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« Celebrate the Summer Solstice - While You Can | Main | MENA - A Model of the Future? »

June 25, 2013

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Dave S. Nottear

Wow.

Thank you.

Oliver

Wow, seconded.

...if we could find very high sapient young people to form colonies prior to a bottleneck event...

It might be feasible. But only if some of us, now, can find a way to increase the likelihood of higher sapients getting through what is coming so fast.

And there's the rub. How do we even begin to find such young people? And how can we motivate them sufficiently in the absence of enough worldly experience to even start believing that the bottleneck is coming?

I detect little idealism in the generations behind me, and low expectations of societal progress. Many are confused by the discrepancy between the 'greed is good' bayings of capitalism and their exclusion from any opportunity to join the small elite gorging themselves on resources.

I can envisage many blank faces should it be put to them that they need to take to the hills to preserve the prospects of sapient human progress...

Brian

Truly one of your finest posts. George, have you read The Way: An Ecological Perspective? It is like you are channeling Goldsmith, except not going quite as far.

George Mobus

@Dave S,

Thanks for the thanks!

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@Oliver,

You are right about the rub. Unless we had a lot of evidence about which genes are involved in brain development, especially BA10, and could use some of those as markers we would never have a strong selection method. In lieu thereof I suggest making informed guesses. I see so many students in my classes that fit your description. But every once in a while there will be one who you can tell is really alive and curious and considering. They are the ones who make an effort to get to know me and I them. And I point them in the direction of my thinking - let them decide how to used the information.

Higher sapience is rare in the population I think. But wiser elders might be able to intuitively recognize the potential in younger people and offer guidance.

In my view this conundrum is just more of the evolutionary selection process. Higher sapient people are probably already considering their options. They will surely recognize the crumbling civilization in which they live.

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@Brian,

Thank you. I haven't read that but I will take a look. Thanks for the tip.

George

Bodhi Chefurka

George, thanks for an intensely thought-provoking article. Your thoughts on coordination have sent me off on yet another speculative flight.

I'm now convinced that much of what's driving the irresistible growth-oriented behavior of civilization can be traced back to how our aggregate social behavior is shaped by 2LoT. As a result our emergent collective behavior is statistically deterministic, though individuals probably retain free will, but the group does not. However our inability to apply the brakes in the face of clear and present existential dangers points to a problem with the control and coordination mechanisms of the human collectivity. This probably means that cybernetics has a lot to say on the topic, especially in the area of deviation-amplifying mutually causal processes (like population growth and rising energy use). The positive feedbacks involved lead the system directly away from the homeostasis postulated and required by Gaian theory.

I haven't dug into cybernetics yet, so I wonder if you could recommend a good starter book for a layman?

Also, I'm starting to wonder if eusapience, or at least eusociality, might not skip humans altogether and instead occur in the next phase of our evolution - if there is one.

As a result of reading your article, I'm in the process of going a bridge too far (or jumping the shark, pick your metaphor). I'm beginning to suspect that humanity is approaching a point of endosymbiosis with our cybernetic communications and control technology, especially through the Internet. If this endosymbiosis is achieved, humans could become essential elements of a larger super-organism in much the same way that mitochondria migrated into early prokaryotic cells and became essential components of the new eukaryotic cells. Similarly, it's possible that we are evolving towards a situation in which human beings act as hyper-functional neurons within the super-organism, with endpoint devices like smart phones, PCs and their descendants acting as synapses, and network connections being analogous to nerve fibers.

It's an old science-fiction idea, but I now think it could be about to appear in reality. However it seems to be happening through a process of coevolution driven by the mutual amplification effects of human ingenuity and electronic technology, rather than through a Borg-like assimilation of humans into a hive mind, or Ray Kurzweil's eschatological Singularity.

It's probably going to happen much faster than we expect, and in ways that we don't interpret as being what they are - much like the way most people are unable to see our behavior as being shaped by thermodynamics rather than solely by human volition. Such a cybernetic super-organism would exhibit rapid, conscious, teleological evolution driven by electronic information rather than the slow Darwinian genetic process, so the possibility for it to become eusocial would seem fairly high.

The big question is whether climate change and the rest of the Global Clusterfuck is going to win the race and eliminate this possibility before it happens. If it does, of course, all bets are off, but I rather hope not. So in the interests of seeing this possibility have maximum opportunity for expression, I now hope solar and wind do end up powering a future 100 terawatt civilization.

Seriously. I'd love to see how a cyborg civilization comes into being...

Paul Chefurka

Bah. I keep forgetting to change my name back to Paul on here...

Tom

It's a wondrous experience reading your posts, George. Thanks for this latest chapter in human evolution and the accompanying explanations of our system.

As usual I have a problem or two with a few of the concepts. The first is your concluding statement that "whole entities achieve stable, resilient, sustainable existence" via "a hierarchical cybernetic system in place to coordinate the whole, and to be able to anticipate the future of the whole environment" which I find unrealistic, not evident anywhere in nature and impossible to achieve because all things are always unstable, reactive and ever-changing in our world.

Now nature itself may have been such a system until it birthed us - the demon non-sapient cancer that thinks it's so smart that every discovery we make (like mathematics and science) are turned into destructive and self-defeating purposes, that names itself KING OF ALL THE WORLD and then proceeds to kill itself off via wasteful, polluting, toxic civilization and completely overpopulating their environment exactly as yeast and most of the other life-forms, given the opportunity to exploit its surroundings. We're not even very intelligent since we're so programmable to being distracted by shallow feelings and "individualism" which makes no sense in your systems approach (ie. if we were intelligent we'd have done a much better job of sustaining ourselves). So now we're neither sapient nor intelligent but more like a huge collection of zombies that merely react to our hunger, anger, destructive capabilities and procreative urges, not to mention all our cunning, lying about practically everything and using up resources as fast as possible. We're basically, as Paul points out above, simply meat units doing our part for the second law of thermodynamics and all our supposed higher mental functions (in particular sapience and intelligence) are to me imaginary, self-important dreaming, or conceit.

Paul Chefurka

@Tom,

I don't think it's as simple as people being meat robots executing a thermodynamic program. At the collective level we may be largely that, but at the individual level we do have some degree of choice. Within the limits of how much of our underlying motivation our conscious minds can access, anyway. That individual aspect doesn't look to me like conceit. Even our belief that we are in control of our collective behaviour isn't a conceit, so much as a mistaken understanding of how reality works. That mistake is readily understandable and even forgivable once we understand the context of our behaviour. Most fish have no clue what "water" is, after all.

For me, an important part of the process has been developing the reasons and means to set aside the blame, shame and guilt. I firmly believe that as long as we keep running those emotional scripts we have no hope of figuring out what's really going on. Instead we tend to define everything in terms of human faults and failings. I don't think that's a productive way to interpret the world. However, most of us are caught in that trap whose jaws are fear and suffering - both of which are psychological responses that can fruitfully be discarded, albeit with some work.

It's why so many of the people who get what's going on gravitate towards some form of Buddhism. Its teachings can move us past the suffering and blame, and give us more psychological resilience to deal with the realities of the situation.

What's interesting to me right now is how the realization that we are collective thermodynamic robots might affect the choices I make as an individual endowed with some freedom of motion.

Oliver

@George – Thanks for your response. I guess it’s an issue of those higher sapients operating above and beyond energy-sapping fatalism about our crumbling civilization…

@Tom - I note Paul's wise comments - may I add something? You are wonderfully skilled at throwing hungry cats into pigeon coops, and there's much sense in your observations, but I am super interested in George's response to you.

To my layman's mind, I think you are missing your aim if you believe George is postulating that our current hominid form is more than fractionally sapient or intelligent. My reading of it is that only a very small number currently alive possess the traits that could form the bare-bones basis for a next evolutionary step to eusapience.

Fighting hard not to dwell in negativity (the evidence all around us can be overwhelmingly depressing), I have latched onto George's analysis to find a reason to believe in a future for genus Homo.

Mind you, I have only come to this calm state of mind after eliminating any angst about my own timeline in Nature's continuing experiment. Whatever happens or doesn't happen post-bottleneck, we shall all be returned to stardust long before any observer could begin to assess the outcome. I am at peace with that.

George Mobus

@Paul (formerly known as Bodhi!)

I haven't dug into cybernetics yet, so I wonder if you could recommend a good starter book for a layman?

Unfortunately most of the books tend to be more control theory oriented (lots of math) or philosophical. Somewhat in the latter category you could start with
The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener. That book represents the origins of cybernetics.

The people who have really made use of hierarchical cybernetics are management theorists. For example: Management Theory by John Sheldrake.

I use to dream of having some kind of mechanical implants that would amplify my muscles and make me a superman! There is just one fly in that ointment. It takes energy to run all of that stuff. Even if the machinery could somehow extract energy from us (a biological source) that just means we would have to eat a lot more.

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@Tom,

...which I find unrealistic, not evident anywhere in nature and impossible to achieve because all things are always unstable, reactive and ever-changing in our world.
[emphasis mine]

Au contraire! Hierarchical cybernetic systems are everywhere in nature! I explain this much better in the book. And realize that the time scales we are talking about are different. On a very long scale (usually) the world indeed seems to be non-stationary. But on time scales of lifetimes of individuals and populations (i.e. turnover) the world has been reasonably stationary (e.g. in climate until now) so that a body can be sustained over a normal lifetime. The geology and climate of ecosystems have been fairly consistent even for long-lived creatures like apes and humans (and that was absolutely the case for crocodiles!) The current problem with a non-stationary climate is a rare case of a rapid onset of change similar to the end-Cretaceous event.

In the book I explain that in very complex adaptive systems with many different operations subsystems, operational controls (simple feedback) are the source of stability. A coordination level of control, e.g. the endocrine and lower brain functions, permit a complex system to shift the internal flow of resources in response to non-permanent environmental shifts. Coordination controls provide resiliency for the entity. Strategic control, which for most of nature comes directly from the evolutionary selection of behaviors fit for the particular environment, but in humans is an emerging information processing capacity in the prefrontal cortex, allows a system (us) to look at future scenarios and make contingency plans. It is from this ability that the only true meaning of sustainability comes. Evolution doesn't plan, of course, but it does have the luxury of massive parallel experimentation to discover an optimal strategy. Humans have an admittedly weak capacity for strategic thinking but that is because it is newly emergent with sapience. Give it some time!

I suspect that the sentimentality you are expressing takes shape in some recent evidence that modern humans have actually devolved in overall intelligence. I have argued for a while now that they certainly have done so WRT sapience. Your disappointment with the species is palpable. But how else do you think it could have played out? Or is this the fate of our species? Is this the fate of every planet harboring life? Unless you can provide evidence from other examples it seems to me we are stuck with accepting and trying to understand our own situation.

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@Paul & Oliver,

Well said I think.

George

Martin Gisser

@Paul/Bodhi,
nice to hear your observation about some folks drifting towards Buddhism. Here in Europe, this century, of all the 4 folks I've met personally (not via internets) and found able to look straight into the abyss of climate disruption etc. and not look away, 3 were Buddhists. (As these are rare, the small sample of 4 is statistically telling.)

That's just one reason why B is in my sinister plan to save the world: Who else would by able to grasp the idea of a coordinated cooperative competition in carbon negative horticulture and voluntary poverty (and having fun at it). Also, today the Bodhisattvayana faces a great problem, still mostly unbeknownst: Not carbon negative, no bodhisattva. Not carbon negative, no sangha. My humble hope is, one day that conclusion pops up in collective awareness, and 1 billions Buddhists come out and selforganize an anthropogenic carbon sequestration machine...

Tom

George, Paul, Oliver:
thank you for taking the time to respond to my "emotional" thinking. i'm at the point now where I believe all of us on the planet are just insane in one form or another.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVSCA0z8ZjM&feature=youtu.be

i'll let Albert Bartlett respond with this 4 min. video of our predicament and the delusional thinking of humanity - including our so-called leaders.

Alexander Carpenter

Here's a word I made up a long time ago to better explain the tactics and strategies in team bicycle racing like the Tour de France — coöpetition. Yes, it's a portmanteau word that in its own structure shows how closely competition and cooperation work together in the real world. Further, the fusion reminds us that we can simultaneously compete and cooperate, with the balance shifting dynamically in response to situational cues. And now evolutionists are entering that same conversation — welcome to ever-more-subtle complexity (which this post explores quite handily).

Alexander

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