if anyone reads this stuff). I think we live during an amazing time during which absolutely unprecedented events are occurring. Some might read the narrative of technological advance as something which makes human freedom obsolete. But on the contrary. If I'm right in what I've said in this post, than individual human choice is more important and more powerful than ever. It's the ultimate test of human reason to see if we can make it through the current impasse. For those who are ambitious and creative, it's the best time to be alive.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


If you think about it, every society above the hunter-gatherer level has been "unsustainable" in one way or another. It's by no means a new feature or one restricted to industrial society. Yet over the long haul, the positive feedback mechanism between population growth and technological advance has remained intact. One civilization may not be able to resolve its immediate problems and prevent its collapse, but another civilization comes along and revolutionizes those old techniques. It's at least true of the trajectory followed by Eurasian cultures since the late Pleistocene. Every solution gives rise to a new set of problems, and every new set of problems inspires a new set of solutions. The transitions are anything but smooth, and they're usually disadvantageous to individuals people and individual societies. But one can easily perceive a general advance in the aggregate.

Hell, even hunting and gathering societies haven't always been sustainable. The Clovis culture wreaked widespread ecological havoc on North American fauna, hunting many species of animal to extinction. One doesn't need an extraterrestrial cause to explain the end of the Clovis culture. They were the Native American equivalent of suburban sprawl today. Just spread out and use it up! The same thing happened in Australia when hunter-gatherers arrived there. They hunted many species to extinction. It was a completely unsustainable way of life.

I'll be even more provocative: life itself is "unsustainable". Environmentalists talk about how inefficient and wasteful modern society is. Newsflash: over 99% of species which have ever existed have gone extinct. It took just that much trial and error—probably 4 billion years worth of it—to create life that even had the concept of "sustainability". Anyone who thinks the universe or life were designed "intelligently" needs to stop and wonder why even an imbecile couldn't come up with a system less efficient, less "designed" than evolution. It's a mess.

This idea that everything on Earth is interconnected into a harmonious whole, and it's humans who have disrupted it, has begun to come under attack. Paleontologists now believe that life itself on several occasions has brought about widespread global catastrophe. We hear every day about the dangers of CO2 in the air (and rightfully so), but how many people know about the oxygenation catastrophe that overtook the entire globe 2.5 billion years ago? Cyanobacteria pumped oxygen, a poisonous gas, into the atmosphere, and it probably led to a global extinction event. I wonder if any wise, environmentally-minded bacteria said, "Hey guys, wait a second. I don't think this toxic waste dumping is sustainable!" Of course then we wouldn't be here to talk about it. Oxygen is poisonous to us, too, which is part of the reason we age and die. A perfectly unsustainable form of metabolism, if you think about it. Except we circumvent the catastrophe just long enough to have science, learning, love, and humor.

So there's never been anything remotely ecologically sustainable about human existence or even about life. The main threat to life has always come from life itself, not from bollide impacts. Yet life is robust. It only had to have happened once, such that every living thing today is descended from the same universal ancestor that existed almost 4 billion years ago. That means that the response of life to its inherent unsustainability is to surpass its own limitations. This produces new problems of sustainability, and yet life (and now intelligent beings) step up to those challenges, too.

I think the trajectory of this - at least now - is toward the problem of energy simpliciter. Not just the problem of food. Not just the problem of motive force. Not just the problem of fuel. But the problem of energy itself. If we do experience a technological singularity this century, then by the end of the century, non-biological intelligence will far outstrip biological intelligence in our civilization. Our problem won't be producing food, obviously. The main problem will be (a) how to perform computations using the least amount of energy possible and (b) how to keep the temperature of the process below that of a few thousand solar mass stars. We'll have to keep taking in energy from the universe (photons) and exploit cold spots.

But the universe is horribly inefficient. The energy produced per cubic centimeter per second in the center of the sun is approximately equal to the energy density produced in a compost pile or in a lizard's metabolism. It's owing to the sheer mass of the sun that it produces as much energy as it does and goes as long as it does. So your woodburning stove - a manmade object - is orders of magnitude more powerful than the sun. It's very interesting how far the order and complexity of human invention already outstrips nature. The idea that superintelligent, non-biological civilization will simply become the hunters and gatherers of energy in the universe is ridiculous. That advanced civilization will have to produce its own means of subsistence just as much as we produce ours now.

Of course the ultimate sustainability problem is represented in the laws of thermodynamics. This is the problem Asimov deals with in The Last Question. According to inflationary cosmology, the universe is the ultimate free lunch, essentially created out of nothing. A superintelligent civilization might be able to exploit this subtle fact of science in much the same way as engineers are able to exploit subtle differences in air pressure to generate heavier than air flight. My guess is that there are many degrees of creating something from nothing, and that the generation of the cosmos is the most inefficient way we'll discover. The power of intelligence might one day far outstrip the power of nature even to produce a universe or a multiverse.

In short, there might always be something like a "sustainability problem". But if the past is any indication of the future, such problems will not be the end of the story but just another beginning. Even if intelligence is not eternally capable of surpassing every natural barrier placed before it, it seems to be in its essence to try.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jared Diamond

I've been reading Guns, Germs and Steel. It's thought-provoking. The thesis that geography is what gave Eurasia the "head start" that allowed it to develop the tools to conquer the rest of the world is compelling. Diamond thinks on the largest scale of human history imaginable. He'd accept what Weber has to say about the role of Protestantism and capitalism while at the same time complaining that that sort of account is not an explanation, let alone an ultimate explanation for why Europe overtook the world. (Why did capitalism develop there? Why did Protestantism come into existence there?) As someone who has been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Marx, I relate to that search for ultimate causes.

There's also something compelling in the argument that energy production and use drives history on the largest scale. Diamond's argument is that the agrarian revolution in the Fertile Crescent 11 ka (and its subsequent spread along that line of latitude) is what ultimately gave the advantage to European civilization. But of course food has everything to do with energy. Food is converted into energy in human digestion, and it takes energy to produce food. The society that revolutionizes food production is going to set loose the innate human ability to revolutionize every other aspect of the society. The Arab agrarian revolution launches the scientific revolution in the 11th century CE. The British agrarian revolution in the 18th century launches the industrial revolution in the 19th. The Green Revolution in the 20th century is still transforming life in Asia in ways we have yet to fully witness. Yet all of these are revolutions in how food is produced, i.e., in how much energy and how many hours/person it takes to make food. Diamond's book is in many ways an updated version of Leslie White's technological theory of history.

Diamond's approach might succumb to the same accusations of technological determinism White's did. Already by the 60s, Gerhard Lenski came up with what is (at least to my mind) a more reasonable, probabilistic account of the relationship between technological development and macrosociological change. For example, hunting is predominantly a male activity in every kind of society studied by anthropologists, and polyandry is practiced in less than 1 percent of societies studied. Things like food production specifically and technology more generally probably matter very little in determining either of those sociological traits. Yet many phenomena—specialization in metal working, two or more levels of government above the community level, patrilineal clans, bride price or bride service required, and many more—do show strong correlations with the kind of subsistence technology in those societies. And since these sociological characteristics come into being after these subsistence technologies are adopted, it's a safe guess that technological advance is their cause. Broadly, population, language, social structure, and ideology appear to have technology as their chief determinant, according to Lenski.

Still, that's a great deal. And what's of most interest to me, as someone who thinks a lot about the future, is that, as technological change accelerates, the "macro" starts to collapse into the "micro". What I mean is that, in my opinion, folks like Lenski, Diamond, and White (and even to some extent Lewis Morgan, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx) have correctly identified the general cause of historical change in its broadest features and over its largest time scales. So while such a theory might not help explain why Germany and its allies lost World War I, it could tell us why (on Diamond's account) Pizarro took Atahualpa prisoner and why Atahualpa didn't take Charles I prisoner. Or why medieval society turned into modern industrial society.

But as time goes on and the pace of change increases, the sorts of changes the historian sees happening over the course of hundreds of years now can occur on the order of decades. It's one thing to note that we can fit twice as many features on a microprocessor every year or two. Okay, so there might be some radical implications in that for AI, and in the meantime we get cooler looking video games and cell phones. But the fact that the same law of accelerating returns is at the same time working on energy production alters those implications radically. It means that the sort of radical social change we associate with the neolithic revolution or with the industrial revolution, which unfolded over the course of thousands or hundreds of years, could be compressed into decades or years. Those quantum leaps in the way we produce food and/or power work set the creative and intellectual stage to bring about further changes in energy production, creating a positive feedback loop. So too should we expect the next revolution in energy to follow closely on the heels of the first.

To my mind, the inevitability of this shift isn't the interesting part. I'm not 100% confident we'll witness a technological singularity in which the non-biological portion of our intelligence widely outstrips the biological portion, but I am quite confident this revolution in energy production will take place. Or I should say I'd be astounded if it didn't happen in the next 20 years (barring, you know, plague or being invaded by aliens or something).

The interesting part is: What do you do with the information? The technological change is inevitable. People still have to make decisions about what to do with the technology and what to use it for. Our system of social organization—the way we're fundamentally related to one another—still has to cope with this change somehow.

This is why I proselytize a little bit about accelerating change. Not because I like toys (I can barely support a data plan for a smartphone right now) but because no one seems to realize it's coming and what's going to happen when it does. People aren't prepared for it, but they need to be. Especially our political leaders.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Possible Goldilocks planet discovered


Looks like these guys were pretty much on the money. They claimed there was a better than 50% chance we'd find a "Goldilocks" zone planet by May of next year.

Interesting quote from the Wired article:
“The fact that we found one so close and so early on in the search suggests there’s a lot of these things,” Butler says. Only about 100 other stars are as close to Earth as Gliese 581, and only 9 of them have been closely examined for planets. Odds are good that 10 to 20 percent of stars in the Milky Way have habitable planets, Vogt says.
And likely where there can exist life, so there exists life.

What is life, and why does it exist in our universe? No one knows. But if the universe is as large as is predicted by inflation, then it doesn't even have to be infinitely large for there to be life literally everywhere.

Life—and perhaps intelligence—is as characteristic of this universe as nuclear fusion or even dust.

(By the way, I have a bet going that we discover at least 116 exoplanets by NYE this year.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

secular religion

While I was on my run this morning, I thought a bit about E.O. Wilson's "epic of evolution":
Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it ... Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm we are part of something greater than ourselves (…) The way to achieve our epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleave it, it is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide.
Human beings seem to require a grand narrative which gives their lives meaning. Wilson suggests one in accordance with the principles of science generally and evolution in particular.

I'm amenable to this in some sense. I studied philosophy because I was interested in the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. It's hard for me to understand why someone would study philosophy if they weren't interested in the big questions. After all, there are plenty of other disciplines studying the small questions and doing a much better job of it than philosophers. My own view on this became an eclectic hybrid of Hegel's and Marx's organic, developmental models of society, Heidegger's history of transcendence, and Kurzweil's account of the technological singularity. I believe the grand narrative I've cobbled together from this is not only consistent with the discoveries of science but more importantly explains why the universe is intelligible at all and why problems continue to remain amenable to intelligent solution.

But I would never suggest my beliefs could replace widespread religious beliefs. It's not because religious people are irrational. Religion is a form of rationality. Hegel and Durkheim covered this topic pretty thoroughly. The contest between science and religion isn't between thought and emotion or reason and faith. It's between the new and the old. People are extremely religious, not primarily because they're animalistic or irrational or don't like understanding things, but because human beings are by their nature conservative. At least when it comes to the big things, like not cutting off women's clitorises or not persecuting homosexuals. (They're great at adopting smartphones and search engines, though.)

So, the problem isn't that you have one or two memes floating around in the heads of Pentecostals or Islamists, and if only we could replace those memes or those faulty bits of programming, we'd get rational beings who would accept secular humanism. Nor is it a question of replacing one emotion with another. Communities are more like organisms than like mere aggregates of information. They want to preserve themselves as a whole, and that means holding steadfastly to the essential beliefs about self, universe, and other people. In other words we're talking about a whole pattern of life if you're a bigot, a creationist, or even a goth or hipster or something like that. And the pattern not only defines who you are but also connects you up with other people and colors what you're willing and not willing to accept about the universe. And it's all pretty rational, at least from the inside, since there are things that count as evidence, things that don't, etc.

Really the only thing you can do in a lot of cases is just wait for people to die. And keep putting the message out there about science, rationality, respect, fairness, and the rest. That part isn't hard, because there's so much information available and so much being generated on a daily basis. It's just a question of presenting it in an engaging way, which isn't so hard either. Personally, I just take heart in the fact that the older generations must eventually die (assuming they don't live long enough to become cyborgs, god forbid—the last thing the world needs is a Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin cyborg). And the possibilities for individual freedom generated by technology and science are so much more appealing on a basic level, and the world population is so young in many places. I think that's what will ultimately overcome religious conservativism, not a "new religion" handed down by academics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

the best stats you've ever seen

This is one of the more surprising TED talks I've watched. Hans Rosling, a doctor and researcher of hunger diseases in Africa and international health generally, gives a dazzling presentation of data debunking our preconceptions of the developing world. Some of the points he proves using statistics throughout his 20 minute presentation:
  1. We underestimate the tremendous change in Asia, which was social change before economic change.

  2. There's no gap between rich and poor any more. It's a myth.

  3. The concept of developing countries is extremely doubtful.

  4. [T]he best projection from the World Bank is that [income will even out], and we will not have a divided world. We'll have most people in the middle.

  5. Today we don't have to go to Cuba to find a healthy country in Latin America. Chile will have a lower child mortality than Cuba within some few years from now.

  6. It seems [a country] can move much faster if [it is] healthy first than if [it is] wealthy first.

  7. All countries tend to use their money better than they did in the past.

  8. The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized ... we must be much more detailed.

  9. It's as if the world is flattening off.
The end of the presentation explains why most people aren't aware of these statistics and how the internet is rapidly changing that situation. I was aware of some of this, but I wasn't aware of the extent to which it was true. Seeing the data presented graphically brought the point home more vividly than if I were just to read about it. I recommend you watch the video and not just read the transcript.

As statistics like these become widely acknowledged in North America and Europe, two things are going to happen. The first is that it will be possible to correctly diagnose the problems facing places like "Asia" or "Africa"—useless constructs for international medicine, health, politics, and economics, which Rosling is eager to demolish. The second is that the left's tale about the oppression and privilege inherent in "the system" will continue to lose credibility, as it has for over half a century now. I say this as a leftist, as a critic of capitalism, as someone whose worldview is deeply informed by Hegel and Marx, and as a humanitarian. Leftist political dogma since the 60s has been based far too much on moralizing about the oppressed and the privileged and not nearly based enough on theory and observation.

The reasons this is wrong are not complicated. American Marxists in the 20th century distilled the critique of capitalism down to one idea: capitalism is forever crisis-prone and will make your life worse in the long-run. When capitalism radically raised the standard of living over the course of the 20th century, the radical critics of capitalism no longer had a leg to stand on. (See Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff for more.)

Marxism became equated in workers' minds with losing the real, substantial gains they had made. Those workers weren't "sold out" or "stupid. The problem is that Marxism was turned into a theory about oppression, which it never was in the first place.

The hangers-on insisted all the wealth the greedy, racist, sexist, etc., "western" workers (the real enemies!) were enjoying was being stolen from the "developing world". As Rosling's presentation makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather than applying by rote what we learned from our liberal arts education—or cynically dismissing it—why not start instead with the actual trajectory followed by capitalism over the course of the last 200 years, with special emphasis on the past half-century? We start with the facts, we attempt to come up with a general law of development, and then we project it into the future and see where it's going.

What's the future of a high tech global capitalism in which the vast majority of individuals experience themselves as empowered individuals with control over their own lives? I believe that situation is far more dangerous to capitalism than a world divided into the privileged and the oppressed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Religion is wrong, and science is right

Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being."
What an absurd statement to make. Every religion makes claims about the origin of the world, and the Judeo-Christian religions are no exception. Those claims have been proven wrong, just like most of the claims in the Bible. The universe is billions of years old, not a few thousand. Humans were not created by God; they evolved from other primates. A river's waters never turned to blood. Jesus did not rise from the dead. These things didn't happen because we know they can't happen.

Faced with the fact that everything their traditions say about the world is certifiably wrong, many religious thinkers since the age of the Enlightenment have responded to this problem by redefining the meaning and purpose of religion. Religion is no longer about using reason to understand God, as it was for Aquinas (patron philosopher of the Catholic Church). Now it's about "faith", which is different from and mercifully immune to "reason". The Bible no longer contains an account of the origin of humans and the universe. Now it's there to give our lives "meaning".

It's analogous to a team which sucks at basketball, and instead of just retiring from basketball, they say, "Okay, basketball no longer means [rules of basketball]. It means sitting in the bleachers and singing Happy Birthday as loud as we can. Look how great we are at basketball."

Meanwhile the other 99% of religious people really do believe their crumbling, 3,000 year old scrolls give a better account of the origin of the world and human beings than science, and they're ready to butcher each other over it at a moment's notice. And hey, if it's a matter of their faith and not their reason, who are we to criticize them, right?

Friday, August 6, 2010

identity politics cont

I shouldn't be disingenuous. I don't relate to identity politics. But I think that's because I don't relate to subcultures generally. Clearly it's not enough that I'm a man, am white, and am from a middle class background. I know plenty of white, middle class males who ostentatiously self-flagellate and renounce their "privilege". I don't know. It must be some weird thing in my upbringing. I just don't give a shit about that sort of thing.

wherefore the "mainstream"?

I realized today that identity politics is probably just one facet of a larger movement against the cultural mainstream. I realized this when I was thinking about the difference some draw between "liberal" and "radical" approaches to issues of gender, race, or sexual orientation. One of the features common across so-called "liberal" approaches—usually as they're portrayed by their "radical" critics—is a desire to demarginalize a group, usually by acquiring the rights that already belong to the non-marginalized groups (the "mainstream").

The particulars of this aren't that interesting to me. The scholarship on these issues is diverse and nuanced, as contrasted with views expounded by individuals on the internet who throw around terms like "radical", "liberal", and/or "identity politics", which seem coarse by comparison. What interests me is this notion which seems to have entered the zeitgeist at some point after the 60s which equates being radical with being part of a subculture or marginalized group outside of the mainstream. After all, if you go back 100 years, the opposite was the case. Radical political and even cultural claims were not founded in opposition to universalism but were understood as extensions of them. It was the conservatives and reactionaries who opposed to this the rights of the individual or the group.

Nowadays the situation is reversed. But I don't think this is a sui generis phenomenon. It appears to be part of a larger trend. You can see it in music, too. There was a vibrant mainstream in music up until about the mid-70s, and then it started to break apart into different genres. There was no such thing as the "mainstream". You could hear almost any kind of music there was in the middle of the FM dial (at least music produced by whites). The mainstream was formed from the opposition to it of the subcultures which became hip hop, hardcore, alternative, etc. The economic, material component to this was essential, of course. "Selling out" meant compromising your artistic vision for money. But it was more than that, because it was a general way of having a style and being an individual. To be an individual meant being in opposition to the mainstream.

There are probably more examples than this, but these are the two that leap to my mind.

Personally, I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that we now have subcultures in opposition to a mainstream. I don't know whether it's good from an artistic perspective. I don't know whether it's good from a political perspective. It raises a lot of problems. But I don't fall in the "cultural critic" camp. I don't believe we have passed out of a Golden Age into a time of decadence. I think some people in the United States and Europe have undergone a particular experience or set of experiences which have made it seem all-but-necessary to them to embrace a particular model of individuality. That it's the opposite from the model of individuality held by radicals 100 years ago is not good enough reason to reject it. That our current age is beset by innumerable problems is not good enough reason to blame them. I'd be interested in know what caused it to happen and what the general telos of the thing is, though. It might seem odd to look for the natural trajectory of something which seems fragmented and inward-looking, but if I'm right, it is, in fact, a very general trend shared across subcultural lines. You are being an individual just like everyone else—but that might not be a bad thing!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Follow up to Of Geek Culture

I've given more thought to the subject matter of my previous post on geek culture, and I've come up with an answer which seems so obvious that I don't know why it didn't occur to me before.

Intense interest in a subject or an activity can't make you geek. You also have to be part of the subculture. And everyone knows being part of a subculture is more than taking an interest in certain subjects. It also means socializing with other people who are interested in that subject, going to organized events, joining internet communities devoted to the discussion of the subject, and in many cases wearing the clothes and adopting the manners of speech and expression of other members in the group.

That being the case, I am definitely not a geek. I have no problem with geeks per se, and I have plenty of geek interests. I'm just not comfortable with subcultures in general. While I understand it's second-nature for some people to identify themselves through inclusion in a group (or through their choice in friends), I'm rarely comfortable with that, even if the group in question is marginal or non-conformist with respect to the rest of society. Sure, I have a certain "look" to me which is premeditated (along with distinctive tastes in music, movies, and books), but it wouldn't mark me for inclusion in a group. All my friends are pretty different from one another, and it's usually strange having even two of them in the same room together.

By contrast geeks are inherently social. It seems like an odd thing to say, given the stereotype of the geek staying home Friday night to play World of Warcraft. But while geeks may sometimes not fit into mainstream culture, there's never a shortage of other people who are into roleplaying, genre fiction, cosplay, anime, or programming. On the contrary, some of these are multi-billion dollar markets. There are so many people interested in some of these things that if you want you can choose only to socialize with people who are interested in them. Of course, that's when you get the "I'm different—just like my friends!" mindset, where folks within a subculture tend to have the same cultural references (quoting lines from Monty Python or The Big Lebowski or xkcd), a lot of the same mannerisms, style of dress and music (in the case of hipsters). (That's one of the main reasons I'm not comfortable with it.)

The majority of people seem to have a strong social instinct. They form groups with an inside/outside structure that set requirements on who can belong and who cannot. They form an understanding of who they are by means of their inclusion in the group, so that the group is more than the sum of its parts but also validates the individual's form of life. (This is what Hegel called "spirit" [Geist].) The expectations of the group are norms internal to each member, guiding, restricting, and validating action on a subliminal level. If Freud is right on this point (and in general I think he is), then this is not particular to subcultures but to human civilization generally, so I don't mean to this last point in a disparaging way.

Though the irony of subcultures is that the members really do think they're somehow being more individual by being part of the subculture. For an individual who spent a chunk of their adolescence feeling like a weirdo, the feeling of relief is real when you finally find people who have similar interests as you and who you can "be yourself" around. But if there are so many other people who turn out to be pretty much the same as you—with the same cultural references, mannerisms, etc.—how much are you "being yourself" anyway? The unasked question behind all subcultures is: Who is the me that is me? Why are you you? Is there something to me besides these patterns of behavior and outward appearance? Or am I just an accumulation of causes and effects? Maybe it's because I've always been interested in questions like that that I've never allowed myself to sink into a subculture.