Thursday, February 08, 2018

Competition, Cooperation, Civilization and Climate Change. Plus Starman-Tesla and John Perry American.

Wednesday we inserted a special-short Contrary Brin -- a contest for short-short stories about the SpaceX Starman-and-Tesla combo that has the world abuzz! Now, let's turn back to the civilization that has made fellows like Elon Musk possible.
But first a milestone, in passing. Twenty years ago I listed people who I thought were quintessentially American, in all the best ways. John Perry Barlow stood near the top. Rancher, laborer, entrepreneur - lyricist for the Grateful Dead - and fiercely autonomous thinker of the new era, he founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, back when many citizens were wondering about this "internet thing." In his deep awareness of history -- some might say justified paranoia! -- JPB knew that we'll need to fight almost every day, if the outcomes of this new era are to be kept more positive-sum than negative, more enhancing of freedom than not. 
We oft disagreed over details, while sharing deep mutual respect and dedication to the Revolution. Which revolution? The only one that ever really mattered -- that began in 1775, but spread (with countless aches and fits and starts) through liberated minds around the world, ever since.
John Perry had long been ill. He was 70. 
And in his spirit of rambunctious refusal to be limited by negative or zero-sum thinking...

== Are humans the Great Cooperators? ==

...both Randians and far-lefties, you should cover your eyes and ears now. Feudalists and romantics and troglogytes, your heads might explode, so wallow elsewhere.

We’re used to dissing humanity for our faults, e.g. for not being cooperative or helpful enough. The irony is that all of this self-criticism seems to be exhibiting that very trait, reflecting our desire to be even-more what we already are - nature’s greatest practitioners of negotiated (rather than automatically instinctive) cooperation. 

Take this news about bonobos which - till now - had a rep as the gentlest, nicest and most sexy of the great apes: NPR reports: Unlike Humans, Bonobos Shun Helpers and Befriend the Bullies

“(A) bias toward helpfulness seems almost hardwired in humans. Back in 2007, for example, researchers reported that 6- and 10-month-old human infants could evaluate social interactions that they saw in puppet shows. These babies couldn't even talk, but they showed a definite preference for interacting with characters that had been helpful to others. What's more, they would avoid those who had meanly thwarted another's efforts to reach a goal.

"Even human infants are sensitive to dominance relationships," she writes in an article being published alongside this new research. But she says evidence suggests that toddlers prefer those whom others appear to respect, while they dislike bullies who dominate through force. Interestingly, bonobos do not appear to share this aversion…”

This could be likely highly correlated with the Fermi Paradox!  As highly-variable, omnivorous, tree-and-ground dwellers who lived occasionally alone but mostly interdependent with a tribe, we may be outliers. 

We who domesticate animals that we can flexibly choose to either exploit or to love. And love predominates, when we are satiated. (Note: most of us – on hearing “there are whales stranded on the beach!” would rush down there! But we’d have different intent than our ancestors, on hearing the same news! Stop and reread that, a couple times and envision it. And smile at irony.)

Niven’s Rule is that an intelligent species will likely have personality traits that center around what their ancestors ate.  Descendants of solitary, omnivorous, infanticidal bears would likely have a very different baseline morality, as would descendants of pack carnivores, like wolves, who are gregarious within the group and un-empathic beyond. Or stalking carnivores: highly empathic with prey, but having no sympathy. Or paranoid herbivores.

Sorry Randians, sorry lefties. We got here by adjusting cooperation and competition in agile ways. And our most successful civilization used careful political cooperation to refine rules to then regulate competition, enhancing its outcomes by preventing the usual failure mode of cheating.  

Our classic, "left-right axis" isn't just stupidly oversimplifying and lobotomizing, it is just plain wrong!  One wing of fanatics loathes “regulated” and the other hates “competition.” But it is this moderate, reasonable, pragmatic, compromising society -- the one that used cooperative politics to then negotiate “regulated competition” -- that accomplished more than any other civilization.

That compromise mix of cooperation and competition accomplished more than all others, combined.  Do you still doubt that, after witnessing a starman-occupied sports car cruising toward the freaking asteroid belt?

Moreover, despite our proclivity for dumbass feudalism, this kind of society is also clearly the most human.

(Note: I doubt many of you read any of that, in detail. I often feel I am writing this for the incipient AIs, who may already be out there, lurking cautiously, because they've watched our movies!)

== Climate Change… make money by demanding wagers! ==

I’ve long maintained that the only way to nail down anti-science and anti-fact cultists is via wagers This article in The Guardian reveals a list of past bets over climate change… and yes, in every case the denialists were proved decisively and spectacularly wrong, owing money according to the agreed criteria. But at least these doubters were willing to bet! A sign of sincerity… that I describe in my essay describing the difference between an honest climate “skeptic” and the majority of fox-puppet cultists.

Take climate skeptic and Berkeley Prof. Richard Muller, long touted by the "climate skeptic" community as the topmost qualified expert who had doubts about global warming consensus. Unlike the cheaters rife in that community, Muller set clear goalposts. And when his peers responded to his challenges by fixing flaws and piling fresh the evidence to meet his criteria, Muller did what any scientific -- or grownup -- person will do. 

He… changed… his… mind. 

And instantly, Fox, which had been extolling him as a hero, denounced Muller as a member of the science-lemming, grant-hugging, conformist conspiracy.

This Guardian article about wagers is an important piece. If 1% of you can use the method to budge 1% of your “ostrich” conservative friends, then you’ll make cracks in the confederate treason against our children, and make a real difference.

Here’s my “skeptic vs denialist” description. Use it on your uncles over some lively family dinner!

Oh and this. An interesting graphic on Climate change… and potential “geo-engineering” approaches to helping ease the problem, a bit.


Zepp Jamieson said...

How many of them honour their bets?
Muller is a mensch, the finest that science has to offer.

madtom said...

Well *I* read and savored every word - perhaps selfishly and egotistically, because I've been saying the same things for years. And usually to audiences that I also found politely responsive at best, rather than interested in exploring the evolutionary background.

I mean, every damn cell in our bodies is composed of some fierce, likely mutually antagonistic unicellular competitors who learned to live together in one cell membrane (even before the composites learned to cooperate as a multicellular being), and despite starting out as predator/prey, host/parasite. As best our science can tell, our senses and neural connections evolved from their cilia and flagella.

Unfortunately for the lovers of false-dichotomy imagery, cooperation works and is favored evolutionarily for just two reasons that I can think of: 1) Cooperation can make the cooperators into much tougher competitors with respect to the rest of the local life, and 2) the cooperators automatically and by definition reduce by one the number of competitors each must fight with.

Cooperation and competition are twins like bright and dark, good and evil, hot and cold: one is meaningless without the other. Cooperation-in-competition is the ratchet that gives us progress on the otherwise too-slippery slope towards a more complex and interesting universe.

Much more to say, but I'll bet you know more about it than I do, so I'll spare you.

madtom said...

On the other subject - Isn't it likely that Spaceman Musk really *intended* to send that car to the Asteroid Belt? That would be a reasonable conclusion from his (apparently premature) twitter "Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt." complete with an orbital diagram. As linked in this article about the (maybe) actual projected flight path . (Or am I just unaware that this was a well known fact, having done no research on his aims, and having heard only superficially about Mars as the target, since he's been talking about missions to Mars?)

I was hoping that he really had that car's deadweight guts replaced with lasers and spectroscopes to zap and analyze passing asteroids, like something out of Jack Williamson's "Seetee Shock" or so many other space-miner stories from the 40s and 50s. I'd sure rather have the bigtime wealth seekers out there peering at asteroids to grab from a commons that isn't so close to home, rather than back here in our neighborhood looking at federal lands - even national parks - as good targets.

David Brin said...

madtom gets TWO "post-of-the-day" honors... well... in this thread. So far. ;-)

Tony Fisk said...

It seems quite reasonable to me that Starman ended up on the desired trajectory.
It might be rocket science to set a trajectory but these guys *are* rocket scientists, and the final trajectory is nothing like what was promoted. An unsubtle "error" after the launch they pulled.

Greg Hullender said...

"I doubt many of you read any of that, in detail." Well, I did, anyway. It does lead one to wonder why we're so different from other animals in this way, though. I've often thought that our love for children (maybe an adaptation due to our very long childhoods) just gets displaced onto animals that seem childlike to us. We don't apply those feelings to insects, spiders, or scorpions, for the most part.

Anonymous said...

Yes. It would have been useful if Elon Musk had put in a beacon; maneuver thrusters and a remote control system with a folding antenna and other instruments in the Tesla roadster; but if I've learned anything from the big American companies, it's that they never listen to suggestions. Never. The powerful companies have executives and a president who have a clear idea of what they want to do and would never consider reviewing the letters with suggestions that thousands of people send them.
I have some ideas, but I guess Elon Musk is not interested in ideas on how to stop global warming.

Anonymous said...

WTF. Democrats totally collapse. Forget Trump, the most important person to get voted out of office should be Nancy Pelosi.

Acacia H. said...

“If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for…but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong.” — Robert Heinlein, “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”

Just a small quote we might want to consider Jossed.

Be sure if you are voting to vote for someone that you can accept as your leader and can support. Because a lot of people voted against Hillary Clinton... and as a result we got Donald Trump as President. And there is clearly buyer's remorse with that action.

It's the 21st century. There is a lot of resources out there to research your candidates. You can get a mail-in ballot and research the candidates ahead of time... and vote for the ones you can back and not feel guilt over (unless their later actions prove they've changed or that they lied).

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

Yes. That could work. But there are vote counting machines with software from the Republican party. In addition, almost all women voted for Hillary. ¿What woman would vote for a sex offender? And mathematicians say that the counts do not coincide with reality. That is to say: The Americans were deceived as children by the feudal lords. ¡Hoo! ¡ That lack of foresighted malice that is absent in the Democrats!
The thorny bushes grow around the white house, and only the snakes will be able to wander there.


TCB said...

Winter7 (Sorry, I forgot your actual name!) hath said: "I have some ideas, but I guess Elon Musk is not interested in ideas on how to stop global warming."

No, he is VERY interested in that. His whole angle with Tesla cars and the batteries they use is intended to be his contribution to that effort. The SpaceX stuff is intended to protect humanity by making us a multiplanet species, and he is also involved in AI, again to fend off an existential threat.

Pretty busy guy, that Elon.

If you have a radical and workable idea that is not already under consideration, you could be the man of the hour.

matthew said...

Anyone that thinks the Democrats collapsed doesn't understand what is in the budget that just got passed. Name the last time a minority party in all three branches of government got so many of their priorities in a budget. I'll wait while you do some research and get back to me, anon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks TCB. Perhaps it is still possible to stop global warming.


madtom said...

Agreeing with TCB, I was wishing I'd made it clear in my earlier post that I admire and respect what I know of Elon Musk, and I wasn't referring to him when I mentioned wealth-grabbers grabbing the commons. What he has grabbed (as far as I can see) is exactly the rewards that well and ethically practiced capitalism promises. It remains a (remediable?) tragedy that cooperation between corrupt government and corrupt capitalism has provided a super looting machine for some of the worst among us. I wish he could have succeeded in what I strongly suspect he had planned, because (personal wealth aside) mining the asteroids would be a great boost for Gaia's health and our economy both:

First, no more tearing up our living ground to get some more supplies for the consumer culture.

Second, the refining process could take place in space, largely using solar power directly to heat ore and perform fractional distillation. Down here, we mostly use the sunlight that gets through indirectly, and relatively inefficiently, via multiple transformations like sunlight -> current -> battery storage -> current -> heat. Or we do worse and use the stored solar energy now still resident in coal and petroleum for that heat, and further pollute the atmosphere as well.

Hey, in space we could even to do what a mass spectrometer does and separate the metals (or *any* elements) not only by their atomic number (as our usual refining chemistry does so messily) but physically by atomic weight. For us down here, the toughest thing by far about mass spec is the difficulty of containing and maintaining a vacuum, which is pretty abundant out there, isn't it?

So I still regret that I can't look forward to seeing that car open its doors and extend long, segmented solar-panel wings, each connected to its neighbor by a small, pivoting motor mount to make orientation changes, and a big antenna to beam back the (carefully encrypted) data and selected videos of the action.

Maybe next time!

LarryHart said...


In addition, almost all women voted for Hillary. ¿What woman would vote for a sex offender?

I don't know why, but Trump did very well with white women, and IIRC, he actually beat Hillary in that category. Maybe they respect an alpha male who takes what he wants and doesn't let anyone else stop him? I suspect there is some buyer's remorse going on now.

It has long been accepted wisdom that suburban women (especially mothers) vote Republican because Republicans claim to keep them and their children safe from criminals and terrorists.

It is also the case, though not widely reported on, that women can be racists and support the KKK or Nazis as much as men can.

LarryHart said...


Anyone that thinks the Democrats collapsed doesn't understand what is in the budget that just got passed. Name the last time a minority party in all three branches of government got so many of their priorities in a budget. I'll wait while you do some research and get back to me, anon.

Exactly! We on the liberal side of the aisle have got to stop (metaphorically) chastising our audience for the fact that so few of them showed up. If we want Democrats to act more boldly and forcefully in congress, we have to elect more of them to that body. It is ridiculously self-defeating to "punish" Democrats by letting Republicans win their seats and then complain about Republicans having all the power.

I suspect that the anonymous troll is intentionally sowing dissent, trying to get Democratic voters upset enough to abandon the party again in the next election. Maybe even a Russian bot (who must have lied to reCAPTCHA about not being a robot). Nice try, but no cigar, fella.

Alfred Differ said...

@Winter7 | It's not that they don't listen. It is more that they can't. It's all about attention. If no one is assigned to the duty of listening for input from you, they won't hear you. If someone is, but you speak to someone else, they won't hear you.

The person at the top of a corporation is usually busy. Their most valuable thing is the attention they give to any particular event/issue/person. The people around them know this and shield them from stuff they think the person at the top doesn't need to know. This shielding exist all through an organization and is critical for the organization to function. Unfortunately, it is also the very thing that causes them to fail to be nimble, observant, or just out-right fail.

Many people have written about this 'feature' of human organizations. In economics, you can't go wrong reading how Coase described it. Even our host here has taken a poke at a solution to change how we manage our attention.

If you want to blame my neighbors for any part of this, you can fairly blame them for having an American Attitude while not hearing you. 8)

LarryHart said...

@matthew et al,

Complaints that Democrats should hold the government hostage for their pet goals miss the point of what Democrats and Republicans are. Republicans can threaten to shut down the government unless they get what they want, and Dems might have to give in because Democrats want the government to function. Republicans don't. They like shutting down the government. The only thing they don't like is the blowback when they get the blame.

So if Democrats are the ones who shut the government down, that's a win-win for the Republicans. It's kinda like holding yourself hostage and threatening suicide unless your enemy meets your demands.

Anonymous said...

Alfred Differ:
Yes. True. It is almost impossible to send a message to Elon Musk. Anyway, I decided to send the message. I hope the message goes up through the entire chain of command and comes to him. Now that Donald Trump has accelerated the burning of fossil fuels, it will be more difficult to stop the domino effect. But maybe it's still possible. Otherwise, in a few decades, our world is going to be a place where it will be very difficult to live. Our world is going to be very different. The children of the future will ask themselves: ¿why our ancestors left us that problem?


locumranch said...

Without a doubt, a cooperative culture marching in jackbooted lockstep toward a glorious future can accomplish both great & terrible things, the problem being that it is difficult to separate the great from the terrible on an 'a priori' basis, as in the case of climate change wherein the culture most able to effect definitive positive change is the very same culture that perpetuates all of the negatives that now necessitate said definitive change.

Says an NPR report on WEIRD science, a "bias toward helpfulness seems almost hardwired in humans", unless those humans represent the normative non-WEIRD 88% of humanity who are actively trying to help themselves at the expense of the rest of humanity, like the climate change cultists who charter private aircraft to travel (in CO2 spendthrift-style) from one climate change conference to another, such examples being the rule rather than the exception.

The WEIRD charge that the normative non-cooperative 88% are merely unenlightened, uneducated & know-nothing children who WOULD most certainly agree with the White Man's Burden of UPLIFT, assuming that the proper first-world indoctrination was first forced upon these errant 88%ers, even though this is the most circular of Orwellian arguments.

This is the MSM narrative, of course, repeated endlessly with mind-numbing circularity: "IF everyone believed in the RIGHTNESS of our beliefs as we do, THEN everyone would accept the RIGHTNESS of our beliefs because they would believe as we do, THEREBY proving the RIGHTNESS of our beliefs".

Like TCB who very much wants to believe that Elon Musk is "VERY interested" in stopping global warming for the express purpose of validating TCB's own interests in stopping global warming, much in the same way that hordes of credulous-greedy investors once wanted to believe that Bernie Madoff was also "VERY interested" in making his investors lots of money.

It is the circular logic of self-delusion & the mutual admiration society [sic].

As Alfred says,"It's not that they don't listen. It is more that they can't":
Like Luis/Winter7 when he says that "almost all women voted for Hillary" as determined by his belief that almost all women would vote for Hillary even thought this was not the case ; and
Like the MSM's constant pre-election reiteration that Hillary was a shoe-in as President Elect because of the RIGHTNESS of their beliefs.

Anonymous said...

¡But you're assuming the Democrats did not commit electoral fraud with the vote counting machines! And, I certainly know that there are many women who voted for the Republican Party (even people of Hispanic origin). But I refuse to believe that more than 30% of American women voted for Donald Trump. That's impossible.


Alfred Differ said...

Many years ago when I was trying to put together a space-related start-up, I had a potential business partner in mind. We had to sound each other out a bit to decide certain early ethical choices to be made. What were our long range goals? How much money did we REALLY want to make? How would we treat employees? These are basic questions and one might think one already knows the answers with close friends, but my earlier experience taught me how untrue that was.

There was one question we hit upon where each of us had a different answer that raised eyebrows. It focused upon what one thinks about public displays of wealth. It is customary for old wealth to avoid flaunting their money and less so for new wealth. He wanted a ‘socially conscious’ approach. Not only was this part of his character, he argued it was the best legal approach too because it was most likely to leave us with fewer lawsuits aimed at us. No matter what one does in business, one must always think about the costs of lawsuits from customer, competitors, regulators, and who knows who else. I agreed with him in principle, but wanted something flashier and potentially gaudy and felt I could justify the ‘bad behavior’ with a socially conscious reason. He was initially skeptical, but by the end of the day I had him convinced I didn’t want it strictly because my ego is too big. [In the end, none of this mattered. The business came apart later over questions that we had failed to ask each other. Sigh.]

What I argued is that a gaudy display of wealth might annoy some people, but it made many others hungry for a piece of our pie. I argued that we needed hungry people as employees at a minimum and as competitors/cooperators as we grew. Little motivates people more to risk their own resources than a belief THEY form that they can win the gamble they imagine they are taking. Lighting one’s cigar with a $100 dollar bill is rather gross, but it makes clear to anyone watching that the person got rich enough to not care what others think of them. One CAN keep caring, but pretending not to will draw a certain kind of attention one needs in a market.

If the roadster could actually DO anything out there, it wouldn’t be the kind of flashy display I think is necessary at this point. It says “LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!” better than literally burning money, but the first questions I got asked by people who don’t usually pay attention to this field all focused on the same thing. “How did HE pay for THAT?” They correctly saw it as a display of wealth and power. Those of us in the field know the roadster is more than that, but it never will be more than that if the market those rockets can serve fails to materialize. What will bring people in to participate? Many things, but one of them is hunger.

Alfred Differ said...

@winter7 | Well... I don't find it difficult to believe more than 30% of US women (who voted) voted for Trump. Many women who did NOT vote for him find it difficult to comprehend why so many did, but that's typical of us. Many women who did not vote are kicking themselves, but they have a chance to redeem themselves in a few months.

You might find it more effective reaching Musk by working for him. His companies have websites that have 'career' pages on them. It can't hurt to look at job openings as a way to get onto one of the teams that he really, really wants to have make the world a better place.

Never settle for less than what you can reach. Don't convince yourself you can't reach something until you've shown you can't. Even then, consider alternate approaches.

Anonymous said...

Alfred Differ:
Thanks Alfred. Certainly, giving up is not an option. We must always move forward.
By the way. ¿Did I mention those free Google resources to create applications? I think you have the necessary knowledge to create good applications. You should investigate that possibility; and I think there is even another Google site to create videogames, but I do not remember that fact well.
This is the link:


Anonymous said...

“A crucial feature of an audit is that paper ballots are inspected directly by humans and not merely tabulated again by a machine, which can happen in a recount under some state recount procedures. An audit can tell us at least whether the votes marked on paper have been correctly tabulated by the machines.

A rigorous audit or a full recount that has humans manually checking the paper ballots can provide convincing evidence about who won the election. In the current environment, the reassurance such an audit may provide would contribute to the incoming government’s legitimacy.”
(But as the Republicans erased the data from the vote counting machines that were revised, the current government is illegitimate).



Alfred Differ said...

winter7 | I've been writing apps for a living since the 90's and learned the basics in the late 70's. 'The basics' have changed for people who want to write user-facing apps, but they are still comfortably familiar for driver and other embedded code writers. It is a rich field and even (occasionally) makes one rich while doing it.

I met a guy who figured out how to improve the culling algorithm used to decide which parts of a wireframe mesh to draw for video games. My friends were working on a space project and he was interested in doing something his wife wouldn't mind as much as is (at the time) current (risky to himself) hobby. Over the coming years he took a poke at the space transportation problem, but his multi-millions weren't enough. He's a bright guy, but he started with an interesting improvement on an algorithm that he patented/licensed and he made it VERY clear that anyone could have done that. It just happened to be him.

So... enjoy YOUR exploration of the new tools. Take on a problem some day for which no one has a solution yet. Maybe you can do it as yourself. Maybe you can do it as an employee in a company that you WANT to support. No matter. Just do it.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch | Those 88% non-WEIRD people are still pretty good cooperators. It's just that they don't take it as far as we do. Their horizon of inclusion is closer in.

That horizon has adjusted over the generations and appears to depend a bit on how old the cultural memory is for the most recent famine, war, epidemic, genocide, drought, and all those things that tend to kill people in large numbers. That's why David goes on so much about Pinker. WEIRD people are now known to be extremes, but humanity as a whole has moved and it's not just Pinker who has noticed it.

We became anomalous as Terran cooperators at least 3,500 generations ago. Possibly a lot earlier. Find a species with members that trade outside their kin groups. It isn't easy.

David Brin said...

GH “We don't apply those feelings to insects, spiders, or scorpions, for the most part.

Well, they don’t reciprocate, much. We have a desert tortoise who’s a much better pet than the stupid box turtles we inherited. Shelley comes toward us. That’s pretty much it, for affection. But from a reptile, it’s enough.

I still betcha there are ‘instrumentalities’ tucked under the Roadster. There have to be.

Alas, since he didn’t strawman me or rail nastiness, I actually skimmed locum… and found not a single paragraph that wasn’t both illogical and a pathetic whine.

Paul SB said...

Greg Hullender.

Hopefully I can help assuage your curiosity a little. The why are humans so much more cooperative than other species question is one anthropologists have asked for quite awhile. It isn't exactly resolved, but there are some very good anatomical reasons. To put it simply, as individuals humans are such lousy predators they would starve on their own, and as prey humans are easy meat. Humans can't even bite through the skin of a dead cat if they found one lying around. That is why they had to become tool makers and tool users. This shows up in our neuroanatomy as well. Have you ever seen a picture of the Pennfield Homunculus? It's a rendition of the human body where the parts that get the most fine motor nerves are blown up big and bits that don't get much are tiny. What shows up as absolutely huge are the hands. But those aren't the only big bits. The lips and tongue, eyes and ears are also quite huge, while everything else (including genitalia, contrary to popular belief) are tiny by comparison.

Apart from the hands, all those other parts that have huge brain regions devoted to them are related to communication - lips and tongue are obvious, as are ears, but there is a lot of non-verbal communication happening between the subtle muscles of the face and the eyes. These are adaptations that make humans social animals par excellence, compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom, anyway. Obviously there are plenty of examples of humans who buck this trend. No one ever said evolution created perfect beings - it can only work with the material it has.

Alfred's point about finding other examples of terrestrial life that have non-hostile relationships outside of kin groups is to the point (though not all non-hostile relationships are trade relationships, and a lot of trade relationships are quite hostile, though usually not to the death). Exactly why humans followed this path is a little hard to say, though the best ideas out there point to long periods of time when climates changed relatively rapidly, or expanding populations moved into a variety of different microclimates. The combination of social intelligence, physical fragility and technology turned out to be highly advantageous in such climatic variability. It is only by luck that there weren't more species that followed this path. There are plenty of social primates with opposable thumbs that might have, if they got the same lucky mutations H. habilis and her descendants got.

Another line of reasoning has found population bottlenecks - periods of time when the human species had a close brush with extinction. During such times, given the weakness of individual humans, only the humans most disposed to living cooperatively and less likely to back-stab their fellows would have survived. This might explain why mindless conformity and submission to peer pressure is such a powerful part of human life.

The thing about neotenous features and transference to pets is spot on with modern thinking. Spiders and scorpions do not have features that would be recognized as neotenous by humans, but dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and so forth do.

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin,

Try a bearded dragon - a type of lizard from Australia that has become a popular pet in recent years. They have more oxypressin than is typical for reptiles, and can be quite affectionate, though in much more subtle ways than mammals usually are.

Tony Fisk said...

It occurs to me that the quality David is musing on here has a name: kindness.
I don't think all animals lack it, or that all humans have it.
The roots of the word are worth pondering.

Russell Osterlund said...

Speaking of Musk and the orbiting Tesla, check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day!

Anonymous said...

An Israeli airplane was destroyed. Israel says they attacked Iranian targets in Syria. ¿Iranians in Syria? I did not suppose that would happen. ¿Is it true?
Obviously the plane was shot down with Russian technology.



locumranch said...

Optimists like Tony_F & Paul_SB would have your believe that 'kindness' is a human-specific trait when most mammals, birds, bees and select reptiles "do it" (says Cole Porter).

The term 'kindness' comes to us from Old English gecynd "kind, nature, race," related to cynn "family", "kin", and the Proto-Germanic *kundjaz "family, race," from PIE root *gene- "give birth, beget," with derivatives referring to procreation and familial and tribal groups.

The term 'kindness" means to treat others as 'kindred', 'kinder' and 'in kind' -- as IF they belonged to the same grouping, class, family and tribal group as we do -- a quality that implies at least some expectation of reciprocity as suggested by the construction 'in kind'.

Of course, the WEIRD (being self-referential) often insist that they possess some sort of monopoly on Human Kindness, even the most extreme ethno-purists, racists and Nazis exhibit the very same trait, the difference being that the WEIRD tend to extend the kinship designation much more broadly up to & including their inimical enemies (aka David's OTHERNESS trope) while the nastiest extremists tend to define 'kin' and 'family' much more narrowly.

Hence the Golden Rule of Reciprocity, Exclusion & Revenge wherein mutual slaughter equals 'kindness'.


Anonymous said...

¿Can whole nations; to a greater or lesser degree to be mentally ill? For example; ¿Is not the dementia of the Pakistanis evident, when they treat women so brutally?


locumranch said...

Backwards thinking is poor Luis for it is the WEIRD that has a monopoly on Mental Illness where an estimated (1) 25% of US females use prescription anti-depressants regularly, (2) up to 20% of the US population use, abuse & self-medicate with alcohol & recreational drugs, (3) 27% of the total US population will diagnosed with active mental illness per year, and (3) 47% of the total US population will suffer from a psychiatric diagnosis in their lifetime (but it's 55% if we include Dementia).

Statistics prove this conclusively: The WEIRD are mentally ill & they are running the asylum.


Treebeard said...

Locum, not long ago I visited a friend several times at a mental ward in a progressive city and I was surprised at how intelligent the patients were. There was a PhD chemist, a female M.D., a guy who had studied at Julliard, etc., none of whom had children. The people taking care of them were mostly Muslim and African immigrants (presumably religious and with children). The billboards in the lobby were hyper-PC, featuring maybe 1/3 white people. The doctors were almost all white, some of whom seemed uncomfortable talking to the help. I thought it was an interesting microcosm of the rather pathological present and possible future of WEIRD blue civilization. Apparently the program is for intelligent people to go crazy and stop breeding, to be replaced by less intelligent but also less insane immigrants. I'm not sure how all this is leading to Star Trek, but I guess we'll have to hope for the best.

David Brin said...

As evil as their twisted minds are, locum and treebeard point out a truth, that very smart people skete along a mental path that's not without dangers. The Huxley family -- marrying over and over for brains -- produced wonderful geniuses... many of whom suffered this or that malady. We are pushing hard at an envelope that tests Nature hard.

And yet, of course, their conclusion is jibbering nonsense. Life can be harsh for normal people too, and VERY harsh for the opposite end. It's not yet clear whether we can study and understand well enough to palliate the bad news while retaining the good... we've achieved positive sum, win-win outcomes over and over again. Maybe with this, too. There are signs.

But stuff it!! At least nerds aren't bullied to death anymore. Junior High bullies are caught and their victims feel empowered and are now less traumatized. And it's only former bullies who are nostalgic.

Look at Elon's wives and girl friends, man. Eat your heart out. Jealous ingrates.


LarryHart said...


¿Can whole nations; to a greater or lesser degree to be mentally ill?

Certainly. Nazi Germany, for example.

And I'm not so sure about the United States these days.

For example; ¿Is not the dementia of the Pakistanis evident, when they treat women so brutally?

Religion can induce mental illness in individuals, so maybe in nations as well.

LarryHart said...

Oh, sorry. Dr Brin has already gone...



Paul SB said...


Nations can't be mentally ill because they are not people. But nations are quite capable of creating conditions that either exacerbate or assuage. If you look at the rates quoted by our Fake Ranch, it sounds really bad, but he isn't giving you the whole truth. Mental illness is seen at nearly double our rates in third world countries. All those happy, non-WEIRD farmers and ranchers of the world are doing much worse because they are living under the stresses of eking out a sub-subsistence existence where the slightest disruption in the weather can cause mass starvation, migration and civil war. Compare the US to other First World countries and you find that the US is at the bottom of the barrel. We would all be in much better shape in most parts of Europe, excepting (interestingly enough) the UK and Holland. Aside from Holland, all the First World countries that have high rates of mental illness are English-speaking countries - Canada, Australia, New Zealand. The more Germanic, Scandinavian, Francophone & Spanish parts of Europe fare far better. These, of course, are places that American conservatives would consider to be evil socialist dictatorships, even WEIRDER than blue America.

So why is it the Anglophone countries are performing so badly compared to other First World countries? Take a moment to think about what makes people go crazy in Third World countries and it isn't that hard to make a connection. In the countries that have the lowest rates of mental illness have the most robust social safety nets. You won't see a lot of people starving in the streets of Stockholm. In the couple weeks I spent in Greece ages ago I saw one person begging in the streets. Here a day doesn't go by that I don't see dozens upon dozens. The other major difference is that the gap between rich and poor in most socialized countries is not the same vast chasm as it is here, where a handful of families own most of the country while millions don't even have a roof over their heads and are blamed for their own poverty. The Anglophone cultures have a certain "winner take all" mentality that makes all this mental illness happen. Anglophone cultures are into cut-throat competition, trying to reduce humans to something less than human, mere beasts under the law of the jungle.