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« Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom. Not Again! | Main | Sapience, Intelligence, and Creativity Delineated »

February 25, 2010

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George Mobus

Igor,

Thanks again for the kind words.

You said:
"What I would like to suggest instead is that we might expect some organic transition, a change triggered by not mere mechanical but creative forces."

Perhaps you would like to explain this in more detail, what kind of forces you have in mind? If you think it would be more extensive than could be handled within these comment threads, please feel free to e-mail me at George dot Mobus at gmail dot com. I would really like to know what you see as possible here.

George

George Mobus

Mark,

"The important thing when looking at the ability of the species to change is not that some have achieved sapience - it's that a critical mass (usually a majority) has achieved sapience."

Yes indeed. Well said. To be frank this is what I would think could be achieved by what I believe is the coming bottleneck event (see: http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2009/11/humanitys-impending-impasse-.html if you haven't already). If sapient (supersapient) individuals are properly prepared and understand how to survive in the coming climate and energy declining world, then after the population has been decimated (by, as you say, the more probable outcome) the remaining population would have, hopefully, a critical mass of higher sapient individuals forming the predominant gene pool over which future selection can work.

I strongly feel that higher sapience will prove to provide greater long-term fitness for Homo than, say, brute force arising from devolution back to a more primitive form. Of course I don't know this. It is speculation. But it is something that we COULD possibly prepare for before the collapse (if we are both smart and wise!)

"I suppose this means that I think that our species can become sapient but will still be ruled by selfish choices most of the time."

Higher sapience, I think, leads to choices (judgments) that will promote sapience rather than mere selfishness for the sake of consumption. The latter is what drives our species current decision processing, but eusapience should result in behaviors that are more supportive for other eusapients and, possibly, wise enough to thwart competitors. If you understand group selection as a main mechanism for the evolution of human species (what I think is a strong contender for evolutionary explanations) then you should be able to see that a group of eusapients should be able to out-compete a group of merely sapient or sub-sapient groups. I strongly feel this will be especially the case in light of climate changes that need to be anticipated and adapted to in short order. The very forces that probably allowed Homo sapiens to out-compete Homo neanderthalis might very well be the forces that allow Homo eusapiens to out-compete Homo sapiens or conceivably lower species (e.g. Homo psuedo-sapiens!)

Unfortunately, we won't be here to see if my projection comes to pass!

Mark, thanks for the very stimulating dialogue.

George

George Mobus

Hi GaryA,

Yes, the default is likely to be the choice. See my comments to Mark above.

Thanks for the kind words.

ASFA: The limit of one child (which I agree will never obtain precisely because of my moral compass arguments in the post) would still not be sufficient if the latest research on energy and ecological footprints of the current population (plus consumption rates of the OECD) are to be believed.

In the end the human population will, I suspect, have to fall to exactly the level of bottleneck (the minimum population needed to recover the species range) because the damage we have already done to the ecosystems will need to have time to repair. We are probably talking millions of years after mankind has exited the scene!

AFA: Tobin tax and any other stop-gap mechanism to "solve" the problem I really have to say these are totally infeasible. First because the current population is spoiled beyond repair and second because it really doesn't matter. Energy flow restrictions will dominate all other attempts to "fix" things. I hope I'm wrong, but I bet I'm not (which is why I risk my reputation writing these blog posts!!!)

Thanks for the conversation. I always find your thoughts stimulating.

Regards

George

George Mobus

MacDonald,

Thank you.

"H. sapiens will go extinct. It is only a question of when and how. The issue for us today is that extinction in the very short term is now a very real possibility."

Indeed it is. The question is, can the genus Homo survive!

"Biological energy, if it involves agriculture – including wood growing – is not renewable on any time scale relevant to humans because of consequent degradation of the environment, especially soils."

Mac (may I call you Mac?), what about permaculture? There are a large number of projects now that demonstrate that it is possible to build up the soil as long as the population pressures don't cause over-usage. Jared Diamond points out that several past cultures, e.g. the highland farmers of New Guinea, have successfully maintained soil quality for thousands of years. Is there a flaw here?

"If we could develop anything close to the politics required for forced mass sterilizations, then we could also establish the politics for other systems of control that would be less apparently coercive yet at least as effective."

The key issue here is the "at least as effective" argument. On what basis do you claim that something less coercive than sterilization would actually be as effective? The development of politics part I get. But that latter claim needs support. Given the population size, the ecological footprint of mankind (at least 1 1/2 earths required!) and the aspirations of developing world populations the rate of degradation would be far greater than any demographic effect could counter -- that is my main point in the post. Please provide details and mechanisms here.

"Furthermore, I doubt that mass sterilizations could be effectively accomplished at a reasonable cost, even utilizing the antibiotic method."

This is a potentially cogent argument (if there were any political feasibility of actually doing it) but you express it as only a doubt. Could you provide evidence for the basis of this doubt (note I suspect you may be right but I would like to see you justify the claim -- its the professor in me!)

"That the “right” to breed willy-nilly is unassailable at any level is as patently absurd as is the right to commit fraud under protection of the “right” to free speech."

I agree with some of what you say above after this claim (the reasoning part). But your premise is that it is "patently" absurd. I suspect, no, I know, that a large segment of the world's population will disagree with the patently part. It is incumbent upon you to explain why it is patently absurd. Your reasons may be correct, but I suspect you will find that argument too weak to convince others. And this is exactly why, as other commentators have noted, the do-nothing option is the one most likely to be chosen.

"...and there are far too few who are saying regulate before it’s too late."

And precisely because in their minds it is NOT patently absurd! And they are not saying this because of their biologically programmed moral compass (read Marcus' work!)

"The problem of deciding who gets to breed was addressed all too briefly. The location of any moral dilemma we might face can be found in this process – any central panel, or group of panels, so empowered will be inherently corrupt and unfair. A system that can find its own equilibrium for the distribution of breeding rights will be far more tolerable and is not terribly difficult to design. There would still be complaints about unfairness, but they would be minimized."

This is a giant claim. Mechanisms please. My own take on breeding rights begins with definitive evidence of eusapient mentality (similar to choosing for superior intelligence, but based on the notion of sapience -- wisdom potential -- as opposed to cleverness). Such a criteria, if it can be objectively verified, is unassailable. Who would argue that we shouldn't breed for higher wisdom capacity???? I suppose there would always be those voices who would question it simply because they are clever enough to recognize the implications but failed the eusapience test themselves. But, in general, would you argue that if someone were proved to be of superior sapience they should not be entitled to breeding rights? Would you protest against increasing the average wisdom of the species??? Some would. But it would be a really stupid argument. Nevertheless, the moral compass issue remains. No one will want to be sterilized even in light of an objective test for the highest quality of human cognition. It simply runs against the grain of biological (forgive me) determinism.

Your arguments re: population size are more cogent, and I basically agree with your logic. A population size that is sustainable depends on agricultural sustainability and there are objective ways to determine that. The numbers may vary, esp. given my previously stated concerns for recovery of natural ecosystems unburdened by human agricultural pressures.

"There are perfectly feasible ways to manage population size that do not involve discrimination or favoritism. "

I think you need to unpack this statement before I or any other readers are going to see what you mean. Feasibility depends on your objective function and the requirements and constraints. Some such functions are inherently infeasible so you need to support that claim.

Good comments and stimulation though! Thanks

George


Account Deleted

(Correction to the previous comment: these forces, not this, sorry.)

Please give me some time, I will send you a message as soon as possible.

Florifulgurator

To switch mood from desperate to more "optimistic", listen to how the great old James Lovelock sees it.

E.g. here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBUvZDSY2D0
Interviewer: "You are the first person I've ever met who at the same time believes in the most terrible scenario imaginable and at the same time is an optimist. Isn't it possible?". Lovelock: "It is. Because it's a hell of a future" (smiling).

One of his favorite example is the Great Oxygenation Catastrophe. Or, what he likes to tell about the mood in WWII Britain: First, 1939 everybody depressed and scared shitless, but then when the war got going life was the most interesting and active ever.

Or, take Lovelocks's general evolutionistic view: Young species tend to make mistakes first. Calamity needs to happen for calamitous species to evolve into something more benign.

So, rejoice. The end is near. But quite probably not the end to hominids at large, but to depressing millenia of human stupidity and sophisticated barbarism. We need to learn - and if things aren't lost already no we need the cataclysm to get our asses off and learn. Perhaps we will indeed learn.

Florifulgurator

oops typy: "lost already noW"

George Mobus

Hi Flor. Welcome back.

Lovelock is one of my favorite sapients! It takes a lot to be able to get the really big picture. It is thanks to people like Lovelock that I am prompted to ask questions about conventional wisdom.

George

Macdonald, C.

Sorry to be slow responding to your good response to my original response to your original blog post. I interspersed quotes without Me-You attributions: I hope the back and forth is clear enough.

"Biological energy, if it involves agriculture – including wood growing – is not renewable on any time scale relevant to humans because of consequent degradation of the environment, especially soils."

“Jared Diamond points out that several past cultures, e.g. the highland farmers of New Guinea, have successfully maintained soil quality for thousands of years. Is there a flaw here?”

I was imprecise – I meant using agricultural production particularly as a replacement for fossil fuels, as fossil fuels are now used.

I do agree most heartily that we can build the breadth and depth of soils – over 40 years on my family’s asparagus patch and it’s more productive than ever! But I’m not sure it is appropriate to view permaculture as a variety of agriculture. There’s a danger of sinking into pedantry and other quibbling here, but the concepts and methods of permaculture are so different from what is generally understood as agriculture that I think there is reason to maintain a distinction. Is horticulture a variety of agriculture? Is maintaining a maple sugar bush agriculture or gathering and hunting?

But the flaw in pre-European New Guinea, on the angle of that location, may not have been degradation of soils, as Diamond pointed out, but in the competition that developed between villages, as Tim Flannery pointed out. Even permaculture has been applied (where it has been applied) as a dodge to allow maximum population size. Regardless of the technology being applied, if the goal is to maximize population size, then at some point unpleasant forms of competition will arise between different factions within the population. The probability of violence is very high. I remain pessimistic that any likely level of improved sapience will be proof against violence so long as the goal of population size choice is maximization.

“[...] other systems of control that would be less apparently coercive yet at least as effective."

“The key issue here is the "at least as effective" argument. On what basis do you claim that something less coercive than sterilization would actually be as effective?”

I take the above to be, “What do you propose?” Well, I generally agree with Herman Daly that the best approach is a cap and trade system. A cap would be set on annual births – say 1 Megabirth/yr to start. Partial licenses would be distributed to all women applying for them equally. If 1 Gigawoman applied, each one gets 1/1000 of a license – or one millilicense, to be consistent in unit names. The licenses could then be traded until a woman succeeded in acquiring a full license at which point a birth would be allowed and financially supported.

Note that I said “apparently less coercive.” Coercion is very often a matter of perception. It would be very difficult to impose mass sterilizations without generating a great sense of imposition and injustice. If every women felt there was an equal chance of getting a license it would give the appearance of equality and equal chance to satisfy any aspirations to breed.

It would, in fact, have to be very coercive. The crime of unlicensed birth would have to be severely and unswervingly punished. Each such birth would have to be deducted from the following year’s cap. Undoubtedly some breeders would feel put upon. But if any such program – mass sterilizations, birth caps, group suicide, lottery or whatever – were to achieve implementation, then the attitude toward breeding would have to undergo a radical change from the current mood.

As to costs for either sterilization or cap or something else, well, it’d be a guess of course. I might – if I had lots of time and a handy grant to pay qualified analysts – create a model for determining what the total costs would be, but otherwise I just have to trust my gut. Or go with a plausible sounding hypothesis, depending on the wording you like. The actual monetized cost might be negligible in any case – it is the externalities that concern me far more. To establish any system without the support of the population will, I think, incur massive costs in social disruption, ethical damage, and hostility to the whole public enterprise/social contract concept. I argue that such support, in an atmosphere of egalitarianism, will be far less expensive.

"That the “right” to breed willy-nilly is unassailable at any level is as patently absurd [as is the assertion that any other right is unassailable at any level]”

“But your premise is that it is "patently" absurd. I suspect, no, I know, that a large segment of the world's population will disagree with the patently part.”

Most resist the idea of limits on the right to breed, yet most would agree that the “right” to arms in the US does not include over the counter nuclear weapons at the local hardware store. Neither does the “right” to pursue happiness include molesting school boys. Likewise the “right” of religious freedom doesn’t include virgin sacrifices. Most *would* agree that “rights” do not give carte blanche privilege to do whatever the hell you want. Except when it comes to the “right” to breed. Why the exception? I stand by my argument that it is patently absurd to make such an exception – even if the majority of the world chooses to deny it because it conflicts with belief.

“Mechanisms please.”

A very rough outline of one mechanism was sketched above. Of course many checks would have to be established to ensure a level playing field. Yes, I agree that we persistently allow the playing field to be built impossibly steep and that there is nothing to now suggest it is practicable to make it level. Of course, neither is it practicable to force mass sterilizations.

“My own take on breeding rights begins with definitive evidence of eusapient mentality (similar to choosing for superior intelligence, but based on the notion of sapience -- wisdom potential -- as opposed to cleverness). Such a criteria, if it can be objectively verified, is unassailable.”

Indeed: IF it can be objectively verified! Although I’m not at all against the application of eugenics to humans, I am against a defined and unitary goal for eugenics – even when it is so noble a thing as sapience. And, touche, what will be the mechanism? How do you keep the clever boys, if the goal is centralized, from gaming the system?

Eugenics for humans has a bad name – not made any better by what has been done to many domestic dogs, etc. If it is to be used for humans, what I suggest, albeit not satisfying to anyone who hopes everybody will conform to a single standard, is to allow people to create a multiplicity of independent breeding clubs, each with clear and explicit goals, objectives, standards and methods. Regulation would be necessary to make sure they strictly adhere to their chosen standards and methods. To encourage participation, lower the license and/or financial thresholds somewhat for women who are looking to breed and who commit to the breeding clubs requirements. Of course, this stuff is even more abhorrent to the majority than the concept of population size choice, and I am not convinced at all that it is a necessary addition.

“A population size that is sustainable depends on agricultural sustainability and there are objective ways to determine that. The numbers may vary, esp. given my previously stated concerns for recovery of natural ecosystems unburdened by human agricultural pressures.”

This wording again suggests that maximization of population size is the goal. Again, I ask why? What is the goal? Why does having any more people than just enough make sense? I agree that “just enough” is open to debate, yet no one seems interested in determining, let alone achieving, the low number. This tendency is why I find organic/permaculture visions less than convincing. There will always be pressure to say we can easily support a few million more. Right up until we’re breathing heavily, gun in hand, as the Other comes over the ridge looking for a piece of firewood or some clean water.

"There are perfectly feasible ways to manage population size that do not involve discrimination or favoritism."

“I think you need to unpack this statement […]”

If the criterion for “feasible” is “immediately achievable with no serious restructuring of our social, economic and political worldview” then I eat my words. However, I have sketched out, very roughly of course, a tentative approach that might serve.

The primary purpose of my initial response was to reinforce the message that our population size is desperately too large, that we *can* exercise population size choice, and that there *are* potential methods which might be a little less ugly sounding than forcing mass sterilization of degenerates. And I know that although you and I are eusapient enough to make the right choice of breeders in the eugenics program, can we trust the Other to be on the panel, too?

And oh yeah! Sure, call me Mac, call me anything, but late for dinner.

George Mobus

Hi Mac.

"...but the concepts and methods of permaculture are so different from what is generally understood as agriculture that I think there is reason to maintain a distinction."

Point well made. I agree. My latest post puts all the emphasis on permaculture. Semantics are important.

"I remain pessimistic that any likely level of improved sapience will be proof against violence so long as the goal of population size choice is maximization."

And you should. But in my musings about a sapient society in the future, one in which the members of the tribe are 'eusapient' rather than merely pseudosapient, as is generally the case today, there would be an a priori understanding that the objective was NOT to increase the population size, but to live in a sustainable condition consistent with the capacity of the environment to support.

RE: Population control mechanisms and cap-and-trade approaches.

Under circumstances of historical normality, i.e. when there was a growing supply of net energy and a seemingly stable pattern of living, such a scheme, especially started early enough, might actually make sense. The problem I see is that there will be a major breakdown in large-scale governance in the not-too-distant future such that administering any such scheme will become impossible.

Quite honestly, though I wish it looked differently, I strongly suspect that population control is going to come down to die-off and a bottleneck situation. Nature is the ultimate governance when it comes to such matters. I have just not been able to find any feasible scenario in which civilization will power down by adapting to seriously lower energy flows. Our overshoot is based on high powered oil, gas, and coal. And there is nothing even remotely able to deliver that much power (energy per unit time) on the horizon. Given that modern OECD and most developing nations' populations are so dependent on FF that their withdrawal (which BTW I don't think will be as gradual as many other authors seem to think) will have devastating effects on the vast majority of people.

BTW: Your breeding clubs would be the de facto situation in the future - tribes undergoing group selection!!!

"...that we *can* exercise population size choice, and that there *are* potential methods which might be a little less ugly sounding than forcing mass sterilization of degenerates."

The emphasis on "can" suggests you believe that current Homo sapiens (caladus) actually has the capacity for this kind of decision. That is what I question the most. Is it logically possible? Of course. Is it psychologically possible? Doubtful. Is it politically possible? Likelihood vanishingly small (IMO).

Ouch on the last sentence. Did I suggest sterilizing degenerates? I put sterilization up as a feasible solution to the problem, but only to demonstrate the moral dilemma, not to advocate it. If I were to go down that route at all it would be to sterilize anyone who can't be shown to have superior sapience (genetically or by test) which would be nearly everyone since eusapience is not normally distributed -- selecting for a trait, not against one. But don't think that is what I advocate. As I explained above, I think nature will do the work. If anything I would advocate (wait a minute - I do advocate) founding a protectable colony of eusapients (by objective measures) and letting nature take its course. Bottleneck. Job done. Does this sound harsh?

It is a way to turn the eugenics problem on its head. The founders of this colony (or rather colonies for safety sake) would be volunteers. If they are indeed eusapient (in the sense of highly sapient and possibly an incipient predecessor species?!?) then they will grasp what it is about and why they are there. Then we can only hope. Too bad neither of us would be around to see the outcome!

George

coach handbags

We are all in the position of the farmer. If we plant a good seed, we reap a good harvest. If our seed is poor and full of weeds, we reap a useless crop. If we plant nothing at all, we harvest nothing at all.

Gidon Gerber

I could think of some measures that don't involve mass sterilisation. First of all, start by reducing the population of farm animals and switching to a vegetarian diet. This will go a long way towards reducing energy and land use. Then give all woman free access to birth control and voluntary abortions. This will dramatically lower the number of "unwanted" children. Third, instead of giving tax benefits or other subsidies to families with children, impose a tax on all families with more than one child, and let the tax rise progressively for each additional child.

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