Monday, April 06, 2015

Violence and Progress, Part II: Is Conflict Necessary for Human Advancement?

In Part One we examined the notion that Steven Pinker promotes (in The Better Angels of Our Nature), that palpable progress has been made in reducing violence and poverty, worldwide -- and the harsh reaction these facts ignite, among dogmatics of both right and left. We did this by critiquing a purported pundit's deeply dismal and dishonest "rebuttal" of Pinker.

I won't even go to the real incitement caused by my friend, XPrize-founder Peter Diamandis, in his books Abundance: The Future is Better than you think and Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, which suggest that progress will soon accelerate so fast that even cynical grouches will be dazzled. That I gotta see. Suffice it to say that Peter leaps far beyond Pinker's cautious and guarded optimism. 

It is a deeply important matter, especially as getting to this promised land will entail not only rejecting fanaticisms of the far-left and entire-right. Or some of the "abundance" geeks - not Peter - who think it will come blithely, naturally and easy. No, the opportunities are there, but we'll have to work for them.

But I am not done being provocative.  For you see, another factor is whether some harshness in the human experience in one more essential ingredient. Whether even war might be part of what has moved us forward.

== The power of opposition ==

A pair of best-selling books by Stanford Professor Ian Morris make the bold assertion that dynamic competition is just as important for human development as cooperation and shared purpose. His titles are deliberately provocative: Why The West Rules — For NowandWAR! What is it Good For? Conflict and Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”

Well, well. From that alone, you can catch a strong whiff of Morris’s argument, that competition — even the violent kind — can be a core driver that leads to stronger and better human civilizations.

Of course this might, at first sight, appear to be an endorsement of enduring right-wing nostrums — that society should emulate nature, red in tooth and claw, because competitive evolution has been the great driver of adaptation and change, from bacteria to fish to mammals. Species improve their fitness by allowing the devil to take the hindmost. It is a bloody business. Also a slow and highly inefficient one, when competition manifests under Mother Nature.

Nor was it much better across the six to ten millennia since human tribes gathered together in regimes larger than tribes. Urban civilization required a top tier of rulers and priests, whose main obsession soon became staying on top, and ensuring their sons could take other mens’ women and wheat. Below that paramount level, a veneer of specialist scribes and artisans also benefited from taxing the mass of farmers and serfs, though arguably giving value, in return. 

Across these eras, in a vast majority of cultures, priests and kings generally suppressed any spirit of lively or fair competition, far more than they encouraged it. Status was inherited, as heaven obviously intended.

Still, despite this pattern of oligarchic conservatism, Morris makes the case that progress often happened anyway, especially when those pyramids of feudal privilege clashed with each other. Indeed, history is a tragic mess of delusion and horrific statecraft. But our ancestors do seem to have stumbled ahead a bit quicker when the lords were worried about other barons across the hills. Spured by outside threats, the elite castes devoted more effort to encouraging  innovation from bright subjects, instead of repressing it.

Examples from the past would include the Five Kingdoms of ancient China, which developed far faster than during the subsequent Qin Unification era.  And of course post-Renaissance Europe, when innovation skyrocketed under competitive pressure among nations of a fractured continent.  Indeed, this lateral competition is likely what led to the Industrial Revolution and its subsequent rapid leveraging of fossil fuels and sail and metals.

== Lateral drive ==

Looking at eras in parallel, comparing apples to apples, past eras tended to be more productive when they featured lateral competition than when they were rigidly top-down hierarchical. The same is true of industrial societies, when viewed in parallel.

Lateral competition can also be unpleasant and destructive! The examples I gave were also times of great violence. In China and Europe, some moderating forces helped keep violence from ruining the renaissances. Still, generally, average folk lived calmer, safer lives under an imperial “pax” like Pax Romana, Pax Sinica and Pax Brittanica, than in eras filled with lateral strife.

But we are discussing progress here, and without question progress does benefit from competition. Ideally competition in which many moderating forces, like law and democracy and mass education regulate the rivalry, maximizing market virtues and minimizing cheating or blood on the floor.

I’ve gone into and discussed the innovative ways that first Periclean Athens and Republican Florence tentatively tried to use rule-systems to keep competition flat-open-fair… then a much stronger experiment ensued, in which (mostly) western markets, democracy, science and courts regulated competition with one foremost aim — to maximize creative output in positive-sum ways by minimizing cheating.

Please dig this as I repeat it: cheating and blood were the chief hallmarks of feudalism, whose variants dominated 99% of societies with agriculture. Fierce repression to maintain inherited privilege was always the biggest kind of cheating, stifling ambitious innovation among those consigned to lower orders.  There is no greater defining trait of feudalism… in all its many variants… than conniving cartels of cheaters.

== More comparing oranges to oranges ==

During the 19th and 20th centuries, innovation thrived most in nations that encouraged middle class ambition, through education, social mobility and some degree of democratic rights. Bismarck’s Germany retained many feudal trappings and privileges, but it accelerated to catch up with the liberal societies of France, England and the U.S. precisely when education, land and rights reforms removed cheater dominance from the necks of  farmers, tradesmen, skilled workers and the bourgeoisie.  

The very same thing happened in Japan. Indeed, the beginnings of this phenomenon were seen in late Czarist Russia. The process is one that Karl Marx understood far, far better than today’s ill-read leftists do.

What neither Marx nor the classic right expected was the Twentieth Century Crisis that began with European monarchies and oligarchies self-destructing in a stunning maelstrom of stupidity, obstinacy, class-rigidity, stupidity, delusion and stupidity. Whereupon fanatical quasi-religions in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia repressed free thought and crushed the diversity of viewpoints that engenders flat-open-fair-confident competition.  

If the Nazis drove away all their scientists, the Soviets tried to tightly channel creativity. Both empires set up top-cabals of cheating nobility almost exactly like the classic human pattern… based on party membership that soon was heavily family-inherited.  Both empires became uncreative and stagnant, as did Maoist China.

If I sound like I am crowing the right’s triumphalist line, then forget it! Cheaters abound and cleverly seek new ways to cheat. Today — as happened in America’s “Gilded Age” — cabals of would be feudal lords are attempting a putsch to crush our diamond-shaped, flat-open-fair competitive systems back into feudal-style pyramids of inherited privilege.  

Between the left’s silly rejection of competition as a creative force, and the right’s delusion that flat-open-fair competition can happen without intense regulation to stave off cheaters, it seems we are starved of the intellectual understanding that we need, in order to keep this renaissance going.

== Summing up ==

Yes, pre-industrial societies did innovate! But note how many things were lost — Bagdhad batteries, Hero’s steam engines, Antikiythera-geared computers — all for lack of a patent regime that would protect and reward innovators for sharing, instead of forcing them to rely on secrecy… which was itself a kind of elite cheating.  And secrecy of method led, inevitably, to countless innovations simply being lost, the next time a city burned or a master died childless. The result was relentless, cyclical amnesia.  

Add to this deliberate repression by policy, as when a Chinese emperor rejected his father's anomalous enthusiasm for curiosity; he burned all of Admiral Cheng-He’s ships and trashed the records of those great voyages, thus setting in stagnation. Indeed, later Ming Dynasty emperors were amazed by the clocks provided by visiting Europeans, till scholars chimed in: “Oh yes, we used to have such things.”

Hyper-conservative societies were unable to totally stifle innovation precisely because they were unstable.  But in the future that may not be so. Both Orwell and Huxley showed us methods that - if adopted by a fierce autarchy - might empower it to be both all-seeing and permanent. And paranoid toward any new thing that might disrupt the stable order.

Lest any of you misconstrue that I am saying that primitive societies are inferior,  I am not. They did their thing and the few that did move forward, against terrible handicaps, helped to create the dais upon which we stand and accomplish wonders.

No, I am critical of a honey-pot attractor style of governance that seems to have pervaded 90%+ of all societies, in all eras.  Till now, that style merely impeded and slowed us down.

In the future… and perhaps across the cosmos… high tech methods of control might not just slow progress, but stifle it completely. Especially technologies like space travel, that would threaten any rigid caste system. 

And that is why we must fight today’s oligarchic putsch by an aristocracy-loving entire-right-wing seeking to end the Enlightenment, while we also keep a wary eye on the manias of a far-left that sneers at liberalism for its belief that competition can be a great, creative force.

The First Liberal — Adam Smith — was right (as Ian Morris contends) that competitiveness is the great steed that will overcome all obstacles and take us far — perhaps even across the galaxy.  

But it is a steed that requires close attention, regulation and care. Because 6000 years have shown us what happens otherwise.

==

Return to Part I: Violence, War and an Improving World: The Pinker Effect


57 comments:

Daniel Duffy said...

If we ever develop a true, hostile AI (like "The Terminator's" Skynet) that threatens our species, you can rest assured that mankind will turn on technoloigical progress (like the Butlerian Jihad in "Dune" or the Simpletons of "Canticle for Leibowitz"). The same is true for any other potentially threatening tecnology from uncontrolled genetic engineering (King's "Captain Trips") or nanotech "grey goo".

Daniel Duffy said...

"If the Nazis drove away all their scientists, the Soviets tried to tightly channel creativity."

Bit of an exageration. While losing many Jewish scientists (especially in the field of physics) and liberal scientists - for obvious reasons - Germany still retained an impressive science/engineering foundation keeping people like Heisenberg and Von Braun, and the design teams the developed the V1, V2, jet aircraft, etc.

As for the Soviets, for every hack like Lysenko their were a dozen Sergei Korolevs (see "Red Star in Orbit" by James Oberg). It's a myth that the Soviet space program was the work of captured German scientists. Men like Korolev (though technically a prisoner of the Gulag almost his entire adult life as a result of one of Stalin's many purges) were home grow talent, patriotic and devoted to their country's ideology.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin,

Is the term "lateral competition" you use here from Ian Morris? I was just wondering because in anthropology we have had very similar discussions under the term "Peer Polity Interaction." It has been too long since I read any of this literature, so I am not sure if any of it would be of much use, but I'll include a reference to one of the most cited references on the subject, Renfrew & Cherry's anthology "Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-political Change."

http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=oP48AAAAIAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=peer+polity+interaction&ots=WrFoan1yfQ&sig=dVjHBHhPYbeO4OqvSHD40eijdVM#v=onepage&q=peer%20polity%20interaction&f=false

It might not be an easy one to get a hold of. I have a copy buried in a box somewhere. If I can find it I'll check it out and see if there are any especially interesting chapters that surface to my memory.

Alfred Differ said...

No, I am critical of a honey-pot attractor style of governance that seems to have pervaded 90%+ of all societies, in all eras. Till now, that style merely impeded and slowed us down.

I think there is evidence that it did more than impede or slow us down. There is a Y-chromosome bottleneck starting about 8000 years ago that didn’t end for four thousand years. Many more males failed to reproduce then than fail now. The bottleneck is not present on the female side, so something stopped an awful lot of men from pairing up. I suspect it is this honey-pot attractor and that we got out of it only when the princes and priests couldn’t figure out how to avoid fighting each other. If so, war between feudal princes was a solution that freed a large number of men to have children. War between liberal democracies, therefore, would be stupidly unnecessary.

I also suspect the schizotypal disorder played a large role in providing tools to feudal princes. People as tools can be very effective if they love what they do. How hard would it be to leash a few percentage points of the male population to help control the rest, hmm? Were they the ancient equivalent of zipheads?

I’m not that worried about hostile AI’s. I don’t think they would stand a chance against us. By the time we get close to creating them, we could have much more powerful tools available in human shape.

Tacitus2 said...

A couple of brief thoughts. The technological advantage of armed conflict would seem to be limited by the potential for extermination. A global nuke exchange would have something of a dampening effect, at least until the cockroaches started to figure out tools in a few million years.

Regards Bismarck's Germany, there were some interesting reforms and experiments, sure. But Germany had only become a unified nation in the 1860's to early 70's. I think political unity fostered prosperity and change, but of course it could have been in part a reciprocal process. One of history's great false starts....If Kaiser Bill had not been a breech delivery with nerve injury, perhaps his psyche would have been less bellicose? We speak of political leaders "flip flopping" on minor issues. Wilhem flipped 180 degrees and we get World War I.

Tacitus

Alfred Differ said...

I suspect WWI was just a matter of time once the French and Russians made the political mistake of allowing German unification. Leaders from earlier eras understood what a mistake that would be including the HRE.

High population numbers, natural resources, useful transport rivers, access to the North Sea and Baltic Sea, and no defensible borders to the east and west. What could possibly go wrong?

Jumper said...

I suspect at present the Y-chromosome bottleneck remains unattributable. Plague or other circumstances might have created it. Many factors.
Progress in general is simultaneous with new energy-harvesting technologies. As a progressive, I have no desire to live naked and hungry in a cave, so I want new energy with lessened externalities. Sufficient energy would power recovery projects such as desalinization and other water treatments, etc. Unfortunately we at present don't have a clear path towards another "green" 1,000 Quads per year, but it's certainly a goal I support.

Alfred Differ said...

Plague that selected against men?

The only thing I know that can do that is cultural. Polygamy would work in the technical sense, but then one has to be able to explained why this 'plague' stopped working about 4000 years ago. What would allow it to work for 4000 years and not succeed in making it a permanent feature of humanity?

Anonymous said...

Seems doubtful conventional polygamy would be common enough to be a bottleneck.

Maybe serial polygamy by first born heirs, as their wives die in childbirth and are replaced.

The rich would also be better able to support extra sons while using that support as a lever to require that they 'make something of themselves' (i.e. get wealthy on their own).

So - not so much a bottleneck, as simply out-reproducing/out-surviving the poor men's sons.

Anonymous said...

@Jumper - we do have a clear path to clean energy - next generation, much safer nuclear power. If we'd invest in it. Maybe with solar power to handle peak air conditioning loads in the lower latitudes, if solar keeps getting cheaper.

Oh - and regarding plagues selecting against men - I just recalled Moses' plague, supposedly killing first born sons... Maybe that had some historical basis?

TCB said...

A wee bit off-topic, but: John Oliver, as you may have heard, has just done an interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden on the topic of surveillance. My local liberal radio station (880 The Revolution in Asheville, NC) was discussing what to do about all the issues Snowden has been exposing, re government (and private companies) snooping into every detail of our lives up to and including 'dick pics.'

http://www.880therevolution.com/onair/the-jeff-messer-show-50416/

Anyway, I called into Jeff Messer's show before the top of the hour and spent a couple of minutes doing my tiny bit to spread word of sousveillance and why simply banning surveillance won't work, i.e. the whole Contrary Brin elevator pitch for the listeners. The host knew who David Brin is ("The author of The Postman, right?" "Yes, that's him!") Jeff Messer was quite receptive to Dr. Brin's suggestions (I believe he used the words 'very insightful').

So, just wanted to mention that.

Alfred Differ said...

I would think SOME kind of story would survive in the oral tradition. It should be something quite cataclysmic teaching a terrible moral lesson. Overthrowing a four thousand year trend that occurred among all human populations and appeared strongest where civilizations were taking root shouldn't be something we've already forgotten.

I can imagine all sorts of untestable ideas. Most of them run afoul of my belief that most fathers would want their sons to reproduce. All of them. It's hard to imagine how there wouldn't be a blood-bath in a culture that tried to suppress that drive. Was there?

Alfred Differ said...

So... if the lateral competition idea is useful, Pax Americana should work to ensure no hegemon arises that can unify Eurasia. WE certainly can't control them, so no one would. Since most people live there, we should get lots of progress, right? 8)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Here's a speculation: the period between 8000 and 4000 years ago saw the world's first experiments in civilization. Those early kings were mostly priest-kings who used religion as a means of social control. After all, no government can hire enough secret police to watch what every citizen says and does every moment of every day, but if you convince people that there are omniscient gods watching over them, gods who get really angry and creative about punishing people who don't obey the priestly class, people tend to watch themselves. This would have been a time of transition from small-scale shamanism to large-scale religious institutions, and institutions tend to be extremely hierarchical. As human social systems take on more complexity, they make social roles more rigid. While all societies have situational sex taboos, once you have institutional religion those taboos become much more rigid, more frequent, and more importantly, more designed to serve the wants of the ruling classes. Perhaps upward social mobility was facilitated by vows of abstinence (among males), which would serve the polygynous purposes of the upper elites.

Then there would be the issue of what could have brought about a relaxation of the practice around 4000 ya. This is just a little too early for Karl Jasper's "Axial Age," when angry old gods started to be replaced by loving young gods. It seems unlikely that any empire of that time was strong enough to make a change that would reverberate around the world, but memes can travel further and faster than royal proclamations.

Just a random speculation, of course.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Another thought came to mind: I once saw a picture of and Egyptian papyrus scroll which listed the disposition of several thousand penises cut off from barbarians captured in battle. If it was a common practice to castrate slaves (a great many of whom were prisoners of war) that practice would remove huge numbers of males from their respective gene pools, far more than any celibate clergy.

locumranch said...

The term 'violence' is most commonly defined as "the exercise or an instance of (a powerful, untamed, or devastating) force"; it can be physical, intellectual, verbal or emotional in nature; and its purpose is to effect "change", defeat inertia or overcome resistance.

Likewise, the term 'progress' is defined as "forward movement, development, advancement or improvement, as toward a destination (or goal)"; it presupposes the possibility of "change"; and, most often, it requires the application of irresistible action, violence or force in order to overcome resistance and inertia.

Ergo, the concept of 'progress' (forward motion) presupposes 'violence' and 'force', the alternative being inertia, immobility and changelessness, meaning that the concept of 'non-violence' precludes change, forward motion and progress.

This, then, is the non-violent future that Pinker celebrates: A reduction in violence; exceptional stability, social inertia and terminal ennui; an end to competition, change or conflict; an obsolete and moribund civilisation; and pacification as deadly as the application of Serenity's fictional death hormone (PAX).

Enlightenment Progress comes from Violence, Destruction and WAR. War has given us almost every major scientific advance from time immemorial, including (but not limited to) antibiotics, surgery, computers, radar, space travel, GPS and Velcro. Life is Violent, as is Progress, and placation, appeasement and PEACE only brings the gradual loss of civil liberties, stagnation and the death of nations.

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that 'Violence Never Settles Anything' I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.**


Best
___
**This paragraph is Heinlein's; the others are mine.

Duncan Cairncross said...

So the genetic data says that between 8000 years ago and 4000 years ago only a small proportion of the males passed their genes down

IMHO they will eventually find that they have made some sort of mistake!

Anyway meanwhile it's fun to speculate

My theory
Before 8000 years ago most of the human race was in small hunter/gatherer groups

From 8000 years ago to 4000 years ago most of humanity was in small to medium sized agricultural communities

from 4000 years ago to now most is in much larger groupings

The hunter gatherers cannot be too hierarchical - there is no spare food for guards
So the elders got more than their fair share - but most men that survived got to be elders

Small to medium sized agricultural societies
Now there is the surplus to feed the guards and the guards and the aristocrats glom onto all the women

Larger sized societies
Now the aristocrats can't grab all of the women - they are too tired!
So the ordinary guy manages to acquire a wife

locumranch said...


One more thing about 'Cheating', defined as "deception, dishonesty, misdirection, deceit, trickery or dissimulation (most often) for profit":

There's no such thing in War, according to Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Odysseus. In fact, all would agree that War requires dishonesty, dissimulation and trickery, whereas 'Rules' and 'Fairness' are the purview of pimps, priests or aristocrats who use them (rules; laws; fairness) to protect self-interest, consolidate power and exert authority, indicating that human rules and laws are arbitrary, meaning that we can obey, disobey or ALTER them as self-interest dictates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDXYzUlv0S8

Best

i_/0 said...

Mr Brin,a few naïve questions:

1.a. Is 'competition' as enshrined in 'consumer capitalism,' not only not an emulation of competition in nature, but a fundamental series of misconceptions of evolutionary theory?

For example, at the most basic level, I notice that pricing of commodities, in the presence of large monopolies, tends to find a level artificially inflated above all competitive considerations. That is, the purchaser has no real choice, competition can not be said to be actually functioning, or even occurring. Competition theory seems to function more as post-facto justification than as a description of what we actually do. Entities which would perish in nature through simple selection, seem to prosper in human culture, actually elevating and maintaining poor survival traits. Not social Darwinism, another misapplication of Darwin, I mean justifying attitudes, protecting failing organisations and institutions, rather than selecting for useful qualities. I can think of several examples off hand, but I'm interested in your thoughts.

1.b. Is the effect of capital upon markets merely to use more money and resources creating desires which the product then fulfils? Public relations, (product propaganda), political lobbying, for example. There is a glaring unreality to commodity fetishism.

2. Following question one, can for example, competition in markets, actually be said to exist at all as an applied ideology?

3. In the absence of any other model in modernity, than 'warlike competition,' how can we be sure that the effects which your examples point to, are not in fact inhibitions of progress which war, far from accelerating progress, actually diverted substantial time, effort, and ability, away from even greater progress? Is anyone asking this question?

4. If we wanted to evaluate the worth of 'competition' not as an abstract concept, but in how we understand it, and how we actually apply it, where would we look for evidence that it in fact occurs, and that it actually works?

We might prosper in spite of what we call competition, rather than because of it.

5. Isn't human culture really the story of the success of collaboration, currently shackled with the ideology of sham competition?

For example, the frequent efforts by the USA among others to destabilise and destroy alternative models of economic activity. If they can be shown to work, market driven ideology begins to lose it's faith, as it were. Duking the game.

6. Can we actually re-evaluate what we mean by competition, not as an abstract, but in terms of what it actually means in practice? Is there any incentive to ask “is competition really competitive?” Isn't the frame of reference of the argument preventing analysis of what we actually do when we say, 'competition'?

7. Isn't competition as practised, the logic of the Vietnam war? “We had to destroy the village, in order to save the village.”

In the recent example of the movie Interstellar, the argument seems to be that progress through competition as we conceive of it, is the logic of creating the total destruction of Earth, in order to provide the incentive to push outward from it. A common element of much recent American SF, underpinned by unexamined ideological components.

8. 160 million people died in conflict in the twentieth century, the minority of those deaths occurring in world wars one and two, approx 75 million. And the conditions for many of those wars were created by the workings of capitalism.

In light of this, how is violence declining?

And how is competition responsible for this decline?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi i/o

(8)
You need to read Pinker's book
In terms of percentage of the population killed the last century was the safest EVER - bu a long way
And the second half was safer than the first

So you are in effect blaming capitalism for an incredibly LOW death rate

To answer (1) to (7) please read Adam Smith - Moral Sentiments & The Wealth of Nations
Both are free on Gutenberg

Tacitus2 said...

A theory on the Y-chromosome bottleneck conundrum. Could it be as simple as a mutated version of mumps that swept world wide? Significant impact on male fertility.

But can epidemics of moderately contagious stuff like mumps even "sweep" in a pre-industrial world? No air travel, slow water travel, land travel via upgraded goat paths...

Tacitus

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Tacitus, the idea of an epidemic would be worth considering if you rethink the meaning of the word "sweep." Sure they didn't have airplanes in that period, but we are talking about a period of 4000 years. Simple village fissioning in that time could spread a disease or a cultural practice all the way across a continent. The problem, though, is the New World, which seems to have been cut off from gene flow, germ flow and meme flow at that time.

Duncan's hypothesis (it's not a theory until it has been tested) is more reasonable, except that there is a problem in terms of ethnology. The middle-sized societies he is talking about that straddler the time between band-level gatherers and state level agriculturalists would have been mostly chiefdom level horticulturalists with a large percentage of tribe-level pastoralists. Both have a tendency toward out-group violence and internecine warfare, but what comes as a big surprise to people unfamiliar with the literature is that, in most cases, there is very little actual difference in wealth between chiefs and common people (the Kwakiult of the Pacific Northwest are an exception - but that's the nature of any taxonomy, the more you look, the more exceptions you find). Thus it seems unlikely that a period when much of the world was practicing horticulture that there would have been a mechanism to prevent huge numbers of males from reproducing. Most such societies included celibacy rules for shaman, but they typically had very few such religious specialists.

However, that period from 8000 to 4000 years ago starts with early agriculture and ends with the wide adoption of civilization in large regions of the world. Large urban centers in Turkey begin at this time, and by 6000 ya, midway into the period in question, we have full-fledged city-states in Mesopotamia. State-level agriculture had an effect that is also surprising to people who don't know the literature. Agriculture based on cereals, the only thing capable of creating enough calories/acre to support the large populations of civilizations, create huge amounts of food, but extremely poor quality food. Archaeologists have for the past 100 years noticed a tremendous decline in skeletal markers of health that started the instant we switched to grain-based agriculture. Height declined by as much as 18 inches within a generation, as did average life span. With poor nutrition comes poor fertility, though this affected both sexes. However, it might not affect both sexes equally where you have a rigid sexual division of labor. Males, laboring to plough and cultivate crops, might have been in worse shape than females due to overwork.

But the New World still shows a somewhat different pattern. Perhaps a more infrastructural approach might work. Mark Nathan Cohen wrote a book called "The Food Crisis in Prehistory" back 1979 that suggested the rise of agriculture and civilization is largely a result of the retreat of the Würm glaciation, which flooded lands previously occupied by gatherers. This flooding, unlike the mythical floods of Gilgamesh and the Talmud, would have forced huge numbers of people out of their traditional hunting grounds into other people's territory. This would have had the effect of increasing both population densities and violent conflict between groups, while dramatically decreasing the food supply by inundating the continental shelves. The tidy thing about this argument is that sea-level rise would have been an issue world wide, not just in the Fertile Crescent.

Tacitus2 said...

Well something was up, unless the data gets revisited and tossed aside.

I have a hard time buying a male fertility bust on the basis of warfare or of an extreme "droit de signieur". Soldiers on their way to the front have a high persuasion level with one or more of the local wenches. And any population study worth looking at recognizes that not every attributed paternity corresponds to the genetics of the legal father. Hey, life is complicated and always has been.

I just now realized that my theory of "super mumps" has a parallel in David's "war mumps" in the Postman. Maybe my thinking of it was a subconscious dredging up of that minor plot device. I am mostly back on daytime schedule, but still a bit foggy!

Tacitus

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Oops, I forgot to add a link to Cohen's book. Here's the Amazon.com link:

http://www.amazon.com/Food-Crisis-Prehistory-Overpopulation-Agriculture/dp/0300023510/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428413938&sr=1-1&keywords=the+food+crisis+in+prehistory

Anyone who cares to take on Loci's latest might find Wikipedia's page on syllogism useful. At the bottom of the page is a brief section on syllogistic fallacies. I'm sure plenty of us could spot them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllogism

I'm not going to spend spring vacation pounding my head against a brick wall of obstinacy, but some of you might enjoy it.

Treebeard said...

"Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly." --Harry Lime

Paul Shen-Brown said...

If no one minds a return to last thread, Jumper joked with Alfred about his autoimmune disorder (very scary!) and how liberals would assume that he must have caused it himself. The Just World Fallacy is far more pervasive than that. Conservatives employ it handily in their arguments over tax policy, claiming that the rich deserve their wealth because they are smarter and/or morally superior and earned their wealth, while the poor are genetically inferior, lazy and stupid and thus deserve their poverty. Reality, of course, is far more complex than either of these health-related or wealth-related over generalizations.

But probably even more insidious, all of our religious traditions are based on this fallacy. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition God rewards and punishes individuals as they deserve. Some sects see this as a reckoning that takes place in the afterlife, while others (like Calvinists) see this action manifest in day-to-day living. On the other side of the Eurasian continent we have the twin concepts of karma and reincarnation shared by Hinduism and Buddhism. The only real difference is that reward and punishment in this tradition is not permanent. Someone who does good things and is rewarded with wealth in the next life will use up all their merits and find themselves on the bottom of the totem pole in the following life. This seems a little more equitable than a permanent assignment to either Heaven or Hell, depending on how well you conformed to the rules of your social club in life.

Either way, though, it denies the true randomness of reality. Bad things happen to good people, slimeballs come out on top, but sometimes good things come to good people and the slimeballs get what they deserve. And ultimately most people are inconsistent in terms of good and bad, however your tribe defines these, so a strict accounting seems ludicrous.

As usual, broad generalizations that are cognitively comforting rarely do anything more than gloss over reality. More important, though, is that these generalizations drive policies that are deeply flawed on all sides. Does conflict drive innovation and progress? Maybe - Mother Necessity, as they say, might have a hand in it. On the other hand, does conflict necessarily mean violence? Any fiction writer can tell you that conflict can take many forms, not just duels, massacres and Hollywood explosions. And often competition means cooperation in the form of teams striving to be the first to achieve a goal, as in the Human Genome Project, a far greater accomplishment than cuckoo clocks, but one that did not require any bloodshed at all (unless you count taking blood samples...).

occam's comic said...

David,
The metaphors for income distribution that you use are rather poor. The pyramid and the diamond don't do a good job describing the distribution. They both over exaggerate the middle of the distribution. A push pin ( with a broad base and thin spike) would be a better metaphor for the feudal distribution. And a bulb of garlic (a bulge near the bottom and a thin spike) works for the US distribution.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. A garlic bulb might be a better model, but it's harder to defend in conversation. Which would you rather have? Diamond vs garlic bulb.

Hmm... maybe we SHOULD be modeling the feudalists as the vampires they are after all.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul: I try not to think about the fallacy too much. It is so pervasive as to be depressing.

My liberal/left leaning friends were kind enough not to examine what I must have messed up too much while I was in the hospital. Those thoughts came later on my FB page. My conservative friends all tended to blame God and argue that He had a good reason for it that I should learn. I'm much too obtuse to understand it, though. Even a person very close to me who knows me well enough to know what I think of that fallacy wanted someone to blame. I just smiled and told her if she ever figures out who it is to let me know so I can go punch his nose. She got the joke and we had a dark humor moment together.

Cognitive comfort is what it is all about as far as I can tell. Even I retreated from thinking about my situation. It’s a good thing doctors and nurses have some ways to maintain their emotional distance from us. I know they don’t all succeed, but they do it well enough to save many of us. For everyone else who needs to retreat into the fallacy, I’ve learned to accept their emotional need when they are under the most pressure and then coax them back out of the shell later.

The world isn’t just or unjust, but believing it is can be a useful illusion. Occasionally. During those brief moments we aren’t fooling ourselves, though, it is time to do great things.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alfred, yes, humans are emotional critters who have their emotional needs. I like your thoughts about allowing people to have their illusions during times of crisis, then slowly talking them down. It seems very merciful, and perhaps more realistic than constantly trying to be 100% logical about everything (in fact, it doesn't seem very logical to deny our emotional needs - forget Vulcan/Platonic philosophy).

But if seeing to our own emotional needs means denigrating or otherwise hurting others, I have a bit of a problem with that. Isn't that exactly what the über wealthy do when they lobby government to reduce taxes on the rich and cut the social safety net to ribbons? Just World inevitably leads to blaming the victim, which leads to actions that make the victims' lives even more miserable. How often do jurors in rape trials obsess over the beauty/stacks/alluring clothing of rape victims? The more rapists go free because people assume that the victims deserve it, the more rapes are committed.

It's depressing to contemplate just how pervasive fallacious reasoning is in human society. But the more we talk about it, the more people are likely to think about it, and rethink their own thoughts and rationalizations. If you have a good meme, don't be afraid to sling it!

Alfred Differ said...

Yah. My friends in the NewSpace community refer to those memes as 'cultural cruise missiles.' They sneak up and you and then BOOM! 8)

The über wealthy might be doing that, but it is also possible many of their detractors are attacking them using the same fallacy with a different target. Do they 'deserve' their riches? Do they 'deserve' to be able to pass them to their children? It's hard to be objective enough about these things to avoid the fallacy. What's worse is that the few who are need the political support of those who aren't to amass enough votes/political umpf to change things. How many deluded allies does it take to invalidate one's high moral position?

Jumper said...

Paul, I never wanted to imply that only liberals fall prey to the just cause theory, I meant that even liberals do it.

Jumper said...

I'm wondering how our pernicious subconscious belief that evolution works "towards" something (we should probably root that out) affects our view of the effects of competition in economics. Surely the laws of chance come into effect as well. The most fit man in the tribe can get prematurely dead by way of a meteor strike, when it could easily have been the worst fit man in the tribe. Similarly, can market competition drive out the better option in favor of the worse? Do we have the unconscious expectation in economics that we need to get rid of as we know we need to in biological evolution? Are we all unconscious social Darwinists still?

Jumper said...

Paul, if you didn't follow up on this link, you might want to. It's "Is God a Taoist?" by Raymond Smullyan, which I re-read the other day and was quite impressed by (again.) So I'll re-post it:
http://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTaoist.html

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Jumper, sorry if I seemed to be suggesting partisanship on your part. Of course we are all guilty of pretty much every fallacy out there at one time or another. Alfred suggested that detractors of the über-wealthy (and I will not disavow my own inclination here) use the same Just World Fallacy, and he is right, of course, except that they use it as an ideal to strive for, rather than a metaphysical proposition. Others, however, use fallacious reasoning unreflexively, solidifying their mistakes into dogma rather than growing from the process of dialogue (I won't name any names). That's hubris.

As to your question, are we all unconscious social darwinists? We are all many things unconsciously. Part of growing is teasing these things out into the light of day and evaluating them. The misconstrued notion that evolution has a direction (onward and upward!) is probably a legacy of the Medieval idea called the Ladder of Creation. A notion of progress likely has even deeper roots than this, but the science of biology shows no real sense of progress, only random change and lucky adaptation to it. Any actual progress is highly subjective, and is something we have to make happen however we can manage. Reflexivity may be one of our best memes to toss around.

I like your Tao God - he's a real pain in the ass, but Mortal Man deserves no less.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

"How many deluded allies does it take to invalidate one's high moral position?"

How many deluded allies does it take to corrupt one's position? This is why I favor compulsive honesty - but then, I'm not sure I have much choice in the matter, and I'm not running for political office. : /

The reCAPTCHA is now asking me to select from food items. Twice it asked me to select coffee, but without smell-o-vision I'm not sure how to distinguish coffee from hot chocolate.

Jumper said...

(Don't worry about terming me a partisan, because I am, just not blindly. i am a progressive.)
I think what I want to do is analyze the advantages of competition into component parts. Overall it's created progress, but are there attributes we want to discard while keeping others?
First, competition provides a vast laboratory: users of new products and services trade experiences and to an extent the truth comes out. But then competition can become malignant; success goes to the most successful liar, assuming the lies are not found out. Cigarettes, fructose, Facebook, Roundup, and flooring reeking of formaldehyde, anyone? Look at market share. Success.

Tony Fisk said...

One reproductive strategy for the endangered beta males in a bottleneck world dominated by the virile Super Khan: raise daughters.

(The human 'Y' Chromosome has become very streamlined over the millenia, and doesn't have a lot of genetic information on it. Not sure whether this holds true for other mammals. Anyone?)

Alfred Differ said...

The notion that evolution works toward something is probably rooted in our ancient impulse to see 'spirits' in everything around us in order to assign intent to events.

I've been trying to work through Dennett's book on intuition pumps. In #18 he distinguishes between physical, design, and intentional stances. We often slide into the last one and will fall back to the middle one when the mind behind an intent isn't easily found. Science has taught some of us to fall back another step and consider the possibility that organization occurs without any plan at all, but it is a hard step to take for many of us.

A world capable of intent can be just or unjust. If it is designed by someone so capable, they can be just or unjust. Absent any intent, though, we are morally adrift with no paddle or rudder. That takes some courage to face.

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: I think the most important thing competition does is help establish prices for resources. Prices get used as a measure of fitness when one has to solve the hairy resource planning problem. If you manufacture a widget or provide a service for trade, you make use of resources that are scarce. Planning what to do involves more than collecting resource recipes because you have to trade to get any of them to start. The best plan for you maximizes or minimizes something important modeled as a fitness function. Good luck trying to come with even an approximate function without the market's pricing mechanism. Trade within families doesn't need one, but most of us don't treat each other as one big, happy family.

Liars and cheaters get folded into the planning problem often enough to see the effect. They turn positive sum trades into negative sum defensive wastelands. Look for difficult to explain profit margins and you'll find them. It's like finding people who count cards when playing blackjack. You don't have to know how they are doing it. If they are winning too often, they must be doing it.

Alex Tolley said...

Only recently has war generated scientific advances. Prior to that, new weapons were only slowly invented and replaced, or added to, existing weaponry. But interestingly, war also reduces the accumulated capital and resources of the elites. It was the results of WWI and II that reduced the wealth of the top 1%. It has been our long peace that has allowed the 1% to accumulate great wealth again.

The "Cold War" certainly generated new developments, but without the destruction of capital and lives.

Now that technology is expanding so rapidly, it may be a dubious position to take that war would improve that situation. It may be that competition is already fierce enough to drive developments. Plus we have the availability of so much capital that even large developments can be funded if a market looks viable.

What we need is a way to reduce income and wealth inequality without destroying capital and without sacrificing lives.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Tony, yes, the Y chromosome is shrinking in other mammals as well as humans. The current estimate is we have about 5 million years before it becomes dysfunctional - nothing I'm losing any sleep over. There is a wikipedia article on this. Scroll down to the section on Degeneration.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_chromosome

Losing the Y chromosome does not necessarily mean losing the male sex, as there are plenty of critters that just don't use them, anyway. Of course, we could end up going the way of the Whiptails, nature's lesbian lizards, but parthenogenesis is probably not the best genetic policy. I once wrote a sci-fi story positing a future without males, which was fun to do, though the couple friends who read it think I'm loony.

Alfred, I hadn't thought of animism, but that makes perfect sense. It is easy for people to see that we do things for reasons (however inarticulate they might be) and to over generalize, personifying the Universe itself. Humans have probably always had problems with hyperactive pattern recognition. Look up "pareidolia" some time. I'm putting together a collection of funny images. A rock falls, or the wind blows, and certain people will be inclined to ask "Who did that?" If they don't know the answer, they typically make one up, and we get gods, oppressive rules and auto de fey.

Jumper, it's good of you to identify yourself in such terms. I'm sure I have mentioned standpoint theory in the venue before, but it has been awhile. The idea is to give your audience, conversation partners (whoever) enough background on where you are coming from to help them judge in what way your choices of arguments and evidence might be biased. Yes, in science we are supposed to only look at the arguments and how well they explain the evidence, but who ever has all the facts at hand? Many see this as weakening scientific discourse, but I see it as strengthening it, in that it leads to greater trust between speaker and audience. If Hernstein and Murray had come out and revealed their socio-political stances when they wrote the controversial "Bell Curve" back in 1994 they would probably have gotten a lot less grief than passing of their prejudices as scientific fact and burying the admission that their statistics might not mean what they claimed they mean in an appendix in fine print. This is exactly the kind of thing, when revealed, that makes the public not trust scientists. of course, all those comic book villains aren't helping, either (no offense intended, Larry).

This time it was pasta dishes - maybe the Spaghetti God is calling me to Pastafarianism!

David Brin said...


First, there seems to be endless talk right now about how "comments sections" are proof that the Internet does not work and that there is no hope for humans using this new medium for intelligent discourse. I am amazed! Not only is this blogmunity one of the oldest on the web, but the elevated level of discussion and reciprocal respect makes me proud. Your numbers are fewer that at the Doctorow or Sterling or Stross sites, but I would not swap.

Not even locum, whose patterns of (il)logic relentlessly give me ideas for alien characters. Leaps and conclusions that stun, in their "huh?" leaps, and strawman opposite declarations of others' beliefs -- even he is way above average on the courtesy and discourse scales, compared to the vast, vast majority of comments sections.

Tony Fisk said...

5my before the Y chromosome is junked? I've heard that, too. Personally, I think rumours of the demise of the male mammal are a little over-exaggerated. I mean, the mutations that select for that don't seem favourable ones.

Tim H. said...

Briefly, on War & the acceleration of technological progress, War & the expectation of War can accelerate tech, but it would happen anyway. A state of the art aircraft from 1914 looked to be a distant relative of 1905's state of the art, WW1 might've doubled the rate of technological change, but it was coming anyway. WW2 brought intensive development to internal combustion engines and revealed the reliability problems inherent in a turbosupercharged & intercede engine, the cars we drive today still draw on that research, (Whatever you drive, the crank likely spins on something very like the Clevite 77 bearings developed for aircraft engines and is regulated by an ECM, that has it's roots in a tech intended to eliminate fires caused by carburetor backfires.). It's all coming anyway, it'll be better if it develops at it's own pace, War is for the impatient.

Jumper said...

If you click on someone's icon, you can see if they have a website they want associated with themselves, so if someone were to do that with mine, they would, and decipher my politics if they read far enough. For whatever reason, I don't do politics much on mine, but it's there. I don't mention my love of cooking here on Contrary Brin much either...

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, if Loci's commentary inspires aliens in you, maybe you should spend some time in my home town. He sounds just like most of the people I grow up with - a whole colony of hostile aliens! But their thought patterns and behaviors are easily explained by E.E. Evans-Pritchard's Law of Segmentary Opposition and Thorstein Veblen's Conspicuous Consumption. Still human, though, and in many ways typical of the mentality that bought Cold War propaganda hook, line and sinker.

Are these threads archived somewhere? Perhaps you could share some of this with your blogosphere peers - show them that there are enclaves of maturity in the e-world. Come to think of it, some of the participants here have clacked out enough pixels to turn it into a book. You may have a good source here for non-fiction as well as alien mentalities.

Tony, loss of the Y chromosome does not necessarily mean demise of the male. Lots of other animals have the male/female dichotomy without specific sex chromosomes. It's possible that shrinkage on the Y could lead to our demise, though, as any reduction in genetic diversity is bad genetic policy (likewise reduction in cultural diversity - whatever anyone's political overlords expect them to regurgitate). However, I suspect that our genetic technology will have advanced sufficiently long before then to make this a non-issue.

Tim, I was thinking about the advancement of aircraft and WW 1 the whole time (grape minds think alike?), but I didn't bring it up because I figured it probably came from my childhood hobby of building model airplanes. I have an old Bleriot 11, the first plane to cross the English Channel, which was built before the war. I agree that war can accelerate technological advance, but once again, war is not the only form of competition. People like Bleriot and Viosin were motivated by fame, prestige, and that inherently human curiosity that drives some people to tinker. You are probably right, those advances would have happened with or without the war, though they would have come more slowly.

What I find interesting is to contemplate the role large-scale institutions can play in innovation and advancement. The military is a large-scale institution, and in times of war it can have a huge impact, but both businesses and non-profits can also promote technological (as well as other kinds of) advancement, directly through funding R&D as well as indirectly by offering prizes and funding contests. Science itself is an "institution" that is entirely progressive in nature, with tremendous benefits. Fleming didn't discover penicillin working for the army, though the need for penicillin in WW2 dramatically ramped up both production and the search for more antibiotics.

And any doctor who doesn't get the idea of scientific progress needs to read up on the 18th Century and all of history before then, when we had a 50% infant mortality rate and half of women died in childbirth.

Sushi this time. Amaterasu, where are you?

Jared Frick said...

Cheaters abound and cleverly seek new ways to cheat. - DB

They don't always find new ways until they fumble through a lot of common ways. This is why it is so easy for a teacher to spot a common cheater in class - we've seen it before. Each new crop of kids thinks they are reinventing the wheel on cheating, doing something the teacher won't catch on to. I have not seen anything new in seven years, the methods used in 2008 are still the same as those used in 2015.

But is cheating an inherent part of human makeup or is it cultural? I abhor the cheating that goes on but I am amazed that it occurs at all. The level of ingenuity (each kid is doing something novel to their methods, but not systemically new) and the effort at working on the cheating seem greater than the effort needed to simply study and practice and knowing the material confidently enough to accomplish whatever task is set before them.

Interestingly, I think this also reaches out to the y-chromosome discussion (maybe it grasps at it...). Culturally or genetically, what would be the benefit of busting your ass to do something well and provide for yourself and a potential mate/family if the local warlord was just going to come through and steal it all anyway. Might as well save up that energy and redirect your mental faculties towards getting away with something quick and dirty and on the sly. If the reward for an arduous achievement requiring an extended period of dedication to practice was equal to simply seizing an opportunity , then why use all that time and energy working when you could simply cheat and steal? If the risks were equal as well then there would seem to be some advantage to puttering along on minimum energy and then expending great energy in a single triumphant move (oops, the palace guards caught me, oh well...).

The not-working--try-cheating also persists in the person's behavior over time. With having done no work and not really having learned or earned anything, they have no foundation to build upon later, so cheating becomes the primary way of achieving anything. If they are caught often enough they either find new ways of cheating, resign themselves to struggling through doing the work to advance, or they give up. The mindset that might result is that there is no justice, there is no fairness, so grab what you can when you can, consequences be damned.

The working-nets-results behavior also has a positive feedback loop - in a system that has protections in place to safeguard against cheaters. Each phase of work provides a foundation to build the next phase, and cheating doesn't really help because the risk of losing all that has been struggled for does not beat the profit of staying the course. The state of mind that develops is that hard work and perseverance pays off and the world is fair and just.

I don't think these polarities exist in each person, but some spectrum of habits might. People may work very hard at their jobs but cheat a lot in their social relationships.

I think I talked myself into a cultural reason for cheating, but I will not yet rule out that we are descended from long lines of people who cheated once in a while.

jwilfrick

Tacitus2 said...

Regards cheating as a societal asset I suppose this is one of the few places where you could have a discussion of the pros and cons of various solutions to the Kobiashi Maru problem....

Tacitus

Alfred Differ said...

I've heard the Y-chromosome degradation argument too. I'm very skeptical. Making projections into the future requires a good explanation for the curve one finds to be a good fit to present evidence. From what I’ve read, you mess up that chromosome a little bit and you don’t get a live birth very often. What’s still on the chromosome appears to be very important.

This kind of projection error can be seen in lots of places. As industry took over the world, we could argue that there would eventually be no farmers left working the fields and we’d all starve. While the number projection is pretty good so far, it’s irrelevant. One farmer is much more productive now than they used to be. It doesn’t make sense to have so many people out there toiling away. Food prices would crash if we did that, but we won’t because that’s an equally dumb projection.

I’m even more skeptical when Singularity fans talk about projections that look like exponential growth. I’m enough of a mathematician to recognize that there is a family of curves that look exponential over a short range. Fitting current evidence with a curve that naturally relies upon more and more terms from a polynomial expansion that get larger as we go isn’t smart. Show me log plots for a linear fit and I might believe it.

Jumper said...

I do have a theory that cheating is why the IRS has evolved the rules towards complexity: foiling cheaters. I sense those who cry for simplicity are blaming the wrong ones...

Alfred Differ said...

I’m not convinced by the argument that tech advances will happen anyway absent violent conflict. There are certain kinds of investments that no sensible market player will make. They simply fail to close in the business sense because there are better ways to make more money. Space tech is a classic example. Investment in Apollo came about because of a war we didn’t want to fight with nukes. Showing we could do amazing things was a decent proxy. It’s been over 50 years since humans first flew in space, but it’s still tricky to get investors to put their money up. That war ended about 25 years ago and we aren’t going back to the Moon anytime soon, yet we WILL flyby Pluto in a few months. War doesn’t just make things happen earlier. It makes things happen.

If you read George Friedman’s book about the next century, you’ll see someone trying to use the lessons of geopolitics to anticipate the behaviors of nation-states. It’s a different way of looking at things for those of us used to thinking in terms of human behaviors scaled up, so it takes some getting used to before one can manage to avoid rejecting the underlying motivations of the players. One of the projections in that book has Pax Americana with a space station or two in high orbit that fulfill a peaceful military mission similar to the one provided by the US Navy in defense of trade across the oceans. He projects a war between us and others in which those stations are destroyed in a sneak attack. Of course, we go bananas and spend frightfully large sums of money putting up replacements and re-establishing our dominance up there. Along the way, new tech is developed that completely changes the world economy. Whether this projection works out to be true in detail isn’t the point, though. There is ample evidence that we would behave this way from the way we’ve behaved in the past. The frenzy he describes is modelled on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The tech advance is modelled on ARPANET from the Cold War. It is the abstractions that matter the most in these kinds of stories. The details become more apparent the closer we get to the future.

Can there be any doubt that the ARPANET changed the world? Would we really have developed it absent the Cold War? I’m very skeptical the www version of the internet would exist at all if it weren’t for the need of US commanders to retain control of their missile assets after a first strike. We’d have something closer to the regulated monopolies described in futuristic stories from the early part of the century. Convergence would be a rare thing until one utility managed to buy another. My television wouldn’t be a computer let alone a node on my home network along with my phone and (digital!) music player.

Alfred Differ said...

My mother convinced me there was some value to cheating when she used to say "Don't let me catch you doing X" and she meant it literally. She expected me to be smart enough not to get caught. Later, she explained that if I was smart enough to do that, I'd also be smart enough to know when cheating wasn't worth the effort.

Part of my family understands the value of cheating the cheaters. Sometimes that works better than shooting them.

Alfred Differ said...

From what I've seen over the years, smaller on-line communities have a better chance of holding together in mutually beneficial ways. When they get too big, it's hard for participants to get to know each other. The effort involved gets very large.

I've seen two communities start small, grow past some tipping point, and then suffer schism. I suspect there is a Coasian limit involved.

Jumper said...

The amount of non-war-driven tech is vast. I think it's crazy to say we need war for tech. History shows enormous piles of goodies that simply did not come from war. And funding for improvements which came from commerce, not war.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I agree with Jumper - most advances did not come from war

Then I disagree - the funding for most advances did NOT come from "commerce"
Most advances were funded by the nation states
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00APDTQRA/ref=oh_aui_d_detailpage_o01_?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Well worth a read

Kunal Lal said...

I would argue that war can spur certain short term technical innovation, long term growth in both art and science are impossible.
Till about 650BC, Sparta was like any other Greek city. This changed after the second Mycenean war. All art, rhetoric and philosophy stopped as Sparta turned into a military camp ready for war at any time. Spartan lifestyle was so at odds with Greek culture that it could never progress long. In time her reputation was stronger than her power. After the loss of a single battle, this was exposed and she never recovered unlike many other cities.
Richard Feynman said that all science stopped during the war except for the bomb and that was more engineering than science.
In post independence India, a lot of effort was made to understand why India once a world leader had fallen behind in science and technology. One of the key findings was that constant small scale warring among local kings hampered trade and kept the warrior class in control instead of Europe where traders and industrialists started occupying a more prominent position in society spurring industrial innovation.