the missing links

spaghetti

The first scientific mnemonic I can remember is King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. That was a long time ago, and biological classification now seems very different (as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), though it’s unclear to me whether cladistics wasn’t the standard back then, or whether it wasn’t taught in the introductory material that came over with King Philip. Still, it remains true that binomial nomenclature is the standard for the most basic unit of biological classification: species.

When you are learning the basics, you usually don’t stop to question them, at least not very deeply, because if you don’t start by accepting most of what you hear, you won’t ever learn enough to really question everything you’re told. But even back then, the idea that Homo sapiens stood uniquely alone in the classification of all living things seemed very questionable. Humans are considered a monotypic species, which means that the species is the sole member of the rank above it, the genus. I remember thinking that it made sense to group together a lion (Panthera leo), tiger (Panthera tigris), jaguar (Panthera onca), and leopard (Panthera pardus). But why was Homo sapiens all alone? Does that really seem likely to be true, now and forever?

There are other monotypic species; some are even singular through multiple ranks. The aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is the only member of its genus, which is the only genus in its family, making it the loneliest mammal on the planet. There’s a monotypic species of fish (Ozichthys albimaculosus) and butterfly (Eucheira socialis), and several monotypic plants. The hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) was once thought to be monotypic, until a compatriot (Anodorhynchus leari) was correctly identified over a hundred years after it was discovered and originally misclassified. In all of these cases, it’s easy to understand the isolation of the species as a function of either specific adaptations to an available habitat, or as isolation imposed by a habitat that has become unavailable. That is, the aardvark’s habitat is not rare, but its evolutionary adaptations are so specific that its singularity doesn’t seem strange – what’s strange is eating termites, but termites can be found in a lot of places. On the other hand, the Madrone butterfly exists only where madrone trees exist, in high elevations in Mexico – the geographic specificity of the habitat explains the singularity of the species.

The singularity of Homo sapiens is much harder to accept. Human adaptation is so generally applicable that we can thrive in any habitat. As we’ve expanded across the Earth, no isolation of habitat has yet cut us off from further access to evolutionary development; indeed, the opposite is true: we’ve expanded into every habitat and we live in increasingly interconnected ways. There’s no obvious explanation for the absence of other human species. The idea that we stand alone seems like a category error.

Prior to the modern understanding of evolution, biologists theorized that a missing link existed between humans and apes. At one time, humans were thought to be the only “hominids,” and all other apes were called “pongids” – many people sought a missing link between the two, but it was never found because we had misclassified the relationship between hominids and pongids. In the modern understanding, humans and apes are in the same family – turns out, we’re all hominids. So the search for a missing link is now thought to be a fool’s errand.

In this essay, I am that fool. I speculate that the links that are missing aren’t between humans and other apes, but among humans themselves. I propose that Homo sapiens has already evolved into separate species, and possibly we were never a monotypic species for very long.

This is a claim so outlandish that I can only compare it to Copernicus, who examined the complicated orbits of Ptolemaic star charts and realized the absurdity of putting humans in the center of the picture. If you insist that the Sun revolves around the Earth, you need ungainly mathematical gymnastics to work out the orbits of the other planets. It’s a lot more simple to adopt a frame of reference where the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Apparent_retrograde_motion

That simple shift in framing was the beginning of a scientific revolution that defines how we live to this day. What I can outline today lacks such impact only because of my inability to specify all that is required in a single essay. However, I aim to provide notes that might inspire a modern-day Aristarchus of Samos, who theorized that the Earth revolves around the Sun, while being utterly without the knowledge or data to prove it.

Aristarchus lived more than three centuries before Ptolemy, and Copernicus lived another millennium and a half after that. We’re only a century and a half after Darwin, but knowledge moves faster these days. Have we properly applied what we’ve learned about evolution to the case of Homo sapiens? A frame of reference that makes us apparently above the laws of evolution must be regarded as inherently suspect.

Are Humans Above Evolution?

One way to ease into this inquiry is to ask whether human evolution has stopped. We don’t have to ask this question, and it seems outlandish to bother to try, but let’s ask anyway. The average duration of a species is 1.2 million years, as far as we can tell from the geological record, and Homo sapiens has been around for only about 200 thousand years, or maybe half a million at most. Isn’t it several hundred thousand years too early to consider this question?

We only estimate the lifespan of species that leave a geological record, some trace of their time on Earth buried deep within its layers. We have no way of knowing about the existence of species that left no record. The shorter the lifespan of a species, the less likely it is that there was enough time and development to leave a geological record. So it’s entirely possible that the average lifespan of species is much shorter than we have been able to measure. Nevertheless, we can sharpen this question by saying that humans now are nearly certain to leave a geological record that will be readable far into the future. Maybe we can assume that the average duration of any species that leaves a readable geological record is over a million years, so therefore we can assume that our species will last a lot longer than we have so far.

But this math-based objection probably isn’t why many of us believe that human evolution isn’t occurring. A stronger reason is just that we find it difficult to conceive of our evolution, because we have dominated the Earth. Other species evolve due to changes in habitat and environment, but our species is defined by its mastery over habitat. We might not survive changes to our environment, but if we do, it will be through either mastery over the environment itself, or due to human-developed adaptations to environmental change. If the planet warms, the ice melts, the oceans rise, and the atmosphere allows in unprecedented radiation – in any scenario where we don’t all die, some will adapt. Will that adaptation be considered human speciation? If some of us learn to live underground, and subsequently develop improved ability to see in the dark, will that be speciation? If some of us are enhanced with bionic lungs, artificial gills, and metallic skin thick enough to repel radiation, will that be speciation?

The traditional definition of species is that members of a common species can generally produce fertile offspring through sexual reproduction. There may be exceptions within the group, but these exceptions are not popular characteristics of the group. For the sake of brevity, I’ll use the term “can mate” to mean “can generally produce fertile offspring through sexual reproduction.” The term mating is inexact and arguably overbroad, but it’s better than typing four times the number of words necessary every time. So: members of the same species can mate. If different types of animals cannot mate, then they are not of the same species.

Consider again a scenario where the environment has changed so much that some humans choose to live underground, others remain above ground. Assume that after a very long period of time passes, the underground-dwellers can see much better in the dark than the aboveground folk. Are these two groups of humans now different species? The usual analysis would conclude that as long as members of the two groups could still mate, we should say no.

What about a situation where one set of humans develop a revolutionary treatment that inserts rare elements into their skin, at a molecular level involving genetic editing, so that no amount of sunlight will harm them? Are they still human? We might still say no, assuming they can still mate with people who don’t get the molecular treatment, but the editing of genetic material will give many of us pause. Is an integration of non-organic technology with human life enough to create a new species?

In either situation, we probably are inclined to wait before rendering judgment. The longer we wait after the change (i.e. living underground, artificial skin), the likelier it is that morphological changes will evolve that absolutely preclude the possibility of mating. In fact, the usual practice of professional taxonomists is to only identify a species after such changes have occurred and can be mapped to phylogenetic markers. The state of the art of biological classification today demands that we be able to see the boundaries between species in their DNA sequences.

Remember though, that today’s state of the art is tomorrow’s obsolete mistake. In the case of humans, stopping the analysis at DNA sequences is a very strange thing to do, since we do not currently know the relationship between patterns of mind and any genetic marker, and yet many scientists suspect a relationship will eventually be proven. Why should we let our own ignorance be the boundary to speciation? How can we analyze differentiation within a species without looking at the most critical features that actually distinguish them as a unique species? It’s like trying to distinguish fish without looking at their gills.

What defines Homo sapiens as a unique species is the product of our minds. We can argue about exactly which products are crucial from an evolutionary standpoint – language or emotion or consciousness or whatever – but there is no question that the evolutionary prospects of our species have always been entirely dependent on the products of our minds. Once we have acknowledged this completely uncontroversial fact, why would we insist that human speciation must be defined by features that are entirely unrelated to the features that make us human? Human speciation must be defined by something that is happening in our minds.

It may seem unscientific to suggest that mere mental activity can be a boundary for species. Genetic material, whether or not you’ve ever seen a strand of DNA, seems more real than thoughts. We’ve seen pictures and diagrams, we know this is an actual object of science. Who has ever laid eyes on a thought? But remember how we got here: DNA sequencing replaced rougher methods of measurement as the preferred tool for biological classification; we updated our techniques because the science advanced. In earlier days, biologists made many mistakes in classification by relying only on visual features – in humans, this has had disastrous results in eugenics and racism. Phylogenetic analysis, for which DNA sequences are the key texts, is vastly superior to prior methods. But it’s not the end of the story.

Most biologists reject mind-body dualism, which is the idea that the sense of self constructed in the mind occurs entirely separate from all material aspects of the body. Almost no scientist believes that a human can have a thought without some observable activity in the brain. Broadly speaking, all of neuroscience is devoted to identifying the biological properties of mental activities. We aren’t very close to being able to match habitual patterns of thinking to heritable genetic markers, but closing that gap seems like a very realistic possibility. As we understand more about how the processes of the mind manifest in matter, we may end up discarding DNA sequencing altogether, just as we abandoned Darwin’s mistaken theory of pangenesis. Or we might better understand what the genetic markers tell us as we learn more about how patterns of thoughts are observable in biology.

Assume that one day, we will find the biological markers of thought patterns, and that these markers are heritable (i.e. transmissible from one generation to the next). The real question here is whether differences in minds are so profound that they can prevent mating, with such prevention being meaningful enough to describe separate species.

The Veil of Limited Perfection

Let’s consider this question with a thought experiment, where we consider the world as viewed through a “Veil of Limited Perfection” – assume all of the people in the thought experiment are exactly the same people as in our world, except that all problems of safety, health, and economics are solved. (Make no assumptions about how the problems were solved! This world is no more likely to be dominated by socialism than capitalism, for example.) No other problems are solved; in particular, sexual reproduction is still the only way for humans to procreate, and our mating rituals and characteristics remain largely the same. No one ever experiences unwanted fear, no one ever dies an unnatural death, and everyone has as much financial resource as they want – but you still have to figure out who to date. In such a world, can different species of humans ever evolve?

Would every single human being be capable of mating with any other? You could say “Yes, in theory.” You have to say “in theory” to account for the fact that you know that no human would happily mate with a completely random selection of any other human on the planet, even though in this thought experiment, that would not affect their safety, health, or wealth. Every single human would continue to have mating preferences, and these preferences would of course not be formed entirely on physical features. Instead, preferences would be largely if not entirely about the products of minds of prospective mates. Are they happy, kind, generous? Are they courageous, resilient, or honest? Do they like the same music, movies, books? Do they like sex the way you like it? All of these questions, and their answers, exist in the minds of prospective mates. Beyond the Veil of Limited Perfection, it’s clear that survival of the fittest is a process determined entirely by products of our minds.

Note also that this world would not be more perfect if we could wish away our preferences. That would mean removing all differences in opinion, temperament, and intellect. It would mean a world without variation in art, or music, or drama or comedy. People do not enjoy all expressions of these equally, and we tend to enjoy other people who enjoy things that are complementary to what we enjoy.

So beyond the Veil of Limited Perfection, each person has a set of people that they would willingly mate with. Looking at the preferences of all people, you can construct sets that include only people who would all be willing to mate with any member of the same set. You could call that a “mutual intra-mating preference group” – but this is a cumbersome name, so for now let’s use “phyloculture” instead. This term risks considerable confusion, since it implies that culture evolves through evolutionary processes, and it’s not yet clear that culture is what we’re talking about here. But if we need a term to describe what is shared between people who enjoy a related set of opinions, temperament, art and music – what better term is there than culture?

Since a phyloculture is defined as “mutual intra-mating preference group,” can we say that different phylocultures are in fact different species? Why not, if by definition no human would choose to mate outside their own phyloculture?

A simple objection is: “But people can still choose to mate outside their phyloculture, can’t they?” No: if they are willing to mate with each other, then by definition they are in the same phyloculture.

The harder form of this objection asks how consent can possibly be considered a barrier in whether animals can generally produce fertile offspring through sexual reproduction. But this objection has already been addressed: in humans, we must look for speciation in the features that define us as humans; as these features are within our minds, we must look at the products of our minds to identify the distinguishing barriers between species (since we do not yet have the capability of genetically identifying the material processes within our minds). The reason that we do not consider consent as a question in the mating of animals is not that consent is irrelevant, but that animals are not capable of consent. (Of course, some argue that animals are capable of consent, but that has no bearing on whether humans have speciated.)

Now, take off the Veil of Limited Perfection. Do you have a set of people that you would willingly mate with? Of course you do. If you knew the same kind of information about everyone on the planet that you know about your set, would your set include everyone? Of course not. The fact is, you already have a mutual intra-mating preference group. You just can’t see it, because it’s distorted by considerations of safety, health, and wealth.

Phylocultures exist today, but they are hidden by social phenomena. Remarkably, many of those phenomena have decreasing importance to species survival over time. In the early days of Homo sapiens, the species could not survive simple threats to safety or health. As we developed increasingly sophisticated social structures, economic considerations also greatly affected human survival. But nearly all humans alive today have considerably better prospects for matters of basic survival than humans of a thousand years ago. Another way of saying this is: Human speciation has already occurred, you just didn’t notice because it was hidden by earlier survival needs.

Finally, I can reveal that I decided to use the term “culture” despite possible confusion because I’m adding a dubious corollary to this theory of human speciation: As cultures evolve, they will tend to evolve into phylocultures, or they will disappear. In the future, there will be no cultures other than phylocultures.

Cultural Evolution in an Interconnected World

Cultural evolution is a field with an ugly history of controversy, as it is closely aligned with repugnant ideas about race and nationalism, and eugenics and genocide. We should take seriously the possibility that the ideas here can similarly be distorted by supporters of repugnant ideologies. These matters may deserve a separate follow up essay to address all concerns in detail, but for now, suffice to say that I categorically reject racism, nationalism, eugenics, and genocide. I’m a crazy amateur political philosopher, but I’m not a monster; just because the latter overlaps significantly with the former, that obviously doesn’t mean that the former all sympathize with the latter.

The study of cultural evolution routinely assumes that culture is transmitted through social means. The newer subfield of biocultural evolution posits that an interplay of genetic and social factors result in the evolution of cultures. One of the more common objections to the idea of cultural evolution is the assertion that evolution only acts on an individual level, sometimes even going so far as to say that only genes evolve, not people. Biocultural evolution has a great answer to this: individual genetic evolution has emergent properties that are only interpretable at a group level. As an over-simplified example: if some set of genes contributes to musical talent, and if a particular culture values musical talent (including in mating), then cultural reinforcement of the value of music will favor the continued advantage of those genes in a virtuous cycle.

There are of course cultural traits that have value between groups, not just within them. Put a warlike culture next to one that is not, in circumstances where war is common and resources are scarce, and the warlike culture has a group advantage that has evolutionary impact on the other group. However, cultural advantages rise and fall much more rapidly than natural habitats. If warlike culture were always an advantage, presumably we would all be Spartans.

And this is the first key to understanding how cultures will evolve into more visible phylocultures. When considering the advantages of traits that are expressed by the body, the background timetable is provided by changes in habitat, which occur over epochs. For advantages of traits expressed by the mind, the background timetable is provided by changes in culture, which evolve much faster than habitat, and faster still as time goes on. As far as we can tell, the culture of every type of early human was relatively static for millennia. In the Common Era, cultural change usually occurred over centuries. But in the last century, cultures changed by the decade, and in this decade, many of us have experienced cultural change just in the past year. So human speciation, properly understood, is happening faster than ever. That doesn’t mean the acceleration will continue, but it does mean that there might be more to analyze about human speciation from the last few decades than there has been in all the human history prior to that.

In prehistoric times, Homo sapiens coexisted with other hominins (including interbreeding, by the way, and yet we still view these as separate species). We may have had similar cultures, but we had very separate geographies. Then as the human population grew to cover the Earth, and finally we developed the technology for a very high degree of interconnection, there was a point in the 20th Century where we talked about a “monoculture” because we were so many and so connected that it seemed like a concentration of media power would drive a single dominant culture.

And then the Internet happened. In the glory days after the turn of the millennium, we crowed about the disaggregation of media and the disintermediation of corporate gatekeepers. Microcontent and microtargeting at first seemed to mean thousands of different cultures were possible. But that was an illusion. The reality is, concentration of media power has reassembled, in only a slightly different configuration. You can see it if you look for it: reconfiguration and consolidation of online cultures is happening now, very rapidly. And online culture increasingly forms and reflects offline culture. The importance of geography, nationality, race, and even religion in forming cultural boundaries has diminished. People are more united now by thoughts, opinions, and tastes that are relatively free of those old boundaries, and getting more free all the time. As this process continues, the observable features of phylocultures will become more and more prominent.

Where Does This End?

It never ends. Evolution never ends … or does it? (Or were you just asking, when is this incredibly long essay going to end?)

I don’t know. I have a theory, and since that theory builds upon this one, it is even crazier than the notions here. But I’ve already obliquely revealed the beginnings of an outline in a prior essay, which is actually my first statement of three phylocultures that I believe exist today. I believe that properly structured research would show credible material supporting the existence of at least three human species today. It would take a lot of work over many years to properly design and conduct this research, and frankly I’m not qualified for the task. However, as a closing note and a stake in the ground, I’ll assert the first proposed binomial nomenclature for these ostensible species: Homo fidelus (The Culture of Belief), Homo humanitas (The Culture of Humanity), Homo cognitio (The Culture of Knowledge).

I’m no Linnaeus, I’m certainly no Copernicus, and I only hope to inspire an Aristarchus. But if you think I’m crazy, you’re probably a different species than I am.

the tragic triangle of the three cultures

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a lecture called The Two Cultures, about a vexing divide that he saw in the academic circles of Oxford and Cambridge in the middle of the 20th Century. Snow was a rare bird, as a professional scientist who was also an esteemed novelist. Although the two cultures he describes are often cast as “sciences” against the “humanities,” Snow noted that both regarded themselves as “intellectuals.” One set of his colleagues explored the mysteries of human nature through literature, visual arts, music, politics, and economics. The other set explored the most fundamental aspects of the world in physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Neither was superior to the other, though both harbored the belief that they were. Both were engaged in the deepest exploration of creativity and experience, but abjectly illiterate across the cultural divide. These two cultures would sit at the same dinner table, and their misunderstanding of each other was so extreme that they could not understand each other even when they were agreeing.

This recent “Mundia & Modia” essay reads as a distillation of The Two Cultures, giving the name “Mundia” to the culture that reasons from immutable facts about the world, and “Modia” to the culture that centers on relationships between people. The message is so similar to that of The Two Cultures that I can almost recommend this short essay as a replacement for the longer lecture. The essay lacks the evocative detail of the lecture, but it is also free of the lecture’s jargon, less bound to a particular place in time, and unburdened by mid-century nationalistic baggage, which was nearly unavoidable in Snow’s time. I like the descriptions of Mundia and Modia because the boundaries are formed by how members of a culture make meaning about life. Your culture isn’t where you live or where you’re from, it’s not what you wear or eat, it’s not who you admire or hate. Culture is how you make sense of your place in the world.

Snow’s world was in the precious context of intellectual elites, and was distorted by fashionable stereotypes. But he does muse about another culture that seems outside of both Mundia and Modia. For lack of a better term, he calls it a culture of “technology.” This was near the dawn of the Information Age, at a time when the transistor had recently been invented and hardly commercialized. Yet he was prescient in identifying a culture that seemed based in something more than immutable facts about the natural world, and something beyond the relationships between humans. A generation ago, a futurist organization described its view of this third culture, but that came only one generation after the Snow lecture – another entire generation has passed since then. We have much more information that allows us to clearly understand and define the boundaries between cultures.

3 cultures

Belief, Humanity, and Knowledge – these are all highly loaded terms, and prefixes like “pro-” and “anti-” are bullets in our rhetorical guns. The very first thing to understand about this Three Cultures Thesis is that none of the cultures is superior to the others. Instead, we recognize that each culture is certain of its own superiority, while completely unable to demonstrate that superiority across cultural boundaries because of the way each of them reasons against or with the others.

In each culture, there is a first value (“pro-“) that is at the center of all reasoning within the culture, and there is a second value (“anti-“) that is the most important challenge to that first value. Although the term “anti-” denotes that second value, this doesn’t mean that the culture is always against the second value – only (and always) when the second value comes in conflict with the first. The triangle is completed by noting that the rationale for the first value is always rooted in a third value (“rationale”), which is the way a culture justifies its first value.

Each culture is interlocked with the other two cultures in relationships that are at once antagonistic and attractive. It’s tragic, really: Your biggest enemies want to be friends with you, while you want to be friends with others whose central motivation is inimical to yours.

THE CULTURE OF BELIEF

Culture of Belief: pro-belief

The Culture of Belief includes all people whose central reasoning is based on believing in something above all else. God and Country are obvious examples, but there are many other subcultures of belief that are not about religion or nationalism. People can believe in capitalism with similar fervor, or socialism, or art, or love or sex. Some of the greatest accomplishments in human history have been achieved from Belief subcultures, as well as some of the greatest atrocities. Nothing is stronger than belief, in that it really cannot be defeated until the believer stops believing, and nothing can stop a true believer from believing.

Culture of Belief: anti-knowledge

The most important challenges to Belief come from knowledge. But knowledge is ultimately irrelevant to belief: When you believe in something, you know it is true in a way that requires no further proof, in part because knowledge is inherently unreliable and limited. Anything that is honestly presented as fact must also be open to re-examination, because an openness to new information is a hallmark of knowledge. The few facts that can be established as immutable and universal can easily be dismissed as limited, since the only way to achieve an unchanging, universal fact is to define the universe in a static and bounded way. If you believe that the universe is infinite and that everything changes, you know that no knowledge can endure forever. Beliefs, however, have endured as long as humanity, and always will.

Culture of Belief: human rationale

Why should anyone bother believing in anything? Most adherents to any belief will insist that their devotion serves the dual purpose of advancing the belief as well as the prospects for humanity. People don’t kill in the name of God – or capitalism, or communism, or any ideology – because they hate people. Instead, adherents to a Belief culture will insist that the belief is in the best interests of humanity. They believe that humanity cannot prosper without Belief, so anyone who would be human must adopt this belief. Conversely, anyone who doesn’t adopt the belief is missing what it takes to fully achieve the best of humanity. When push comes to shove, Believers will choose the eternal interests of the Belief over the short-term interests of humans – because those interests must necessarily only be short term if they are not in service of the Belief.

THE CULTURE OF HUMANITY

Culture of Humanity – pro-human

The Culture of Humanity is centered in the common interests of all humanity. Humans by their own definition are the source of compassion, kindness, and really all of the things that are truly worthy, which is to say worthy of being human. That either sounds lovely to you or comes across as fatuous tautology, which is a fancy way of calling hippie-dippie bullshit. Again, the Culture of Humanity is no guarantee of good works or bad. Some our greatest leaders have been centered in humanity, and some who espouse human values have become terrorists in the eyes of the world. As is the case with Belief, no one is always right or always wrong just from the fact of membership in Humanity.

Culture of Humanity – anti-belief

No matter how much any Belief appears to be grounded in a rationale to benefit humanity, Believers must always make a dividing line between themselves and non-believers. And non-believers are, by definition in the eyes of Believers, not fully realizing their humanity. It’s a very short step from there to regarding non-believers as less human, and less worthy. In this way, Belief is the most important challenge to Humanity, which recognizes no boundaries between humans that can justify differing valuations of essential human worth. Humanity sees Belief as inevitably leading to bloodshed because Belief fails to put humanity first.

Culture of Humanity – knowledge rationale

Isn’t the Culture of Humanity merely a belief that humans are the most important value? No, because Humanists reason from knowledge to arrive at their culture. (The term “humanist” has been used in various ways for centuries. In that tradition, I’m using “Humanist” here in a way that aligns with some but not all of the history of the word.) Knowledge is impermanent and limited, except for this one fact: we are all humans. That fact is irrefutable, though the chain of reasoning from there to require that we all be treated as humans has many weak links. Nevertheless, Humanists use the techniques of Knowledge, not Belief, to make the case for compassion, kindness, and mindfulness.

THE CULTURE OF KNOWLEDGE

Culture of Knowledge – pro-knowledge

The greatest accomplishments of our species have come through the accumulation, examination, curation, distribution, and application of knowledge. The Culture of Knowledge values knowledge above all other values because without knowledge, we would be little more than vulnerable and rather pathetic animals. So knowledge is not just instrumental to our flourishing, it is itself the most important thing to flourish. Everything else is ephemeral or retrograde. Beliefs become superstition and ignorance. Humanity is largely violent, brutal, and selfish. Knowledge is the path to a better life.

Culture of Knowledge – anti-human

Knowledge is the highest value in part because it’s the greatest expression of human ability. Knowledge rises above the temporary concerns of humans in their current form. Given a choice to advance humanity or advance knowledge, there can be no acceptable choice other than to pick knowledge, because what makes us human is our knowledge, so advancing knowledge is advancing the best of our humanity. If other aspects of humanity must be shed in order to continue to advance knowledge, then that’s a small price to pay for the prize of keeping the best of what being human is about. Beliefs that oppose knowledge are not a true threat to knowledge. Only a definition of “human” that doesn’t put knowledge first is a threat – in this way, Knowledge is anti-human.

Culture of Knowledge – belief rationale

Ultimately, choosing Knowledge as the highest of all values is a kind of belief, though it is not within the culture of Belief. In a sense, the value of Humanity is a belief, and of course so is any Belief. But Knowledge is the most demonstrably powerful belief because by definition, applied knowledge always has observable results in the physical world. Proof of the existence of Knowledge is evident everywhere; proof of the existence of God is not only lacking, but unnecessary according to the very belief in God. Belief in the value of Knowledge does not require faith, as the rules of evidence are stated within the belief. This makes Knowledge stand outside of all other beliefs, but nevertheless the choice of Knowledge as the highest value is rooted in belief.

CONSEQUENCES AND CONTEXT

This Three Cultures Thesis explains many otherwise curious contradictions: divisions in progressive politics, Austrian vs Keynesian economics, environmentalists vs ecofascists, American patriotism vs exceptionalism, and differing reactions to pandemic plans. These will have to be the subjects of other essays, which I may attempt depending on how long the current pandemic lasts.

At least one future essay will cover the context of these cultural divisions, as I believe that this thesis is important in a much larger context. In fact, the only reason I wrote this post is so that I could write a later post explaining why this all matters. All of the above is really just a prelude to pick up from the very last lines of Snow’s lecture:

“The danger is, we have been brought up to think as though we had all the time in the world. We have very little time. So little that I dare not guess at it.”

That was over sixty years ago. We have so little time left that we have no choice but to try to guess at it.

present time

balloons
Many people have remarked that this month is the longest in memory, so much so that as you lie awake in bed at night, you can hardly believe that this morning was the same day. This has a very simple explanation.

At one time or another in your life, you’ve probably gotten the advice to “live in the moment.” Maybe you’ve gone so far as to adopt this as a way of life; many people call this being “present.” Some people don’t like the way that sounds, but even if you dismiss this all as hippie mumbo-jumbo, you probably know that many people have had that great moment in life – usually looking in the eyes of another, sometimes just looking within yourself, and just really connecting to life. That is what being present feels like, even if you don’t want to call it that. So the annoying people giving that persistent advice are telling you to be present in the moment, because that is how you can experience the best of life.

But a very similar thing happens in your head in a very different kind of situation. For example, when I was a young teen in New Jersey, I was riding my bicycle alongside my friend, who was riding a moped. (It was Jersey in the ’80s, mopeds were very cool then.) I was dumb enough to hang on to his arm so we could go up the busy street at an unreasonable speed. We were going way too fast when my front wheel hit a rock and flinched into the curb, throwing me over the handlebars.

To this day, I can still remember every detail of being in the air, the thoughts racing through my head, the department store across the street appearing upside down, the texture of the sidewalk as my face approached it, and the cool wave of relief flooding my entire body as I floated inches above the concrete and into soft uncut grass, completely unharmed. Those two seconds felt like the longest day of my life. Because I was present.

I don’t want to label that event as traumatic, but only because it’s at the low end of the range of things that you might consider as trauma. But I can also remember time slowing to a crawl on a hiking trail, while watching a bear creep slowly towards my son. I can remember certain moments of eternity during my divorce. And I can recognize that at those times, I was very much present. Fortunately, I had good ways of relieving trauma – with great friends, absorbing work, the bonds of family. Unfortunately, I also had some bad ways to just take the shortcut of blotting out any sense of presence. That tended to make the next day really long, with a splitting headache.

So anyway …

We are all now at a time of global trauma. In each moment, our senses are ready for the next thing to happen. Our usual places and people of refuge are unavailable, or only available in an unfamiliar form. Too many of us are in a precarious situation, whether emotional or financial or physical. And so we are far more present than we want to be, for a situation we never wanted to be in. Even if you are lucky enough to have someone to turn to, that person is also experiencing the same trauma. We are all present together.

That. Is. Why. The. Days. Are. So. Long.

Nevertheless, it remains true that being present in the moment gives you the best chance to find those moments that make life worth living. You may have been forced to be present for every moment in these times, but you still have the choice to be present for yourself, for your loved ones, and for everyone you can. In the end, I am one of those annoying people who gives this advice persistently.

Why The Next Financial Crash Will Be The Last

or, an Outline of Everything I’ve Read on Twitter in 2020 so far

  1. The most basic criticism of capitalism is that it is inexorably tied to growth.
    1. Capitalism is the most efficient way to allocate resources.
    2. Efficiency always favors scale.
    3. Scale favors inequality, because greater extraction of resources is enabled by more underclass, so resources are effectively allocated to create larger and larger underclass, with an elite class almost as byproduct. 
  2. We are now at a scale where resource extraction of some form will break some kind of infrastructure required to maintain growth.
    1. The key types of infrastructure that enable large societies are: finance, energy, water, food, housing, military and policing, politics, and environment.
  3. Of infrastructure types, finance is the most fragile and environment is the most vital. So finance will likely break first, and the environment will probably break last – reserving a healthy respect for the combined odds of an unlikely explosive event in any of the other types.
  4. What we are seeing in 2020 is a large scale demonstration that money isn’t an undeniable law of the universe – it is a social convention that is strong enough to call fact, but weak enough to deny as real. In shorthand, we can label people who both see this and feel this as “radicalized.”
    1. We can call people who act on this as “extremist” – while acknowledging that there are many instances where what is now considered just was first considered extreme.
  5. In the current demonstration of financial fragility, we can already see that the owners of the capitalist system will succeed in maintaining the most efficient allocation of resource to reward scale without destroying the system. 
    1. The underclass will receive the minimum concessions required to continue to reach greater scale for continued extraction of resources.
  6. Scale is now at a level that enables the largest and fastest dissemination of information in all of recorded history. The percentage of radicalized people is a minority, but it is larger both in size and in proportion than it has ever been.
    1. There are many very cool things about the dissemination of information and associated technologies, but these are a side show.
  7. Since information feeds radicalization, there is no way to stop the growth of radicalization other than increasing authoritarianism, which is the only way to decrease the flow of information at this point.
  8. Capitalism will therefore allocate resources to authoritarianism because that maximizes the scale of the underclass required to extract maximum resources.
    1. The underclass will receive only the amount of goods and services required for them to accept the devil’s bargain of surviving for further exploitation under authoritarianism.
  9. The size of the radicalized population is large enough to foretell a kind of civil war in the United States. Capitalism is efficient enough to allocate resources to preventing this war from becoming one of blood, though with a “blood and soil” culture as a potential byproduct of the authoritarianism required to slow radicalization.
  10. The most peaceful outcome to hope for is a slow balkanization of the United States. It’s hard to see that trajectory ending in anything other than states not united – not culturally, politically, economically, or legally.
  11. Hopefully a bloodless war is coming first, even if a bloody war might follow later. Since the financial system is the most fragile of infrastructures required to support capitalism, it should not be surprising to see it collapse first.
  12. The collapse of our financial system has now been demonstrated in periodical financial system shocks going back almost four decades.
    1. This started with the initial petrodollar shock of the ’70s – finance is intertwined with energy extraction, which of course drives environmental exploitation.
  13. The observable cracks in the financial system are so large now that it’s hard to believe that an even larger financial system could possibly survive the next crash, which would be due to come in about another decade.
  14. The real limit is not the size of the cracks but that the efficient allocation of resource required for the masses to accept authoritarianism is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from what authoritarians want people to call socialism.
    1. In other words, the next blowup will only be repairable by allocating even more resources to the underclass, which increases the ability of the underclass to communicate and understand radicalism.
  15. The capitalist system will stop short of allowing socialism to end capitalism. As a last gasp, it will empower authoritarians who would kill people if helpful to maintain capitalism.
    1. These people would be largely but not exclusively radicalized. There will be plenty of collateral damage.
    2. These people would be almost exclusively underclass.
  16. The peaceful Hail Mary to hope for is the rapid advancement of technology that would replace human labor with robots and artificial intelligence.
    1. The excess humans would be placated with limitless entertainment, legalized drugs, and universal basic income.
  17. Despite our best hopes, the most likely outcome is that the next financial shock will be the last, either through failure to scale or a war that necessarily includes the destruction of the financial system, which can theoretically be rebuilt under an authoritarian regime. 
  18. There are really funny jokes about each and every one of the points and subpoints above.
    1. The ones about the subpoints are the funniest ones.
    2. A plurality of the jokes are about sex, which means they are the most obvious ones, but doesn’t mean they’re not the funniest ones.

FAQ

WTF is this?

A few months ago, I decided to radically increase my consumption of Twitter. Reading a constant stream of information, I never really took the time to try to assemble everything I’ve learned into a coherent narrative. Now that we are in Covid-19 shelter-in-place, the combination of a huge amount of free time and a rapid amplification and culmination of every message I’ve read previously compels me to write an outline of everything I’ve read recently.

Do you want to argue about this?

No. This is not an argument. This is an outline of everything I’ve absorbed on Twitter in 2020, in the order of a coherent narrative. I’m aware that there are arguments against every single point. I did not include any of them.

I’m aware that my sources are biased, both in my selection and in their content – that is how Twitter works. I’m aware that there are many omissions. I’m aware that some terminology is clumsy, or confusing, or potentially offensive. I’m aware that there are missing perspectives, and there’s a glaring lack of data or even citation. The lack of citation may seem particularly galling to many people. I’m not interested in arguing about any of this.

Are you aware that you’ve made an error? If I explain it to you, will you fix it?

No – if I was aware of an error, I wouldn’t have made it. If you try to explain something to me, I might listen, but I probably won’t go back and “fix” this outline because there is nothing to fix – it’s an accurate outline of what I’ve read on Twitter. Perhaps if there is another pandemic and that gives me free time instead of killing me, I will include your explanation in another outline. I don’t think I’ll want do do this again during this pandemic. I should probably get off of Twitter.

Are you aware that people smarter than you disagree with you?

Yes.

Do you think you’re original?

There is nothing original here. It is an outline of what I’ve read, which means that someone else said it.

Don’t you think you’re missing something?

No. This is an outline. By definition, it excludes the vast majority of content. It also excludes a huge number of relevant historical events, fascinating theories, and all sources not mentioned frequently in my Twitter feed, which necessarily favors time in recent living memory. 

Whatever it is you think I’m missing: If I’m aware of it, I left it out on purpose. If I’m unaware of it, then I didn’t find out about it or didn’t remember it for this outline anyway.

You don’t even mention the pandemic – don’t you think it’s relevant?

The pandemic is a proximate cause of many points in the outline, and gave me time to write the outline, but is not intrinsically important to the points of the outline. The exact same outline could have occurred in an event of an alien attack, assuming the aliens were defeated. In theory either the pandemic or the aliens would end up making this outline irrelevant, but I did not find that theory interesting enough to outline.

Whoa, you mean like how Adrian Veidt fabricated a fake alien octopus to attack the Earth in the hopes of uniting everyone in peace? Do you think that Elon Musk is like Veidt? Do you think the Chinese regime fabricated the novel coronovirus as a subtle act of war, or even as a devious act of peace, à la Veidt?

I too loved The Watchmen. Sorta, he wishes, and no.

What do you think about this technical solution?

This is an outline of what I’ve read on Twitter, it’s not a problem solving session. In any case, all relevant technical solutions are covered in 6.a., 16, and some of 16.a.

Aren’t 5.a and 8.a the same?

No. 5.a. refers to monetary concessions to the underclass in an attempt to repair a financial shock. Such a repair attempt was just passed by the U.S. Senate, and is a current example of point 5. 8.a. refers to goods and services produced by a capitalist system for the underclass, which even under the authoritarianism noted in point 8, can be relatively comfortable. That is why it’s called a “devil’s bargain.” 16.a. is the best case outcome of the devil’s bargain.

Why are there main points and subpoints?

It just seemed to me that some points were not truly necessary to a coherent narrative, but very helpful to understanding a related point. I put these in as subpoints but maybe could have made them main points or probably could have left them out entirely. 

Also, as mentioned in the outline, subpoints tend to inspire the best humor.

Your jokes aren’t funny. Also, there are many things I don’t like about you. I demand that you explain or prove anything you’ve written. I challenge you. You are worthy of neither attention nor admiration, only my unending scorn.

That is not a question. This is a FAQ, which means Frequently Asked Questions.

Do you believe anything you’re saying here? Does this outline align in any way with your personal beliefs or political positions?

Yes, some of it and somewhat.

So then is this your manifesto?

No. This is an outline of everything I’ve read on Twitter recently, assembled in the order of one coherent narrative. This is my manifesto.

Again, WTF is this?

Again: this is March 2020 and we’re under a shelter-in-place order. There’s not a lot to do.

wishful thinking

I was wrong about why Warren would win the Presidency, bringing a merciful end to my brief non-career as a political prognosticator. (Though really, if a poor record ended dumb predictions, there would be no pundits at all.) I have a lot of the same thoughts that many other Warren supporters have; I don’t have much to add to these types of reflections on:

Clearly my Warren pick was fueled by wishful thinking, so maybe the best use I can make of this space is to try to understand exactly what I was wishing for – this will help me determine whether it’s reasonable to continue wishing or whether I should adhere to a version of reality that doesn’t include those wishes.

Wish #1. I was wishing for an end to the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Obama line of power. This isn’t the place to push an excoriating critique of neoliberal economics, nor is this about wanting Boomers to just get out of the way. (Warren, after all, is a Boomer.) I simply believe that a small group of like-minded individuals has dominated our politics for far too long. Most people do not see the through-line from Reagan to Obama, but their donors do. There is a solid core of moneyed interests that naturally funds campaigns that protect their wealth. I think that it is their right to do so, but there is no countervailing collective force that could find a better balance of interests. As a result, elites are engaging in a real tragedy of the commons that appears unstoppable.

Wish #2. I was wishing that the media would break its usual pattern of reporting during this cycle. When I was in college (OMG that was 30 fucking years ago), my intro American Politics professor said that “horse race” election coverage was a critical weakness in our democracy that could lead to our demise as a nation. His thesis was that representative democracy depends on citizens making choices based on information about the candidates’ positions. Horse race coverage makes politics into a game show rather than a process, totally obscuring substantive positions. I took that as received wisdom and thought that surely we’d eventually break that cycle. I thought that the media distortions of 2016 were so pernicious and so obvious that we couldn’t possibly continue down this path. I was not just wrong, but incredibly naive as well.

In retrospect, this wishful thinking was completely nonsensical. I was wishing for a reversal of clear trends that have been flourishing for my entire adult life. It’s ok to believe that change is possible, but it’s stupid to believe that it’s probable when looking at powerful long-term trends. The most likely case is for powerful trends to continue until they collapse from their own weight. In fact, the more perverse a trend seems, the more likely it is to continue because in going against all reasonable desires, the trend must be fueled by something more powerful than any of those desires.

So what does “collapse from their own weight” look like? My wishes were overcome by truths – let’s look at what those truths would turn into as they continue on current trend:

Truth #1: Powerful interests retain their hold on power until they are destroyed by their own overreach.

Truth #2: Media coverage will always push for engagement (views, clicks, outrage) over any other goals, until there is no distinction whatsoever between news and entertainment.

In my previous wishful thinking, what were the hopes underlying the wishes? I was hoping that the election of Trump was kind of an aberration, or rather the last dying gasp of several bad ideas. I was hoping that there were enough people in power that wanted to share the wealth with people out of power. I was hoping that this country wouldn’t become the worst version of itself.

All of those wishes seem childish now. What they really all amount to is a wish for peace. Peace between different ways of life. Peace between different kinds of people. Peace between different levels of advantage and disadvantage.

If you believe, as I do, that this country has never been at peace – that there has always been the violence of oppression, bigotry, and inequality – then it is wishful thinking to believe that there ever will be peace. The trends that have led to our current situation have always been there, and they seem much likelier to intensify than dissipate naturally.

Peace by definition disappears with violence. We are not at peace now, because the violence has occurred and is ongoing. The suppression of differing people, ideologies, and backgrounds has been accomplished by long histories of varied violence, whether physical, political, or economic. Once peace has been disturbed by violence, it rarely returns without violence. I wish this weren’t true, but wishful thinking doesn’t do anything but hide the ugly truths.

In short: Things are bad, and they aren’t getting better. They only way they will get better is by getting a lot worse, which isn’t something I’d wish on anyone. But my wishes are irrelevant.

my way

I named this blog “ginsudo” in 2007, saying that it means “the way of ginsu.” That was a lazy evasion, as the natural follow-up question should be “Sure, but what exactly is your way?” And I had no answer.

Sure, I had theories. I always have a theory. A good friend called me out on this, fifteen years into our friendship. I was regaling him with some forgettable tale about personal growth, and he listened with patience and bemusement as I concluded with the immodest judgment that I’d changed so much that I must be unrecognizable as the person he met a decade and a half ago. He replied, “Well, there’s one thing about you that hasn’t changed, that was clear from the day I met you, that is perhaps your defining characteristic: You always have a theory. And you express your theories with a visceral passion. A few years later, you might have a completely different, possibly even mutually exclusive, theory. But you’ll have a theory, and you’ll believe it with all your heart.”

I can’t decide if that’s a sparkling insight or an acerbic insult, and I can’t deny its truth. I sat with that truth for another five years before I realized: “Hey waitaminute. I’d rather always have a theory, and always change it, than always be in a perpetual state of confusion. In either case, there’s no real answer, so I might as well be excited about the illusions along the way.”

That’s the background to this momentous event: I’m changing the tagline of this blog from “the way of ginsu” to the shortest statement that I can make of what has really become my way, after all these years of searching. I may have believed a lot of things over the last dozen or so years, but I didn’t believe any of them strongly enough to make it the meaning of ginsudo. I like to think that underneath all of the other theories I have ever had about life, this statement is the purely distilled expression of the true meaning of them all. So here is the latest, and greatest, expression of my way:

At the base of every argument is the irrefutable fact that there is only one thing that everyone agrees upon.

Now, I don’t mean to be coy about what that one thing is: I think that I am thinking, right now. Everyone agrees that this is a thought that must be in your head as you think anything else. A few people would say that this is the only thing that everyone must acknowledge is true. Whether or not it’s the only thing, it is certainly irrefutable.

There are only two ways to object, and both of them are inadequate to the task.

One objection comes from the land of science fiction, or perhaps from sciences so far advanced that they seem like fiction. This objection says that it’s likely we’re not at all what we think we are, that the odds are likely that we’re simply living in a simulation. Perhaps nothing is real at all. This objection is irrelevant. Even if it is true, the simulation creates in you the thought that “I think I’m thinking, right now” – you could say that’s actually the test of a successful simulation.

The other objection comes from either sophistry or deep insight – as diametric as these are, it’s often difficult to tell the difference. But in either case, the objection is simply, “So what? It’s a trivial observation.” The deep expression of this objection goes on to say that the sense of self is an illusion, consciousness is a human construct, all outcomes are deterministic (or “fated”), so thoughts are merely distractions from a more important truth. But I never said that “I think I’m thinking” is the the most important truth, even if it is the only one that everyone agrees upon. In fact, I’m saying that this truth is the gateway to many deeper truths, which is perfectly in accord with this line of putative objection.

So the interesting claim of ginsudo is not the actual fact that everyone must agree upon. It’s the idea that this fact is at the base of every argument. In the most grandiose statement of my way, I’m claiming that I’ve found the bottom turtle.

This comes from the apocryphal tale of a famous scientist explaining cosmology to an audience. After the lecture, one elderly lady approaches the scientist and says, “Your lecture was hogwash – how can anyone believe that the earth simply exists in the universe without any support beyond your mystical claims?”

The scientist asks, “Well then, what do you suppose supports the earth?”

She says, “The planet rests on the back of a giant turtle.”

The scientist responds, “Alright then, what supports the turtle?”

“An even larger, more grand turtle.”

At this point, the scientist is sure she’s trapped: “And then? What’s beneath that grand turtle?”

She exclaims triumphantly, “You silly goose, it’s turtles all the way down!”

In stating my way, I’m revealing many things about myself, but there’s one thing that people who know me already know too well: I’ve been in a lot of arguments. I’ve been in arguments with people who love me, people who hate me, people smarter than me, people with an exasperating inability to understand even the most basic tenets of argumentation. I’ve been in arguments with my bosses, my employees, my peers, my friends, my lovers, my children, and way too many people on Twitter.

What I’ve learned from all these arguments is that most people in arguments aren’t trying to win the argument. They’re trying to say something about themselves, say something about the other person, say something about the world or about life or about the universe and god and everything. But if you are trying in good faith to get to the truth in any argument, there is always one technique that you will try, and that is to seek a place of common agreement that precedes the argument. Almost always, this means that you try to find the nearest place where you agree.

That means, for example, that if you and I are arguing about who to vote for in the next election, we might argue about economics or immigration or globalism or socialism – and we might find that we’re making no progress. If we want to make progress, we seek the nearest place where we have a common goal, usually something like: “We want the best outcome for this country.” But maybe we find out that isn’t our common goal. Maybe one of us says, “What do you mean, ‘our country’? I want the best outcome for humanity first, our country only a distant second and only to the extent that our country can affect the future of humanity.” It’s interesting to find a place like that, where you thought you must have a common point in your argument, but actually, there’s a deeper foundational point that you must discuss first.

What I’m saying here is that it’s not enough to start from the nearest foundational point. The foundation under all foundations, the last turtle in the entire stack, is in not the nearest but rather the deepest point: that there is only one thing that everyone agrees on. The idea that “I think that I am thinking, right now” is the only thing that you must agree on is both freeing and compassionate. It frees you from every assumption you were making about what the other person must agree upon. It forces you to understand that you diverge from your counterpart in this argument somewhere after this base agreement, and there is absolutely no rule that requires that the divergence take place in any particular place above that bottom turtle.

This truth gives you enormous power, which you will probably never choose to use. If you had the time, you would build up from this base, instead of simply finding the nearest point of agreement. A stable bridge cannot be built simply as a quick connection between the nearest shores across the water. Instead it must be anchored deep in the foundation not only of both shores but deep underneath the waters. So in arguing with someone, if you really want to understand your disagreement, you would start from the foundation that the only thing that you must agree upon is that each of you is thinking, “I’m thinking, right now” – and you would try to draw a line from that thought to each other, finding where you disagree along the way.

For all practical purposes, you would have neither the time nor inclination to do this with every person you would want to argue with. But simply knowing that this is the base, that you would have to work up from this base if you really and truly want to resolve your argument – that knowledge would curtail a lot of your desire to argue in the first place. 

That is my way, if not in practice, always in theory.

bottled up

When I first started getting glum about the future, I thought that maybe I was just getting old and grumpy. But now I’ve noticed that an increasing number of people are concerned about the direction we’re all heading. In fact, it seems that the younger you are, the more likely you are to have some pessimism about the planet, at least to a point. And that point depends on your understanding of basic ideas from biology and sociology. This understanding doesn’t have to be so great: a little knowledge is a sufficiently dangerous thing, as I will surely demonstrate here. It’s not climate science that’s depressing – it’s the science of people.

This book review recounts an analogy that provides a good starting point: Imagine a bottle containing a population of bacteria that doubles every minute. The population growth starts at 11am, and the bottle is filled to capacity with bacteria by noon.

First question: What time was the bottle half full?

The math is not hard on this one. Since the population doubles every minute, the bottle was half full at 11:59am. In the next minute, the bottle was totally full, and without another bottle to expand into, all the bacteria died soon after noon, as the bottle was a constrained and exhausted resource. Even if another bottle miraculously became available, that bottle would be full in one minute, and two more bottles would be required just to survive the following minute.

Next question: Assuming the bacteria were as smart as humans, what time did they all realize that the bottle was going to fill to capacity?

No matter how highly you rate human intelligence, it would be a stretch to think that they would realize the overcrowding before the last 10 minutes, at earliest. With 10 doublings to go, the bottle still has 99.9% of its space available. Even with only 3 minutes left, the bottle still has 87.5% of its space remaining.

Next question: Do you see the obvious analogy?

This analogy purports to explain climate change denial, and as far as it goes, it’s not terrible. It’s often noted that 200,000 years passed from the beginnings of humanity to a population of 1 billion people, and only another 200 years to reach 7 billion. To me, it’s striking that there’s been a doubling in my lifetime – when I was born, there were barely 4 billion people on the planet. Now the world population is almost 8 billion. Whatever room there is left in this bottle is going to disappear very fast.

I’d like to extend the analogy with another question, which speaks to the structure of our society today and in the future. There’s no math in this question, but there’s a lot of underlying sociobiology, which is a word that I don’t really even understand – I had to look it up a second ago just to feel confident enough to use it here. It seems like the right word for someone who’s flinging analogies about social structure and natural selection.

New question: What if there’s more than one type of bacteria?

Let’s assume that Population A consists of bacteria that are, with respect to their relationship with each other and the bottle, a kind of ideal that many of us aspire to as humans with respect to each other and our planet. They are peaceful, cooperative, inclined towards equality, and harmonious with the natural resources they consume within the bottle. They’re never going to fill the bottle – they trend towards an equilibrium where they don’t compete with each other, and they tend to move on to a different section of the bottle when they’ve lightly used the resources in the place they were in.

Population B are bacteria that are highly competitive, to the point you would call them warlike if they were people. But they are also organized, disciplined, communicative, and inclined towards freedom. These bacteria might be kinda assholes, but they’re not going to fill the bottle either. When their population grows past a certain point, they tend to split into groups so they can maximize freedom for each member of the groups, which then go to war against each other. This trends towards population equilibrium as well.

Now imagine a Population C as a nightmare evolution with the worst characteristics of A and B. They are highly competitive and organized, they’ll grant equality only to their own kind, and they express their freedom through the exploitation of others, which both enables and requires the use of continually more resources. They’ll subjugate A and use the resulting superior resources to defeat B. These are the assholes that end up doubling the population every second.

I am stretching this analogy to its breaking point, but this is basically the story told in books like Sapiens and Against the Grain. The earliest organized human societies lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming wherever they wanted to explore the gifts of nature, working only as much as they needed to eat, which was about half their daylight hours, and playing around all the rest of the day. When humans ended up settling down in agrarian societies, they didn’t do so because they were tired of all the travel and leisure, they did so because of the inexorable logic of exploitation and population growth. Farms were more successful with more children, and eventually more scalable with trade, finance, serfdom and slavery. Agrarian societies could leverage their advantages through exploitation – underpaid labor and outright slavery allowed a smaller and smaller proportion of the population to reap more and more gains. Eventually Population C (agrarian society) absorbs Population A (hunter-gatherers) and kills Population B (let’s say Neanderthals).

The Agrarian Era gave way to the Industrial Age which then gave way to our current Information Economy. But these all enable and require the same social structure – they are a continual evolution that naturally entails a smaller and smaller proportion of society having more and more of the wealth, while at the same time crowding out any possible other form of social structure. Now that human society has reached global scale, it’s laughably egotistical for us to think that we ever had a choice to organize our global society any other way. Exploitation of the masses by the elite isn’t a choice, but an evolutionary outcome from which there is no escape. Not until the bottle explodes. Or until the elites replace the masses with robots. I would say “pick your poison” but you’re not really going to have a choice.

Speaking of ego, this fantastical conjecture would also explain one of the enduring mysteries of humanity: the existence of consciousness. So far, we have no conclusive explanation for why humans are conscious of their own experience in a way that no other animal seems to be. Even if we could explain exactly how it works (we can’t yet), we don’t know exactly why it exists. I believe that consciousness is an evolutionary adaptation – not for any individual human, but for the propagation of ever larger human societies. Without a sense of ego, which requires consciousness, no human would be able to live in a vastly exploitative society.

Humans aren’t like ants or bees, living in societies where the masses can mindlessly support the evolutionary imperatives of a single queen. Humans have the intelligence and tools to live a life of freedom. On an individual level, there’s no reason for any of us to accept a social structure where we’re not all equals. It’s only the fact of ego allows people to conceive of themselves as members of a great society, and the disorienting thing is that ego doesn’t necessarily mean you think a lot of yourself. The ego of a very few might compel them to strive for status among the elites. But that effect of the ego is far less important than its much more pervasive opposite effect, the ego that convinces people that there’s a reason to go on living under conditions of outrageous and inescapable exploitation. There would be no oppression without consciousness, and there would be no global scale without oppression. We were always doomed by our egos to fill the bottle to bursting.

If in recent times, you’ve found yourself struggling with the creeping feeling that there’s something about our species that means everything will only get worse until the end of our time, which doesn’t seem very far away … well, at least you can congratulate yourself on your instinctive awareness of sociobiology. If nothing else, it’ll help your ego.