Friday, December 05, 2014

Correlation vs. Causation? Does the universe conspire against freedom?

Several interest areas overlapped when Cato Unbound asked me to present a run-down on SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)...and to then riff into the implications for human politics. 

Specifically, what does our failure (so far) to find evidence of ET Civilizations - (sometimes called the Fermi Paradox) - suggest about how individuals and societies might organize themselves?  That seems a stretch!  I’ve cataloged about a hundred hypotheses for The Great Silence, and only a couple of them relate to how societies might self-organize.  Still, those insights might be of interest to you.

Since it was for Cato, the specific question that I deal with (after summarizing the overall Fermi Paradox), is right there in the title: “SETI, METI and the Paradox of Extraterrestrial Life: Is there a Libertarian Perspective?

Specifically, I find one fact compelling: nearly all human societies that had agriculture - and many that didn’t - also practiced feudalism, in which a few strong men would gang up to repress all others and establish rules so that their own sons would have harems.  This habit seems so prevalent - having only been (partially) broken in the last 200 years - because it was reinforced by Darwinian advantage… the strong men who pulled it off got more offspring.  And hence, one wonders: might the same pattern - under which competitive markets, science and liberty were all systematically crushed - also be common among other races out there, across the galaxy?

Might that be a factor in helping to explain the Fermi Paradox? And if so, is it sensible for libertarianism to support the only thing that ever broke from feudal modes — moderate, liberal democracy?

And yes, I am a heretic according to today’s dominant strain of libertarians, Rand-Rothbard-indoctrinated and obsessed with propertarianism… rather than the focus preached by Adam Smith, which was flat-open-fair competition. Competition which - in turn - requires at least a degree of moderate regulation? If only to prevent feudalism’s return?

== Hostile reactions! ==

I’m used to getting prickly, even fiery responses, when I speak of Smith at libertarian gatherings. (Though in fairness, they do keep inviting me! A willingness to hear other opinions that is rare on today’s left and entirely extinct on today’s mad right. Indeed, next year's FreedomFest 2015 will feature a visit by uber-Keynsian Paul Krugman!) 

Needless to say, I received some heated comebacks this time.  

One commenter said:  “Correlation is not causation. That "99% of societies with metals and agriculture swiftly devolved into feudalism" says nothing more other than "99% of societies with metals and agriculture swiftly devolved into feudalism". Why that happened requires theory.”

Oog.  Seldom is the platonist view laid so bare… Plato’s preaching - pushed also by Marx and Freud and so many others - that the incantation is more important than the experiment. It evolved into Ayn Rand’s dogma - that chains of if-therefore proclamations are somehow “objective” and therefore get to trump gritty reality.

 Alas, one can often tell how little an interlocutor knows about science by how blithely they bandy truisms as if they were incantations. Take the one raised here.

 “Correlation is not causation" is a convenient a way to airily dismiss any relevance to all actual, factual information that we have about human societies. 'Do not bother me with any of that,' this fellow appears to be saying. 'I have mantras and metaphysical incantations to develop!’

In fact, correlations are of great scientific importance. They are generators of hypotheses. Further, the stronger and more consistent the correlation, the more pertinent a scientist deems them to be. They do not prove causation... we have procedures for that.

But they do establish a plausible baseline. Moreover, the closer and more consistent the correlation, the more a burden of proof shifts to those who proclaim the correlations to be irrelevant.

In this case, we know that bullying cabals of cheaters have conspired to dominate others and steal and wreck markets across 99% of societies for at least 6000 years and probably 250,000. Across all continents and wildly varied cultures, this universal pattern perfectly "correlates" with Darwinian advantage to the bully-cheaters. It is the broad fact known about human societies ... and those who would shrug it off — in favor of following incantatory gurus — are in no position to lecture us about “science.”

An honest libertarian - even a “theorist” would recognize and accept the burden that this long and lamentable pattern lays upon our feet.  If 99% of societies were feudal pyramids of hierarchy and inherited status, it suggests that our own - with its emphasis on individualism, rights and competitive creativity is a rare exception. Not an outgrowth of “natural law” but instead an invention, spectacularly clever, complex and needing perpetual maintenance, lest it slump back into older, more entropic ways.

== Might we be the first to evade this trap? ==

I do not claim that a persistent social pattern explains the entirety, or even a majority of the Great Silence Mystery.  But I do rank this failure mode among the Top Ten of Fermi Paradox hypotheses.

Only one society ever systematically evaded this attractor trap. Its methodologies included moderate regulation to keep competition flat, open and fair. Not perfectly! But vastly better than any other society... by orders of magnitude. We moderate Smithians know that this revolution is the best thing that ever happened... 

...beyond engendering vast wealth and science and reducing ancient mistakes like racism and sexism, it also made more libertarians than any other society ever!

It was not built by platonist theoreticians whose incantation mantras pile high "logic" that is endlessly refuted by actual human experience. Nor will it be extended by indignant, simplistic snits, or raging counterfactuals… like “all government is bad and no concentration of wealth is ever toxic.” That mantra is exactly what oligarchs want sock-puppets to recite, as they rebuild a feudal order.

We’ve got an opportunity to escape a trap that may have held back hundreds of other sapient species out there, perhaps millions. In the main article I ask what possible societies might arise from descendants of – say – pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants? But here’s a funny thing. Not one of them seems guaranteed safety from the feudal attractor-state.

We seem to have found a way… if we don’t blow it, by betraying the pragmatic enlightenment invention–experiment in favor of… theories. But so many are pushing to abandon the experiment! So many yearn - even in fantasy tales and films - for a return to old ways.

 In the end, we may be kept from the stars by a simple flaw - our habit of delusion and self-hypnosis.

Do visit the main article. It may lay out some rarely-considered ideas about our cosmos.


Patricia Mathews said...

Interesting, and the speculations about intelligent species organized like ants, great cats, etc is fun to contemplate. But one of the most obvious answers to the Fermi paradox is rooted firmly in relativity: they're not here because there is no way to go faster than light (for all the ways around it science fiction has invented); and the cost of slowships in human terms and in resources is too high for most societies to bother with. They have more important things to do.

OK - as you postulated in EXISTENCE - robots, then?

David Brin said...

Patricia, self-replicating robots certainly provide the extremum, in which it is obvious that SOME kind of travel/colonization can happen in an Einsteinian cosmos. But there may be methods that include bio colonization, too. e.g. the "Seeder" probes portrayed in EXISTENCE.

Indeed, next week watch ASCENSION on SyFy. (I consulted!) To some extent, this is a decision that a solar system civ will be capable of making, and psychological factors will matter.

Laurent Weppe said...

Feudalism does not arise when "the strong side with the strong against the less-strong": it arises when ruthless sociopathic freeloaders side with one another against everyone else and try (often with great success) to hijack humanity's hardwired conflict aversion by preemptively eliminating the strong (especially the strong-willed) before the bullies' abuses anger them enough to start retaliating, then browbeating the rest into craven submission and forcing the newly formed plebeian class to devote themselves to providing material comforts to their lords.

Feudalism is less "the natural order" than a glitch, a defect, a crippling malformation of the human collective: our capacity for empathy is our greatest strength: it is what allow us to build complex societies without becoming mindless drones like social insects: by allowing individuals with no empathy to successfully sustain themselves by parasitizing the very human virtue they lack, feudalism is a construct which goes against the very evolutionary advantage which put us on top of the food chain in the first place: what's the advantage for the lords descendant to be able to outbreed their subjects via raping their housemaids? Assuming that aristocratic callousness is caused by genetic variations (a dubious claim to begin with, but a necessary postulate if one is to accept the possibility of darwinian advantage), the long term effect of feudal society would be the demographic decline of empathetic humans in favor of sociopathic bullies... who are quite clearly incapable of surviving long without their ordinary human servants: that's a fine recipe for the extinction of both branches of the species.

David Brin said...

Laurent Weppe your scenario is the one followed by Wells in THE TIME MACHINE... assuming that the workers (Morlocks) would grow strong in their servitude and the masters (Eloi) would grow decadent and weak. This while interesting, is silly. When the masters show a weakness, strong outsiders rise up and topple them.

Sorry, your scenario is just plain silly. It ignores the human history that feudal aristocratic families were often established by men of great courage or talent. Even Ayn Rand's uber-creative, all-deserving lords. Why do you deny that? What polemical needs do you satisfy by separating the strong from cheating?

This is why Rand never shows - even once - any of her ubermenschen homo superior lords EVER having children. Because then the issue might be raised in some readers' minds, as to what happens next. And what happens is that the lords - even if they fought and earned their top position - then CHEAT to make sure that lordship is inherited by their kids... who did NOTHING to deserve the harems they'll demand as their right.

Nothing you do or say can get you out of this. It is THE pattern of human life across 99% of 6000 years. Only one civilization escaped the pattern for more than a century at a stretch. OURS. Utilizing enlightenment methods to flatten competition and keep it fair.

We are the sole real exception. And those who denounce this enlightenment bear a steep burden of proof.

Tony Fisk said...

Interestingly enough, Flannery hypothesises that humanity is growing more specialised and ant-like over time (or that it's one social attractor, anyway. Did you know that ants can vote?)

Getting and hanging onto a harem is a tried and true way of passing on the inheritance and has probably been a significant shaping force in a lot of cultures (just look at the fairy tales). However, it's by no means the only way, as any naturalist (and the shade of Richard III's mother) will tell you (and again, look at the fairy tales).

I know much is made of 30% of all Chinese having genes from Genghis Khan, but it's a statistical oddity that, if you trace *any* ancestor back far enough, then just about anybody living can also trace their bloodlines back to that same ancestor! Genghis may have hit the jackpot, but what about *his* Dad or, more subtly, his Mother's Dad?

Interesting anecdote: while testing the genetic inheritance models for blood typing, it was inadvertently discovered that the paternity of a substantial percentage of the sampling (from a small English town) was not what was written in the Parish records.

So, is it Genghis Khan or Han da (milk) Man?*

*and I'm well aware that we're only covering the machinations of half the population here. The ladies have more than a few tricks up their gauzy sleeves to select and attract suitable progenitors.

Paul451 said...

Interesting io9 article awhile back, noting a repeating pattern in the very first neolithic cities. Not long after the domestication of plants and animals, you see the first cities. However, there's no sign of hierarchy, no temples, no palaces. Every building is basically the same. After a few centuries, the cities are abandoned for villages again for another thousand years before re-emerging; this time with all the usual signs of kings and priests, merchants and peasants. If it happened once, you could say disease/invaders/climate-change/etc; but the pattern seems to occur independently around the world every time cities develop.

The article speculates that the urban lifestyle is initially incompatible with the social/cultural beliefs of tribal humans. We needed the meme of kings/priests before we could make cities work.

My problem with that explanation is why those neolithic cities rose up in the first place? If they couldn't live in cities after a few hundred years, how did they live in cities for those few hundred years? What worked for many generations, but then stopped working?

So I wonder if it was the opposite of the idea in the article. Perhaps the population density from living in cities allowed us to then develop something that became incompatible with those cities. And perhaps that incompatibility was the creation of David's harem-inheritance genes, strong enough to mean there was a growing class of free-riders at the top, their genes spreading through the population, until there were too many for egalitarian cities to work as villages did, but not widespread enough to allow a peasant class that tolerates the inequity in the hierarchical structures needed for cities with free-riders.

Tom Crowl said...

The Problem in Scaling Altruism: Where's the Intelligent Life?

Let me make this speculation:

An evolutionary process on any Earthlike planet (similar gravity, water in all 3 phases, etc.) that makes it to the stage of producing operationally intelligent life (that is, self-aware and able to manipulate the environment) will confront the problem of scaling social networks because of issues with biological altruism.

And ONLY those that solve this will make it out of the cradle.

This idea rests on assumptions that:

Operationally intelligent life will be social
Social organisms inevitably develop biological altruism
Physical size and associated cognitive limits will be roughly similar to those on Earth resulting in a similar 'natural human community size' (Dunbar's Number) as well as limits associated with what we now hear called an "attention economy"

Hence, social scaling issues may be endemic for intelligent life forms.

Issues in Scaling Civilization: The Altruism Dilemma

In brief, the Altruism Dilemma refers to the necessary and unavoidable gap between biological altruism (in group/out group delineation) vs intellectual altruism (a need to overcome that same delineation).

Tom Crowl said...

Dr. Brin, if you see any sense in the hypothesis above I hope you'll share it with Cato... since it also applies to how excessive wealth concentration is abetted (and defended) by the failure to understand how it affects power distribution in a large society... and how "pure" libertarianism also encourages it by its failure to see the need for counterbalancing forces...

Lloyd Flack said...

I would argue that Rand is a danger to liberty because her primary concern was not liberty or justice but hero worship. She actually admitted that the aim of her work was the creation of the ideal man. She defended liberty as a condition favourable to her heroes.
The American Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment generally were thoroughly bourgeois in their aspirations. They wanted opportunity for the many who wanted a quiet prosperous life. They were not so concerned about the high flyers. Rand worshiped human accomplishment and wanted conditions favourable for the maximum possible accomplishment. She was less concerned with maximizing the median than she mas with maximizing the maximum. Yes, she genuinely believed the two went together.
Her heroes do not exist in real life, fortunately I would argue, but she tried to see people around her that way. That let to great harm in her personal life. And that desire for hero worship makes people likely not to see cheats among the high flyers. There is a tendency to see attacks on the rich as envy.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Laurent Weppe your scenario is the one followed by Wells in THE TIME MACHINE"

Wells' scenario was silly because it was built upon the assumption that dynastic privilege would reach an equilibrium so stable that it could last long enough for the privileged and common castes to evolve into two completely different species.

That's not what I'm talking about: I'm talking about the number of callous aristocrats increasing while the number of normally empathetic humans diminishes until it reached the breaking point where the remaining servants are simply not numerous enough to feed all their masters, which in all likelihood would lead the scions of the upper-class into suicidal infighting for control of the remaining workforce.

Of course, this speculation works only if the desire to parasitize one's own species is a transmissible genetic trait, something which I, for one, find extremely dubious, but since it's about your thought experiment which happens to be based upon the notion that selfish lords have a darwinian advantage over the rest of Humanity, I play along.


"It is THE pattern of human life across 99% of 6000 years"

I'm not denying this: it just so happens that civilization itself being an artificial construct, feudalism is more of a recurring shortcoming of the social machinery we had to invent when we started to form agrarian societies, not Humanity's natural state.

Pietro said...

I think that using the term "feudalism" as a synonym for "tyranny of the strong over the weak" is a bit too imprecise.

I'm not saying that feudalism (as in, the social system most common in Europe during the High Middle Ages) did not contain unacceptable aspects, and I'm certainly not saying that we should try to return to it; but while I agree that our current arrangement is better than it (and that we can - and should - do better still), we should keep in mind that feudalism itself developed out of older and far more abusive systems.

At least in theory, in a feudal society the relationships between superiors and inferiors led to mutual obligations between them; and even those at the lower rungs of the social order were not supposed to be at the complete mercy of their superiors - for instance, farmers could not be driven out of the land they inherited, and no, the "jus primae noctis" did not actually exist.

There were abuses, obviously, and plenty of them - it was not a perfect society by any stretch of imagination.

But compared to - say - the status of the lower strata of population during the Roman Empire, the Feudal period was a definite improvement; and, without it, the advances of the Enlightenment would have been just about unthinkable.

Marino said...

I agree with Pietro, "feudalism" is a technical term for a specific system in Europe and maybe Japan, while there are many kinds of authoritarian/extractive (in the meaning stated in "Why nations fail") systems, from what Marx named "barbarism" (metallurgy and agriculture), to what Diamond called "chefferies" transitioning from tribe to state, to Wittfogel's Asian/hydraulic despotism and slavery-based empires like Rome.

And each of those systems whas somewhat of an improvement. Large bureaucratic empires devolped writing and geometry, slavery was better than being sacrificed to the gods and Western feudalism has elements of mutual obligation and even of equality (king being the first among nobles and not a living god).

I think each of them was a sort of experiment with some set of technologies and memes, becoming a building block for another, improved civilization. Otherwise, all human history is Hegel's night where alla cows are black...

For a sci-fi POW, there are some interesting speculations on alien civilizations that manage to develop indurties without discoverung farming, and remaining hunter-gatherers, like the Neanderthals in Sawyer's novels, or the batlike aliens in Mcleod's Learning the world.

Alex Tolley said...

To be pedantic, that 99% of agricultural societies had feudalism (or something like it) doesn't mean much unless you can also say that 99% of societies without agriculture did not practice feudalism. Otherwise there isn't any correlation to make.

I suspect that agriculture per se isn't the factor, but rather that agriculture allows for specialization, extra production, to support other specialists and a scope that allows large societies to form, as opposed to smaller tribal groups. We could posit that an extremely fertile environment coupled with low reproductive success could allow these sane social traits to emerge without agriculture.

I am persuaded by Mancur Olson that it is the size of groups that allows feudalistic societies to form, as there is no longer the same need for shared goals (the successful hunt), allowing different groups to pursue different goals, dominant driver of which is to gain power and have reproductive success. Since reproductive success is about propagating genes, this must be maintained generation after generation, so the drive is to institutionalize the legitimacy of power.

In the modern world, reproduction is no longer the driver, and I know of no research that shows that the wealthy bear more surviving children than the poor. Wealth and political power have just become symbols or yardsticks of success, much as "trophy wives" are symbols of reproductive success.

What we do see is new forms of institutionalized legitimacy. Once the priests held sway through the power of religion. Today, with the general demise of religion (except in the USA), banking has come to replace religion, and bankers the new priests.

What does this have to say about SETI? If societies are very like human ones, then we may see relatively large numbers of pre-industrial revolution societies, unable to broadcast. However, we have also seen that societies also tend to build monuments to their greatness (or of that of their leaders), and I see no reason why that wouldn't include METI as well, so there perhaps shouldn't be a "Great Silence" even with hierarchical societies.

If the logic of markets being superior is correct, then societies that adopt such principles should eventually supplant societies that have corrupted the working of their markets for the benefit of the elites. However let us not be fooled that markets help create a middle class rich society. Markets generally show power law distributions, i.e. result in pyramids of wealth and income. It is the social programs of redistribution plus collective bargaining that kept middle class incomes higher. As Piketty has shown, this was primarily a peculiarity of the post WWI/WWII era when the elites lost their wealth (and perhaps labor scarcity drove up wages). With that past us now, society is reasserting its hierarchical structure that was last seen in the gilded age, about a century ago. What we need to see is that economic growth requires a vibrant middle class and that this acts as a counter force to a naturally increasing GINI coefficient, so that some optimum can be reached. Thus even if current societies overshoot in favor of feudalistic tendencies, other societies can supplant ours with different social arrangements. Again, if there are many disparate groups with differing agendas and goals, then I would expect that METI might be one of those goals and again, no "Great Silence".

Finally, if prayer did have an effect on a deity, doesn't that mean that we are allowing METI everyday from various religious practices around the globe today? In principle, shouldn't our vaunted "freedom of religion" allow for that expression through more physical means - i.e. radio telescope transmitters? Wouldn't that imply that other civilizations following teh same paths as human ones should be transmitting signals with various messages?

locumranch said...

Correlations are neither 'of great scientific importance', nor do they shift the 'burden of proof' to those who proclaim said correlations to be irrelevant.

Correlations are of secondary scientific importance, representing either inference, presumption, assumption or prejudice, especially if we acknowledge that (1) observed data is of primary importance in empiric practice and (2) any scientific 'proof' is best defined as 'a sequence of steps or statements that establishes the truth of a proposition'.

In this sense, the Fermi Paradox barely qualifies as a scientific hypothesis because (1) there is a complete absence of any empiric data whatsoever and (2) Fermi fails to provide a sequence of steps or statements that establishes the truth of any part of his hypothesis, not to mention his baseless presumption that extraterrestrial 'intelligence' must manifest as human-style 'civilisation'.

And, what is Fermi's preconception of 'civilisation' anyway?

It is the human family model of civilisation, of course, one that starts with a strong family leader and then progresses from the nuclear to the extended, the extended to the tribal, the tribal to the national and so on & so forth, until it faithfully reproduces our peculiarly human brand of techno-fetishism, which is a ridiculous, non-empiric & unscientific assumption, btw.

Most of you continue to overlook the obvious: (1) The human family model of civilisation (one that starts with a strong family leader and then progresses from the nuclear to the extended, the extended to the tribal, the tribal to the national, etc) is indistinguishable from FEUDALISM, and (2) that our only cultural hope of avoiding this particular Feudal Fate involves eternal vigilance, civil disobedience and frequent patricide.


Alex Tolley said...

@locum - Fermi simply asked: If aliens exist, then where are they? AFAIK, he made no assumptions, just questioned others' assumptions that aliens must exist. Since then, the Fermi Question, now often dubbed, "Paradox" is just a shorthand for the speculation that has build up around the issue of other aliens - if they don't exist, why mot, and if they do exist, why no evidence?

Anonymous said...

Well Brinthat self replicating machinery or at least self replicating suites of technology and organisms for that is what human civilization is after all, opens up a whole new can of worms. Which is why I don't think there are other intelligent organisms in this galaxy, if they existed we would not.

This is copypasta I created for image boards when I was still in grad school.

Also I disagree with your entire premise, that feudalism reduces rates of technological development. Remember there was no scientific method in antiquity, indeed the foundations of science were created in Europe during the middle ages. All the "dark ages" crap is largely a creation of anti-clerical historians in France and anti-catholic philosophers in England during the "Enlightenment", I use quotes because it was a self aggrandizing movement which gave itself that title rather than the title being applied later.

In fact the Middle, Late, and even Early middle ages were more technically advanced than the Roman Empire. And the "golden age of Islam" is mostly a myth in terms of them giving salvaged knowledge to Europe, though Asia Minor was more advanced than Rome was at any time in its history. Animal husbandry, farming, metallurgy, and proto-science were far more advanced in the middle ages than antiquity, even in China which suffered a similar societal collapse. In fact the barbarians were often more advanced than Rome and China of similar time periods albeit often only in one facet of technical learning such as metallurgy.

This is the current model espoused by both Harvard and the Royal Collage of London, both of which cannot be considered pro-Catholic and which were among those who espoused the myth of the dark ages in periods past. Even vehement atheists hold this position so it is unlikely to be chalked up to pro-catholic sentiment.

Your thesis is based on a historical narrative, not model, which isn't currently supported by the data we have available.

Feudalism is no better or worse for scientific development that liberalism or really any other social structure. Indeed operative factor appears to be technical knowledge compounding on itself and offering more opportunities to pursue technical knowledge via the creation of new instrumentation.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum " (1) The human family model of civilisation (one that starts with a strong family leader and then progresses from the nuclear to the extended, the extended to the tribal, the tribal to the national, etc) is indistinguishable from FEUDALISM"

Wrong. If anything, DB has overused the term. Feudalism is a very specific form of society that existed in medieval Europe. DB has used the more extensive meaning of the term to include other, similar forms of society.

Hunter gathers are most certainly not feudalistic, as they did not "own" land, and it was the group's responsibility for successful hunts. Leadership could be changed in response to success (what have you done for us lately). You also forget that not all groups are patriarchal, there are matriarchal ones as well.

Utopian groups have tried to found small societies on more egalitarian systems, but these have all failed fairly quickly. The Israeli Kibbutz model is the more resilient of these types of system to my knowledge, although it has evolved from its foundations. There are also other successful collectivist approaches, such as Spain's Mondragon Corporation.

There is no "natural" or "inevitable" basis for feudalistic society, even if that is the "attractor". Which gives me hope that we, and other advanced societies, can escape from its clutches with sufficient will, and yes, communicate across the stars.

Pietro said...

Anonymous: "Remember there was no scientific method in antiquity, indeed the foundations of science were created in Europe during the middle ages."

I would not go that far. The proto-science and philosophy of the Hellenistic period, for instance, deserves to be considered part of the "foundations of science" at least as much as those of the European Middle Ages are.

The Middle Ages, at their best, built on it, just as the best achievements of the renaissance and of the Enlightenment built on those of the Middle Ages.

And it is true that the fall of the Roman Empire led to chaos and to the (temporary) loss of technological and cultural achievements. Generally speaking, the early Middle Ages were not a fun period to live in.

When we are talking about the Middle Ages, we are talking about a period of more than one thousand years; and Europe is not exactly a small area either. Evaluating them as a whole as "good" or "bad" is so simplistic that it does not even begin to make sense.

But more importantly... "Feudalism is no better or worse for scientific development that liberalism or really any other social structure."

Now this is plainly false. Are you seriously arguing that social structure has no effect on scientific progress, that people make discoveries at a rate which is independent from the nature of the society in which they live?

I would rather say that, insofar as encouraging scientific enquiry goes, Feudalism is better than some social arrangements and worse than others (but let us keep in mind, as an aside, that much of the progress of the Middle Ages came out of monasteries, which to a some degree insulated their members from the more deleterious aspects of Feudal society).

Our current societies, for all their defects, provide a far better setting for that than Feudalism does; and perhaps we will eventually find something better still.

Lorraine said...

Bears are solipsistic? How was this discovered? I'm intrigued.

Robert said...

When I go hunting with my father in Colorado, he enjoys regaling me with stories of when he hunted in New Hampshire and meeting with other hunters. Once he told me about talking to an older hunter, who pointed at two pairs of tracks. One were bootprints of a hunter walking up the mountain (and depending on the story, sometimes the tracks are his own). The second were the tracks of a deer that crossed the first set of tracks, obviously after the first set of tracks had been made.

The older hunter said this. "To have a successful hunt, you need to be in the right place at the right time. Look at these tracks. This hunter was in the right place... but at the wrong time. If he'd gone up the mountain an hour later, he'd have been in the right place at the right time, and would have had a successful hunt."

The Fermi Paradox is not in fact a paradox. How long have we been searching for intelligent life out there? And how long has that search been continuous, with technologies that can identify a signal with accuracy and determine if its origin is in fact artificial or natural? Mind you, we have one signal that was detected that has not been repeated and we are unsure about. Other signals have been ruled out as natural phenomena.

Now consider this. The effective detection of radio communication is not that great when compared to the size of the galaxy. Take the one signal we did find that we're unsure about. We were not in the right place, but we were at the right time. We picked up enough of the signal to not be sure about it. (I'm not sure if we've been able to determine where the signal originated or not.)

Given that a directed strong signal is needed (like what METI wants to do) in order to be picked up and positively identified, and given distances and time constraints in sending said signal, we may just not have looked in the right area at the right time. Space is vast. We've been looking for a very short period of time when you compare it to the size of the galaxy. And with the signals traveling at the speed of light, if a civilization arose at the same time as ours and started doing a directed signal at Sol 150 years ago, we'd not be able to pick it up unless its star was around 150 light years away.

Now let's take it one step further. Because of various reasons (resources, growing disinterest in signaling aliens, the lack of response), the aliens turned off their METI beacon. Let's say the aliens were 75 light years away. They could have stopped signaling us right before we started seriously looking with tools that would properly identify the signal as alien and artificial.

Now let's say some ancient civilization arose around a star 1,000 light years away. Let's say this civilization evolved a billion years ago... and finally died off 5,000 years ago, be it through war, disease, boredom, virtual reality being more interesting, whatever. It may even have expanded to a dozen or more local stars before finally it sputtered and failed. We would never know about it unless it left a signal for us. And if that signal generator failed 1,200 years ago? We'd never know.

Right place. Right time. It just hasn't happened yet.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

An absence of proof does not provide proof of absence, nor does the (presence of) absence provide proof of presence:

Strictly speaking, Fermi's question is an implied tautology: 'If alien (beings) exist (are present), then where are (be) they?', the only supportable answer being a location (here; there) with all other responses being specious, irrelevant or speculative, especially those that equivocate non-equivalents like technology & intelligence.

Finally, Anonymous makes a very important point: 'Feudalism is no better or worse for scientific development that liberalism or really any other social structure', the only proven social characteristic that correlates positively with scientific development' being homicidal rage & perpetual warfare.


David Brin said...


Tony the Ghengiz Khan anomaly shows how incredibly inefficient most harems of the past were. The Turkish Sultans actually killed their women when they were bored with them. Horrid bastards. GK’s seraglio not only times menstrual cycles to maximize production, but followed up by ensuring most of the new moths homes in marriage to petty lords across the empire, so the children would have maximum followup success without competing with each other. Such industrial grade harem-craft was extremely rare and accounts for GK’s genetic success.

But now that it is understood, it is clear that any future harem keepers will use GK’s methods.

Interesting paternity issue re the English town. In sharp contrast, the Y chomosome among Cohenim jews has a stunning record of preservation, suggesting that Cohenim women are amazingly loyal… or only cheat within that clan.

Lloyd F. Good insights re Rand. She was a real piece of work.

Alex & Laurent Weppe, I am skeptical that feudalism was “invented” only with metals & agriculture. That is when our RECORDS started. Look at tribes like the Sioux. There was a huge amount of bullying hierarchy.

Pietro and Marino, I used to say “feudalism and other inherited hierarchies.” But I tire of pedantry. The salient trait of feudalism was not the surface gloss of mutual oaths, but the utter dominance of an inherited ruling caste.

Alex human separate the obligate driver (sex) from actual impregnation. This is a fluke that will go away. But right now it allows us a window of time in which birth control is possible! In any event are you telling me that the rich don’t get more SEX than the poor? Har. Of course they do.

Pietro said...

Pietro and Marino, I used to say “feudalism and other inherited hierarchies.” But I tire of pedantry. The salient trait of feudalism was not the surface gloss of mutual oaths, but the utter dominance of an inherited ruling caste.

Respectfully: how can it be claimed that the "salient trait" of feudalism is something that it shares with the vast majority of other social arrangements?

I'm not being pedantic for the sake of being pedantic. It's just that, it seems to me, treating feudalism as the paradigmatic example of society with a hereditary ruling class encourages a simplistic view of history in which the Middle Ages were a period of tyranny and superstition separating the "enlightened" Roman Empire from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (which are then more or less identified, disregarding their many differences).

If anything, I would say that the most noteworthy aspect of Feudalism was the existence of *two* different power hierarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, neither of which was wholly subjugated to the other. Their turbulent coexistence granted some amount of space to criticism and freedom of thought: for instance, some of the best thinkers of the Middle Ages - one for all, William of Ockham - were members of the clergy who supported the Emperor against the Pope and were thus granted a (relative) amount of protection and intellectual independence.

That would not have happened if the Empire or the Church had been the only power around.

Laurent Weppe said...

"The Israeli Kibbutz model is the more resilient of these types of system to my knowledge"

Given that the kibbutz merged into a monopolistic conglomerate which maintains its profitability by making selling its produces at prices 40% above those practiced in Western Europe, I'd say that the kibbutzim economy is dead, rotten and buried.


"I am skeptical that feudalism was “invented” only with metals & agriculture. That is when our RECORDS started. Look at tribes like the Sioux. There was a huge amount of bullying hierarchy."

Except most of what we know about Sioux come from after their first contacts with french merchants and settlers, which itself happened after european epidemics had caused a massive demographic and civilizational collapse in Northern America: for all we know, bullying hierarchies within some native tribes may have been a vestige from a time period when the locals where much more numerous and sedentary.

Lloyd Flack said...

To be fair to Rand, the current libertarian obsession with property owes more to Rothbard than to her. He was the one who framed all rights as property rights. Possibly because as an economist he tried to put everything in terms of what his discipline worked on.

David Brin said...


I find it so bizarre that people assume ancient societies that were pre-urban were also egalitarian. What - might I ask - species do they imagine they are part of? Sure, hunter gatherers may have looked somewhat equal because chiefs weren’t living in palaces. But just look at boys on a playground. None of them has a palace, either. But status, enforced by bullying, has long been a part of human life.

As usual, locum utterly ignores the synergistic miracle in which he is currently embedded and to which he owes all his comforts.

It is amazing that Anonymous can actually blather such utter counterfactual tripe with (typographically) a straight face. Folks in 800CE had wheelbarrows! That means we can ignore the collapse of trade, literacy, population, social and physical mobility and so on, yippee for dark ages!

“Feudalism is no better or worse for scientific development that liberalism or really any other social structure. Indeed operative factor appears to be technical knowledge compounding on itself and offering more opportunities to pursue technical knowledge via the creation of new instrumentation.”

Countered by absolutely everything, in every place, all the time. Including modern dictatorships which tried very very hard to be “scientific” e.g. the USSR, but failed because they had quasi-feudal power structures.

It is fundamental. All inheritance based pyramidal systems of power are inherently anti-scientific and deleterious to market driven innovation. Because coercive power is used to repress talented sons and daughters of the poor to keep them from competing with dullard sons of kings and priests. For this very very silly person to actually convince himself that he can ignore that fundamental trait….?

Gawd, what a silly person. He’s almost… like Michael Anissimov or one of those utter dopes in the neo feudalist insanity… I mean “movement.” (As in bowell.)

Alex I deliberately spurn attempts to force me to use the specifically Euro-centered version of the word “feudalism.” It is polemically effective in its broader meaning and that broader meaning does not mislead.

Pietro, if you provide me with a word that has a wider venn diagram, that convey’s a pyramidal hierarchy of inherited position, enforced by law and violence, that carries the same instant recognition value at “feudalism,” I may adopt it.

Otherwise, screw pedantry. We have an enlightenment to save and by giving the ancient enemy a quickly recognizable name, I can fight it more effectively. I’ll not surrender that semantic power over some nit-picking linguistic purity.

Steve Clayworth said...

The problem I have with SETI and other speculation about intelligent life in the universe is the assumption that intelligence is characterized only by what we see here on Earth.

We view intelligence as

Characterized by technology
Non-limited (knowledge builds)
Mathematically aware

And that describes human intelligence to a T.

But there's nothing in evolution that guarantees that type of intelligence must arise. We could have intelligent beings that lack one or more of those characteristics.

They might not be much fun to talk with (and we might easily dismiss it), but given the infinite variations out there, I think it's quite possible that for every intelligence we could possibly communicate with, there might be hundreds that we can't.

Tracy Hall said...

"Correlation does not imply Causation" - to quote Randall @ XKCD, "but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there"

Laurent Weppe said...

"But just look at boys on a playground. None of them has a palace, either. But status, enforced by bullying, has long been a part of human life."

Boys on a playground are forced by adults to coexist in a tiny enclosed spaces. Schoolyard bullies have it easy because their victims can't simply leave

This reminds me of how early zoologists assumed that wolves instinctively built rigid, violently enforced social hierarchies because that's what they did when you put a pack in a cramped zoo pen. Until recent research showed that wolves living in the wild actually have much looser ways of organizing themselves: since the elder, alpha couples don't really have any way to force their youths to remain within their hunting grounds, they can't really become four legged tyrants otherwise their pack could simply disband and desert them.

The same thing can be said about humans: tyranny can arise in human societies only when lack of available space makes voting with one's feet too difficult; and even then, turning one's back to a local despot and going beyond his domain's borders remains an option, as evidenced by the countless people who left failed states, petty dynasts, invading armies and civil wars throughout History.

Now that doesn't mean that tyranny cannot happen in pre-agrarian societies: but it's certainly harder to maintain rigid hierarchies when the chief can wake up one day and realize that half his subjects left and spread out in every direction.

David Brin said...

Laurent, I would be amazed if anyone from any culture other than this benign and gently fair one would ever engage in the stunning degree of (forgive me please) delusion that your previous posting conveys. There are no overlaps with reality at any level. Most of the violence I experienced as a boy was well outside of school, in wide open and complex streets where young males quite actively hunted each other.

Oh, I exaggerate. It wasn't so bad, much of the time, and my sons had it much, much better. But to claim that human males are not naturally hierarchical and competitive is stunning in its naivete.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"tyranny can arise in human societies only when lack of available space makes voting with one's feet too difficult;"

The problem with that is that for most of human history "voting with ones feet" meant leaving the group
Once you had left the group you were a "stranger" and could be murdered on sight

Inside the group you would have a very good chance of being murdered - outside the group it would approach certainty

If you could leave the "human area" totally - you would avoid being murdered
Then you would become - Cat Food

Alex Tolley said...

"In any event are you telling me that the rich don’t get more SEX than the poor? Har. Of course they do."

But the poor have so little else to amuse themselves... ;)

Actually, you are correct if this paper is to be believed. I should have looked more carefully before opining.

Alex Tolley said...

" human males are not naturally hierarchical and competitive is stunning in its naivete."

Given that out ape cousins are all hierarchical, it makes no sense to suggest humans are not. However while that may be a necessary condition, it obviously isn't sufficient. Apes do not build palace equivalents, nor do they create hereditary leaders. Isn't that the case with tribesmen in remote locales today?

The voting with one's feet wasn't even allowed in medieval England. The lord owned you and you had no way to escape. No doubt that was part of the romance of Robin Hood - a man who was not tied to the land, but could do as he pleased while he was free in Sherwood Forest. Giving to the poor was great PR.

Robert said...

And once more I say the reason we've not detected any intelligent alien civilizations is the old hunter's axiom: Right place, wrong time.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

For the complicated look to the simple . The more aboriginal groups of the Earth , have in fact proved to be the more successful if one is to measure the length of time they have existed .They see no purpose for ay communication beyond their realm of existence , they have extended families all are for the greater good of the group .They live off the land which we in our illusion of modernity see as primitive , whereas they are able to provide the essential of life and survival . If in fact there are other worlds where life has evolved atleast to forms similar to ourselves , perhaps THEY have evaded the trap . And thus we will never hear from them .

Duncan Cairncross said...

"For the complicated look to the simple . The more aboriginal groups of the Earth , have in fact proved to be the more successful if one is to measure the length of time they have existed .They see no purpose for ay communication beyond their realm of existence , they have extended families all are for the greater good of the group .They live off the land which we in our illusion of modernity see as primitive , whereas they are able to provide the essential of life and survival"

You missed out
They kill each other with gay abandon
The young girls are the property of the old men
Most of their children die young

The societies that are "old" are the remainder of all of those other groups that managed to destroy their environment despite their low technology

What was going through the mind of the guy who felled the last tree on Easter Island??

People who extol the "primitive living" nonsense should be made to actually live under those conditions

Paul451 said...

Alex Tolley
"Finally, if prayer did have an effect on a deity, doesn't that mean that we are allowing METI everyday from various religious practices around the globe today?"

{laughs} That's lovely.

But with prayer, we know people have already been doing it for millennia, with no obvious negative response. So unless someone invents a new and more powerful system of forcing the attention of gods upon us, there's no existential threat and hence no analogy with METI.

A better analogy with prayer is the non-radio visible-to-IR life-signs of our planet, which should be visible to a telescope array at the gravitational lens focal point of neighbouring stars. Our planet has been "broadcasting" such signals for at least a billion years, our civilisation has been "broadcasting" signs for thousands of years, and no Berserkers yet. (That why normal local radio/TV shouldn't drastically increase our danger, at interstellar distances that level of RF would require the same detection resolution as visible light life-signs. It is a risk, but nothing on the scale of METI, which is the only reason why the METIists want to transmit, to increase our detectability.)

[Turing: "Many pass'd"]

Paul451 said...

Re: Fermi
"How long have we been searching for intelligent life out there?"

Fermi's paradox wasn't based on the Great Silence. It's more about absence of direct interference with life on Earth. So the answer to your question, in that context, is "Around 3.5 billion years."

But projecting Fermi's question onto the question of the Great Silence, a similar reasoning applies since neighbouring civilisations barely more advanced than ours can directly observe each other. With that full prior knowledge of the other, a few will directly communicate. (My own objection isn't to such direct communication, it's to blindly shouting into the dark. Give us a couple of centuries of direct observation first, a millennia at most. Then we can make an informed decision.)

Over hundreds of millions, even billions of years, a galaxy wide radio network should emerge from those first few hesitant direct conversations. The bigger the network, the easier it is to make the decision to join in. The most novelty-seeking, enthusiastically communicative members of the network would, by definition, set the culture of the network. They'd be actively seeking out new players.

So in that context, the answer to your question is... well, they would be searching for us. Almost every civilisation around us would have already been screaming at us "talk to us first, over here, talk to us."

The absence of such a network means either: a) Civilisations are too far apart for such a network to form, in which case METI is pointless. Or b) Everyone else has found a reason to be vewy vewy qwiet, in which case we should take the free advice of our elders.

[BTW, your own scenarios are as if aliens were broadcasting for us, but not to each other. "Right place, wrong time" makes no sense when we're all deer.]

Paul451 said...

[last one, different subject]

"The problem with that is that for most of human history "voting with ones feet" meant leaving the group. Once you had left the group you were a "stranger" and could be murdered on sight"

We're talking about nomads. Family groups at the bottom of the pecking order could walk away. If the tribe is 1-200 strong, having 50 or so jump ship doesn't seem like a death sentence. The impression I get is that this is a constantly ongoing process of groups merging and splitting, as politics and food abundance ebb and flow.

[Many tribal structures have young men leave the tribe anyway, to prove they can survive on their own, to attract mates in other family groups, etc. So I don't think even being on your own is as insta-murder as you imply.]

Personally, I think the Great Chief fixed-hierarchy idea of tribes comes from Victorian anthropologists projecting a lordly/regal hierarchy onto what they were seeing. Just as the idea of purely matriarchal tribes came from po-mo feminist anthros rebelling against that Victorian orthodoxy. The real tribal hierarchy is more familial, like Laurent's wolves. No alpha male or female, just nan and pop. Any larger grouping is purely temporary and fluid.

"The societies that are "old" are the remainder of all of those other groups that managed to destroy their environment despite their low technology"

I agree. The tribal lifestyle is less "noble savage in harmony with nature" and more "survival of the survivors" over millennia. Whenever we've cut in on the process in transition, humans have always acted like any invasive pest species, regardless of our technology level.

"What was going through the mind of the guy who felled the last tree on Easter Island??"

It's unlikely there was a "last tree" felled. Loss of forests reduces rainfall, the remaining trees would die off from changes in local climate.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex, just reading the abstract of this paper cracks me up! Some day, when I am retired, I will have time to read the whole thing. It is an exercise in sheer irony, as for the past few centuries the rich have tended to claim superiority over the rest by claiming to restrain themselves in just these matters, while deriding the poor for their high birth rates.

The Great Khan was obvious, most of the upper crusties keep their infidelities more cryptic - though this probably varies in time and place. Think of William the Bastard of Normandy, where a bastard could inherit, but not in England.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, the word /dictatorship/ is pretty well recognized, though it doesn't carry the implication of a throwback to a disregarded past. Oligarchy may be closer, since it is not about a single dictator, but I suspect your average Joe/Josephina on the street would see this is just some big word used by those very elites.

Paul 451, the idea of matriarchal societies is much older than postmodernism, and goes right back to the Victorian Era. When I was in grad school I participated in a discussion list for Aegean archaeology, and one member had written a biography of Sir Arthur Evans called "Minotaur" in which he revealed that Evans (the guy who discovered the Palace of Knossos and claimed the Minoan Civilization to be a matriarchy) was a closeted homosexual who was fixated on the idea of domineering women. The idea of matriarchy was popularized in the 20th Century by Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas, both of which were decades before the postmodernist movement. There are enclaves of extreme feminists who still cling to this notion (most feminists are simply people who believe in equality), but my impression was that mainstream anthropology rejected the notion due to lack of evidence.

Paul451 said...

"Dictator" doesn't cut it, since David's emphasis is on the inherited rule, not a temporary bad ruler. Oligarchy captures that infamous pyramid, but again doesn't focus on the inheritance aspect. That leaves "feudalism".

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Paul

You are talking about "tribes" - these are a relatively recent thing and only came in with agriculture - hunter gatherer's lived in "groups" - much smaller and more insular
Leaving your "group" was not a death sentence - but close to it

By the time we had moved to "tribes" (much bigger organizations) it was not as risky as everybody no longer knew everybody else so a stranger was much less fearsome and less likely to be killed on sight


There was a "last tree" on Easter Island - it's a small place - and somebody did cut it down
Not at all the type of scenario you envision

Anonymous said...

Duncan , I do not see the recently discovered aboriginals of South America , to be abusive to their own members . Perha[s what is at fault is the jded glass you view the world through . Your values are not the same as what would be in such aboriginal tribes .Regardless of what we do , they survive we destroy ourselves so often in wars . But we are not looking for moral and social superiority , just a probable explanation of why we haven't heard anything from other worlds .BTW - I was not "extoling " nor had I expressed any desire to go and live with any aboriginal tribe , sorry my statement got your nose out of joint .

Laurent Weppe said...

"Most of the violence I experienced as a boy was well outside of school, in wide open and complex streets where young males quite actively hunted each other."

Wide open and complex streets which happened to be in a densely populated urban area from which kids and teenagers could not depart. It was still an enclosed space, although it's less evident than with a fenced schoolyard.

As for me, all the violence I was subjected to as a kid happened in the schoolyard simply because I lived in a neighborhood quite distant from my bullies': to hunt me down all the way back to my home would have meant leaving their comfort zone, something they, what a surprise, proved to be quite unwilling to do.

And I never claimed that humans where not competitive or hierarchical: I said that rigid and enforced through violence hierarchies are not humanity's primeval state: that outside the very specific, often cramped environments brought by agrarian & urban societies, social hierarchies would tend to be much looser and that hereditary bullycracies would have a much harder time to emerge and to maintain themselves.


"You are talking about "tribes" - these are a relatively recent thing and only came in with agriculture - hunter gatherer's lived in "groups" - much smaller and more insular"

Given that other primates like Chimps and Bonobo have been observed living in communities of up to 100 members, it's extremely doubtful that it took agriculture for humans to develop similarly large social groups. Agriculture did not take us from the group to the tribe: it took us from communities of a few hundreds individuals to communities of thousands upon thousands neighboring other communities of thousands upon thousands.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Some of this discussion seems to hinge upon assumptions we have about what constitutes human nature and how that nature leads to specific social norms. And, as I have noted before, we have to be very careful about making too broad generalizations here. The old taxonomy of human social complexity that was used throughout the 20th C. (bands > tribes > chiefdoms > states) has its issues. The work people have done using this taxonomy, the more they have found that it masks more variability than it explains, which is exactly when a heuristic has outlived its usefulness. Likewise our assumptions about the violence of human nature, whether we are assuming a Hobbesian, Rousseauian or Lockian stance, meet with the same issue.

Given the varieties of human experience, I think it is premature to speculate too dogmatically about any alien life that might be out there. We still barely understand ourselves. That is not to say I think we should stop speculating, but we have to be careful not to get too attached to our ideas, even to our personal observations. Most of our salient experiences that burn myelinated neural pathways through our limbic systems are products of the societies and centuries in which we live. They cannot be safely assumed to represent the only possibilities for our or any other species.

Would /monarchy/ work in place of /feudalism/?

Alex Tolley said...

@Robert - and what if you are hunting for a black cat in a dark that isn't there? The assumption that there is prey cannot be taken for granted.

@Paul451 "But with prayer, we know people have already been doing it for millennia, with no obvious negative response. So unless someone invents a new and more powerful system of forcing the attention of gods upon us, there's no existential threat and hence no analogy with METI."

I don't see our logic. It could be because there is no threat, so that prayer has already proved teh case. Or it could be that prayer travels at the speed of light and God[s] are more than a few thousand light years away. METI is in exactly the same situation. :)

@Paul451 "he absence of such a network means either: a) Civilisations are too far apart for such a network to form, in which case METI is pointless. Or b) Everyone else has found a reason to be vewy vewy qwiet, in which case we should take the free advice of our elders."

Or c) there are no other ETIs.

Small grups must have people swapping otherwise there is the risk of genetic inbreeding, not to mention extreme genetic drift in small populations. We don't see that drift and we know that womem often leave their groups to be taken as wives in another. It probably also nelps to build trust between groups too, even though we know that the murder rate was exteremly high.

@Paul Shen-Brown - the sexual frequency paper must be understood to be self-reported. So there is always the risk that the data isn't as good as one might wish. Men do tend to exaggerate, and may even feel the need to to support their social staus.

Agriculture creates an assymetry for "cheating". In a hunter-gatherer world, defending a hunting ground requires seeing off other hunters. But in an agricultural world, the farmer has done all the work of raising crops, making the bandits' job of theft relatively easy. It doesn't take long to decide to pay other thugs to defend your crops and the eventual power shift that that entails. Organized banditry is just the legimization of that structure, which evolved to allow the taxman to collect a percentage, and in the European setting, the Church to collect their tithe (tenth).

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I forgot a detail I wanted to mention: that the path to state-level complexity followed very different routes in the New and Old Worlds, a fact that is not easily explained by most appeals to human nature. In the Old World, sedentism preceded agriculture by centuries, producing large, sedentary villages of hunter/gatherers. In the New World, agriculture preceded sedentism. Nomadic farmers planted crops in widely dispersed fields, moving to fields that were ready for harvest, replanting and moving to the next.

locumranch said...

Violence, especially the threat of compulsion, lurks at the heart of all human society although we have disingenuously rebranded it as the 'mutuality' of competitiveness, responsibility, expectation and reciprocity.

Disguised as a system of games, civilisation disguises violence in order to 'game the system'. For what is a 'game' besides 'an amusement, pastime (or) diversion'? It is 'a competitive activity (a sport) in which players contend with each other according to a set of rules', designed to minimise the appearance of consequence but played in deadly earnest.

The US electoral system is one such game in which we elect a temporary monarch, president, father figure or disciplinarian to rule over us -- which rankles if & when such authority is abused -- which we ameliorate by ritualised patricide (aka 'an election') in 4 to 6 year intervals, and a good time is had by all unless our father figures fail to take the hint or die the 'virtual death', which would then force we 'the people' to play for 'reals'.

Civilisation, this game which is not a game, is afoot.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


Jumper said...

Thanks, Paul451, for the Çatalhöyük article, which is worth checking out on Wiki as well.

I laughed at prayer traveling at the speed of light. You guys are great.

I think hereditary succession has more to do with what the local army thinks than anyone else.

Robert said...

@Alex: What I am saying is that there is no Fermi Paradox because we just have not been in the right place at the right time. The black cat is a perfect analogy. If the black cat is not in the dark room, then we are in the right place... but at the WRONG time.

And if there are not currently any black cats? That still means we are in the right place at the wrong time.

Rob H.

chump&chumpette said...

Confucius said that "The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat", and the same goes for aliens who are also hard to find when they are not there, so watch the skies with us.

David Brin said...

Duncan: “People who extol the "primitive living" nonsense should be made to actually live under those conditions…” Duncan, I looked at this “anonymous” posting and I am pretty sure which neo-reactionary it’s from. He is an attention seeker of the worst water, who throws grenades partly out of loneliness.

The rationalizations these guys offer are easily dismissed. Wherever such people are offered modern tools and comforts, they grab them and drop the old ones like a live bomb. True, some cling to SOCIAL structures, like machismo, in order to continue bullying others, raiding and dominating their women. e.g. plains tribes that grabbed rifles and every metal tool they could carry, but kept the ethos of a motorcycle gang. But even that faded.

Alex, yes, anti-life berserkers that target worlds just for being alive… those seem disproved.

Excellent thoughts Paul. Though Liu Cixin’s THREE BODY PROBLEM suggests aliens are silent because everyone takes everyone else out, as a precaution.

Last tree on Easter Island… rent the film Rapa Nui. It’s actually pretty good!

Laurent, you underplay how dangerous and terrifying it was, to flee your tribe across the wilderness. Your assumption that there were not powerful chiefs, who then acted in ways that favored their own sons, who would have numerous advantages, seems very strange to me and counter to known anthropology.

locum is a better poet than he is logical. Thanks for that. Pretty good! Now… as I always ask after reading your cynicism…. what do you SUGGEST?

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

ocum is a better poet than he is logical. Thanks for that. Pretty good!

Well, I've loved that poem since I learned it in high school, almost *gulp* 40 years ago. But I fail to see the relevance to that particular posting.

Anonymous said...

For David Brin

I am Anon an I am not a Neo-reactionary. I always found the majority of them to be pretentious pseudointellectuals who simply don't want to be called traditionalists or paleocons or whatever.

I really don't have a political philosophy though I would be more amiable to those traditionalists rather than modern leftists that is dictated by self interest. I value survival and reproductive success over multiple generations. Any political or social position I may advocate is based solely on my assessment of that behavior set with regards to my interest. I think that libertarians, liberals, socialists, and even many of the traditionalists are naive, I don't believe in an ideal system of governance only one which panders to my interests. Also you can't know me from anywhere I only post anonymously, I have never posted under any name. You have no way to confirm these assertions of mine so take it with a grain of salt. I'm using the same ISP address rather than a proxy so you know I'm the same anon if your admin allows you to view the address.

And my point isn't to be an advocate for feudalism or even middle ages Europe. I'm simply pointing out that feudalism like liberalism is a vague umbrella term. Chinese feudalism is distinct from the 5 or so distinct types of Russian Feudalism, which is distinct from Germanic, Carolingian, post-Carolingian, ect. You can't sit there comparing feudalism and liberalism of different ages and differing technology bases and in civilizations composed of different halogroups and act like they are equal. I can tell you that technology of all sorts advanced more even in the Early Middle Ages Europe than at any period during the Roman Empire. Trade doesn't even correlate to technological innovation in all cases, it often seems that only civil strife does but even then the correlation is far from perfect. A similar phenomena can be seen in China following it's most recent collapse follow that of the Roman Empire. The entire idea that Middle Ages Europe was technologically backward or stagnant has been refuted by the data which is available.

I you want to read about this Harvard and the Imperial College of London both have put out excellent symposiums complete with citations to support this revised historic model. And I can't consider their departments to be "conservative" by any stretch of the imagination or to have any real political investment in these models.

And none of this means that either Feudalism or the equally nebulous Liberalism defined here will inherently correlate with higher rates of technological advancement than any other system. There isn't even correlative evidence for such assertions because the correlations are impacted by numerous other factors. It may be the case that we will hit hard limits imposed by physical principles which cannot be circumvented and that will eventually lead to a plateau in the development of new technology based on new principles. Which might render that entire aspect of the debate moot since no social model could do better than the other.

Sorry for the long post but I wanted to make it clear that disagreement with one position doesn't imply advocacy of another or any other. My beef is mostly with what I see as an ahistorical narrative regarding pre-modern society and the middle ages in particular.

David Brin said...

Anon. First an anonymous poster is in no position to get all huffy, when people do pattern recognition and leap to conclusions. It goes with the territory and live with it, or be known as a whiner. In fact, your patterns of speech are similar to a fellow who happens to have reared up again, elsewhere. You made this bed and weren’t harmed, Stop hand-wringing.

“I don't believe in an ideal system of governance only one which panders to my interests.”

…and this solipsism is supposed to engender our…. respect?

“You can't sit there comparing feudalism and liberalism of different ages and differing technology bases and in civilizations”…

Um… yes I can. There are overwhelming commonalities of theme, style, behavior and outcome. We are getting a clear picture of YOU however… quibbling in order to avoid ever conceding a basic point.

You do not even read. I never argued that the middle ages had not risen technologically, somewhat. And while I find your ornery habit of contradiction to be related to my own, when you actually try to foist on us the blazing counterfactual that people were better off in 900 CE… well, get used to what happens to your credibility when you engage in such self-indulgences.

In the end, I confess, I find you tedious. Anyone who can propose that something special has not happened across the last 200 years, sociologically, with vast, non-linearly positive sum effects and implications, is effectively with the neoreactionaries, no matter what his protestations. I haven’t time for drivel.

Anonymous said...

Oh Brin it's not a matter of seeking respect, I just like being very clear about what is happening so no misconceptions are reached. I like to know exactly were everybody stands, and I assume the same of others, though that is very much an assumption.

For example to someone like yourself I'm far worse than the neo-reactionaries. I'm a petroleum Geologist, educated as a biostratigrapher. I advocate brutal self interest, including to deliberate extermination of all non-human intelligences and all forms of life that might develop intelligence outside of our control. I advocate endemic warfare among ourselves as a mechanism to create a brutally pragmatic and adaptive culture. I advocate religiosity, primarily of a socially conservative Christian or Chinese Monotheist bent since in the current environment those who display said behaviors have both high fecundity and economic success. I am an advocate of social violence both top down and bottom up. But my advocacy would change if I was presented with superior survival stratagems, it's not a Randian philosophical predisposition I'm a just jerk.

I'm out for my own biologic interests first, last, and only. Part of that is creating the most accurate and predictive models I can to facilitate my pursuit of those interests.

TLDR: I don't think your model is predictive given the data I've been exposed to and I have fundamentally different interests. Hence disagreement.

Lloyd Flack said...

Ah, a speaking cancer cell.

Randy Winn said...

Brutal warfare is no longer pragmatic.

This much, at least, we all should have figured out.

Randy Winn said...

Why doesn't blogspot have a 'like' button?

David Brin said...

Woof. Did you guys sense the hand-rubbing glee and chortling, as this fellow tried hard to shock -- *SHOCK! * - us? Jesus, more pathetic even than the neoreactionaries that he so whined over being mistaken-for!

I've passed the streams over to my pals in the Intelligence Community for archiving, in case he turns dangerous. And semantic analysis makes it trivial. But honestly, I don't really feel that's an issue.

I've alloted just a couple of minutes for his boringness, but I'm wondering if the word for him would be... "holnist"?

But in that case his devotion to feudalism would be more intense and at least partly philosophical. (Though they certainly had their own rape-pillage-dominance-reproductive success foremost in mind, as he claims to.)

Of course the sad thing is how many fellows who speak of "brutal self-interest" are romantics who envision themselves being kings, if only the coddling-smothering nanny society toppled, leaving them to be the dogs who eat other dogs and take their bitches. I've met so tiresomely many such.

Alas, in all but a few cases, it was so obvious which role would be theirs after the fall, and "bitch" was the more likely description. If not "kibble."

It is one thing to be sociopathically devoted solely to one's own self-interest. In today's context, that would entail some effort making sure this gently supporting and spectacularly productive civilization keeps rising toward Star Trek, since one's self-interest in ABSOLUTE terms would be most reliably enhanced. Heck it might even mean immortality. Perhaps even sanity.

Alas, when the pathology includes zero or negative-sum fantasies of being the top dog on a pile of devolved starvlings and corpses, we aren't actually discussing self-interest anymore. Just kinda-sad, masturbatory daydreaming.

Paul451 said...

Re: Self-reported sex
"Men do tend to exaggerate"

I (vaguely) recall studies which tested that. Three matched groups of men/women - one group given conventional one-on-one questionnaires, the second "anonymous" computer surveys, and the third wired up to an elaborately fake "lie detector". All asked the same questions about their sex lives. The answers from men were fairly consistent across the three groups, but those from women varied greatly. For example, "number of sexual partners" rate was around 3.9 for men in all three groups, but for women it was something like 2.1, 3.5, and 4.2 in the respective groups.

[What I found interesting is that when the rates for men slightly varied between the three tests, they varied in the opposite direction you would expect. The reported rates of masturbation and porn viewing slightly decreased in the "lie detector" group, while the rates of sex and number of partners increased slightly. As if men were being coy in anticipation of the myth of the male braggart.]

Paul451 said...

Re: The Last Tree and Jared Diamond

The story of The Last Tree is so perfect that it's hard for me to imagine that it's anything but a story.

Re: Wrong place/wrong time.

Your analogy doesn't work unless we are the only ones hunting. That's a common way that people craft Fermi/SETI/METI arguments, as if there can only be "the aliens" (one planet) and us.

But if there was an alien civilisation as close as 100 light years away, and that distance wasn't unusual, then there are around 5 million alien civilisations in our galaxy now. And god knows how many rose and fell over the last few hundred million years. There would be an entire culture of communication that outlived entire species. The absence of radio signals means that they are too far apart to communicate (and Fermi's paradox is then why they are so rare), or else the culture is silence (the implications of which are disturbing.)

Tony Fisk said...

I think Mr. Morden just paid us a visit.
The flesh, doing as it is told.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Paul

There must have been a "last tree" and the island is small enough that the guy cutting it down should have known it was

Maybe he didn't know?
maybe it was a act of war destroying the enemies tree?
Or of rebellion?

Nobody knows what happened - which is one reason it fun to speculate

Paul451 said...

Someone on the left has been listening to David's admonishments against perpetual pessimism:

Paul451 said...

"There must have been a "last tree" "
There was never a period with no trees. Just none of the large palms that were dominant pre-settlement.

And much of the deforestration is thought to be the result of the introduction of rats, not just logging.

As I said, it's a good story, but it's just a good story.

"and the island is small enough"

It's small, but it's still over 100 square kilometres. I wouldn't want to be the one that has to mow it.

David Brin said...

Duncan: "maybe it was a act of war destroying the enemies tree?"

In fact, Easter Island featured a lot of tribal raids that destroyed each others' statues.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thread. There were two different threads that I think would benefit from a better examination of the under lying assumptions.

The first is an assumption made by most contributors is that human sexual behavior is purely based on Darwinian selfish genes (e.g the standard narrative for sexual physiology). There are interesting alternative theories (popularized in Ryan and Jetha’s book Sex at Dawn), speculating about pre-agrarian sexual practices that are based on sociology as well as physiology (similar to arguments about the evolution of altruism into human physiology).

To briefly summarize the arguments: In a society that does not practice monogamy, the parentage of a child is obscure; and the survival of the group increases when all children are protected as a meta-family. The ability to mate with people outside the group is also critically important to avoid in-breeding (and the evolutionary consequences it brings). Some of the earliest bible passage illustrate these types of polygamous customs for their pre-agrarian ancestors who lived in nomadic tribes (rules of a host to help protect travelers, and sharing of mates with favored travelers). The idea is to look at actual human sexual practice outside the “frame” of assumed lifetime monogamy.

I won’t claim that Sex at Dawn is perfect, but they do provide a number of explanations that seem to better fit observed behavior. For example the standard narrative has never (to me at least) done a good job of describing why pornography works (the answers I get from my physiologist friends sound a lot like the pre-Copernicus method of adding extra layers of circles instead of just realizing planets orbited in an ellipse). The point for this current conversation, is to question assumptions about the inevitability of harems as the only viable or even primary method of sexual practice in early bands of humans. Indeed Ryan and Jetha consider harems most likely a post-agrarian, which only thrive once the group size (and excess available goods) have reached a critical mass beyond that of typical hunter-gather bands.

Anonymous said...

The second set of assumptions that would benefit from deeper examination is just why so many people are related to Genghis Kahn; and underlying that -- why were the Mongols of that particular period so successful.

The answer is definitely not large harems (this was not a Mongol practice); and even mass rape (to the extent it did happen) is a very unlikely explanation.

The most likely reasons for the scope of the gene pool is Mongol society/culture aided by the scope of early military successes. One of the most successful Mongol customs was the (relatively) egalitarian distribution of spoils (in the early conquest days) and profits (from the international trade empire they became). Interesting that this practice came from the small sub-culture of Mongolian hunters (based on concepts of pre-negotiated splitting the results of a hunt) instead of the more common nomadic herders. Traditionally once the immediate resistance was overcome, the fighting band would lose effectiveness as all the “soldiers” scattered to gather loot. Under Genghis the loot was strictly cataloged, and all participants were given their promised share (including the innovative practice of giving the soldier’s share to his heirs if he fell in battle).

The distribution of spoils also helped tie together the empire, as rivals would get a share of land that was conquered by someone else. This interlocking ownership encouraged the Mongols to promote commerce between diverse areas (subsidizing incentives to merchants, patrolling routes to provide safe travels, etc.). Another prime Mongol cultural advantage was the acceptance and mixing of foreign technology. From the beginning Mongols incorporated conquered “professional” classes into their society; for example from quite early-on the cataloging of spoils was done by Chinese clerks (using Chinese technology like ledgers and abacuses; for context consider that the Mongols did not have a written language). Although many books dwell on the fluid Mongol tactics; they also had state of the art munitions and siege engines because of their willingness combine technology from different cultures.

My current view of the Mongols is strongly influenced by Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World -- highly recommend. Don’t have the time for a point-by-point refutation; but many of the posts referring to the Mongols are based on faulty or outdated history (ascribing the very bloody Mogul practices to the Mongols is a common error, piles of skulls, etc.). The Mongols, after the first military conquests, made their mark as an efficient international empire; and this is mostly likely why they have such a big impact on the gene pool.

Anonymous said...

I think, on balance, that the sub-thread on the consequences of “leaving” (migrating, traveling) a group are over stating the difficulties. There are some compensating factors (such as hospitality rituals; like the ones mentioned in the early parts of the bible), though of course they were not perfectly trustworthy. Don’t want to understate the difficulty either, but based on the current post consensus humans would never have successfully migrated as much as they actually did.

Actually Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World provides a really good example. At an early point in his life Genghis and a sub-group of his family decide to split from the bigger family. They are forced to live and hunt in poorer locations. Weatherford discusses (based on Mongol historical documents) some of the very specific ways the separation impacted the family.

PS: You may recall from my previous post that I said Mongols did not have a written language. The circumstances of the recovery of the “hidden history” of Ghengis Kahn makes for quite an interesting (in a history geeky way) appendix in Weatherford’s book.

reason said...

Paul 431
"So I wonder if it was the opposite of the idea in the article. Perhaps the population density from living in cities allowed us to then develop something that became incompatible with those cities."

What if what happened was that the cities were rich enough, and disorganized enough that they became targets for nomadic raiders who destroyed them. So the next time they developed, they made sure they had a military caste in place to protect themselves with?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

There is a deep and fundamental flaw in the thinking of our anonymous Mr. Morden. He has missed entirely the whole thing about enlightened self-interest, and the social nature of the human species. His self styling is either a boast from the perspective of the arch-conservative, or there is an organic explanation that relates to a deficit in his oxytocin/vassopressin neurotransmission system. There is an interesting book called "The Sociopath Next Door" that might shed some light on this fellow. Here's the link to Amazon. The reviews will give you some ideas.

From one of the reviewers:
"The sociopath's motivation is ultimately selfish and life for them is one big game, a contest about winning at any cost. This is a frightening notion, but after reading this book, you will more than likely recognize someone in your past or currently in your life that has all the characteristics of a sociopath"

This fellow's posts are well in line with what I hear regularly from self-styled card-carrying Republicans, Fundamentalist Christians and the business community. Many of these couch their arguments in terms of a supposed bottom line and in what they think are Darwinian terms - though their reading of Darwin actually comes from Herbert Spencer's misreading, so is actually non-Darwinian. Unfortunately, people who have unusually low levels of oxytocin can appear quite logical and persuasive, and often find themselves in roles and fora that give them influence. Perhaps Spencer himself was one of these.

But on other matters... Tony, the first thing I thought when I read that abstract was to wonder if it is limited entirely to self-reported data - a major flaw of many psychological, sociological and anthropological studies. I didn't want to say anything about it because my mind was occupied with work-related matters.

Paul451, it would be wonderful if you could find the study you refer to again, but the way you phrased it suggests this may be wishful thinking - and no shame on you. The tendency for the human mind to remember an interesting idea but forget where it came from is so pervasive it has a name - source blindness - so no criticism implied here.

LarryHart said...


it's not a Randian philosophical predisposition I'm a just jerk.

There's a difference?

Paul451 said...

re: Neolithic cities.
Invasion/etc was been considered by researchers, but there aren't enough signs of weapons/warfare that are typical of sites of known invasion. (Ditto disease.)

Link for anyone who didn't see it:

Paul Shen-Brown,
Re: Source blindness.
Guilty as charged. Sometimes I remember to bookmark an online report for that reason, hopefully with enough tags to find it again. But I didn't with this one.

...{suddenly checks}... ehhh, nope.

However, Google got me pretty close: This smells very familiar,

But the link to the actual paper is dead.

Anonymous said...

If there are any other creatures out there in the Galaxy , I think it the epitome of arrogance to assume that they must be like us , despoiling their planet , killing each other and all the while sending out electronic signals .

Anonymous said...

"Technologically Advanced " is a purely relative term .

locumranch said...

It seems that everyone is playing some sort of game today: Paul S_B selfishly accuses our new visitor of sociopathy in the hopes of that he (Paul) will be mistaken for the elusive altruist; Rob has repurposed arguments for god to 'prove' the existence of aliens; and David attempts to rebrand the climatological Dark Ages (caused by the Little Ice Age) as purely figurative, political & feudal.

As I previously mentioned, humanity creates these games to minimise adverse consequence, protect their advantage and improve their chance of winning, often projecting magic powers (and/or inappropriate faith) onto 'rule obedience'.

More & more though, the games that Western Society chooses to play -- games like Insurance, Police State, Employment, Stock Market, Education & Love-- are stacked against us, leading to inevitable failure much like the Casino scenes from the Griswald's 'Vegas Vacation'.

The solution to these problems is obvious: We change the game; we don't play; we overturn the playing board; we reject the rules that disable, incapacitate and disadvantage us; and we refuse to play any game or follow any rule deemed (by us) to be 'unfair' even (especially) if rule disobedience leads to horribly adverse consequences. We will be stronger, healthier and better for it as we only choose to avoid the adversity experienced firsthand.

The poem I quoted, 'To His Coy Mistress' by Marvell, did have a point, btw, revealing that animal hunger, savagery and (even) violence lurk at the heart of our most gentle, gentile and (haha) altruistic sentiments, a lesson that we (the civilised) forget at our own peril.


Alex Tolley said...

OK, let's change the hunting analogy to: "Looking for a black snipe in a dark room that isn't there". In this case there never was a right time.

But if there was an alien civilisation as close as 100 light years away, and that distance wasn't unusual, then there are around 5 million alien civilisations in our galaxy now. And god knows how many rose and fell over the last few hundred million years.

At least a few would have become Kardashev II civs, leaving enough observable manufactured artifacts for us to observe. In a few decades we will have powerful enough telescopes to detect structures at our level of development (< Kardashev I). We should see a lot if aliens are that common.
So far we have seen nothing. A Kardashev III civ should leave signs in the 100's of billion of galaxies, but so far they all appear natural, as far as we know.

Kepler observations didn't uncover any Earth II candidates, although it did uncover some interesting close candidates, but also a lot of "hot Neptunes".

Within a decade or two we should have enough information to determine the probability of stars with life bearing planets in the galaxy. That will be important to put bounds on another Drake Eqn factor. The results should impact our approach to communication and star faring.

Anonymous said...

timing is everything - considering distances involved and the speed of any propagation of signal . After all, any of our signals could not have travelled any further than 200 light years or so. Our ability to detect such signals does not exceed say 40 or so years , so we can safely assume that there are no civilisations capable of generating such signals within atleast 20-30 light years . However signals from more distant sources could be on their way .

Jumper said...

I'm reasonably sure so many people are related to Genghis Khan is by chance. It happens. There are likely a huge equal amount of people descended from Bob. Bob wasn't famous, so no one cares. And there were millions of them.

Bingo said...

sure makes sense to me .

porkeroo said...

Sure jumper , only the prolific philandering ,conquering ,Emperors get all the credit .
And what about that guy Jihnson ??

porkeroo said...

ooops that would be Johnson

David Brin said...

Dang we getting lots of different Anonymouses

Sonofanonymous said...

yea , the havea common ancestor - Anonymousius

Spectre said...

Any who , I can answer the question , Does the Universe conspire against freedom ?

Answer - no .

Robert said...

So, Dr. Brin, is that ultimately what Contrary Brin is? A honeytrap for the most dangerous type of American, those who think? Are we to be cataloged and analyzed in an NSA databank and should the neofeudalists succeed in their quest to seize control of the nation, various households around this nation will have a sudden violent invasion by agents of the government to deal with "terrorist" threats before the survivors are shipped off-shore to not be heard from again?

Rob H.

Badabing said...

Paranoia will destroy ya

Randy Winn said...

"'To Serve Fans' - it's a cookbook! "

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
It's hard not to have sympathy for a jewish artist, with direct family connection to the Nazi deathcamps, overreacting to a neo-Nazi advocating genocide for any out-group.

Tony Fisk said...

No Robert, it's a honeytrap for all the descendants of Genghis Khan (or the ubiquitous milkman) for which the mutation held true.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

For the anonymous clade,

Anyone ever read the Mediations of Marcus Anonymous? Or Shakespeare's play Titus Anonymous? The ancient Greek legend of Anonymous & the Minotaur? "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" by Nicolaus Anonymous? "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars" by Sue Anonymous? The Histories by Anonymous of Halicarnassus? The Satyricon by Petronymous was a good one. A significant book was the "Systema Naturae" by Carolus Anonymous. Did Gaius Anonymous Tacitus have any connection to the clan?

(Sorry, I can get a little silly when I'm sleepy!)

Tacitus2 said...

Paul S.B.

I can wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Works of Mr. Anonymous by the incomparable Willard Espy.


Anonymous said...

I think fossil fuels represent a fermi that deserves a long, hard look. Without them, it seems likely that a civilization would hit the limits of the local equivalent of wood-burning, wind and water mills and the like well before they achieved the levels of reliable, concentrated energy necessary to create particle accelerators, PV panels, nuclear reactors, spaceships, and powerful radio transmitters.

There could be worlds where they are a rare curiosity, or perhaps peak access hit at the local equivalent of 1910 or 1935, so that after a brief period of techno-magic, the civilization is forced back to the pre-industrial world of the parents or grandparents.

On the other hand, fossil fuels could be so abundant that they remain too cheap to replace with anything else long enough for the civilization to cook itself (Earth may be such a world).

It would be hard to invent a better monkey-trap for would-be techno-civilizations than fossil fuels. Remarkably energy-dense--but not so energy-dense that they "want" to go KABOOM! at the slightest provocation (like nitroglycerine), they're easy to transport and store and use to generate reliable power on demand. The civilization-killing harm they produce is non-obvious and temporally remote enough that it can be missed--or denied--until it's too late to avoid.

They're so useful, for so many things (not just the perfect fuels, but also fertilizer, plastics, etc.) that they provide an irresistible lure for clever creatures to build their whole society around them. By the time the society discovers the twin threats of climate change and collapse-by-depletion (whichever comes first), the fix is in. If a "nation" (or whatever large-group equivalent the species has) tries to pre-adapt by switching to other sources (which all lack the whole suite of advantages fossil fuels provide), they drive down the price of fossil fuels, generating perverse economic incentives for competing "nations" to stick with fossil fuels. Militarily, it's much cheaper/easier to run tanks and jet fighters on fossil fuels than on renewables or synthetic fuels.

Perhaps there's a "sweet spot" for some worlds, where there are just enough fossil fuels to launch a high-tech civilization before ff depletion causes Market Forces(tm) to impose a switch to high-tech alternatives (i.e., not the muscle of animals and slaves/serfs) before climate change becomes a serious threat. How likely is it though, for a society to be gifted with such a fortunate perch?

On the "Copernican" premise that humans are neither exceptionally noble nor exceptionally venal, it seems that the prognosis for societies outside of a fossil fuel "sweet spot" is not good. Despite decades of scientific foreknowledge, our civilization shows no sign of responding on the necessary scale within the time we have left. I would like it if my species could prove me wrong on that though. :)


David Brin said...

KevinC goon thoughts. Interesting "fermi"...

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

I see that once again my attempt at humor falls flat. There is no need for Contrary Brin to be a honeytrap. If the NSA is spying on us, it spies on everyone. Only those who avoid the internet, phone, mail, and other services are able to avoid being documented... and thus are likely suspect in the eyes of the government. ;)

Dr. Brin, here's a little something for you - a short science fiction film set in a post-apoc setting concerning a girl raised by robots after humanity fled the planet. It's quite well done, and I'd love to see more of this story. :)

Anonymous said...

The answer to the Fermi question "Where are the aliens" should be updated to "Where are the alien's robots?"

Based on the only sample we have,
alien interstellar robotic probes should greatly outnumber star traveling aliens as well as sufficiently powerful and persistent transmissions directed at us by aliens.

David Brin said...

Anonymous re robot interstellar travelers... um?

I do have a whole book on thise....

Paul Shen-Brown said...

And a rather good one, I might add...

Tacitus Deux, thanks for the recommendation! The Amazon link didn't have any reviews, but I took a moment to look Espy up. If he is as fun as he sounds, I have something knew for my Christmas list. Unfortunately I can't think of anything in that vein to reciprocate with at the moment.

Another factor to consider with fossil fuels is timing. The geologic conditions that turn microorganisms into hydrocarbons would probably be consistent enough across worlds to make them abundant on any terrestrial world that could harbor life. But the processes that lead to sapient life are another matter entirely, and are still poorly understood. It may be that sapience could emerge on worlds during periods of fossil fuel scarcity, either when few such fuels formed, or when geologic processes either destroyed most deposits or buried them so deeply they would be virtually inaccessible.

Anonymous said...

Right, the "peak oil" Fermi was pointed out by Fred Hoyle 50 years ago:

"It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned."

This quote was popularized by Richard Duncan, who named this Fermi the "Olduvai Theory".

BTW, this off-topic but an important read:

"It is curious: Though I have spent a lifetime in journalism, I do not read a newspaper, not the New York Times nor the Washington Post nor the Wall Street Journal. Nor do I have television service.

Why? Because, having worked in that restaurant, I know better than to eat there. The foregoing media are quasi-governmental organs, predictably predictable and predictably dishonest. The truth is not in them.

Within the news racket, this isn’t news. More interesting is that a large part of the intelligent population agrees. We now have a press of two tiers, the establishment media and the net, with sharply differing narratives. The internet is now primary. The bright get their news from around the web and then read the New York Times to see how the paper of record will pevaricate. People increasingly judge the media by the web, not the web by the media.

The major outlets (this will not be a blinding insight) as always are in near-lockstep—that is, controlled. Reporters understand the rules perfectly. You do not, not ever, criticize Israel. You don’t say anything remotely interpretable as racist. Women are sacrosanct. Do not offend the sexually baroque. The endless wars get minimal coverage and almost nothing that would upset the public. Huge military contracts get almost no mention.

None of this is accidental."

Paul Shen-Brown said...

The Fred Hoyle quote sounds dire, but it may only really be a matter of time. Hydrocarbon deposits require several million years to form, which is staggering compared to our own lives, but small potatoes on a geologic scale. A dozen million years may be all it would take, especially after a rapid mass extinction event, to replenish the fossil fuels. Likewise there are geologic processes that can bring high-quality minerals to the surface. In evolutionary terms, a few million years would not be enough to turn, say, cockroaches into sapient life, as was often joked in my childhood. Both Bergman's Rule and oxygen levels have to be just right to revisit the Carboniferous. However, something like bonobos could make that kind of leap in a matter of a few million years.

It surprises me that Hoyle, as a cosmologist, would not have thought of this, being used to thinking in deep time. But then, those were gloomy-doomy times, living in the shadow of the Bomb. The novelty of potential annihilation probably hadn't worn off, focusing people's minds on planetary mortality.

LarryHart said...


BTW, this off-topic but an important read:

Interesting read, and not that much that isn't already apparent.

But maybe this is just me, but the writer seemed to be specifically hung up on the failure of the corporate media to specify when assailants are black, and the rest of his missive seemed to be mainly to describe the context in which that occurs.

To me, the more important fact is that the corporate media doesn't disclose facts that the powerful don't want us to be aware of. The article does mention that, but (it seems to me) mainly to put context to his criticism that black assailants are not identified as such. Me, I'd have reversed the priority there.

Paul451 said...

Paul Shen-Brown,
Too tired to google, but didn't much of the prime oil bearing rock form under specific circumstances? Coal forms more generally, but oil needed a big wide shallow tropical sea with certain lifeforms dominant, existing for so-many million years, then covered in a certain way and protected from erosion/subduction.

That may not be generally repeatable.

(For example, where today is the sediment that will produce oil in 5 million years?)

Robert said...

Where? The Mediterranean Sea. Possibly the Great Lakes. The sea in Russia that is in the process of drying up. Several seas in the region of Africa and the Middle East.

Rob H.

David Brin said...


Paul Smith said... One more thing for homeland security to get paranoid about. The beam directors look like hobby telescopes. Want to bet that several other hobbies get the ax as in writing computer code. 3d printing. Model aviation? Ham radio?

Regal Mit Türen said...

Competition which - in turn - requires at least a degree of moderate regulation? ...