Saturday, December 17, 2011

Are we "evolving" toward becoming "marching morons"?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel recently spun a fable for The Edge about selection and drift in the human attribute of innovative creativity.  His assertion in Infinite Stupidity is that the very same civilization we built through innovation becomes a driving selective force, one that winds up sapping innovative genius from the gene pool.

Now at one level, Professor Pagel's argument is just a reiteration of the old "marching morons" notion - once popular in 1950s science fiction, as well as the earlier Eugenics Movement - that the long term effect of complex civilization must be to reward mediocrity and propel a decline in net human intelligence.

Pagel starts with a reasonable premise: that as humans created ever-larger societies, featuring rapid communication among greater populations, more people would benefit from copying the innovations produced by a few truly creative individuals.

So far, that seems pretty obvious. Cultural dissemination of new techniques started really burgeoning about thirty to forty thousand years ago, around the same time that trade networks clearly developed, with seashells adorning necklaces in the Alps, for example.

The late Paleolithic  Renaissance, at the dawn of the Aurignacian, erupted with astonishing abruptness after a hundred millennia of static technology. Within a few score generations - an eyeblink -- our ancestral tool kit expanded prodigiously to include fish hooks and sewing needles made of glistening bone, finely-shaped scrapers, axes, burins, nets, ropes and specialized knives that required many complex stages to create.

Art also erupted on the scene. People adorned themselves with pendants, bracelets and beads. They painted magnificent cave murals, performed burial rituals and carved provocative Venus figurines. Innovation accelerated. So did other deeply human traits - for there appeared clear signs of social stratification. Religion. Kingship. Slavery. War.

And -- for the poor Neanderthals -- possibly genocide.

==What changed?==

The cause of this rather rapid shift is hard to confirm, but Pagel seems to be implying (by my interpretation) that it was triggered by something as simple as an expansion of clan size - augmented by increased inter-clan trade.

So far so good.

Only then Professor Pagel does something I find wholly unjustified, even rather weird. He proposes that - amid this flurry of trade-enhanced innovation - the need for the trait of innovativeness would decline, on a per-capita basis, because the average person or small group would benefit by copying whatever came along.

"As our societies get larger and larger, there's no need, in fact, there's even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers."  In other words, what need to maintain the expensive capacity to create new ideas when you can simply borrow them from a small coterie of idea-guys, scattered across the continent?

Alas, Professor Pagel spins a just-so story that is conveniently and charmingly free of reference to historical or archaeological evidence. For example, he ignores the fact that innovation sped up, intensely and supra-linearly, as the number of individuals connected in a society increased.

According to Pagel's premise, that rate should not rise appreciably with increased communication! Rather, if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need, then with an expanded community the per capita creativity resource supplying that need would atrophy until the need was barely met. With the minimally needed level now acquired and satisfied by trade. people would simply become more dull and parasitical - that's his theory.  Only logically it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level.

==Toynbee, Marx and Wills==

I mentioned that this notion has a long history. Dour folk have long held that civilized life must have negative effects upon the gene pool, leading some, a century ago, to push eugenics legislation. But there are other glimmers from the past that merit mention.

For example, Karl Marx actually praised the cleverness and acumen of the bourgeois capitalist class, deeming them absolutely necessary for economic development. Their competitive creativity (and theft of labor-value from proletarians) would drive capital formation. Cyclically, the actual number of capitalists would see a secular decline with time as their trade networks expanded. In the end, Marx foresaw this brilliant class extinguished, after all the capital was "formed" and when their competitive cleverness was no longer needed. You can see how this eerily mirrors or foreshadows Pagel's teleology.

Another maven, who comes across better in light of real history, was Arnold Toynbee. His survey of the past led him to conclude that civilizations rise when they support and eagerly learn from their "creative minority" -- those who innovate useful solutions to rising problems. And societies fail when they don't. (In which case, does America's current war on science... and upon every other clade of mental accomplishment... forebode a coming fall?) In this light, Pagel's assertion seems dour, indeed.

A third, more recent voice is Christopher Wills, whose book Children of Prometheus contends that civilization, in fact, rapidly accelerates changes in the gene pool, propelling evolution ever-faster. I believe this case is very well-made, and wholly consistent with what really happened in the era discussed by Professor Pagel.

==The Great Acceleration==

In fact, after the Aurignacian and later Mesolithic phases, the pace of creativity only sped up, then exponentiated. Agrarian clans and then kingdoms allocated surplus food to specialists, rewarding them for talent and expertise, sometimes in accurate correlation to their effectiveness at innovation.  (Though skill at persuasiveness - lying - was always a higher correlate. That trait has almost certainly been an evolutionary rocket; but more on that another time.)

Key point: with agriculture, the collection and allocation of food surplus became a substantial human reproductive driver, as subsidized specialist roles became common. Competitively striving to attain that status, youths who became scribes, blacksmiths, tool-makers, engineers and priests must have achieved enhanced reproductive ability almost equal to the feudal lords who soon dominated every society.

Hence, a proclivity for nerdiness would increase... though, of course, not quite in pace with an ever-rising tendency toward oligarchy. I'll admit that the trait most avidly reinforced was the ability of some men to pick up metal implements and take away other men's women and wheat... a trait that required not only strength but some cleverness and yes, innovation.

Nevertheless, the brain-lackeys - the priests and tool-makers and monument builders - certainly did well. And they passed on the traits that made them successes. So much for the dismally grouchy "marching morons" hypothesis.

All of this is clear from the historical record. I find it disappointing that Professor Pagel seemed so willing to spin us a vague tale without confronting any of it. Indeed, for an evolutionary biologist to weave such a story without referring to reproductive advantage seems very strange, indeed.

==A Warning for the Future?==

But it isn't finished. Pagel extrapolates to the modern age: "As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves."

He continues, "What's happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we're being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We're being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers."

"Domesticated?" One is tempted to demand that the professor speak for himself, not this wild spirit!

But ah, well.  So we come down to the couch-potato argument. The question posed by Nicholas Carr and other cyber grouches who contend that Google is making us Stoopid. As I have said before, any sensible person can look around and see plenty of signs that suggest the cynics may be right. Their criticisms may be more inherently useful than the giddy proclamations of cyber-transcendentalists, like Clay Shirky. Criticism is welcome... even if I find both sides romantically unrealistic.

Nevertheless, look, when you boil it down, this innovative decline thing is just an assertion, bereft of even correlative evidence, let alone proof. Sure, ninety percent of Internet activity is crap. But that could be said about everything, all the time, especially during all the eras leading up to this one. And while Pagel's lament may elicit voluptuous schadenfreude, it is hardly utilitarian or helpful.

If civilization relies upon Toynbee's creative minority, depending on the small percentage of creators more and more, then that minority had better buckle down and find ways to get more support from those marching (copycat) masses. Duh?

David Brin
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Stefan Jones said...

Something to consider:

Humans have a strong, instinctual cultural-conservative streak, perhaps based on our genetically ingrained social habits.

For this reason, innovation is likely something that was historically (and pre-historically) selected AGAINST.

Innovators are less likely to be sexy, square-jawed Randian ubermench dynasty founders than flighty weirdos, OCD types, and troublemakers.

(Bruce Sterling had a great line, which I have to paraphrase: "A society of Leonardos sounds attractive until you consider we'd then all be gay, left-handed Italians.")

David Brin said...

hm... Sterling is glib. Here's another quotation: “I mean, when was the last time a sci-fi writer was hauled out of his home at 3 a.m. and lined up and shot? If we were doing our jobs, that ought to be a real risk for us.” - Bruce Sterling (5/88Locus)

To which I responded..., unless we were doing our jobs well!

“If we sci-fi writers were really doing our job, free people would be inspired to imagine, then build, a society that cherishes and subsidizes bright, romantic, self-righteous twits - no matter how hard they scream and preen and pretend they’re trying to get shot.

"If we were doing our job right, it would still be dangerous work and disturb the mighty. But the price of our rebellion would change. Bullets are trivial. I scream defiance at the cyber-bio-cryptomemetic-.hyperemergent elite!”

In fact, Stefan, in my blog (above) I describe how nerds gained reproductive advantage by being very useful to the clever thugs who became kings and lords.

Tim H. said...

The measure of people is how they do up against the wall, Hitler saw young Americans as indolent decadents, look how far that got him.

mik3cap said...

It's an illusion that innovation is hard. Determined enough people can become programmers in a year's time, maybe better, and then they can build their own code-based flint hand axes to fight off the Facebooks with the bronze swords.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in a previous post:

Seriously, this is what I would have done with my life, if you folks hadn’t bribed me into the arts, instead.

Ok, I'll bite. Is there a story there? Did you publish something just on a lark and get a good reaction from the audience? Or just decided that you were good at writing in a way that your peer group was not?

LarryHart said...

Stefan Jones:

Humans have a strong, instinctual cultural-conservative streak, perhaps based on our genetically ingrained social habits.

For this reason, innovation is likely something that was historically (and pre-historically) selected AGAINST.

As both a liberal and a nerd, I understand perfectly my low position in the social pecking order. Actually, I was prepared for this as a child, both by being Jewish in a "Christian nation" and by being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Unlike most Republicans, I don't come to the table with an expectation of being king of the hill.

I digress.

My point was that I speak as a member of the "opposition" when I say that I belive human civilizations prosper with a majority tendency toward conservatism, with the caveat that there also must be a healthy minority percentage of liberals. In biological terms, conservatism is the dominant trait, but liberalism must exist as a recessive one.

I say this because conservatism attunes us over time to the steady-state world-as-it-really-is. Institutions and cultures develop over time in response to the surrounding world, and such wisdom should not be dispensed with or overthrown lightly.

But, the world is not static. It changes from century to century, and sometimes, it changes quite rapidly. When the environment becomes different enough quickly enough, then conservatism becomes a deadly trap. "Always fighting the last war" is a conservative failing, as is the sort of backward-looking that Dr Brin warns against.

In order to deal with a changing world around us, civilization must be able to call on its recessive liberal traits. There must be a voice that suggests alternatives to obsolete institutions--to suggest new ways of doing things when the old ways no longer work.

Sci-fi authors, of course, have already THOUGHT OF those new ways of doing things, even before it was necessary to adopt them.

combinatorialimplosion said...

From the description given it sounds like Pagel has an implicit, if not explicit, assumption that is a counterpart to the lump of labor fallacy that is one of the banes of Econ 101 professors everywhere, a lump of innovation fallacy, if you will.

What amazes me is the degree of willful blindness that it takes to ignore what seems to me glaringly obvious, that the pace of innovation has discernibly increased even during my own lifetime, and this from a baseline of a society that was already doing more innovating than any previous society that I am aware of. And while it is true that we have a larger world population than ever before, it is still nothing like the size of population you would need to account for the amount of innovation that is being done while still concluding that the per capita rate of innovation has decreased.

duncan cairncross said...

The “Rabble” the common man

First – any “Marching Morons” type of genetic change takes many many generations

In some places the people are only a couple of generations from primitive – where you really had to know your stuff or you starved!

The Roman citizen soldiers who created an empire are the same people who cheered at the circuses

Our “Rabble(UK)” are the same people who provided the armed forces in WW2 – a technical war fought by machine man

The people who provided tens of thousands of aircrew,- only three decades after the Wright brothers

The people who went from untrained labour to producing spitfire parts in weeks

The people who made precision munitions and crewed submarines and battleships to deliver them

The common man is;

Making hot-rods, building houses, messing with boats, scuba diving, rock climbing, inventing weird things, writing novels, blogs, screenplays…..

Some of the “common man” are a bit dim and lack the horsepower – how many? -5%? 10%

How many do you think?

I do believe a lot of the “common man” are intellectual couch potatoes preferring to let others do their thinking for them,

I just think most of them have the capability to do otherwise

Back to thoughts about “deserved reward” and the normal distribution

In my years of using statistics in industry the straight “normal distribution” was actually quite rare,

for most desirable features (i.e., engine power) there are far more ways to reduce the feature than there are ways to increase it

This then gives a skew distribution with a fast fall away towards “high power” and a much longer tail towards low power.

I would expect intelligence and competence to show the same distribution with the sharp fall off above the mode and the long tail back to poor souls with damaged brains.

Hours worked would also show the same pattern as there is an absolute limit to the number of hours that somebody can work

From the mode – common man, 40hrs/week

I would be surprised if the absolute max was as much as twice as competent/intelligent

The hours worked could be three times (120hours) (71% of total weekly hours)

Education/Training – you “invest” in your education, the base investment (common man) is 12 years (at a very low work rate)

Somebody who has invested a further period (and worked harder) is entitled to a return

If you invest a further 10 years – this removes 20% from your working life

I could argue that you should get 20% extra – especially as University is fun

But I will invert this from 20% extra to 500%

So the maximum fair return is Common man ($30,000??) x 2 (competence) x 3 (hours) x 5 (education) = $900,000

(or if I was being fairer (who actually works 120hrs/week?) $30,000 x 2 x 1.5 (60hr wk) x 1.5 (university is fun) = $108,000

Ideas, invention, new stuff

– ideas are cheap – its putting them into practice that is difficult!

Very few of the rich got there by having a new idea

Even if you allow another factor of two for “inventiveness” I believe the legislators should be aiming their punitive levels at $2,000,000 and anybody earning above $700,000 had better be a workaholic with no time to spend it anyway!

Paul451 said...

"if the amount of innovation were simply satisfying a Darwinian need,[...] it would hold actual-total innovation at the same, pre-trade level."

However, if innovation isn't being actively selected against it will decline slowly, so if the trade/communication increased faster than genetic drift the net rate of innovation would still rise.

But there was an active selection against intelligence: caloric availability. Brainy babies require more food, suffer quicker with starvation. Thus that food surplus you spoke of actually eliminated the selective pressure against intelligence for the first time in history. Intelligence/innovation/adaptability should have accelerated.

(Also trading in ideas requires traders. Outward looking problem solvers. Bold explorers sowing their wild oats (and invaders sowing their wild canola), spreading the innovator gene.)

((Heh. In medieval Europe it was often the smartest sons who became priests, and priests weren't allowed to breed (even if they did, the rate must have been lower then the gen pop.) Did Catholic Europe breed itself into the "dark ages"? Did the Reformation save enough of the smart guys from being steered into pseudo-sterility, thus spreading the innovator gene again and ushering in the Renaissance?))

(((LarryHart's recessive-Liberal theory pretty much describes my internal model of biological evolution. Mostly narrowly adapting to the current conditions, but with enough "sports" to let the population adopt suddenly useful traits when things change. But Larry, does the rise in conservatism in the US and Europe since the '70s mean those who claim recent falling rates of innovation are right?)))

((((Oh, and I second the request for the Brin Origin story.))))

(((((fuchesca: a pandemic of parentheses.)))))

((((((My dictionary tagged fuchesca, suggesting Fuchsia, of course, but also cheesecake and pigfish's. So my dictionary has "pigfish's", but it didn't have canola.))))))

Paul451 said...

I don't know if this was already poster here. It's a tribute to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. Snowmen.

(scomet: What the big snowball s.)

Stefan Jones said...

– ideas are cheap – its putting them into practice that is difficult!

Oh, GOD yes. I've got ideas out the wazoo. I work with people who have ideas out the wazoo. Turning these into a working, innovative product in a competitive industry . . . that's not easy.

Triaging ideas is a necessary skill; implementing them requires a whole other set of skills; profiting by them requires incredible persistence. The old "99% perspiration" thing.

And it takes teamwork. Building teams, guiding them, working in them.

Very few of the rich got there by having a new idea

I'd divide the rich into entrepreneurs, inheritors, and speculators.

The first and last both expend a lot of effort and skill to make their fortunes.

And while you can rightly give some credit to speculators for being part of the system required to grease the skids of finance, it is the entrepreneurs who make the pie larger, benefiting everyone.

I honestly don't know what percentage of the rich belong to each category.

(And editing this, I realize there is a whole other category of wealthy, artists, who operate by other rules.)

David Brin said...

Great discussions guys!

LarryHart, see my semiBiographical essay at

Always knew I'd write & be published. My family bleeds ink. Figured I would balance an occasional novel with proud-decent work as a scientist and teacher. But the part-time became full time and vice versa.

David Brin said...

Guys! Make this go viral!

Stefan Jones said...

This last week saw the death of an interesting Sci-Fi author / professional, "T.J. Bass."

He wrote two well regarded novels, "Godwhale" and "Half Past Human," then essentially disappeared!

He actually went back to his real job, an M.D.

I wish he had done just a few more novels! He had a very interesting perspective.

Stefan Jones said...

Hmmm, is there a slight family resemblence in the singer?

reformed tourist said...

There seems to be a continuous impulse in academic and other institutional circles to deconstruct our current troubles by re-examining the past for clues and drawing conclusions that are at least superficially attractive, but are either intrinsically wrong or at least incomplete.

One has to ask why cultural evolution should be any different from other measurable causations such as biological change or geology where both long-term (slow) processes and abrupt paradigmatic occurrences have to be considered in parallel to account for any given present state.

Use of the "marching morons" descriptor usually tends to emphasize either the oppressive mass
of "takers" or the great burden on the "givers." I'd submit that the ratio within any given modern (post-agrarian/hunter-gatherer) society is probably similar within a margin of error regardless of the overall population sample. Demographic pressure is, I suspect, something of a constant; opportunity and innovation tend to develop at the edges of society rather than the center - or so most of both political and technical history suggest suggest. It follows then that as the mass (of humanity) expands, so does its perimeter... This doesn't, obviate the limits to growth issue based on limited resources: it simply underlines an aspect of the dichotomous nature of life that striking a balance between risk and reward is not only required, but mandatory.

As a final note, and a nod to those who have injected the liberal/conservative polar metric, A recent work by Professor David Graeber, "Debt" suggests that societies are built on the concept of debt, that its invention was intrinsic to a survival strategy built on cooperation as opposed to the classic economists' narrow theory that it derives solely from the drive to maximize interest on exchanges with the "innovation" of currency. While there are some flaws in his presentation, it is a another illustration of the dangers of overly-focused definitions in complex systems. Another might be found in considering the maxim that the greatness of any society is how (well) it treats the least among them...

Paul451 said...

Photographer Claire Felicie has taken before/during/after photos of young men who went to war.

The hypervigilant stare in the "during", the slight downturned mouth and tired eyes in the "after", (and the slightly dull-eyed "before".)

It's subtle, but... woof.

(via Gizmodo.)

David Brin said...


Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Firstly, I mourn the passing of T.J.Bas. I read his books as a young adult and was entranced by his idea of a real Gaia, the "human"subtypes which evolved, and the AI in control. (remember Kuldesak by Richard Cowper?) and that formulae he published, establishing the probability of a planet being capable of supporting life?
Damned if I can remember it now, but it had some rather odd parameters.

As far as David's concern about the inovative critical mass; I reallydon't worry. I'm a teacher, and as we move away from a rigid teaching structure towards one which encourages research and real learning, we see many more kids are able to innovate and develop ideas than we first thought.
I wonder however, if there's going to be a financial/reward structure available for them, to let them create their ideas in the real as opposed to the virtual.

Tony Fisk said...

Hmmm! So that's what a 'thousand yard stare' is?

While 'genetics' don't respond at the time scales being discussed for the rise of civilisation, the way that the existing palette of genes gets expressed does. The mechanism by which this occurs has only begun to be understood in the last few years (see 'epigenetics'). NB: my reading is that the responses may not always be beneficial.

Tim Flannery notes that 'domestication' seems to be accompanied by a reduction in brain size and a reduced ability of the individual, although the overall group is considerably more capable. Other species, such as ants, are a good deal further along this route than we are. (Not a pleasant prospect, although brain size isn't the sole indicator of intelligence. Btw, ants are capable of remarkable feats of analysis such as determining the size of a prospective new nesting chamber: Pratchett's 'Hex' may well contain them!)

As to the couch potato effects of the internet and the transformation of our brain cells into 'grey google', I would counter with the thesis that Jane McGonigal makes in 'Reality is Broken'; that games, especially computer games, are a much underrated source of productivity.

I think where Pagel goes wrong is in assuming that increased civilisation leads to increased communication rather than vice versa.

Chimps groom each other on a ~ 1:1 basis. Humans groom each other with words in casual groups of ~ 4. It wouldn't surprise me to find that the internet ultimately allows for an even larger grooming circle (not quite there yet, though)

LarryHart said...


(((LarryHart's recessive-Liberal theory pretty much describes my internal model of biological evolution. Mostly narrowly adapting to the current conditions, but with enough "sports" to let the population adopt suddenly useful traits when things change. But Larry, does the rise in conservatism in the US and Europe since the '70s mean those who claim recent falling rates of innovation are right?)))

Let's be clear on terms. By "conservative", I meant the type who values accumulated wisdom about how the world works (and how to deal with it) and is skeptical of radical change. The type who says "This worked in my daddy's time and my granddaddy's time, so it's good enough for me." The type who stands athwart history shouting "No!".

This is NOT what has been on the rise since the 70s. The Reagan/Thatcher ascendency of conservative politics is more accurately described as "right-wing" or "authoritarian". For example, "Citizens United" overturned 100 years of legal precedent. That was not a "conservative" decision--it was radical judicial activism.

That trend toward authoritarianism and away from inclusiveness corrolates with classic conservatism only to the extent that we tend to perceive politics on a two-dimensional left-right axis.

And, it's not that there are fewer liberals around (if anything, I think the population skews MORE liberal than ever), but that liberals are discouraged (in both senses of the word) from participating in the governing process. What has been on the rise for 30 years--and on steroids for the past decade--is a trend for governing to become more right-wing while bigger and bigger subsets of the population disagree with the direction their supposedly-democratic governments are going.

So as our respective theories discussed a pseudo-genetic tendency toward CLASSIC conservatism, I'm not sure the current political scene speaks to any conclusions at all.

But as a good liberal (and contrary to David Friedman), I have to acknowledge that I may be wrong about that.

Tom Crowl said...

In a slightly different way I've always felt that the real dilemma posed by our intelligence was better expressed by one of my favorite science fiction movies... "Forbidden Planet" ...

The rational brain evolved to serve the lizard brain...

And that the drives embedded there... much more ancient than our rationality will be a greater threat than some fall into stupidity.

Darth Darwin said...

If Welfare Mom starts having babies at 16 and PhD Mom starts having babies in her late 30s, it doesn't take all that long to change the ratio of Welfare Mom genes to PhD Mom genes. One lifetime is more than enough.

Liberals are as deep in denial here as conservatives are about global warming. Why do liberals insist on teaching Darwin and then scream bloody murder when someone points out the obvious conclusions therefrom?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you need a new "liberal" party.

LarryHart said...

Darth Darwin:

Liberals are as deep in denial here as conservatives are about global warming. Why do liberals insist on teaching Darwin and then scream bloody murder when someone points out the obvious conclusions therefrom?

In what sense do LIBERALS "scream bloody murder" about those implications? Because we don't conclude that involuntary sterilization or eugenics programs are appropriate "solutions" to the problem?

Liberals are at least in favor of birth control and empowerment of women over their reproductive decisions. Seems to me that the ones who essentailly encourage massive breeding among the poor are conservatives--at least the religious conservatives of all denominations.

reformed tourist said...

It's been said many times, but bears repeating: political conservatives are not in the least interested in conserving anything beyond their own personal accumulation of wealth and privilege.

The handmaiden of conservation, stewardship, is anathema to the so-called small government types because it reigns in their aggregating impulse, an impulse that most often manifests itself in both the repression and oppression of others' interests.

Cyclically, we see exactly the same thing happen in the politico-economic sphere that occurs in nature when a too-successful predator species reaches the tipping point on available prey.

One might hope that social evolution, and true conservative thought in particular, would trend toward a greater desire to achieve balance in individual and communal rights and aspirations. That ever more complex social units (complex due to both size and technology) wouldn't merely allow for the fewer to more easily gull the greater.

Citing the fact that the lower income/educated tend to give birth earlier is a perfect illuminator of willfully filtered thinking - that the cause is the reason and the reason is the cause. If you're worried about the gene pool being diluted, then help create a more conducive environment to prevent that...

Danijel Kecman said...

Darth Darwin and Larry Hart
PhD is not inheritable trait.

jsn said...

Pagel's critique strikes me as a sort of dour mirror to Pinker's Panglossian take on the decline of violence: Pinker's vision sits one button push from nuclear annihilation while Pagel's misses the complexity in which innovation occurs in a vast vertically integrated global civilization.

We often can't see innovation until it becomes massive. And bizarrely mundane insights have radical effects: Reebok invented the modern sports shoe business with the simple insight that shoes could be made with glove leather rather than shoe leather and for the first time people could buy new sports shoes and not get blisters. Mundane and radical at the same time, the sports shoe business is exponentially larger than it was thirty years ago as a result.

Similarly, Google saw that making the proliferating internet accessible to normal human heuristics would draw more eyeballs than all the graphic design and entertainment in the world. In retrospect a blindingly obvious observation, invisible but for inspiration at the time.

But because these innovations occur in that vast vertically integrated global industrial civilization, there are probably fewer particular points at which real innovation can find expression and we feel the result as a failure of creativity.

I would propose that we are at a fairly extreme position on a technological/cultural pendulum swing where we've allowed ourselves to become over-dependent on massive and centralizing infrastructures we barely understand any more, and that this position is increasingly fragile. When it shatters the pendulum will begin its next cycle swinging in the opposite direction toward rapidly changing, and for a while scale reducing, innovation to restore robustness and dispersion to essential infrastructures.

The trick now is to facilitate that necessary eruption of human creativity in a world of 7 billion without ramping up mortality rates. This will require pulling apart vertical integrations without destroying the underlying productive capacities the integration leverages and will require more and better communication than the species has ever before managed to muster.

And yet the species has repeatedly succeeded at that, at the improvement of communication to previously unprecedented peaks, but as it is always a new peak we are climbing, it always looks equally impossible.

Acacia H. said...

But intelligence is, and nurture helps enhance genetics. Thus a family that possesses two PhDs who have jobs and can raise their children may in fact have a higher chance of having children with PhDs. I've seen this in my own extended family, as my uncle and aunt both have PhDs and are college professors... and one has a PhD while two others have Masters' degrees (and I'm not sure about the fourth but he has at least a Bachelor's).

If a child is raised in a broken family that is destitute and has a horrible education environment, then it doesn't matter that she or he has genius potential: they will have a harder time living up to that potential than the family with an environment conducive for education and upbringing. That some do says something about the power of genetics and of the will of some of our young.

And when you think of it... our current U.S. President was raised in a single-parent household... but had a mother and grandparents who pushed their son to do his best. He didn't always... but look at where he is now. It says something about America... and the fact that despite what the naysayers may claim... it truly is great.

Rob H.

excure: what happens for most people when they stop taking drugs to prevent illness

Ol Roger said...

David, I am so scattered, I do not know if I got this link < > from you or wandered onto from another Baen link you provided. This takes a different approach, that intelligence ( and I would extend that to the innovation that follows) was triggered by sexual selection/competition.
While copying has some use, it measures the innovation of others, not self. Copying is second rate to producing novel ideas. Innovations will continue to have a place. In a sense the communication tools (in all the flavors) make the innovations more accessible to 'everyman'. This may increase the competition for innovations.

Paul451 said...

Twisted Scottish Bastard,
Re: TJ Bass's equation
GY=c? If the Strength of a planet's gravity × the length of its year = the speed of light, then by god, the planet will be made habitable.

"Let's be clear on terms. By "conservative","

I meant "they who would conserve what-is over what-could-be". I didn't mean "the Right". In Europe the conservatives are still largely on the left; note the protests in Greece (which are protests against any change.) I also didn't mean those taking advantage of the rise in conservatism: the corporate pirates and their apologists in the US, the corrupt left and ultra-nationalist right in Europe.

The people tricked into supporting the people who wanted Citizens-United, didn't want Citizens-United. Likewise the Europeans flocking to the ultra-Nationalists don't fondly remember the deathcamps. The people cheering Putin don't like Russian corruption. Etc, etc. As David and others have said, one of the traits of real conservatism is blind loyalty.

For me, there's no irony in people who support the Tea Party wanting "government to keep their hands off my Medicare." (I mean, it's still funny, but it's not hypocritical.)

The people being tricked actually thought they were saving a lost Golden Age. Their motivation is classical conservatism, argumentum ad antiquitatem.


Paul451 said...


"That trend toward authoritarianism and away from inclusiveness corrolates with classic conservatism only to the extent that we tend to perceive politics on a two-dimensional left-right axis."

No, traditional conservatism (ad antiquitatem, antiqua?) tends to drift towards authoritarian oligarchies over times, as David has pointed out a bunch of times. Appeal to tradition, appeal to strength, appeal to loyalty.

The trend toward radical corporatism is only possible because there's a rise in real conservatism in the general public. (Combined with a lack of an existing political group that was appealing to those conservatives, and the discovery by the Radical Right how to mask their radicalism in conservative language.)

The problem is that the real conservatives haven't been able to show people how utterly radical the "Conservative Movement" is.
So in those terms, my original question was: A) IYO, liberalism fluctuates with the need to cope with innovation. B) IMO, there is a rise in real conservative. C) There are people who claim, unlike combinatorialimplosion above, that the rate of innovation is falling (the appearance of innovation is just the spread of computer power, once we hit Moore's Wall it will stop). Therefore does combining A + B support C? And your answer is "No" because you think B is wrong.
(What I find interesting is that radicals on the left have been tricked into voting for conservative politicians like Clinton and Obama, while conservatives on the right have been tricked into voting for radicals like Reagan and Bush. How weird is that? Something similar happened in Australia with Howard-vs-Rudd.)

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Shout out for referencing the great short story from Kornbluth! I have an old paperback copy of the book (I don't know if it was ever in hardcover).

I agree with you that we can always point to idiocy in any time period, and that we should be looking a bit more at the edges for the change in human behavior for the better, and the decline in violence.

sociotard said...

A historinan-friends response to the war on intellectuals:

Woah, there, dude. I mean, it's not that I disagree with you. People's insecurities arise in all sorts of ugly ways. Intellectuals make fun of manual labourers, manual labourers make fun of intellectuals, and I don't have to tell you about foreigners, the opposite sex, those young folk today, and old fuddie-duddies. What's up with them, am I right?

But the current failure, or, if we're being less skeptical about the numbers, near failure of post-secondary education to produce the traditional return on investment invites some serious thought here about how North American society works. Remember that Harvard College and the Quebec Seminary/Laval were just about the first non-basement level institutions established in the North American colonies. And they're not long-forgotten, mouldering initiatives, either, so it's worth asking ourselves just what they accomplish, if it's not providing a meal-ticket to middle-class, straight-A strivers.

The answer, I think, is a profoundly unsettling one; and that is that they are mechanisms for the social reproduction of class. Which is to say, if a few elite families are going to produce all the country's politicians, diplomats, judges, and Big-Men-On-Campus-Hospital-Grounds and perpetuate a good-old fashioned oligarchy, they need to be educated, winnowed of "hereditary mistakes," and, above all, be introduced to each other's sisters. In a larger sense, they need to be trained to a certain set of behaviours that will allow them to "signal" their status to each other without need for tedious secret handshakes. Hence, Harvard. And, historically, it worked.

"And this is good old Boston,The home of the bean and the cod,Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,And the Cabots talk only to God.

Except that such institutions have always been challenged by "new wealth." The Cabots and Lodges were part of the top, say, 1% of American society back when, but they started out as merchants. And this is the genius of American economic growth, that it has been able to absorb a constant influx of new families just so that the top 1% didn't become the top 0.0001%.

According to this model, the North American universities will look like meritocracies as long as population and economy are growing dynamically, because there's plenty of room in the top 1% for good students. Once this growth stalls, or even slows down, though, the institution fails. At that point, we are left with no obvious alternate strategy for the social reproduction of class. The unpaid internship may be replacing the universities, or we may just go with naked nepotism.

Now, notice that I've said "North American." Universities arose in Europe, of course, and fulfill the same roles there. However, social evolution has gone on longer in Europe than in North America, and is more organic. Thus, there have been, and continue to be, competing institutions for social reproduction of class. I could pull a number out of my rear to illustrate my point here, but the most important one for my argument is the trade union. English observers like to talk about the "aristocracy of labour," by which they mean that there is a hierarchy within the labour side of things that reaches down from people who are basically indistinguishable from "real" aristocrats, such as lawyers, doctors, and sea captains down the semi-skilled construction trades.

sociotard said...


I've deliberately included lawyers and doctors here because they are what we'd call "learned professions" rather than fields of labour. This serves mainly to illustrate the complexity of the mechanisms of social reproduction of class in Europe. In North America, we've simplified it by abolishing the apprenticeship training route to MDs, LLBs, and B.Eds. But note that it is nearly as hard to become a rigger, underwater welder, or tool-and-die-maker as it is to become an MD. The pay is broadly comparable, and certainly superior to that paid to teachers.

From a North American perspective, when we step into the labour side of things and try to sort out "upper class" from "lower class," things get complicated. In Europe, the solution to this has historically been simple: default to landed property. If you can live off the rents from your estates, you're basically in Parliament. You're pretty much involved full time in public policy, and you pay your little brother an allowance so he can afford to be in the armed forces, under the implicit understanding that once the next war starts, they will buy their coal and horses from you, at a nice markup.

Well, I don't have to tell you that things have got a little complicated in Europe since manufacturing and services replaced agriculture as the main source of wealth. That said, it never worked in North America because the growth of our society has constantly implied the incorporation of Native American landowners into our society at the frontiers of settlement. (With a little fib about "the vanishing Native American" to cover up the fact that we incorporated Native American social hierarchy into our own.)

So North American society has never authorised the labour side of things to produce an aristocracy of labour. That would just be too confusing. Hence our hostility to unions, socialism, and the labour movement. Hence not only the polite lie that you can't get rich in the trades, but also an attempt to inflate the pay of university-trained professionals to the point where teachers and lawyers can make more than tool-and-die-makers. You'd think that that would be bad for manufacturing, but at least over the last two centuries, North American industry has innovated so quickly that it's hardly felt the resulting shortfall of highly skilled labour, except during the world wars, when it struggled to produce to imported European designs.

The future? Well, I can see where we ought to go --more unions, more apprenticeships, more premium apprenticeships, a double down on "stimulus" to get price trends in line to get the economy moving fast enough to absorb university output until the schools are brought back in line with the actual size of educational cohort required. But at this point that means inflation in the 5-6% range, and I don't think that's a terribly politically feasible.

So, once again, I'm going to point to the stark, existential threat to our way of life posed by the snarks and boojums, and call upon the nations of the world to join in righteous crusade against them. War! I come to bring you war!

Christopher John Chater said...

Seems to me saying that Google makes us stupid is like saying a hammer makes us lazy. Google is a tool that can be used for innovation. I use it everyday for research. The same argument could also be made for people who use plumbing, believing that they are parasitic or over-reliant on plumbers, but the truth is that most people would have never done anything innovative with plumbing in the first place, but when people don't have to worry about innovative plumbing, they can devote more time on being innovative in their own way. The man's argument doesn't hold water.

Alex Tolley said...

A huge benefit of the civilization we have is the ability of more people to ascend the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. As people get off the bottom levels, they have time to think and create. Whilst most of it will not be much good, some will be and we can keep moving forward.

If anything, what the technologies of today show, is that there is a huge pent up force of creativity that is now being liberated in ways that have never been possible before.

Add me to the camp of skeptics who do not buy the 'Marching Morons' scenario.

David Brin said...

Wow, we got some new members. Some smart guys. John Newman especially stands out. Hope he'll be a regular in the best blogmunity online!

TSB comments on the real advantage of the American approach to education... that it squelches individual creativity less-systematically than the memorization-centered systems in most countries. That is not to say that most US kids don't proceed to march into rote zombie-hood anyway. A combination of mass media, slouch culture, peer-repression of ambition and poor teaching all propel bright minds toward indolent cynicism. Still, there are plenty of opportunities and escape paths left open, e.g. that excellent/cool teacher or the endlessly enticing atmosphere of ARGUMENT that infests many American classrooms.

But no worries. Teach-to-the-test "reforms" will fix that soon.

DARTH DARWIN... let me guess. You don't actually know a lot of genetic science, do you? Thought not. It turns out that it's been shown mathematically that the process you describe has almost nil effect over one generation. It would take ten or so.

Oh, I admit it could be a factor over generations... but long before that, we'd return to feudalism and go back to men with swords having harems. That's the genetic effect that reigned over most of the last 6000 years.

Hey, here's a possibility. Stop grouching and join us in fixing things so that NEITHER of those bad things happens?

Sociotard, don't forget the greatest American contribution to the modern university... Breadth Requirements. It adds a whole fourth year to the standard bacalaureate degree. But it make broader citizens.

reformed tourist said...

Paul451 said:

(What I find interesting is that radicals on the left have been tricked into voting for conservative politicians like Clinton and Obama, while conservatives on the right have been tricked into voting for radicals like Reagan and Bush. How weird is that?...

Interesting? Yes, in a tragic sort of way. The Overton Window concept has been proven to be roughly true due to the skillful (gotta give them credit) discipline and allocations of monies by those oligarchical interests that have seized control of media, founded "think tanks," endowed law schools etc all in a effort to control the framing of socio-political discourse. That they have succeeded in Orwellian fashion using "new speak" and casting themselves in the role of "victim" signifies a failure on the part of those who would oppose them to competently provide an alternative.

Chris Hedges' book, "Empire of Illusion - the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle" speaks to this, if in a polemical way and without specific prescription to reverse this phenomenon. In a world where a majority of those who actually exercise their voting franchise can be convinced to do so in a way that is demonstrably against their own best self interest it would appear that we are indeed approaching another denouement. Citizens United is only the latest and most blatant of the institutionalized efforts on the oligarchy's behalf. It also hastens the reckoning when ultimately the too-successful predators begin to pay the price of their previous success.

JohnNewman pointed out:

"The trick now is to facilitate that necessary eruption of human creativity in a world of 7 billion without ramping up mortality rates. This will require pulling apart vertical integrations without destroying the underlying productive capacities the integration leverages and will require more and better communication than the species has ever before managed to muster."

He's absolutely correct and I might add that his use of the term "more and better communication" is the key....

David Brin said...


--- LarryHart is right that what we now call "conservative" in the US is a mutant strain that despises knowledge in general, even the troglodytic scholarship of Buckley and Goldwater.

In my opinion, the liberal-conservative divide has most to do with the ongoing western enlightenment process of "horizon expansion." You fellows have heard me say this before. There is a curve of fear-vs-horizons. When fear is high, your horizons are CLOSER in regards:

- how far into the future you worry... next meal, next harvest, your heirs, posterity, sci fi

- who is a "human being" or tribe member worth sacrificing for... my kids, kin, town, co-religionists, my skin color, nation, general civilization values, include all people, all species, nature, simulated beings.... ommmmmmmmmmm....

- horizons of distance and of possible change.


David Brin said...


Here's the thing.

1) Lefties have become ADDICTED TO THE PROCESS OF HORIZON EXPANSION. That push had great successes in the past, but they will never admit it, because they fear that then satiation will set in. Wherever the horizons currently lie, they must push at them because that is the richest source of a voluptuous sanctimony/indignation high.

Note, this is a mutation of old-leftism, which tended to be very bigoted and proudly so. In any event, the drug high means it cannot be satiable or ever reward-acknowledge recent prodigious progress. The sole thing of importance is the NEXT EXPANSION and curses upon every symbol of past horizons or loyalties! Their ingratitude toward enlightenment institutions and nations and processes that fostered every past advancement and expansion knows no bounds.

Ironically, their in-group and out-group political reflex passion is inarguably based upon... close loyalty horizons.

2) Righties despise this process of sanctimony pushed horizon expansion. They like their old horizon boundaries! e.g. national flags and rituals and religions. Well, actually, they like the present ones, maybe nudged backward just a decade or so. They now adore ML King and would have gladly embraced Herman Cain as their VP nominee.

People who twenty years ago would have cursed Catholics now include them in the Christian Camp and cheer that the California Crystal Cathedral was sold by a bankrupted protestant ministry to the Orange County Diocese. (They would not have been happy, a generation ago!)

Ironies abound. The most fervent American flag wavers turn around and spew bile at any notion of loyalty to their freely elected government. Many who chant "YOU-ESS-HAY!" have also nursed lifelong fantasies of riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest to rescue the "lost cause" of the Confederacy.

Radio hate-peddlers - and Fox - deliberately create loyalty horizons that are as close-in as they dare, till "conservatism" now entails hatred of science, journalism, educators, medicine and every intellectual "elite."

3)The third category is Liberals. And alas, if only it were possible to waken them to a clear fact. That they aren't "lefties" except by alliance against the Fox-ite Crusade. Nothing makes this more clear than their attitude toward horizon expansion.

They want it. But are not addicted to it.

At some deep, instinctive level liberals know that the key to continuing this process is lowering the ambient levels of fear. Practical measures that achieve that... e.g. helping poor kids, plus increasing international awareness and contacts and promoting enlightenment values... will help horizons to expand organically.

What they deem entirely unnecessary is the spurning contempt that the Left heaps upon our older loyalties, flags, nations, processes. Indeed, liberals would - if allowed to - relish recent accomplishments in horizon expansion and take a bow. Take pride in them. Not for satiation but for encouragement.

Moreover, because market capitalism so blatantly provided the wealth cornucopia and media tools that - together - empowered past horizon expansions, liberals tend not to hate Adam Smith. If only they read him, they would embrace him as their own, and furiously attack the REAL enemies of market enterprise.

You can see why each of these three definitions have nothing whatsoever to do with the classic left-right axis! The Horizons Model is instead a reflection of human personality, in the context of a generally liberal society that was built for horizon-expansion from its onset. Those who bitch and scream that it is going too fast or too slow should be viewed as fringers who on-occasion have useful or on-target criticisms to offer...

... but who, for the most part, are simply way, way, way to upset and rude to be helpful.

Paul451 said...

Re: Fermi's Paradox and John Lamshead's "Lonely Out There".

(Summary: Lamshead suggests that sexual selection by female proto-hominin apes for smart men spurred evolution, and the odds of that happening are low, therefore...)

The problem is, IMO, that while it argues that human-like intelligence will be rare, it doesn't provide a case for the apparent non-existence of ETI.

For example, he uses the early existence of life on Earth to argue (as many do, myself included) that life will immediately form (geologically speaking) anywhere that life can survive.

And he similarly argues that since multicellular life has also been around for hundreds of millions of years, it must also be ubiquitous. However, the Cambrian explosion was about 600mya. Life about 3.5bya. So it took less time to get from eyes and shells to civilisation than it took to go from first life to eyes and shells. IMO, that makes civilisation more probable once complex life evolves than complex life itself.

And Lamshead calculates that Earth-like planets started forming in number about 8.8bya. That gives over 4 billion years, across billions of planets in the galaxy, for civilisation to arise from complex life. "Rare" isn't rare enough to explain civilisation's absence. The Paradox remains.

(beducks: They mostly come out at night... mostly.)

Stefan Jones said...

A fascinating in Forbes:

Why We Are In Political Gridlock: The Private Sector Is Dying

"The idea that the overall economic decline is due to the growth of the public sector is widespread but incorrect. Shrinking the government will do nothing to solve the underlying problem of low economic growth. In the short term, it will aggravate it.

The reality is that the private sector itself—the engine of economic growth—is producing only a quarter of the rate of return on assets (ROA) or the rate of return on invested capital (ROIC) that it was in 1965."
. . .
"One might try blaming the public sector for “crowding out” or “over-regulating” the private sector, but again, this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. When private sector firms have currently over a trillion dollars in excess working capital on their balance sheets, it is hard to see how the private sector is being crowded out. The private sector has continued its magisterial decline in both Republican and Democratic administrations, both when government was cut back and regulation was strengthened and when the opposite occurred."
. . .
"Why is the private sector—once the pride of America and the engine of economic growth—getting much lower returns on assets and capital than it used to get?

The reason for that is not that the managers have forgotten how to manage. The primary reason is that world has changed and management hasn’t.

Half a century ago, big firms were in charge of the marketplace. They could dictate terms to customers. Customers had few choices and imperfect information. Large hierarchical bureaucracies pursuing economies of scale and pushing products and services at customers were fairly effective in dealing with such a world.

Then the world changed. At first slowly and then, in the last decade, rapidly. Customers now have many choices and instant access to reliable information about those choices and can share views with other customers. As a result, there has been an epochal shift in power from seller to buyer. Now large hierarchical bureaucracies are no longer nimble enough to cope with a world in which the customer is effectively in charge. If customers are not delighted, they can and do go elsewhere. In order to delight the customer, a firm needs continuous innovation."

sociotard said...

A good political cartoon

Tony Fisk said...

Alex Steffen just posted this (after a few preliminary musings). I find it worth pondering on, and it seems relevant to the discussion:

Any future you're offered that promises to painlessly obsolesce today's crises is likely sponsored by the people creating those crises.

The Future (an imaginary time when today's problems are solved using more of the same thinking that created them) is political propaganda.

Unless we see how The Future is being used against us in the service of power, we can't constructively think about where we are.

Elision is the essence of propaganda; most Futures are as much about vanishing the problematic as introducing the new.

I believe this to be perhaps the fundamental problem facing humanity today: we have literally no vision for what we are becoming.

I daresay folks here will have their own opinions on this: my initial thoughts: until recently, did humanity ever have a vision of what it was becoming? Do we need one now? (I think so) Is it more productive to ponder futures where today's problems are *being* solved/tackled (eg Gattaca, B5) rather than the ones where they've been solved? (Star Trek/City & Stars).. (I think so, although the latter retain coolness if they show how problems were solved)

ribblet: A frog, genetically engineered to taste of bacon

Stefan Jones said...

Humanity is such a diverse group that I don't think that the question is remotely sensical.

A large chunk of humanity -- no longer the majority, amazingly -- has a time horizon no farther away than the next meal.

Another large chunk, perhaps the majority, wants to live the way their culture suggests is right, with perhaps a bit more material prosperity down the road . . . for them and their kin, at least.

Another large chunk would rather be living in a glorious, imagined past, and see progress and working toward that.

Stefan Jones said...

Good riddance, Dear Leader.

I hope the people of North Korea end up with someone who ends that nation's isolation and misery.

"putorks:" This is a FAMILY forum!

rewinn said...

I'm coming to the discussion late, but I think Pagel's discussion goes astray where he asks, "Do we need more innovators in a larger social group?"

This question uses "need" to cover a really complex social construct. To look at cases: a stable tribe in a stable environment may flourish with zero innovation; a tribe in an unstable environment may flourish only if it has a lot of innovation; in this sense the concept of "need" may have a simple meaning, but the answer to the question is different in either case. A small tribe that impacts its environment very little may "need" very little innovation to flourish, whereas a large tribe that alters its environment grossly, and/or comes into conflict with other tribes, may "need" much more innovation merely to survive.

And it's still not entirely clear what "need" means; if it's something like economic demand for innovation, then we see at once that half the analysis is missing: the concept of "supply". Even if the Demand (or "need") for innovation were to drop as tribesize increases, the supply may increase, and therefore the amount of innovation produced, if the cost of the factors of production fall.

One of the cool things about civilization is that it cuts the cost of innovation; if you spend a week crafting a new type of spear that fails utterly, the penalty is no longer starvation. (This doesn't mean that innovations can't be extremely expensive for society, but the individuals innovating on the project can lead comfortable lives while doing so, even if their innovations fail, e.g. lots of people drew paychecks from the Apple Newton.) Since 1789, we even have bankruptcy in part to encourage such risktaking!

In addition, the utility of small innovations or partial innovations increases as pool of people to share it with grows. Let us say that I have an idea for chipping a better spearpoint but it has a design flaw at the joining with the haft; today my design partner in Sweden can now spot that flaw and fix it.

Pagel offers Facebook as an example of a decreasing ratio of creativity-to-participants, but I'm not sure the data bears him out. It's true much of the internet is copyed, e.g. we all share humor and music. Because the rewards of crafting really good humor is greater than pre-internet, there is a vast competition to produce more and better stuff to share. Remember when your options for humor were three channels of sitcoms? When your music came from whoever paid the DJs for rotation time? There is undoubtedly more and better visual and musical art being created today than ever before!

Look at boardgames. I was a 60s kid and there were maybe a couple dozen board games, and very few in the strategy realm. Avalon Hill produced a couple title in a year.
Today, thanks to cheap printing, internet sales, and Kickstarter, we are in a golden age of board game design. There are probably more board games/card games coming out every year than existed in my childhood (you have 1 day to join the Schlock Mercenary game project!)

The game environment in particular may address the concern expressed by
@Twisted Scottish Bastard
"... a financial/reward structure available for them, to let them create their ideas in the real as opposed to the virtual."

Microfinancing is working for creative projects. You no longer have to sell your comics to Marvel/DC, your games to Avalon Hill, your shoe designs to (uhm, sorry, I don't know if anyone would take them!) to get them into the hands of consumers, who will reward you or punish you.

I am not accustomed to being an optimist, and I'm certainly not as smart as Pagel, but on the evidence (as opposed to theory) the future of innovation sure looks bright!

Alan Cooper said...

I haven't read Pagel yet, but have said something similar to what you report myself, and I think you are misrepresenting the argument. The suggested decline in innovation per capita is not incompatible with a rapid increase in the distribution of effective innovation through a culture due to effective communication in a population which includes a substantial fraction of copyists and followers. If willingness to copy is to any extent compromised by the spirit of creative innovation, then it may be that a reduction in *average* per capita innovation is necessary in order to optimize the rate of innovation in the practices of the society as a whole. And genes which lead to a complex of behaviours which produce a class-based society may then have been favoured. (Such genes don't have to create two distinct populations - they may just act by creating two conflicting tendencies in each individual and allowing social context to drive each individual into one of the two basins of attraction.)

David Brin said...

Alan, you would be right ... if there were such a tradeoff between innovaation and willingness to copy.

But, since the entire enlightenment experiment, including intellectual property law, is designed to enhance BOTH traits and get them leveraging against each other....

Alan Cooper said...

OMG Sorry, but I have to comment again:
When I saw your quote "As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes." I was reminded of a philosopher in England who was using this as an argument in favour of population growth - because it would "free" more of us from the need to have to do creative work!

Alan Cooper said...

David, I hope it's obvious that my second comment was not in response to your reply to my first.

But this one is - just by way of what I hope is a clarification:

I am all in favour of the endeavour to "enhance BOTH traits and get them leveraging against each other" but I suspect that we all have within us some capacity to lock into one or the other (cf the flight or fight catastrophe though there may be more than two basins of attraction here) and so that it may take some effort to keep both traits active.

Also, although I like the idea of a world of (not identical) equals, it is not obvious to me that that is what evolution was driving us towards, and I suspect that for many tens of millennia there may have been some pressure towards a class-based system.

Z said...

All the variants on the "marching morons" them invariably make the same three mistakes. The first is ignoring the Flynn effect. We can go back and forth on whether IQ is a thing worth being called a thing, but however you dice it, each generation for quite a few now has had a demonstrable greater ability to solve certain classes of abstract problem that don't seem totally irrelevant to innovation. It at the very least can't hurt.

The second is a historically/archaeologically unwarranted perception that in the past, in environments devoid of information, people uniformly crafted optimal solutions to problems individually, instead of simply remaining wedged across occasionally geologic spans of time, and that even minimal discoveries tended to follow plausible patterns of radiation. A look around at stone tools, even by what we suspect are anatomically modern human beings, presently obvious modifications went unmade for tens of thousands of years. Hell, even biological evolution is a tale of little dabs of mutation and a whole lot of copying. This is how it's always worked.

The last one is most important though- innovation is *always* combinatorial, and *always* cumulative. There is no doubt that solving certain sorts of problems in a vacuum can lead to a profound depth of understanding, but even those experiences best unfold when the means exist to check answers, and when the right hint shortens the experience from two lifetimes to two hours. The ability to access any two good ideas via the Internet does not merely represent a potential instance of copying- it represents a potential instance of innovation by combining them, and the absence of said ideas or means to access them represents an innovation-retarding barrier to entry of an otherwise useful human brain. It's the sort of fumble that leaves me wondering if the theorist in question has ever actually had to participate in the process they are judging- because in my experience (and the limited amount of study devoted to the topic,) it's an accelerant.

I suppose it's just one more instance of being blinded by the self-selecting nature of recorded or remembered history. We dig up a fine flint object, struggle to make it, know that if we couldn't make it, we'd starve, and conclude that we as a species no longer cut it- repeat ad nauseum for the ancient wonder or wrought-iron technology of your choice.

Acacia H. said...

Here's an interesting aside: in the new fantasy computer roleplaying game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, there is an ongoing civil war between secessionists who feel the Empire betrayed them by allowing an invading power to dictate terms forcing them not to worship a human-born God, and the Imperialists who feel that yes, making peace with the Thalmor (the invading elves) was wrong, but that the Empire is worth being a part of despite this.

The player is allowed to choose either side (or can ignore the civil war entirely). The interesting thing is: either case, the end result is "and the Thalmor watched from the background." Or in other words... the entire civil war was manipulated by the Thalmor to weaken the Empire with a civil war... resulting in the loss of fighting men and women (and possibly an entire province if Skyrim goes independent).

I found it to be a very apt nod to the ongoing culture war with the message: it doesn't matter which side wins... both sides will ultimately lose. Because our culture war is designed to weaken us... by elements outside of the U.S. that consider us an abomination that needs to be taken down a few pegs and either forced to become more like them (autocratic) or weakened to the point that we are no longer a world power.

Just some food for thought.

Rob H.

Alan said...

David Brin wrote: "Bold explorers sowing their wild oats (and invaders sowing their wild canola)"

LOL! I can't believe you just wrote that.

In other comments - good points, mostly. I see innovation every day, from all sorts of people. Humans are natural innovators.

However, without trade and communication, innovations die out. I recall an account by Livingstone about finding a village along the Zambesi where in the previous generation a man had arisen who demanded that the villagers build their village on a mound of earth to keep it safe from the annual floods, and also had them dig irrigation ditches for their crops ... but after he died, no one bothered any more and the irrigation ditches silted up. It is not enough to just have innovative ideas, lasting improvements also require diligence and perseverance. A change in how humans traded and communicated would doubtless have an effect on that.

Tony Fisk said...

Rob H. It's an old riff (David refers to it as "the r'oil conspiracy)

See also Poul Anderson's early tale 'War of Two Worlds'

Of course, just because it's a conspiracy doesn't mean it's wrong!

Swinol: something to relieve aching fat after a long day in the trough

Acacia H. said...

Yes, I know it's an old riff. However, what I found cool about it was the fact that this theme is found in one of the most popular computer games of 2011.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting piece. It kind of ties in nicely with some things I've read recently from the likes of Jaron Lanier and John Walker. In the case of the latter The Internet Slum, one must bear in mind that John Walker is a bit of a libertarian and in turns fairly conservative. More puzzling, though, is Jaron Lanier's writing of late, including "You Are Not A Gadget"; okay, I get it. But he seems to be blaming the collapse of the middle class on the Internet (which I feel that is perhaps a bit too reactionary). Fascinating contrast/comparison to what is being covered here at CB.
- The Vagabond
Agicad - the only CAD program that erases your work and makes rude comments

sociotard said...

Wow. Kim Jong Il is dead. That is big news.

That said, I'm not too worried. Kim Jong Un isn't really in charge. The military is. The military doesn't mind a little posturing and saber rattling to get the occasional food relief money, but they haven't actually shown a desire for war.

Okay, yes, they shelled a SK island not too long ago. I think a couple of people died. Think of it this way: scaled for the size of the military, North Korea has had fewer military engagements over the last 50 years than Canada. North Korea is more peaceful than Canada.

sociotard said...

Alabama Residents Furious Over Possible Sewage Rate Increases: ‘If They Let This Stuff Happen They Are Going to Get the Biggest Riot the South Has Ever Seen’

Paul451 said...

"David Brin wrote: "Bold explorers sowing their wild oats (and invaders sowing their wild canola)" "

No he didn't. Don't blame David for my sad sad puns.

Re: KJI's death and the NK generals.

I wonder if the generals deliberately allow a figure-head President in order to simply remove it as something they squabble over? Common sense says to give the senior-most general the title President, with power remaining where it is now. But inevitably that general's rivals would start to plot to take the otherwise meaningless ceremonial title.

akidderz said...

You sometimes speak of "the war on science" as if its monolithic and not just a nice political point for a minority in this country.

I find this strange. While yes, there is a distinct group of Americans who seem to benefit from bringing down science, they are the margin and do not seem to be a real threat to actual scientists.

I could be wrong about this.

Anonymous said...

Is there any reason to believe that intelligence correlates with higher expected value of a species’ lifetime? Yes, an asteroid will eventually do us in, but I’m much more worried about our ability to do ourselves in. What is the IQ of the sharks who have thrived on this planet a thousand times longer than we clever apes? Where is there any sign in the universe of another clever species? To me the facts suggest that this universe doesn’t favor intelligence, so the idea that greater intelligence equates to progress is a kind of religious delusion. In fact, isn’t the idea of “progress” as much a figment of human imaginations as “God”? Yes, these thoughts make me a grouch by Dr. Brin’s standards, but I guess this is why I prefer Lovecraft to Brin and cosmic horror to science fiction – because to me there is just more truth in them.

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Actually David, I'm teaching in sunny New Zealand, and our new curriculum is emphasising research-based learning for our kids.

Bloody difficult to teach, but it does expand their minds (those who hae got them. Sorry, cynical teacher comment)

PS Love the Uplift series, especially "The Uplift War"

rewinn said...

Upon rereading, "Infinitely stupid" strikes me as a good title for Pagel's essay, but not in the way that he means it. I just don't recognize in it much of the process of innovation as it occurs in the real world.
Pagel asserts that the innovative process is, at bottom, an inherently random process mediated by subconscious filtering. This is a proposition that is very difficult to prove, but it also seems contradictory to the history of most innovative efforts that involve more than the mythic individual genius/inventor.
For examples, consult Professor Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma", which is full of case studies of organizations that set out to invade the territory of well-intrenched organizations and succeed through innovation directed at the incumbent's weaknesses. Whether it was Toyota invading the American car market, minicomputers attacking IBM's domination of computers, or hydraulic shovel makers attacking the dominance of steamshovels, successful innovators may have benefitted from the occasional spot of good luck, but earned decisive advantages reliably only through innovation directed at a target.
Humbler examples are close at hand, e.g. the hammer and the drill. Today's hammers are much better than the hammers of 20 years ago because of improved ergonometric design and materials. These improvements did not come from some subconscious random musings about "what would be better?"; they came from competitive organizations going, "What do people complain about with their hammers? They cause RSI and break too often?" and then systematically trying improvements. Did tool designers let randomness lead the process, or combine an informed knowledge of materials with Edison-like willingness to experiment through all the plausible combinations?
Likewise, is your hand drill today cordless, chuckless and equipped with an LED that illuminates the work surface because of some random walk through Tooltime Dreamspace, or because of systematic exploration of customer needs?

It may be that once someone satisfied the customer desire for eliminating the chuck key, then everyone else copied the concept (hampered only slightly by IP laws), but even this copying process seems to impel a more intense search for a new innovation to distinguish among competitors; the original innovator cannot sit on its laurels!

Now, it may come to pass some day that we come up with the Ultimate Tool ... some sort of Android-powered Makerbot that will on its own figure out whatever handtool I will need today, thus eliminating the need for innovation in the handtool market. Yet how would this disadvantage the expression of the putative innovation gene? Unless we live in a society or sector of society that actively punishes innovation (*cough* revealed theology *cough*) it's hard to see how an innovation gene would be selected against. There remain a host of other arenas for its expression that would give innovators an advantage, or at the least, innovative tendancies may remain an alternative, like left-handedness, that is curious but not anti-survival.
"Infinite stupidity" is an interesting thought-exercise but it doesn't seem to fit IRL.

guthrie said...

Zkid - Things are better in the UK regarding the war on science, and not being american my view is perhaps clouded by distance.

Nevertheless, the anti-science in the US is clearly a threat to scientists. Not only do you have the creationists forever supressing or trying to suppress the teaching of evolutinary biology, you also have climate change denialists who issue death threats to scientists studying climate change. Obviously the actual level of direct physical harm to each scientist is low, but the chilling effect on the ambitions of children, on scientific researchers is large. Not to mention the cultural pressures whereby science is defunded as not being of enough interest or use or being too elitist.

David Brin said...

Zkid thanks. But while I agree that perhaps a slim majority of Americans are still pro-science, they are nearly all on the "blues" side of our current civil war. The red side has been pumped into bilious rage toward science and all centers of American intellect, for cynical reasons that have nothing to do with classic conservatism. It matters because that side owned and operated the United States for many years and left a trail of ruin in its wake.

Sean, you ask a BIIIIIG question and it is the central one in my new novel EXISTENCE. Whether intelligence, for a species, becomes suicidally lethal.

TSB... huzzah! I guess when America finishes devolving, we can brain-drain southward!

Rewinn, I loved your riff on tools! Break up your paragraphs.

guthrie... the world and the Western Enlightenment cannot do without a vigorously progressive and scientific America. Not yet. We need another generation of vibrant Pax Americana before the memes are settled and the Olde Empire can go into grouchy retirement.

David Brin said...

Today's xkcd presents some updated science mnemonics

Acacia H. said...

The thing to realize about alien races is that it is quite possible for life to evolve on a heavier-gravity world. But that life may end up TRAPPED on that world... or in that world's gravity well, especially if the world lacks a decent-sized moon for use as a gravitational slingshot.

We happen to exist on a world with a decent-sized moon (to the point this is technically a double-planet system) that is small enough for chemical or ion rockets to escape the planetary gravity well while heavy enough to have a good magnetosphere and retain its atmosphere, in the perfect spot to ensure a decent climate. This isn't one in a billion. It probably isn't one in a trillion.

The irony is that we need to get out there. After all, if we are able to visit other stars... we may end up being the Precursor Race that uplifts the rest of the galaxy and helps them escape the gravitational bonds of their homeworlds.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Heh... precursor race/ ... us? Oh yeah. Read Existence!


The 12 Bugs of Christmas

Too many of us have had to deal with software problems and support like this!
The 12 Bugs of Christmas
A Software Developers' Version

1. For the first bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
See if they can do it again
2. For the second bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

3. For the third bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

4. For the fourth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

5. For the fifth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

6. For the sixth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

7. For the seventh bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

8. For the eighth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Find a way around it
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

9. For the ninth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Blame it on the hardware
Find a way around it
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

10. For the tenth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Change the documentation
Blame it on the hardware
Find a way around it
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

11. For the eleventh bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Say it's not supported
Change the documentation
Blame it on the hardware
Find a way around it
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again.

12. For the twelfth bug of Christmas, my manager said to me:
Tell them it's a feature
Say it's not supported
Change the documentation
Blame it on the hardware
Find a way around it
Say they need an upgrade
Reinstall the software
Ask for a dump
Run with the debugger
Try to reproduce it
Ask them how they did it and
See if they can do it again


I am a systems engineer, specializing in:
- Mission-Critical embedded systems
- device drivers
- control and data acquisition systems
My stuff *works* - *all the time*.


And to support my son: Proud members of the New Mexico .NET User Group.
Please go to the community website at

Tony Fisk said...

As one professional to another, let me provide a little CITOKATE to the above:

My stuff *works* - *all the time* (for me).

luetter: something that is other than better.

Tony Fisk said...

Could *this* be Unobtainium?

Schreber, D.P. MD said...

Reminds me of your short store ~'The River of Time'?

Rob said...

David Brin wrote: "Bold explorers sowing their wild oats (and invaders sowing their wild canola)"

LOL! I can't believe you just wrote that.

Yes. But it only works if you know the other name for canola. No, not field mustard; the other, other name.

A quick google search will let you in on the joke, if you're lost at this point. Remember this comes from the guy who wrote the chapter titles in The Practice Effect.

sociotard said...

"Now, one might…one just might…point out that we’ve been cutting taxes on the rich for the last decade and all we’ve gotten to show for it is a net loss of five million jobs and a small group of very rich people who have gotten much, much richer…but instead, I think we should take all these people at their word. I think that we should treat these people as the job creators they really are, just like the Republicans in Congress say. And to that end, I think we should do exactly what the Republicans insist is the best solution for the economy, the best solution for just about anything. Let’s let the free market handle it."

In a nutshell - he proposes to tie the top tax rate to the unemployment rate. As unemployment goes down, so do taxes. As unemployment goes up, the top taxpayers pay more and more.

ell said...

As long as a person can look at a new invention/book/idea, etc. and say, "What's the big deal? I can do better than that!", there will be innovation.

Tony Fisk said...

Our favourite eminence gris has just bought a piece of twitter

dialagle: phoned in gargles. Practise has diminished since the introuction of push buttons

Paul451 said...

"alien races [...] on a heavier-gravity world. But that life may end up TRAPPED on that world..."

A) Everyone does that. It's not enough to create a bespoke solution that only works for that species/planet.

If there are high-gravity worlds, there are also low-gravity worlds. If there are races physiologically or psychologically unsuited to space-travel, won't there also be races that thrive there? Social disinterested might stop some species from spreading, but mightn't it drive others harder? What are the odds that every species has it's own bespoke problem that stops it.

B) It doesn't explain the radio silence. If technological civilisation can evolve, but are trapped, then somewhere there are old trapped civilisations on planets that are closer to each other than Sun & Alpha Centauri. They'll get to talking, and it'll encourage them to look/listen for others, the Sagan Network expands... and by now, a billion years later, we should hear them.

No, you need a general rule that applies to every planet except ours, or every species except us. All the explanations fall into three group, but even those are topological identical.

What if "Earth-like planets" are never really Earth-like-enough because... magic, oh but Earth is because... more magic. Or: What if intelligence can't evolve because... magic, but we sneaked through because... more magic. Or: What if there are... monsters. And we survived so far because... timing.

"The irony is that we need to get out there. After all, if we are able to visit other stars... we may end up being the Precursor Race that uplifts the rest of the galaxy"

The good thing about being a precursor is that the Great Silence doesn't then automatically mean whole classes of Magic SF Technology like FTL are impossible.

Paul451 said...

"In a nutshell - he proposes to tie the top tax rate to the unemployment rate. As unemployment goes down, so do taxes. As unemployment goes up, the top taxpayers pay more and more."

Bad thing: How do you define "unemployment rate"? The official rate is too easily manipulated. 15hrs per week? Per month? Per year? What defines "employed"?

Good thing 1: It'll be counter-cyclic because it'll lower the money velocity when employment is high, reducing inflation pressure. Sustaining booms and making busts softer (heh). But, and this is the part I like, the Right can't ever admit that.

Good thing 2: Har har.

Tony Fisk said...

They call it 'The Earie Silence' 'cos everybody's too busy listening.

(Tinnitus is the enemy)

iticsfo: confirmation of my theory from a higher source!

Tony Fisk said...

...Either that or the simulation upgrade schedule has slipped again (they're still beta-testing the exo-planet viewing module).

dinglyin: never trust ding sub-contractors!

RRLittle said...

Well, the way I see it...
1. The universe is teeming with intelligent life but it is too spread out.
2. Intelligence has existed, but snuffed itself out.
3. We're the first.
Miss you, Carl, wish you were here...
(11/9/1934 - 12/20/1996)
matedebo - how ebos reproduce.

Paul451 said...

Tony Fisk,
"They call it 'The Earie Silence' 'cos everybody's too busy listening."

Doesn't work. Gravitational lensing means that an ancient race can watch civilisations develop on planets within dozens, perhaps hundreds of lightyears; see the spread of electric lights across continents, hear the first flickering dot-dash of experimental wireless, listen to the first audio-radio, watch the first video-TV...

...And hear when they become aware of The Listeners' own civilisation.

There's not much point keeping quiet when you know that they know that you know they exist.

But more than that. It's likely at least some of them will wantonly broadcast to every star within a thousand lightyears of them that has planets in the right orbit. After all, within our own species we have everything from dire calls for silence to Russian wackos broadcasting random tweets to nearby stars. Imagine the variation between entire species.

By the time we evolved, one way or another the galaxy should be teeming with chattering voices. It isn't. So there aren't.

The only solution is:
a) Planets capable of life are insanely rare. (But how did Earth beat 100 billion to one odds?)

b) Intelligence is insanely rare. (But how did humans beat 100 million to one odds?)

c) Monsters. (But why haven't we been eaten yet?)

Paul451 said...

"to Russian wackos broadcasting random tweets to nearby stars. Imagine the variation between entire species."

Imagine if their radio-astronomers were proselytising evangelicals, broadcasting, shouting, cajoling, to every star around them, the signals getting more powerful and spreading further as their technology advances. For thousands of years. Perhaps hundreds of millennia...

..and everyone else is doing the radio equivalent of hiding behind a curtait, pretending they aren't home.

(Although this falls into the monster category of explanations.)

David Brin said...

Two top scientific journals said Tuesday they were mulling whether to publish details of a man-made mutant killer flu virus that has sparked concerns of mass deaths if it were released.

A US government’s science advisory committee urged the US journal Science and the British journal Nature to withhold key details so that people seeking to harm the public would not be able to manufacture the virus that could cause millions of deaths.

David Brin said...

Kepler telescope has ID'd hundreds of exoplanets, many earthlike, some perhaps bearing life. A writer for the Institute for Creation Research surprisingly avows that “this would vindicate evolution and nullify creation” for “the Bible describes only the earth as being habitable.” Ten points for unusual willingness to face honest tests! And minus 100 for shallow theology. I know dozens of pros/cons. Shouldn't he?

sociotard said...

Hopefully those 'Key Details' will be available to researchers with some sort of clearance.

Really though, the goal was to remind government sponsors that H5N1 could be serious. It may not be especially communicable today, but it could easily mutate. Some bureaucrats didn't understand that.

Mission accomplished.

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

We haven’t been contacted.

Let’s look at some options.

Either there is intelligent life out there or there’s not.

If there’s not, no signal, no problem, no life.
If there is, why no contact?

Maybe some of the following?
• They’re as thick as bricks, and have never developed beyond “Ugh = Stone”
• They’re so hyper-intelligent that they have no common ground to contact what they would see as bacteria.
• They have developed a more energy conserving technology, and all signals go via fibre optic cable, so no broadcast signal.
• They are a race of natural/evolved/technology induced telepaths, no signal we can detect.
• They have enclosed everything in a Dyson sphere.
• They’ve discovered that the speed of light is a constant, there’s no way around it, and they can’t be bothered trying to contact something that would take hundreds of years to actually reach. (This one scares me)
• There actually is a Great Creator, who has appointed a specific volume for each of his creations, and will not allow cross-contamination. (This one scares me even more)

I know that there are many other possible scenarios, and I am not sure that this is the right forum to discuss them without "kidnapping" David's blog.

The last two do scare me though.

BTW The confirming word was excoli

Extraterrestrial food poisoning?

Tim H. said...

Perhaps a race confined to it's birth planet is not seen as mature enough to talk to. When we have asteroid mining and solar power satellites we may be seen as toddlers, when we can live off of comets, maybe we'll be considered grown up.

RRLittle said...

...then there is always the "Star Trek" theory -
They are out there and have detected us but have a strong non-interference philosophy.
Sagan and a few others have also proposed this notion.

sucties - tasteless neckwear.

LarryHart said...

With admittedly no formal training in the subject of exobiology beyond what "sounds right" to me...

Even as a youngster, I took it for granted that if there was life, let alone intelligent life, on other planets, it would be so different in form from our own that we'd have trouble recognizing it AS life.

We tend to present the problem of communication with space-aliens as if it were analogous to European encounters with abroiganal people. I think it would be more along the lines of us communicating with ants or octopi. Maybe more like us communicating with eyeless creatues at the bottom of the ocean.

While it's interesting to fantazize that it just MIGHT be as simple as (say) communication with dolphins, in real life, it doesn't so much occur to me to ask "Why haven't we communicated with alien races?" as to ask "Where would we even begin?"

sociotard said...

Tim H.
Perhaps a race confined to it's birth planet is not seen as mature enough to talk to.

The Vagabond
They are out there and have detected us but have a strong non-interference philosophy.

Good theories, but neither explains why we haven't seen them talking to each other. Maybe there is some tech to be invented that eliminates the need for radio communication altogether? Or maybe they have some kind of cloaking system around the solar system?

sociotard said...

While it's interesting to fantazize that it just MIGHT be as simple as (say) communication with dolphins, in real life, it doesn't so much occur to me to ask "Why haven't we communicated with alien races?" as to ask "Where would we even begin?"

That is very true. At the same time, while I might imagine an alien that communicates with smells (as Brin does), but you can't communicate with smells accross interstellar spaces. For that you need focused radio. Sure, maybe they translate their signals into smells at the end, but while the signals are still in radio form, we'd be able to perceive them. We'd be able to notice the signals were not just noise. We might not be able to translate the signals, but we could determine how likely they were to be noise.

Kevin said...

As is usual in such exchanges, Brin is talking at Pagels, and not adequately addressing or representing his arguments.

In essence, Pagels questions a cherished view of Brin's. Brin, in response, scurries to offer the contrarian position, complete with cherry-picked examples. The amen corner then bleats positively in near-unison, and voila--none of us is the wiser. Such is the usual result of that most wondrous innovation, Internet-mediated debate.

I'd like to see Brin debate Pagels publicly on this issue, but I'd be surprised if Pagels considered Brin to be worthy of the attention. My money would be on Pagels, simply because he strikes me as the less arrogant, and therefore the less threatened, of the two.

Kevin said...

Z. wrote:

"All the variants on the 'marching morons' them [sic] invariably make the same three mistakes. The first is ignoring the Flynn effect."

If you think that the Flynn Effect is an uncontroversial, "proven-beyond-all-doubt-and criticism" phenomenon, then you've just made your first mistake, one sentence into your contribution.

Kevin said...

Sean the Sorceror:

"I guess this is why I prefer Lovecraft to Brin and cosmic horror to science fiction – because to me there is just more truth in them."

Well said. How right you are!

Acacia H. said...

How sad, Kevin. You would prefer to believe in cosmic horrors and the utter futility of mankind to try and lift itself up (which is the basic theme of Lovecraftian horror: mankind is a bug that will be squished and there's no point in fighting because ultimately we'll be replaced by intelligent cockroaches anyway) than the possibility of a better tomorrow thanks to human ingenuity and inventiveness?

Or to put it another way, you'd rather accept a depressing fantasy than a potentially-uplifting reality-based fiction.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Twisted Scottish Bastard,

"• They're so hyper-intelligent [....]"

You've made The Fermi Mistake. Bespoke solutions that apply to a single race/planet. To see why it doesn't work, just generalise your solution to all species in the galaxy. Eg,

• Every species in the galaxy is a race of telepaths that never invented any radio-emitting technology.

And you have to explain why we're not a race of telepaths, etc. You're back to "They all do something because... magic. But we don't because... more magic." It doesn't matter what the "something" is, or the "magic" they are topologically identical arguments.

"• They have enclosed everything in a Dyson sphere."

Doesn't solve anything. Now you not only need every species in the galaxy to decide to build a Dyson sphere, but you still need every species in the galaxy to decide not to contact neighbouring Dyson spheres (which stick out like the proverbial.)

"• There actually is a Great Creator, who has appointed a specific volume for each of his creations, and will not allow cross-contamination. (This one scares me even more)"

It's the same as No Intelligent Life, just regional.

(BTW, why does it scare you? The only thing that scares me is the "Monsters" class of explanations. Something silences intelligence. But it's still a magic/more-magic class of argument.)

"I am not sure that this is the right forum to discuss them without "kidnapping" David's blog."

David wrote an paper on Fermi, gathered hundreds of proposed explanations.

David Brin said...

Woof, Ke-vin! Cool to see you here. We welcome rambunctious fellows -- though rude little snots are another matter. So, to distinguish yourself from a drop-by nasty troll, could you tell us a thing or two about yourself? Then settle in for a tussle. Should be fun.

Um... BTW.... you might also prove your bona fides by actually picking a Pagel point and running with it on his behalf. That's called ar-gu-ment... rather than just spewing a generalized, ad hominem snarking.

LarryHart I disagree. No matter how alien an alien is. If he/she/it lands in California, 3% of the population will want to date it.

The aliens excuse that says "we're like an ant colony to them" suffers from a very gig mistake in scale. First, there ARE humans who are very very interested in ant colonies, in studying them and trying to understand their methods of communications. Presumably, if such "entemologist" aliens were super advanced, they'd manage to understand our internet.

Oh, but there are so MANY ant colonies! Maybe those alien entemologists already have enough races like ours to study and millions (like us) just don't merit a look.

Hm, well, here's where the scale-error comes in. There are hundreds of millions of ant colonies on Earth. But no conceivable estimate says the same thing about the number of newly emergent techno-sapient races emerging at any time, in our galaxy. The most avid ET fans scientists avow that it might be - at absolute tops - maybe one a decade. Probably less.

That means that each of us is a phenomenon worthy of attention and study, even if only by "deputy" researchers like robots or lesser minds assigned to the task. Moreover, Earthlike nursery worlds are rare and precious. Inch we new tech types are dangerous to such worlds, there would be incentive to at least study us and probably contact us in some way (though perhaps subtly.

Alert! The HEPA filters aboard airplanes apparently work well. But when they air circulation shuts off, danger! One well-known study in 1979 found that when a plane sat three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, 72% of the 54 people on board got sick within two days. The flu strain they had was traced to one passenger. For that reason, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory in 2003 to airlines saying that passengers should be removed from planes within 30 minutes if there's no air circulation, but compliance isn't mandatory.

sociotard said...

Lovecraft's point was that there is no 'up' to lift to.

We can't hope for greater morality, because there is no scientific basis for free will.

We can't hope for the preservation of mankind, because even if we get off this rock and avoid the next asteroid or sun turning into a red giant, nobody escapes the heat death of the universe.

Lovecrafts monsters are not horrifying because they are evil. They are horrifying because they exist outside our morality, as things that didn't evolve here most likely do not. They remind us that our values for life are completely arbirary and that everything we care about is meaningless, because even caring is just a series of chemical reactions in our brain.

Again, we can try to philosophise about our relevance, but those thoughts are just chemical reactions with no more cosmic significance than hydrogen burning into helium.

Lovecraft's insight was that complete knowledge was horrifying, because one who understood everything would understand that nothing matters, nothing has a point, nothing has a purpose, there is no good or evil or even freedom to choose between the two. Even despairing over that insight is exactly as irrelevant as hoping that it isn't true.

Paul451 said...

Pulsars sometimes switch off, then on again.

Aliens!!!11one! (Or IT.)

LarryHart said...


Lovecraft's insight was that complete knowledge was horrifying, because one who understood everything would understand that nothing matters, nothing has a point, nothing has a purpose, there is no good or evil or even freedom to choose between the two. Even despairing over that insight is exactly as irrelevant as hoping that it isn't true.

That sounds a lot like Paul Krugman's observation that economists don't get off the hook by believing that in the long term, a recession will smooth itself out. He makes the point that an economist's job is analogous to navigating a ship through a violent storm, not pointing out that in a few days the water will be calm again.

Ok, in the long term, we'll all be dead. Does that really imply that the manner of the duration of our lives, our children's lives, and our community's lives is irrelevant?

sociotard said...

Ok, in the long term, we'll all be dead. Does that really imply that the manner of the duration of our lives, our children's lives, and our community's lives is irrelevant?

'Relevance'? There is no scientific basis for relevance. That's just a series of chemical reactions in the human brain.

So, one day I will die, but I still wake up and eat and work and do what is necessary to live to tomorrow, because chemical reactions in my brain compel me to do so. I don't think about the pointlessnes of living to tomorrow, because I am not wired that way.

The opening line of The Call of Cthulhu?
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The best counter, I think, is Robert Howard, with Conan the Barbarian.

"I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

Conan is able to tolerate 'meaning' and 'relevance' and 'purpose' all being illusions because he accepts that, if so, he is an illusion along with them and so they can be real to him. Basically, he just doesn't think about it.

This is one reason why the correspondance of Robert Howard and Lovecraft to each other is on my want list. Pity it is so outrageously expensive.

H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are two of the titans of weird fiction of their era. Dominating the pages of Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, they have gained worldwide followings for their compelling writings and also for the very different lives they led. The two writers came in touch in 1930, when Howard wrote to Lovecraft via Weird Tales. A rich and vibrant correspondence immediately ensued. Both writers were fascinated with the past, especially the history of Roman and Celtic Britain, and their letters are full of intriguing discussions of contemporary theories on this subject.

Gradually, a new discussion came to the fore-a complex dispute over the respective virtues of barbarism and civilisation, the frontier and settled life, and the physical and the mental. Lovecraft, a scion of centuries-old New England, and Howard, a product of recently settled Texas, were diametrically opposed on these and other issues, and each writes compellingly of his beliefs, attitudes, and theories. The result is a dramatic debate-livened by wit, learning, and personal revelation-that is as enthralling as the fiction they were writing at the time. All the letters have been exhaustively annotated by the editors.

Anonymous said...

sociotard sayeth -
Even despairing over that insight is exactly as irrelevant as hoping that it isn't true.
I should have never given up drinking...
- The Vagabond

busnes - as in none of your

David Brin said...

Sociotard, nihilism is fashionable. Alas, ther are many things that appear to be more fundamental than you'd like to avow.

All forms of life sup from energy gradients. Thermodynamics applies across the board. Parasites grab energy gradients built up by other living things. It is natural to resist parasitism of your own stores.

If you have morality at all, you will rationalize your own kind resisting parasitism as "good" and your own kind's right to access gradients (even those owned by others) as either good or necessary.

Altruism seems to appear more often the higher intelligence you study. Still, it is not universal and it remains tentative and contingent.

What is vastly more common is quid pro quo. Most animals above a certain level seem to grasp it and engage in it.

SInce alliances can help 2 or more entities to succeed, processes that allow and foster negotiated alliances will gain likelihood.

Studies show that those species who engage in alliances develop some kid of moral code around it, that punishes defectors and deal-breakers.

All of this is strongly supported across complex life on earth, including cephalopods who aren't remotely related to us. All of it is pertinent to "shared morality." And likely to play out on other worlds.

sociotard said...

(paraphrasing an XKCD comic)
Sociology is just applied Psychology
Psychology is just applied Biology
Biology is just applied Chemistry
Chemistry is just applied Physics.
And then there's Math.

I'll grant you that morality, at least some, will be visible when you move from Sociology and Psychology to Biology, maybe even if we see other biochemistries.

It vanishes utterly at the Chemistry, Physics, and Math levels. There is no scientific reason to give Biology any more credence than the lower levels. Morality, then, is just a likely illusion arising as an emergent property of the lower levels. It has no meaning in and of itself.

Acacia H. said...

I remember an incident in the early days of the Internet back when Listservs still were the dominant form of communication and the World Wide Web was barely starting to emerge (1988 or 1989, I believe). Back then I believe I had started using my real life name in my correspondences, and I was e-mailed by someone who asked (I visualize in my mind's eye with wide-eyes and enthusiasm) if I was "the" Robert Howard.

I was rather surprised. I knew of only one Robert Howard (who taught band at my old high school) off the top of my head (well, I was aware of the Conan author but hadn't really read him). I answered cautiously "I'm just about the only Robert Howard I know of. Who do you think I am?" I was asked then if I was Robert E. Howard, the author of the Conan books.

I quietly disappointed the person (without ridicule or the like). But that one moment has always stuck with me. (And it's one of the reasons I want to publish my fiction under my own name - I know someone is going to be stupid enough to buy one of my books thinking I'm "the" Robert Howard, despite the lack of "E" in my name.)

Robert A. Howard

David Brin said...

Hey "E" is pretty close to "A"!

Sociotard, your dismissal of phenomena that are observed ALL across Earth's animal kingdom is much too blithe. All those species were responding to deep fundamentals of thermodynamics, the most "universal" of all branches of physics. Simply dismissing that core around which all life revolves... indeed, which seems to define "life"... may require a bit more from you.

Rob said...

Morality, then, is just a likely illusion arising as an emergent property of the lower levels. It has no meaning in and of itself.

It's totally logical and follows from its premises with perfection, but it constructs a world I don't ever want to live in.

Anonymous said...

Intersting story here.
I used to work at the South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach (I worked in the planetarium, for the curious). We had an aquarium and marine research section that stocked all sorts of interesting creatures. Our staff marine biologist decided to capture some small squid. Normally, squid do very poorly in captivity, but we were able to keep these things alive for a few weeks.
They were displayed in a tank that lay just outside and around the corner from the planetarium exit. I was walking by and was suddenly stunned when the largest of the squid shot across the tank in my direction, raised its two longest tentacles and well as going into an alternating color patterns as if to say "STOP RIGHT THERE!" Two slightly smaller ones came alongside and did the same.
In short, it was defending its little group, and communicating its intentions to the others.
I've not eaten squid or octopi since, out of respect for their perceived intelligence.
- The Vagabond
Tenershe - A shtate in the shouthern Uniteth Shtates

Tony Fisk said...

Ah Math! That ultimate aloof and self-contained discipline.

Watch what happens when it is allowed to consume itself in endless iteration: deterministic order turns to random chaos! Yet in this long fall from crystalline grace to entropic madness, things emerge. Patterns with a far richer and more complex texture than the simple rules that begot them.

Such is life.

For my money, morality and appreciation increases with knowledge and understanding. Such would not be the case in a universe dominated by Lovecraft's dour old creations. It is also why we *can* appreciate the delicious, despairing horror of Lovecraft's vision.

mytessi: an opinion, derived from the tessi, a coin of old Crom roughly equivalent to 2 cents.

Tony Fisk said...

Steve Jobs honoured with a statue unveiled in Hungary

All of which is fine and cool. But for a booster take a look at the close up shot, and tell me what it reminds you of?

Tacitus said...

I don't think genetics alone can get us to the Marching Moron stage. (great yarn by C. Kornbluth btw). At some point you'd reach a level of dumb that would forget to feed the kids or some such.

There certainly have been instances of rapid societal dumbification. The collapse of the Roman Empire would seem to qualify. Sure, the peasants likely did not notice as much as the elites, but forgetting how to make pottery and dropping to a barter economy in a generation is a long ways to fall.

And the recent demise of the Beloved Leader is a more cogent example. If you malnourish people and expose them to no information other than Odes and Paeans to the Party they will over the course of a generation or two become physically and mentally stunted as well as deluded. And probably there is some evolutionary pressure as well, anyone with any gumption probably went to the camps early on.

I see that Kingdom Holdings, the investment vehicle of the Saudi princes, has bought a stake in Twitter. I trust that all of you who find Kingdoms (7%) stake in NewsCorp/Fox abhorrent will now shun this social media. And while you are at it, you should know that Kingdom Holdings also owns parts of: Amazon, Apple, Compaq, eBay, Ford, Hewlett Packard, Disney, Motorola, McDonalds, and Pepsico.

In the interests of consistency I trust you will boycott them all.


rewinn said...

@Tacitus - if Twitter starts censoring content, then surely it shall be abandoned.

The problem with Fox (original working title: "GOPtv") is not that it is owned, but that its owners use it for propaganda.

Acacia H. said...

I actually don't use or follow Twitter.

But then, I don't shun Fox News to the extent others do. I avoid it more often of late, but mostly because I've found too many errors in their news reporting for my comfort. I believe in professionalism in news reporting, and to allow multiple errors to get past the editors time and time again is shoddy work.

In short, Fox needs to fire its entire editorial staff and hire a bunch of people who are fresh from College and have a more current comprehension of the English Language and how to catch errors before they get into print or on the air. I mean, it's obvious Fox has some of the most inept editors around to allow errors like graphs not showing current unemployment rates, putting (D) after the name of Republican politicians who have done something wrong, and the like.

Obviously these editors have some sort of "in" with the management and thus are not let go despite their frequent errors. This is a flaw with the management and is no doubt part of the reason for the ongoing phone hacking problem in Britain and the U.S. - and also suggests that Fox's management staff should be let go for corruption and ineptitude.

It's time for fresh blood in Fox. Until they enact these necessary reforms, I see no point in reading or listening to their error-prone news reporting.

Besides, Politico is a more interesting read. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Hear hear Rewinn.

Robert, you seem to think the flaws at Fox are unintentional products of fumble-thumbs incompetence. Like whenever a republican is caught in a scandal and suddenly "D" shows up next to his name in every "news" report.

Perhaps the relentlessly consistent undermining of every American profession that involves professional intellect - including the demonization of physicians as a caste (Tacitus?) - is also just recruitment bias.

The requirement that all resumes at Fox be submitted in crayon? No, they are smarter than that. Alas. Much much smarter.

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, I did not think that my use of sarcasm and the like was that subtle.

Tacitus said...

I don't watch FOX, just occasionally it flashes by when I channel surf. It strikes me as less a Machiavellian outfit than more like that other Kingdom Holdings stock, McDonalds....both are popular because they pander to public tastes. Neither is really good for you to consume with regularity.

Been reading Glory Season for the first time. And interesting departure for our genial host.


David Brin said...

Robert, I got the general spirit and was teasing.

Tacitus, enjoy! I like to try different things. omments on GS are welcome.


David Brin said...

Who'd have thunk that the best investigative journalism in america would be at ROLLIG STONE and VANITY FAIR?

Seriously, read past page 1 and 2. SUre, the author has a political axe to grind. But a majority of the people he actually quotes are conservatives and republicans, and the facts that he cites speak for themselves.

Mike Frank said...

Possible Points on Intelligent Life

1) As far as we know, for a planet to support life it must be both in a temperate orbit and far enough from the galactic core to not affected by high levels of "cosmic" radiation.

2) Just because there are a large number of planets capable of supporting life doesn't mean that a large percentage of them do.

3) Of those that do have life the percentage that have complex life forms could be small.

4) Of the planets that have complex lifeforms the percentage that develop "intelligent" life is probably small. Human beings have existed for only 2-3 million years and appear to have only become "intelligent" during the last 100,000 years or so. An astoundingly small amount of time, relative to the age of our universe.

5) We don't know whether or not "intelligent" life can sustain itself for very long. Perhaps there have been a large number of civilizations but they last for mere galactic seconds and may rarely exist contemporaneously with others.

LarryHart said...


Ok, in the long term, we'll all be dead. Does that really imply that the manner of the duration of our lives, our children's lives, and our community's lives is irrelevant?

'Relevance'? There is no scientific basis for relevance. That's just a series of chemical reactions in the human brain.

You misunderstand me. I'm not making a case for any objective measure of "relevance". I'm arguing that in the absence of such an objective measure, an alternative to fatalistic despair is to assert one's subjective measures. Abesent any higher reason or purpose for living, I can still strive to improve the condition of the lifetime that I and my loved ones just happen to be living. Whethter life is worth the effort it takes to live is a subjective question in the first place.

I don't know if you're arguing something you truly believe or playing Devil's Advocate, but you sound dangerously like a C.S. Lewis straw-man villain who uses "science" to justify amorality and immorality. Rather than vindicating immorality, it tends to simply give science a bad name.

Y'know, I once spent one of those wonderful college evenings with my roommates arguing philosophically that what we call "subjective" is really the only certainty we can have about the universe. Everything we think is objectively real might be a clever simulation or a very long fever-dream. But if I am feeling pain, I know for a fact that I AM feeeling pain (whatever the acutal source of the pain may or may not be). Likewise, I know without a shadow of a doubt if I am feeling happy, angry, proud, jealous, or depressed. Those things are real to me in ways that the earth under my feet or the computer screen in front of me are not.

sociotard said...

I don't know if you're arguing something you truly believe or playing Devil's Advocate, but you sound dangerously like a C.S. Lewis straw-man villain who uses "science" to justify amorality and immorality.

I'm mostly playing Lovecraft's advocate. Like you, I try to live a good and moral life. I know that free will may not be real, but I live as if it were. That said, Lovecraft's horror works because of its authenticity. The real horror is the idea that under the veneer of our civilization is a universe that is utterly indifferent to our wants and values, rotten with madness and antipathy.

I generally just ignore that and get on with my life. If morality is an illusion then my conciousness is an illusion along with it, to paraphrase the (author) Howard. Sometimes, though, it is fun to stare with horror at the real monster.

David Brin said...

Mike Frank, you are starting down a vERY long road that grows very very complex. See:

LarryHart said...


The real horror is the idea that under the veneer of our civilization is a universe that is utterly indifferent to our wants and values, rotten with madness and antipathy.

Maybe this is why I'm an atheist (more accurately, a religious skeptic), but I find that notion neither surprising nor horrifying. More like "Well, duh!"

Now if you take it to the extreme where the universe conspires AGAINST us, yes, it can be chillingly scary, but the mere notion that the universe isn't necessarily "on the side" of accepted social norms? Doesn't stop me in my tracks at all, nor does it alter my ways at all. I'd be surprised if the universe WAS on my side.

rewinn said...

Perhaps The Great Silence is proof that Existence is Just a Simulation that is Inadequately Funded ...

... and if enough people realize that the Deep of Space is merely where the budget was cut, the simulation will be Tainted, prompting the Awakening of Cthulhu the Graduate Assistant to run the autoclave.

Turn back, oh hapless and insignificant humans, from the burning light of knowledge!

Alternatively, the Great Silence is an artifact of a very forethoughtful species that dislikes competition. If we think Nobody's There, we might not go looking.

Finally, the Great Silence is a test. If we stay home because we think the universe is empty, we'd be too boring for the Elders anyway.

Acacia H. said...

BTW, Dr. Brin, I mentioned your short story "Lungfish" in a review I just wrote on the science fiction webcomic Freefall. You can find the review here, where I talk about robot sentience, robot slavery, and the like. I'd like to thank you and your readers as the conversations here helped inspire some of this review. :)

Rob H., Tangents Reviews

Rob said...

Glory Season was a work of science fiction genius that pounded on all cylinders.

OK, it wasn't *that* great, (a few too many poems about genetics) but any book that leads someone like me to a) read some of the source material which inspired it (some of the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and b) left me with only the question "and then what happened?" is worth recommending, passing on and owning in a format that can but should not be burned.

And I still think Brin should offer us a sequel, or a vignette from sometime in Maia's medium term future, maybe from a clone-daughter's perspective, or some other novel set in the universe he fleshed out for the book.

I'd drop money for the hardcover, for sure.

David Brin said...

Rob, what super-nice (and eloquent) thoughts.

Robert, cool blog! You guys should check it out.

Lungfish has been adapted and expanded to play a role, inspiring one corner of EXISTENCE. Only a corner, so no spoilers! And this version is rather different in many ways!

Acacia H. said...

Here's an interesting science story: rocky inner planets survived being engulfed by their dying stars. A subdwarf star that is collapsing on itself was found to have two Earth-sized planets orbiting around it, within the radius where the planets would have been engulfed by the star's atmosphere. It is believed the planets helped in the stripping of the star's atmosphere while they were being broiled by their star.

I have this odd idea for tbe setting a story set billions of years in the future with the remnants of humanity surviving deep under the surface of the Earth (which would likely have cooled and solidified in that distant future) while using thermal bores reaching toward the planet's surface to capture heat from the star for energy. Not sure what the story would be about though... perhaps on the ancient myths of "stars" and of a sun that was not a hell that slowly devoured the surface of the planet...

Rob H.

Surf said...

Bravo Brin!

I too was disappointed with Pagel's handling of the topic.

I think he neglects the creative nature of copying. To copy a solution, we frequently need to form creative hypotheses on what it is that they are doing, what types of problems it solves, what are critical as opposed to incidental elements, and so forth. Just as importantly, no two problems or contexts are exactly the same. This means that we are always creatively adapting a solution to our own needs. Copying is a creative process!

He also neglects the creative potential in copying and replication errors. The sheer number of replications, as ideas jump between our minds creates massive variation, a few of which actually work out as improvements.

To be honest, I don't think Pagel has a grasp of a working model of progress.

sociotard said...

Hah! It's like a redneck stonehenge.

David Brin said...

Want science and scientific issues to be debated in 2012? About time for candidates to show if they know (or care) about actual facts? Half of US economic growth since 1945 came from scientific and tech advances, yet that's languishing. Make it an issue. Donate to Science Debate 2012.

David Brin said...


Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

I know you said "onward",
but I couldn't resist one last burst.

Social Science isn't.
Educationalists don't.
Preachers prey.

Derek said...

Perhaps Pagel and others of his ilk should think of society as more like a brain. As the sheer number of connections between neurons increase, the brain gets smarter.

Modern technology is increasing the number of connections between individuals so fast, that we could probably individually become dumber and still innovation would increase exponentially.

M. Simon said...

There is no American war on science. There is a war on some scientists. There is a war on some hypotheses. There is a war on some branches of science - the study of endocannabinoids. But science? No.