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Helplessly dominant

We humans are social hominids, a branch of the broader family of primates that includes the great apes. We appear to have evolved in extended family groups similar to other primate troupes; with language and, later, writing we developed the ability to signal our social context within much larger groups.

Among the advantages of living in a troupe or pack environment are defense against predators and access to shared food resources. Another mixed advantage is reproductive access for some: among hierarchical primates the alpha males mate frequently while denying reproductive access to less dominant apes. Access is usually controlled by the exercise of violence; a less dominant animal usually stays around the margins of the group but gets less access to resources and is less successful.

Well, that's one model.

There are a few primate species with wildly different behavioural patterns. Probably the best known is the bonobo (a chimpanzee subspecies), with an extraordinarily different social behavior: matriarchal, females remain in oestrus continually, conflicts are frequently resolved by sexual contact rather than combat, and sexual contact is used in post-combat reconciliation.

Hominids are not bonobos — or baboons, or common chimpanzees. We're not descended from apes: rather, we share a common ancestry with them. The evidence for our hominid ancestors' living in groups is fairly unequivocal, although the question of how big the groups were remains open; more to the point, we have contradictory signs about how they handled pack hierarchy issues. On one hand, we know all about our species' capability for violence and our tendency to compete for leadership and the perquisites of power. On the other hand, like bonobos, our females ovulate continuously during childbearing years, and are sexually active throughout the cycle.

... But what are the implications?

Well, for one thing, primate pack hierarchy gets a lot fuzzier and harder to quantify when you add language to the mix. Normally, the size of a primate troupe seems to be determined by familiarity: group cohesion relies on every member of the group knowing every other member, and how they relate to each other in terms of the pack hierarchy. When you determine position by picking fleas, fighting, or fucking and there are only 24 hours in the day, this puts an upper limit on how large a group can grow: these activities are all time-consuming, and most primate groups top out at under 100 members. There are echoes of this in human social life: the average number of entries in a person's address book turns out to be around 150. (Citation note: no, I'm not endorsing evolutionary psychology here.) Language lets us "groom" multiple contacts simultaneously, and in principle raises the size groups can reach.

Language also lets us delegate trust, or federate our relationships: management of large primate troupes relies on speech, to allow a meta-troupe of managers to exchange information about their personal address books, if I can mix a metaphor. We can now have much larger social groups than 100-200 direct personal contacts.

Language is also a platform for memes: horizontally transmissible replicators that modify the extended phenotype (broadly: the behaviour and pattern of tool use) of the recipients. (But that's another essay.)

Using language and complex memes we've built some enormous social superstructures: nation-states, religions, the grand project of science. These complexes are so huge that they exceed the capacity of any individual human mind to hold in their entirety — this shouldn't be a surprise, as they're the collective product of billions of hominids. But our high-level social structures are distorted by the basic pack-level drives of individuals living within them. Most of us want to fulfill our basic human drives: food, sex, to be the recipient of social grooming by admiring friends, relations, and subordinates. Individuals use large-scale projects to provide them with the means to fulfill these needs, and those who have become comfortable in a given niche consequently have an incentive to reject information that threatens to disrupt their cosy existence.

Which sometimes has large-scale and dangerous consequences: it appears that safety warnings about the Fukushima BWRs were ignored in February, and safety procedures weren't being followed properly at the plant — symptoms of a management culture dominated by concerns over status and hierarchy rather than being oriented around safety as a priority.

And again, Libya and the other Arab revolts are symptomatic of hominid pack dominance: dictators who won't let go are the epitome of a primate power structure.

Anyway: what I've been working up to saying is — democracy doesn't fit this model of human relations. In fact, I'm beginning to think democracy (direct democracy, not the bastardized democracy/primate dominance game that is representative democracy) is a third, and so far uniquely human, mode of primate conflict resolution (after direct dominance behaviour as practiced by chimpanzees or baboons, and sexual conflict resolution among bonobos). It can't work without language and (on a large scale) writing or other persistent media of record. It works better with a well-informed (or rather, meme-infested) population. And while it's useful for small (under 200) social groups, it really comes into its own for managing conflict resolution within meta-groups so large that not everybody can know everyone else. Its rival modes might include monarchism (of which dictatorship is a specialized subset), the direct descendant of the traditional primate dominance behaviour practiced on a larger scale, but there's no obvious way to scale bonobo-style sexual grooming across a nation of millions. (Porn, maybe? What do you call a system of government that works by federated bonobo-style sexual grooming?)

And now I'm trying to get my head around how coordinating behaviour might develop among a self-aware species of tool-using communicators who aren't basically shaved apes in suits.

199 Comments

1:

I don't have a good answer to your question... but I have a different question that might shed some light on it and help you get to an answer you like.

GIven:

We have communicating, co-ordinating (but to the best of my knowledge non-self-aware and non-tool-using) species, such as ants and bees;
We have tool-using, possibly self-aware, probably not good-communicating species such as corvids, sea otters and the like;

How might bees or ants develop awareness and tool use and what might it look like? How might crows, otters etc. develop clear signs of self-awareness and communication?

Also, given the ants/bees/termites models, is general self-awareness necessary? What if the queen became self-aware? The hive becomes perhaps her biological tool?

Have fun and good luck!

2:

"symptoms of a management culture dominated by concerns over status and hierarchy rather than being oriented around safety as a priority."

Exactly the issue that Malcolm Gladwell covered in "Outliers" in the chapter about airline pilots.

3:

Well elephants are communicative and arguably self-aware. I understand that their herd leadership tends devolve to the eldest female. Recently there's been a news story going round regarding the benefits this brings as regards to lion attacks, Not Exactly Rocket Science was where I read it.

This has parallels in the tribal elder trope and the value of seniority in promtion.

4:

One might ask where celebrity fits into this, and also wonder if misrepresentation of the words of another is a direct attack on the democratic model in this description.

5:


I don't think that we organise our society by direct democracy, really. This would be a form where informed parties exercise their own opinions on topics with their vote. Instead, we have a system whereby, ideally, those who have shown an ability to create things that people want get more power. That could be a new form of toilet roll, a book, a particularly stylish table, entertainment or a way to organise computer code in a useful fashion. Often these craftsmen and women are given more respect than their due in things that are not their areas of expertise and others will allow them to influence completely unrelated fields. An example would be the footballers, actors or other celebrities who endorse political parties.

Then you have the large-scale corruption of the system whereby those who have money by means other than value-creation, e.g. large-corporate politics, inheritance, etc. get to make more of the rules (which is a form of democracy I guess - you don't have to pay someone you don't want to unless they're the government).

Democracy is the label that we hang on the resolution mechanism but it, and our society, is organised on a much more complex level. I don't think you'll find an alternative if you don't consider the way it can get corrupted (both innocently and maliciously) the way our democracy is.

(Nitpicky comment: surely monarchs are a subset of dictators rather than the other way around? Monarchs are actually hereditrary dictators. With potentially three generations occupying the seat of power with no mechanism for removal, one could say that North Korea is now a monarchy.)

6:

If you replace sexual grooming with "bread and circus" style modes of consumption, consumer-capitalism maybe works as starting point for some mega-institutionalized version of the bonobo-world (cf. Huxley's Brave New World).

7:

Hunting and gathering band societies (which humans lived in for millions of years before we developed monarchism, let alone democracy) tend to have escalating conflict-resolution schemes. The !Kung San have close interpersonal contact and talking rituals, but when that doesn't work, they also shame people who accumulate too much power or stuff and lord it over people, and occasionally sanction murder if a person is just too dangerous. Beyond that, they tend to fission at the sign of intra-group conflict ("voting with your feet").

As to democracy being a new version of human conflict resolution...I don't think you can say that there are any true democracies that one could use as a type, or model. In my opinion, what we've got in the west is a series of tributary states built on the framework of monarchism but with its despotic overtones replaced with a limited popular participation. This, in turn, is somewhat uncomfortably plugged into a global finance capitalism. I don't even know what to call all of that mess.

And as far as its potential for conflict resolution, this system diffuses some conflicts--I can't kill someone who cuts in front of me at the supermarket and therefore gets food before me. However, it creates and sustains others--to take an over-dramatic example, the bankers, whose reckless investments have simultaneously driven up food prices and deflated my currency such that I can buy less food, are not going to prison for stealing from me.

...can you tell I've been working on my lecture for Anthropology 150 next week? :)

8:

On the other hand, the libertarians argue that capitalism IS the coordinating behavior of democracy--that prices code social information as well as economic information and, in some ways, function to drastically limit interpersonal and even international conflict.

9:

'surely monarchs are a subset of dictators rather than the other way around'

In the western (i.e. Greek/Roman/European/..) tradition, neither is a subset of the other, they are distinct. A king argues his rule is _right_, a dictator that it is _necessary_.

Neither argument is likely to be accepted by a modern westerner, but they are both _arguments_: words listened to by those who never either fought or fucked the speaker.

10:

Wolves are a pack animal very social but they are also predators. There are social hierarchy behaviors similar to human/primate behaviors, but I think the underlying instincts are quite different. That might be a good place to look for how a different, non-primate tool-user might tackle social organization. (Although there are social scientists who believe human packs and wolf packs are almost identical...)

Another place to look for cooperative behavior would be a pride of lions. There is a dominant male, but the females mostly run the show. C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series has a species following this model, very interesting in how it works.

11:

We have tool-using, possibly self-aware, probably not good-communicating species such as corvids, sea otters...

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12:

Eloise' comment on otters got me thinking about what would be different about a non-mammal tool using self aware communicators: as far as I know, mammals are the only class of animals that play. Some parrots play with their human owners, but I've never heard of birds playing with each other in their natural habitat, but I'll give you that one if there's any data on it. Maybe that's a unique development of mammals, and other (hypothetical) self aware species wouldn't have play.
So a non-mammal species might be VERY different, despite other evolutionary parallel pressures such as need for tool making, negotiating conflicts, development of mathematics, etc. What would it be like to be a completely humorless intelligent species? (think of the practical jokes we could play on them).

13:

I don't know what you'd call a system of government that works by federated bonobo-style sexual grooming, but sign me up!

On a smaller scale though, the polyamory movement might fall into this category.

14:

Are you considering how these social constructs react to and are modified by outside pressures? I know chimpanzees groups are in an almost constant state of low level war with each other, and I thought there was a recent study that bonobos are, too. And of course human societies developed within a constant state of low level (and sometimes not so low level!) warfare, also. A very interesting and related topic.

One question - how does sexual conflict resolution work among the bonobos? I don't see how the matriarch being upset with a male eating more than his fair share of bananas goes away just because they have sex. I can see how it would work with the chimps - the alpha male just beats the heck out of the greedy one until he stops taking so many bananas.

15:

I don't think that we organise our society by direct democracy, really.

We don't, and I don't see where you got the idea that I was saying we do.

16:

Quentin: arguments from libertarianism are as flawed as arguments from Leninism. (Both ideologies prescribe behaviour based on an elegant and consistent model of human behaviour and relationships ... which is, unfortunately, wrong.)

17:

Perhaps you can extrapolate from social facilitation? I'm thinking of, for example, the barnyard behavior of chickens. They tend to peck and scatch for grain at a certain rate. The more chickens there are, the faster and more frantically they peck.

Another means might be pheromonal stimulation. There is a least a tendency for women living together in a dormitory for a certain length of time to start synchronizing their menstrual cycles.

I have wondered about the evolutionary roots of music in terms of putting the whole group into a like mood. Did we arouse the tribe by playing Also Sprach Zarathustra before going off to spear the other apes? Surely a hot shot scifi author can combine this with the idea of the waggle dance in bees for coordinating behavior. Imagine the multitudes discoing to ABBA.

Perhaps crystal seeding might work in this way? An organism has a supsaturated solution bathing its central ganglia and exposure to various seed crystals in the atmosphere precipitate larger crystals in the brain, to stimulate a response?

18:

Well, I'd direct your thoughts to ants and termites, for one. The queens are the ovaries of the hive, not the brains. The point here is that you actually don't need a large brain for majority or quorum sensing behavior. Oh yeah, that's right, bacteria do that too. Anyway, check out Journey to the Ants for a quick read on the subject.

I'd also point out parrots, especially African Grays, which seem to be more social and organize in bigger flocks than humans do. It's not clear how they organize, and birds do tend to form dominance hierarchies, but African grays are reportedly monogamous, definitely intelligent, and probably more social than humans.

Third, I'd point out elephants, as Nick did. Both males and females seem to have culture, and one problem with ivory poaching is that it has removed the elder males from the landscape. Young male elephants go rogue without socialization, as do humans. Sperm whales seem to have a similar social structure to elephants, with two different social structures based on sex.

Finally, a minor correction: humans and bonobos are sexually receptive continually, not continuously fertile. I'd also point out that (according to Bagemihl's Biological Exuberance) humans are probably the most heterosexual members of extant hominidae. Certainly in bonobos, the majority of sexual encounters are same sex. This is reportedly true for chimps and gorillas as well. My semi-scientific impression is that humans are unique among primates primarily for our polymorphic sexuality and diversity of social arrangements, not specifically for our monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, homosexuality, use of sex toys (the primary form of tool use in animals), continual sexual receptivity, or whatever. If you're designing an alien race, you may want to make them like humans in their diversity, rather than trying to define humans narrowly and make the aliens different.

19:

You might have a look at some articles on Cracked, a humor site I know, that reference a lot of brain research about how humans are still fairly primitive in the way they think. For example, it's proven that if you wear a lot of red it makes you slightly more dominant. Strange stuff, and some of the articles are hilarious.

Or did your original post happen because of this?
http://www.cracked.com/article_19086_5-reasons-humanity-terrible-at-democracy.html

What's interesting to me, as a science fiction reader, is the idea that we might be able to scan people's brains and see exactly how they're wired. Not only that, but that we might be able to change them. There's just a ton of research leading us in this direction.

For example, I have ADD, and brain scans show that people like me have different brain structures. In addition, when I take stimulants I feel calm and my blood pressure goes down. Give me a mild muscle relaxant, one that hardly affects most people, and I'll conk out for sixteen hours.

In the future they might be able to give me a slow release medication that eliminates all of my ADD symptoms. Including my creativity. Is this good in the sense that I can now hold down a normal job and interact with people in the way they prefer, or is it bad because it flattens out all the human differences. Brave New World and all that.

Relating it back to your original post, is it possible that some time in the future we might be rewiring people to fit into whatever political structure exists?

20:

The problem is in propagating information. If everyone had equal access to first-hand information, then democracy could work. But in practice, people have to look to others to inform them, so the question of who to trust comes up.

People tend to trust those who appear most confident, so the confident people are the ones who are listened to, regardless of the accuracy of their information. People also tend to trust those in their direct 150-person social circle more than others.

So in practice, the entire society has a much smaller number of "degrees of freedom" than the population of that society; rather, the society forms a sort of discrete manifold where each individual can differ from adjacent (in the social network) individuals by only so much until he gets torn from the matrix and either reattaches somewhere else (as hippies moving to California do) or simply becomes part of the dilute gas of solitary people that permeates the matrix but does not interact with it.

So I suggest (and I admit I just came up with this after reading your post) that we think about democracy not as a set of N datapoints, but rather the shape of a piece of cloth, which can bend in all sorts of interesting ways, but nearby points on the piece of cloth are close in their position in opinion-space (the definition of a manifold).

21:

Separate thought: CE Petit made an excellent point a couple of months ago, about one of the under-appreciated virtues of democracy is that it lets leaders step down without bloodshed or worries about whether their families will survive. This is not true for dictatorships. Part of the problem that Libya and other places face is that people in power expect to die if deposed, and that their families will die as well. This is a powerful incentive for them to keep fighting. It's simple self-defense. Part of the solution for removing any dictator is to give them a way out.

The fixed terms of democratic elections provide a mechanism for leaders to lose power without losing face or their lives. This removes a powerful incentive to fight.

22:

And as far as its potential for conflict resolution, this system diffuses some conflicts--I can't kill someone who cuts in front of me at the supermarket and therefore gets food before me. However, it creates and sustains others--to take an over-dramatic example, the bankers, whose reckless investments have simultaneously driven up food prices and deflated my currency such that I can buy less food, are not going to prison for stealing from me.

Of course, this catches OGH in a classic double whammy: He needs more money to buy food, just as his customers have less to spend on his goods.

23:

Tools, brains, and social structures for humans have always formed a powerful feedback loop, constantly striving for higher energy intake. Brains give you tools, tools give you energy, energy allows you to have a bigger brain. Bigger brains bring better communication and new social structures, like when the alpha hierarchy of our primate ancestors gave way to the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. The HG social structure allowed for group hunting because now everyone had a stake (hehe) in the outcome. Hunting got us more energy for less outlay, which led to better tools, bigger brains, etc. etc. The energy-surplus of agriculture brought the new social structure of dominance hierarchies in early civilizations (kings, pharaohs) again allowed for more new technologies, etc.

Given that our technology and social structures are asymptotically improving, one can at least roughly guess that _energy_ will be a big concern, and a restructuring of some aspects of the brain might be on the way.

24:

On a mainly related note, last night on BBC2 there was a good program called The Truth About Lions, investigating why lions form social groups.
There's a lot of good science there, adn it's not the reasons you'd imagine.
(eg, hunting success rates are about the same regardless of the number of lions hunting so pack hunting is not the reason they form social groups).
Should be on iPlayer for the next 6 days.

25:

Hmm, hominids are chimps AND gorillas AND orangutangs.

You meant homininans, I assume. Hominins include chimps and humans; hominans include only bipedal apes.

It's a very humano-centric naming system, leading to all the great ape taxons that include humans being almost indistinguishable. Maybe safest just to say "human" when that's what you mean -- members of the genus homo.

26:

"Divine right"-style hereditary monarchies are relative latecommers. Prior to that the king was often elected. In Sweden this lasted until Gustav Vasa was elected in 1521 and in the Vatican it survives to this day.

27:

Bonobos evolved in an isolated region of the Congo where fruit and food is plentiful, they didn`t have to compete with Gorillas, and so this freed and frees their species from the stresses of a scarcity based economy: http://maybememe.posterous.com/bonobos-environment-similar-to-flower-childre

Bonobo`s, in this way, seem to me quite similar to the flower children of the 1960`s, whom grew up in a post economic crisis world at the height of north american production and dominance.

About every 40 years (for over 800 years plus) economies go through trancendent eras, and 40 years later or so cycle back to crisis eras.

With the exponential rise in solar power (similar to Moores law), virtual relaity, LED`s, nano tech batteries and desalination, vertical agriculture, increased consciousness of unconscious patterns via exponential computer power, etc, ala the singularity, it seems likely possible that we could move more of humanity into a post-modern mindset (American 1960`s or beyond... hopefully and probably beyond) via a more historical materialist approach, ala life conditions effecting consciousness as DON Beck and Clare Graves made evident to me via their integral work on Spiral Dynamics. http://www.formlessmountain.com/collage.html

28:

The succession problem can be solved by any sufficiently overarching ideological framework -- theocracies don't seem to suffer from it directly, and the USSR got over it after Stalin's demise: the Politburo agreed that they didn't want to go that way, and switched to a more collegiate process (thus lowering the stakes enough that after the 1964 coup Kruschev "retired" and ended up managing a hydroelectric power station rather than being lined up against a wall).

The problem with dictatorial succession seems to me to be that it implicitly incorporates a single point of failure, the ways around which are either diffusion of the source of legitimate authority (if you've got an ideological framework that will replace the role of the republic -- e.g. communism), or a hereditary dictatorship (see also, monarchism). There are exceptions -- Spain, for example (General Franco designated Prince Juan Carlos as his successor, thinking an authoritarian monarchy would do fine: Juan Carlos was more interested in constitutional monarchy along British lines and rapidly reintroduced parliamentary democracy). But in general, the life expectancy of a dictatorship these days seems to be not much more than the life expectancy of a dictator.

29:

AIUI, modern theocracies tend to use one or both of "election from entitled candidates" and some form of "competitive examination to establish knowledge of theology of $faith".

30:

Some people think play is widespread among tetrapods, not just mammals: http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/05/dinosaurs_come_out_to_play.php

31:

re: elected monarchies... that's quite culturally variable. I'm not sure when divine right started in England/UK/older names, but it was severely damaged in 1215 by Magna Carta and pretty much trashed once and for all with the execution of Charles I (1630).

I'm not a historian, but I think it's supposed to follow on from various God King structures before Christianity and to have been a fairly smooth process.

In New Zealand, there is a part of North Island called King Country. They decided while fighting the British that perhaps they were losing because of their tribal structure compared to the single monarch of the English, so the various iwi joined together, elected a king to try and steal the manna and win the war. While they weren't entirely successful, they weren't entirely unsuccessful either, and they still elect a new monarch. It's usually the eldest child of the previous one.

32:

"Divine right"-style hereditary monarchies are not late comers, but constituted the first style of city-state governance. Divine kings governed the smaller ones, eventually leading up to empire-level Pharaohs. These were almost exclusively inbred family affairs.

33:

it was severely damaged in 1215 by Magna Carta and pretty much trashed once and for all with the execution of Charles I (1630).

Nit: 1649, and they only shortened him after he tried to start up the civil wars for the third time, after killing around 10% of the population.

(And it took 1688 to drive the message of parliamentary rule home emphatically enough that even a thick over-privileged prince could get it.)

Yes, the God-King equation is probably where the divine right meme began. (Rebellion against Pharaoh was rebellion against the Gods, without whom the Nile would no longer flood and everybody would starve. Etcetera.) Just where exactly it started is an interesting question: presumably some time after agriculture began, permitting the establishment of hierarchical societies (rather than everyone being a hunter-gatherer)?

34:

There is plenty of evidence now to support the idea that humans settled down _before_ agriculture. As the climate improved around 20k years ago, certain sites, such as modern day Palestine, were chock full of caribou herds, and other easy sources of energy that did not require constant nomadic lifestyle. The beef as coming to you, instead of you having to go to it. Humans probably settled down into semi-permanent hunting camps that eventually became more or less permanent. The big problem was that people just were not used to getting along in groups larger than about 150 at the most.

The Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey presents the most compelling evidence for how this problem was solved: religion. Imposing an invisible spirit that was watching your behavior made people, in fact, behave better. Social tensions were greatly reduced when people had agreed upon codes of behavior. The "god" part probably proceeded the "king" part. A head priest of some kind may have been the precursor to the God-King.

35:

For a fun read on the benefits of being a beta male, and how he mangages to persist, see Christopher Moore's "Dirty Job".

36:

Let's not forget that if your dictator is a raving nutjob (as almost all of them are) there's no way to get rid of them other than banishment or execution. In fact, the dictatorship seems to attract the craziest people, or it makes them that way. Kim Jong Il is only one part of a giant mountain of crazy.

Arguably, dictators don't get lined up against the wall because it's the only way to get rid of them, but because they do stuff like outlaw typewriters and color televisions, or wipe out the national currency on advice of their soothsayers, because they believe it will let them live to the age of ninety.

Again, Cracked:

http://www.cracked.com/article_18850_7-modern-dictators-way-crazier-than-you-thought-possible.html

37:

I would imagine bonobo-style society would look something like Potlatchcommunities.

38:

I am offended.

Well, no. But, Charlie, surely Mexico must loom larger in your mental set of relevant polities than the above post would indicate.

39:

1. Cracked.com is not a useful reference in this classroom.

2. Most dictators are not raving nutjobs; many of them are entirely rational, within an abnormal situation that makes authoritarianism a reasonable strategy. See for example any number of interviews with Wojciech Jaruzelski, or the historical record of Oliver Cromwell or Josip Broz Tito.

None of these three are nice guys, but they all acted on the basis of what they considered to be necessity, in turbulent times (two came to prominence during a civil war; the third during mass unrest and under the threat of external invasion by a regional hegemon), and a case can be made in each case that they represented the lesser evil.

The problem is that it takes an extraordinary personality not to go stark bugfuck crazy when gifted with dictatorial privilege and isolated in a palace for more than a decade. And also that the stark bugfuck crazy ones are the ones we remember. (Like Muammar Gaddafi -- definitely not part of the reality based community -- or Saddam Hussein -- nasty for "Stalin 2.0" values of nasty, if you happened to be Iraqi during the 1970s or 1980s -- let alone Pol Pot.)

40:

personally,
I find direct democracy sometimes brings out the worst of the worst in a society. The problem is, that in a direct democracy the voters are more susceptible to the fearmongers as every issue is voted on separately.

For best modern times examples: look to Switzerland of California

switzerland:
- woman only gained the right to vote in 1971 (the motion for equal voting rights did not pass in a previous referendum in the 50s)
- the far right party (SVP) uses direct referendums as a tool against foreigners
(look no further than to the anti-minaret law)

california:
- The people have to vote for an tax increase - as nobody wants to pay more taxes the state is bankrupt

41:

Noel, this may [not] come as a surprise to you, but I know next to nothing about Mexico. (A not hugely populous nation on another continent with complex and confusing politics that lies within the penumbra of its huge neighbour.)

42:

The monarchy/dictatorship model is easy to get because it is a simple extension of the dominance model: the most powerful person, then the richest person, governs.

Charlie is right that democracy has probably something to do with numbers. When the power (the riches) become distributed enough, the head of state ceases to be able to govern alone and has to become an interface.

Of course, power (money) is not evenly distributed. So it helps to see our governments not as the siege of power but as interfaces between the powerful minority and the governed minority.

We have a problem right now because democracy is sold to the governed as working through information: people are informed and vote accordingly. Of course, we know that's not how it works: when the powerful control information, they control democracy. Which they do, now, everywhere.

But information is now being distributed and more and more difficult to control. Wikileaks or the Arab uprising are just symptoms of how information is destroying power structures. Our "democracies" should not feel so smug, information is destroying their illusions too. We are information animals and we are all swept by a new order emerging from electric connectivity.

43:

Oops! Typo: the governed "majority", naturally.
Note: the rulers are of course on a sliding rule between "absolute power" (1 - the god-king richest guy) and "absolute interface" (10 - real democarcy). Our Western elected parties are probably a 5, Berlusconi 4, Khadafi 3.

44:

I'm beginning to think democracy (direct democracy, not the bastardized democracy/primate dominance game that is representative democracy) is a third, and so far uniquely human, mode of primate conflict resolution (after direct dominance behaviour as practiced by chimpanzees or baboons, and sexual conflict resolution among bonobos). It can't work without language and (on a large scale) writing or other persistent media of record.

Charlie, this is (as always) an interesting article. But I'm not convinced that direct democracy has ever existing on a large scale, which is what you seem to imply in the paragraph I've quoted. What examples have there been of large-scale direct democracy? And why doesn't representative democracy fit your criteria?

45:

From what I've read ("Sex At Dawn" - if you haven't read it, you should) humans seem to have a bit of a mental toggle switch between chimp-like (force hierarchy, dominance/submission, winner-take-all) and bonobo-like (respect hierarchy, conciliation/sharing, selfishness is punished) models of organization. Roughly, the chimp wins under conditions of zero-sum competition and resource guarding (the norm for post agricultural humanity) but our most natural mode (pre agricultural humanity, characterized by collaboration and resource discovery) seems to be closer to bonobo. It doesn't surprise me that in conditions of societal breakdown and calamity, we go bonobo. Societal structure was all that was keeping the chimp in charge.

As for direct democracy, it looks to me like an attempt to extend Bonobo mode to the evolutionary novel case of humans who want to affiliate but don't know each other. I welcome it, but it still a very human way of organizing and not something as alien to our history as you've suggested.

46:

Nit:

"A not hugely populous nation on another continent with complex and confusing politics that lies within the penumbra of its huge neighbour."

Mexico population: 107,431,225 - 2009
UK population: 61,838,154 - 2009
(However the Commonwealth: 2.1 billion)

I imagine Noel was thinking of the PreColumbian history of the area and the vulnerability of God-King civilizations to conquest by outsiders with strange customs, advanced technologies and contagious diseases.

As far as alien governance models, I wonder how much different biological sensitivities would shape their cultures. A people who innately saw and consciously manipulated quantum entanglement or had an organ that sensed other dimensions might have radically different ways of communicating and understanding interrelationships with others including and beyond their own species, planets, etc. Governance, for them, might involve changing others subtly to make them fit harmoniously. Right functioning might be an aesthetic act. Wars representing punctuated equilibrium events leading to new species of ecosystemic stewards, etc. How these critters would have evolved would be another matter. How might the rat equivalent use these powers?

47:

With regards to power structures, it is important to note that hierarchical systems are the most efficient way to organize large numbers of people towards a common goal. For some group size n, there are log(n) steps between the lowliest grunt and the highest ranking general/president/dictator-for-life. Political systems that rely more on forming coalitions and consensus building will have inherently higher communications overhead (up to (n^2)/2 interactions between all parties) and take longer to make decisions.

So one could argue that societies that are oriented around "strong man" models of leadership have a short-to-medium term competitive advantage over those that are not.

On the other hand, with less communication between parties the hierarchical system is more vulnerable to bad or corrupt information. A more deliberative system will have opportunities for information to be confirmed or refuted and for new information to diffuse through the political system. In other words, dictatorships would tend to make poor decisions quickly, and democracies would tend to make better decisions slowly. So the long-term competitive advantage would go to the democratic society.

For example, under this model I in the United States is the result of hierarchical organizations (corporations) making bad decisions (denying global warming) and using their inherent organizational advantages to attack a diffuse organizations (95% of climate scientists) with misinformation (Fox News) which results in a 50/50 split stalemate in public opinion instead of 95% agreement you would otherwise eventually expect.

As long as there is a willingness or opportunity to lie or remain willfully ignorant for personal gain and without consequence, I don't think any hypothetical society could avoid the tension between democratic and hierarchical organizations. In sci-fi, however, we can imagine societies like Alastair Reynolds's Conjoiners, which have direct access to each other's brains (?) and thus would be able to maintain societies that have both incredibly efficient decision making and a high level of trust.

48:

It's my belief that the British monarchy *is* effectively an elective one, at least since 1649 or perhaps 1704. (Remember, kings and queens reign on the grounds not of divine right but of an Act of Parliament, the Act of Settlement 1704). It just has an unusually long time-to-live value on the act of election. As no parliament can bind its successor - any Act can be amended or repealed - we could just retcon it out and give the settlement to someone other than her Serene Highness the Electress Sophia of Hannover (and what a serene highness she is!)'s Protestant heirs and successors in the male line, or for that matter to someone elected by a two-third majority of both houses of parliament meeting jointly, or whatever.

49:

I'm afraid that from the last paragraph:
"In fact, I'm beginning to think democracy (direct democracy, not the bastardized democracy/primate dominance game that is representative democracy) is a third, and so far uniquely human, mode of primate conflict resolution ... And while it's useful for small (under 200) social groups, it really comes into its own for managing conflict resolution within meta-groups so large that not everybody can know everyone else."

I thought you meant it was being used somewhere. I can;t think of any examples of direct democracy being used in conflict resolution.

Hang on, maybe i can - was there not a referendum in East Timor? Or do you mean Swiss referenda? An example or two would make the point clearer.

50:

You might want to take a look at us corvids. The common raven is probably about as "smart" as a chimp and adolescent ravens have some interesting crowd behaviors. Take a look at Bernd Heinrich's *Ravens in Winter* and *Mind of the Raven*.

BTW, Mexican has 45 million more inhabitants than the UK. Croak!

51:

For any given communication mechanism, as the groups get bigger more power resides in lower layers. That's primarily because beyond a certain size the big boss just can't beat up everyone at the next level down, and needs to get the cooperation of at least a core group of that layer by giving them something they want. That's why oligarchies are more common than one-strong-man rule. Feudal societies like medieval Europe and Japan are run as much by the regional and local lords as the kings, emperors, and shoguns, and when the guys at the top fight, they need the lower level lords to bring out the troops to fight for them.

Still, the means of communication does set a scale for group interaction. Spoken language seems to set a limit of 100-150; add written language and we get hierarchical systems up to thousands or even millions. Add faster communication and recording of images and sounds and you can get much larger groups which tend to be hierarchical and oligarchic at the top, but whose subunits are sufficiently decoupled that they can be organized by other means including democratic forms. It's conceivable (and I hope that it's true), that advanced communication and information storage techniques will allow and maybe even foster democracy at larger scales.

Looking at the larger biological issues, we can see a spectrum of solutions to the problem of group organization in the animal kingdom. Humans and other anthropoids start with complex individuals who are self-conscious and reflexive, so a great deal of the organization comes from the models we build of each other internally. Herd mammals are less reflexive; they tend to have relationships which are more stereotypical than humans (though there's a spectrum there: elephants are a lot closer to humans than to antelopes in the complexity of their interactions). Eusocial insects start with relatively simple individuals whose internal states aren't a whole lot more complicated than a Finite State Machine; much of the complexity of their interactions is stored in their environment (e.g., pheromone trails, shape and connectivity of habitation and incubation chambers, etc.).

There are animals that are extremely intelligent, with complex central nervous systems, which don't seem to be self-conscious or reflexive to any degree that we can observe, and which don't seem to have any sort of society: cephalopods are a good example. Squid and octopi even have quite sophisticated high-bandwidth communication systems (the chromophores on their skin) that don't seem to be used for more than signaling mating behavior or territorial competition. I can imagine a eusocial cephalopod organization because they can signal each other easily, but I have trouble imagining a social cephalopod organization similar to a monkey troop or a wolf pack because they don't seem to either model each other or cooperate.

The implication of the previous paragraph for me is that the flexibility of organization of animal groups is dependent on the complexity of the individuals: large organizations are possible with simple individuals, but they're much more rigid than groups made up of complex (and reflexive) individuals. Speculating on the future, that leads me to think that the way to make human civilization more flexible and more likely to survive adversity is to enhance or empower the individual rather than try to buttress the organization at the large scale. This is one counter-argument to Peter Watts' proposal that consciousness is not a survival trait.

52:

David wrote:
california: - The people have to vote for an tax increase - as nobody wants to pay more taxes the state is bankrupt

California's problem is significantly more complicated than this.

We had truly excessive property taxes increasing into the 1970s, which led to the Proposition 13 "tax revolt". Since then, finances in the state (and county and city levels) were strained and poorly managed.

After another series of poorly-liked tax increases we passed another initiative requiring popular votes for tax increases, and another which made "fees" increasing covered under those same laws. And another requiring 2/3 supermajority in the legislature for budgetary approval.

We passed these initiatives because the state government was being remarkably unresponsive and unresponsible - we also were among the first states to impose term limits on state legislators (in the middle of this). Unfortunately, though the rationale for each change was reasonable and represented an improvement, the end results were not improved quality of government.

What we've got is noncompetitive gerrymandered districts which are safely either Republican (and solidly anti-tax) or Democrat (which are solidly pro-services); there's a majority of Democrats in the populace and in the legislature, but not a 2/3 majority.

The Republicans in the legislature don't get punished for refusing to pass a budget; they're more likely to get reelected.

53:

I suspect that a mathematical analysis might show that network connection in which some nodes are more highly-connected than others can actually be more efficient than a strict hierarchy. One reason for this is that individual humans don't have exactly equal or even similar capabilities, so information and dominance flow through a hierarchical graph would tend to change the strengths and the degree of connection over time into a more general network as individuals' power changes and as new individuals enter the graph and attain more power.

54:

"What do you call a system of government that works by federated bonobo-style sexual grooming?"

I've been looking for good places to use the term "pornocracy" ever since I first heard it (in a reference to a 19th century temperance tract, IIRC).

55:

I agree about different capabilities of individuals, and the presence of "supernode" individuals who have a lot more influence than the average individual.

I think this is why in practice various forms of republic have been the main alternative to dictatorship because it is a hybrid of hierarchical power relationships (local, regional, national) between democratic bodies (city councils, state legislatures, national congress/parliament).

(It just occurred to me that the notional "free market" is the other way around, consisting of democratic relationships between mostly hierarchical organizations).

56:

Well, since the root of the word "porn" is the same as the root for "prostitute", you could say that we already have a pornocracy of politicians whoring themselves out to corporations :-)

57:

Kinda a gross simplification and generalization (to say that chimpanzees deal with with conflict resolution by "direct dominance" is to ignore growing interpretations of data, like De Waal's [reconciliation]; and early descriptions of chimps were oddly similar to the bonobos... until chimps were hit with the uncertainty principle [we feed them to study them, which increased their population, which their environment and human researcher's bananas couldn't support, which cause resource conflict; something we didn't do with the bonobos {discovered later}]), but, okay, I'll go with it, but if we are looking to entities that may be other than shaved apes in suits, perhaps we can look to memetic institutions: religions, nation states, perhaps genetics? Agreed, these (minus genes) are greatly informed by apes, but perhaps they could be viewed as greater entities?

58:

Mexico? Not hugely populous? 110 million!

59:

Compared to Indonesia, Pakistan, or Nigeria it's nowhere.

(Mexico is of some relevance to Americans because of proximity. But to the UK? Not so much.)

60:

In sci-fi, however, we can imagine societies like Alastair Reynolds's Conjoiners, which have direct access to each other's brains (?) and thus would be able to maintain societies that have both incredibly efficient decision making and a high level of trust.

Well, I have direct access to the brain of every one reading this text. It doesn't seem to result in the scenario that you're describing. :D

And, to be blunt, "incredibly efficient decision making" is only possible when the decisions are simple and obvious. These would be trivia, and a hivemind would then move on to more complicated matters. As long as you've got resource allocation issues and more than one person in the room you're going to have politics ...

61:

Nope, I meant members of the family Hominidae, which includes the great apes (see Wikipedia).

The old Pongidae (the great ape family) was paraphyletic without including humans, because chimps are closer to humans than they are to gorillas or orangutans, so under the rules of cladistics, the complete family now has the oldest name, which happens to be Hominidae.

62:

Noel, should I assume you're talking about the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Institutional Revolutionary Party)?

And not about the Maya or Aztec?

Because if you're talking about the PRI, that gets into one party state territory, which might touch on Charlie's interests. Why? Because the PRI and Chinese Communist Party seem to be managing a long term lifespan (with changes) without collapsing into autarchy.

63:

Touche.

However, I can't go rummaging around in your memories and knowledge without your conscious involvement and taking up most of your attention. The social process of "getting to know" someone is quite protracted, so if it could be optimized we could scale up the society of the small social group to huge numbers of people, because you would be know the life history of anyone you meet without any inconvenience to you or the other person.

Which is not to say the hivemind wouldn't have it's own problems, even us with our pathetically limited brains are subject to "groupthink".

64:

Believe what you will about group selection, there is no way it applies to the genetic content of nation states. Way to few of them. Way too few genocides (kill the men but keep the women != genetic fatality). Way too much mixing across borders.

These are the product of human design, with some chance and uncontrolled consequences thrown in for good measure.

It's like asking how natural selection caused the evolution of wolves into dogs.

65:

fair enough, i suppose.

66:

thank you, sam. my point exactly.

67:

Right now Mexico looks like it's on a path to becoming a failed state, or at least be broken up into regional states, some of which will fail. This is the direct result of the War on Some Drugs, and the weakness of the PRI, which as far as I can tell is basically an oligarchy with pretensions of kleptocracy.

68:

Actually Charlie I argue that the 3rd and new method of primate conflict resolution is religion and that democracy is a subset of religion.

Religion is primary good at conflict resolution between social groups,as well as internally to them. Probably some random collection of memes that encourages members of a homid social group to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of that group came about some how.

Groups infected with the meme become more successful in warfare activities at the expense of groups that were not. Belief in an afterlife is a powerful motivator, morale is after all 9/10ths of war

I think to back in to alien social structures you will need to get creative about what their sacred faith based meme system was, how it evolved and gave an evolutionary edge to the group.

69:

Thinking about alternative/different forms of behaviour coordination, there is another that has a pedigree.

That's simulation/data based decision making.

In this the information about the state of the world is joined with understanding of how actors and elements behave to form a simulation which is then used to test out different courses of action - the best being selected. That's most obviously seen in the chess playing computers - attempting to make intelligent decisions about a complex problem space.

It appears, roughly, in two elements of human decision making. The first is inside your head. You continually run multiple models of the world, taking into account your understanding of that world, and the evidence of your senses, to weigh up different courses of action (ever been in 'two minds'?)

The second is, very imperfectly, in the world of macroeconomics. The financial world has been made purposely so complex that nobody really seems to understand it. So governments and financial institutions are left using models to determine the consequences of different courses of action.

The only problem there is that economists have an iron grip, and they a) don't really have good models of the individual parts of the system, b) are ideologically based (always a bad idea), c) arrogantly don't know what they don't know. However we can hope that their GFC failure results in wiser head prevailing and reform of the domain.

You can imagine a situation where a widescale culture accepts the limitation of the individual brain and instead is run via simulation. Effort is put into data gathering and understanding about the world, then anyone can suggest a course of action which is tested via predictions of 'success' via the simulation. Best results then direct the path of the next period.

That system has no leader function that is vested in member(s) of the species - rather the species has created a tool that's up to the job of understanding the complexity; recognising the limits of cognition of individuals, or worse, committees.

You can point up all the issues and problems with such an approach (deterministic model vs synergistic complex world) but as in chess, that's not the question. The question is can it do better than the unaided human - and as in chess, the answer is probably, yes.

70:

Rereading my own comment I realized that we're all (myself as well) talking about organizations as if they were simple directed graphs, with no more than one arc from one node to any other, that arc representing some abstraction of "dominance" or "power". That's seems much to great a simplification for inter-human relationships. Any one of us is connected to many others by many different kinds of connections: friendship, economic alliance, political alliance, love, sex, common interest, dominance, trust, and probably a dozen more. All of those interact in the sense that changes in one will affect the strength and quality of the others. That makes it very difficult to talk about any sort of pure organization like a hierarchy.

For a really pathological example (a directed graph with cycles) see William Tenn's classic SF story The Servant Problem.

71:

Actually play behaviour is best known and most widely distributed among the Mammalia, but you can make a case for play behaviour in some birds (corvids, mainly) and even in some of the brighter reptiles (Komodo dragons, crocodilians).

72:


It is more a problem of topology, than one of scale.

I always wanted to try an experimental 'dinnerocracy'...

The rules are: once each month you pull the name of a random participant in your area, and you go eat a meal with them. Once a year you pull the name of someone from outside your city and have a meal with them.

Everyone who participates in 'dinner club' pays $5 a month to a common pool, and once a month everyone votes on what to do with that money. The rest of the year they continue meeting the other members face to face. I'm betting that the group decisions made will be significantly better than those made by our own (US) democracy.

Why?

In a population of about 30 hunter-gatherers, the strongest man would still see the hungriest child almost every day. Empathy would be hard to resist, hardwired by mirror neurons.

Modern society is big enough to separate people, but a much bigger problem is that we've sequestered ourselves into completely disconnected islands. Whole subcultures now pretend the poor aren't really human. With only 4 degrees of separation between *everyone* and a Katrina victim, those illusions would be much harder to maintain.


73:

"And now I'm trying to get my head around how coordinating behaviour might develop among a self-aware species of tool-using communicators who aren't basically shaved apes in suits."

This is a question that's bugged me a lot for an SF worldbuilding project I'm working on. The "pop evopsych" method of constructing aliens appears to have become popular among gaming, worldbuilding and other non-published skiffy writing circles over the last couple decades, but it doesn't seem to be a fantastic improvement over just putting a human in makeup or a Space Gerbil suit and calling it good. The approach is usually rooted in a very skewed, pop-sci version of "human nature" and an oversold narrative about how we evolved that can be found everywhere, even in pop culture outlets like the Discovery channel.

I think the direct response to your question is "What sort of species do you have in mind?" Turn the dials up on magpies so they're using unambiguous language, showing even more tool-creating ingenuity than they already do (by the "mirror test" for self awareness, which has its issues but is sort of the de facto standard pulled out in conversations like these, they already qualify).

What does a society of post-magpies look like? Getting inside the heads of the "de facto" species and then trying to apply the adjustments our speculative scenario allows isn't a bad way to start -- as long as you have a working and correct awareness of the differences between the species you're thinking about, and the one you are.

74:

What do you call a system of government that works by federated bonobo-style sexual grooming

Surely that's Heinlein-ocracy?

75:

Where I saw your argument: you outline two modes of behaviour and then a third (direct democracy), saying that the third is uniquely human. That implies to me that on some level, we *do* use direct democracy. It implies that you see direct democracy as identifiable with humans as sexual-exchange is with bonobos (it's what they're famous for, after all. I don't think I know anything else about bonobos.).

If that's not what you intended to say, I've missed something. What did you intend to communicate about humans and democracy?

Regarding other forms of social hierarchy: how do birds decide who goes where in a flock? Why does the bird at the front of the arrow get that position?

76:

Rowan, I'd suggest not over-thinking this too much. Think about how we interact with other animals, like cats, dogs, pigeons, parrots, ravens, horses, or whatever. Even though they can't speak English, they figure out some fairly sophisticated communications modes both with each other and with us.

For example, both my mom and her dog figured out which particular chicken alarm call meant that there was a coyote in the yard threatening the bird. They would both run to protect her. Since my mom likes to feed the local birds (along with the chickens) she's seen a whole group of bird species and ground squirrels negotiate a set of territory and behavioral boundaries, mutually recognized alarm calls, protocols for who gets access to what and when, and so forth.

There's nothing anthropomorphic about this. Animals communicate all the time, and if you simply sit still and watch (or do as my mom does and promote it) you'll learn a lot about how interspecies communication works.

77:

The social dynamics of bonobos and chimpanzees (our closest ancestors on the ol' primate tree) are analysed thoroughly and interestingly in an excellent recent science book 'Sex at Dawn' (www.sexatdawn.com), and tied back to human social groups and sexuality.

There's a great breakdown of culturally imposed concepts of Gorilla-like monogamy despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that hunter-gatherer human tribes (even to this day) that have no resource constraints naturally develop into egalitarian matriarchal groups.

Easy and fascinating read, I highly recommend it.

78:

Doesn't it go like this?

First, the humans invented the gods. Then, the day after, they invented management.

79:

"Gorilla-like monogamy". Gorillas practice harem-like polygamy.

I suggest wolf-like semi-monogamy. In many ways our social instincts seem as wolf-like as ape-like. (Not surprising, as both species practice cursorial pack hunting? Also note how well we fit with dogs socially.)

And I'd say pair-bonding is at least semi-instinctive for us. It's very common cross-culturally, even in cultures that allow polygamy. There's a bunch of brain chemistry stuff that facilitates pair-bonding, aka romantic love.

And humans have less size difference between the sexes than other large primates. That's common for pair-bonding species like wolves. Gorillas have a huge size difference, like other harem species.

How all this fits with larger social structures, or hypothetical other sapient beings, I don't know.

80:

If you want to model the communication modes of different species start with what they cooperate to do, and what else they communicate (and to whom, when, why they do it). Cats communicate about territory, mating availability, and confrontation specifics, aside from their child-rearing practices. I'm sure there's other things they communicate about and there are feline cooperation behaviours too but communication is an active process intended to achieve specific aims; the most common situations and aims will in some way dominate.

81:

"And now I'm trying to get my head around how coordinating behaviour might develop among a self-aware species of tool-using communicators who aren't basically shaved apes in suits."

That seems to be the 24 hour news cycle, breathlessly announcing propaganda from the presiding governments, releasing visual footage that probably isn't in context, while speculating on the events they really no nothing about, since they are getting second hand information the whole time.

Events are then prioritized by dazzle, blood, or emotion.

And we, who were otherwise grunting and acting like primates, stop with our scratching and fornications to observe till we wander off in search of food and mates.

82:

Peter @47: "For example, under this model I in the United States is the result of hierarchical organizations (corporations) making bad decisions (denying global warming) and using their inherent organizational advantages to attack a diffuse organizations (95% of climate scientists) with misinformation (Fox News) which results in a 50/50 split stalemate in public opinion instead of 95% agreement you would otherwise eventually expect."

I agree on principle, and the US are no exception to how democracies work. I doubt that you could have a 95% majority on any issue in a working democracy, however. I'm not being sarcastic when I say that I don't think you could have a 95% majority on the question if 1+1==2 is true or false. It's the nature of the beast.

Lars @71: "... and even in some of the brighter reptiles (Komodo dragons, crocodilians)."
No, I won't go with that. Crocodiles, alligators and the like are of course proven to be viable by >100,000 of years of evolution. So are sharks. They still have a brain the size of your pinky finger with comparable body size. No way for them to have comparable capacity for non-essential computation.

83:
Regarding other forms of social hierarchy: how do birds decide who goes where in a flock? Why does the bird at the front of the arrow get that position?

Flocking behavior can be simulated by a very simple system: basically each bird (or fish, because schooling behavior seems to work the same way) follows three rules:

  • Separation - avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion)

  • Alignment - steer towards average heading of neighbors

  • Cohesion - steer towards average position of neighbors (long range attraction)

  • So it's likely that real birds do it in some similar manner. without any sort of complicated cognition or social interaction.. Note that the bird in the front of the formation doesn't necessarily stay there, and in fact the whole formation tends to break up and reform over time. Watch a migrating flock of ducks or geese for a few minutes and you'll see what I mean.

    84:

    Not to get into the usual libertarian argument, but it does seem to me that markets also qualify as a social form that nonhuman primates don't really have. Oh, you can call trade "reciprocal altruism," but the cross-flow of benefits in other species seems to be more stereotyped; the human ability to say "do ut des" as a general idea is also unusual, perhaps unique. And trade has real ecological effects: If my village catches fish and its maximum is set by calories, and your village grows yams and its maximum is set by protein, and we trade, then both of us can have bigger populations on exactly the same ecological base . . . trade raises the carrying capacity of our combined environments. Something akin to this interpretation seems to be embedded in Hayek's theories of small and large societies. Perhaps it's relevant to the same issues you're thinking about here?

    85:

    I don't agree that proximity begets empathy-- after all, masters saw their slaves every day, no?

    86:

    Finally read all the comments, so I'm going to do one of those irritating multi-reply things...

    Firstly, mostly directed at Charlie: the idea of a meme has penetrated popular culture, but there's some heavy hitters who argue that it's a load of bollocks. The key point is whether a "meme" can be distinguished from the humble "idea" in any meaningful way. I think that the semantics matter in this case, since many people argue (wrongly, from what I understand) that writing, etc, are memes.

    I lived next to flocks of wild parrots for a few years, and I can assure you that they do play. There's at least one cockatoo that likes to play "chicken" with cars coming over a brige in Sydney. Some people even think that fish play, if by play you mean distinctive behaviours with no apparent purpose.

    There's some really, really, interesting research showing that language is inextricably linked with a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated brain-functions, like navigating by landmarks, and the "theory of mind" that distinguishes children from adults (and humans from most every other species). Look up the Radiolab piece about it, it's absolutely fascinating.

    If you want to think about alternative modes of intelligence and society, I'd suggest you start by asking how different intelligent animals might have different built-in impulses. I don't know to what extent our basic social behaviours are instinctive rather than learns, but it must be a bit. Now look at birds: some of them are really smart, probably as smart as primates. But even the smart ones come pre-packaged with a whole load of stuff. Presumably that's because the first time you try to fly out of tree, you need to get it right. Ask yourself how a society might differ if the individuals making it up had less, or more, plasticity in their basic behaviour.

    You might also ask yourself just how much plasticity humans have in their basic social behaviour: I don't think that's a question that anyone's ever found a solid answer to.

    87:

    Emotions.

    Communication between evolved primates or any other type of pseudo-primate doesn't just rely on meme transfer/conjugation but on empathy.
    Apart from socipaths and psychopaths, most funtioning members of our (or parallel) societies/biologies need to be able to read the emotional state of the other members of the group. How many times have you listened to a politician or pundit and cannot remember what the idiot was raving on about, but you are aware of his emotional state

    88:

    The classic models of governance are based on the assumption of a scarcity of communication - look how much ends up being rules for who can speak in what order.
    The interesting thing about the net is that we can all speak and cross reference in parallel, without taking turns. This has promise in organising new forms of governance.

    89:

    Wondering if your non-human tool users might be mechanical rather than biological (sequel to Saturns Children?)

    If so I would imagine that the ability to transfer and absorb large quantities of data (up to entire mind-states) rapidly could seriously change the methods of conflict resolution. One would hope that the ability to become an instant expert would reduce the need for dumbing down of complex issues and knee-jerk reactions and reduce the power of the ruling class to use soundbites and scary headlines to sway the majority. Perhaps though it would just lead to multi-Petabyte soundbites.

    The ability to internalise your opponents mind-state would surely be the ultimate empathy, everyone could really see both sides of the argument. On the otherhand forcing your mindstate or a subset of it into someone elses 'head' would be the ultimate political weapon.

    I've no idea what effect this might have on a society made up of individuals with this ability, I guess it could go chimp (dominance through firewall and mind-virus strength) or bonobo (love, peace and understanding) but probably only the latter if everyones mind firewalls were perfect.

    90:

    #31, and #33 refers.

    You're confusing "primagenature" (the right to rule by virtue of being the oldest and most directly related descendant, then sibling etc of the recently deceased monarch) with "absolute monarchy" (where the monarch rules by personal fiat) I think.

    Primagenature still applies (subject to no act of Parliament removing the present incumbants). You've correctly discussed when absolute monarchy started to cease to apply and was finally utterly killed off.

    91:

    What examples have there been of large-scale direct democracy?
    About the largest examples of direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy with a mechanism for the citizenry to call a referendum on $issue; eg Switzerland) that I can think of are some of the ancient Greek city states, and even then they limitted the franchise to adult male property owners.

    92:

    #50 - Personal experience suggests that individual corvids are capable of recognising individual members of other species, and will modify their behaviour in response to "that guy who was nice to me when I was newly fledged and stuck in his garden" relative to "someone that I don't know from Quoth and her noisy brats".

    93:

    Well, I have direct access to the brain of every one reading this text.

    Er, no you don't. You have to think $thought, and interpret that into a series of English sentences. We then read that passage, and interpret that according to our understanding of the passage. This creates at least 2 sources of possible misunderstanding.

    For you to have direct access to our brains would require telepathy.

    94:

    Re: elected monarchies... that's quite culturally variable. I'm not sure when divine right started in England/UK/older names, but it was severely damaged in 1215 by Magna Carta and pretty much trashed once and for all with the execution of Charles I (1630).

    I'm not a historian, but I think it's supposed to follow on from various God King structures before Christianity and to have been a fairly smooth process.

    Not really. The medieval monarchies of western Europe were largely successors of early medieval German tribal leaders, who in some cases may have been elected (by a small subset of the tribe) and who probably had very little in the way of "divine right". Many medieval kings were barely more than firsts among equals in the context of their powerful barons. Religious justification developed fairly gradually as kings sought support from the Church as a way of increasing their prestige and authority (Charlemagne being crowned Emperor by the Pope is an early example) -- but the Church was reluctant to go too far with this, since it threatened their supremacy.

    The classic "divine right" theory of kingship was really a 16th/17th Century development, partly in response to the upheaval wrought by the Protestant Reformation[*]. That's one of the reasons why James I and (especially) Charles I ran into trouble: they were asserting grander and more extensive authority than their predecessors had done, at roughly the same time as a rising upper middle class was demanding a larger share of power.


    [*] All this chaos and discord -- how do we deal with it? With a really powerful king, of course! (The decline of the Church's unquestioned authority played a role as well.)

    95:

    There seems to be some confusion here (and apologies if someone else has already made the point) about the definition of 'Monarchy'.

    Charlie correctly described dictatorship as 'a specialized subset' of monarchism, and was unfairly nitpicked for this.

    Technically, Mon (single) - Arch (ruler) simply indicates a system with one ruler. This could be a dictatorship, or a system of governance by hereditary selection (where the ruler is commonly known as a 'King', 'Queen', or, confusingly, 'Monarch'). Both may be described as 'specialized subsets' of monarchism.

    Compare 'Oligarchy' (Oli - few / Arch - ruler) and 'Anarchy' (An - without / Arch - ruler).


    96:

    Not relevant to the U.K.? Hmm. Other Britons disagree, but that's a digression. The place is obviously more relevant to Americans.

    The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, pronounced "pree") solved the dictatorial succession. The outgoing president appointed his successor from a short and well-known list of party insiders. Politicians rose within the party in systematic ways. Short terms of office followed by no-reelection (for both state and party offices) short-circuited the possibility of a Stalinesque rise.

    Eventually it gave way to democracy, of course. But it lasted for eight decades.

    97:

    Hi, Trey --- sorry, didn't see this. If I had, I would have replied to you directly.

    I was indeed thinking about the PRI, not Precolombian civilization.

    The PRI, of course, has not been in power since 2000. It's morphed into an oddly nonideological party, and looks set to win the 2012 presidential contest. Of course, that means less than it seems in today's Mexico; without Congress, the president doesn't have a lot of authority.

    It seemed that the example was directly relevant to Charlie's interests. It is actually rather amazing how useful Mexican history is in the study of a lot of conundrums of political economy; I know several academics, British and American, who have built entire careers on that premise.

    About the limits of Mexico's democratic transition, I am partial to this book, although it does not directly address Mexico's issues with organized crime. For that, I sort of think here isn't a bad place to start.

    I am, of course, biased.

    98:

    "What examples have there been of large-scale direct democracy?"
    "About the largest examples of direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy with a mechanism for the citizenry to call a referendum on $issue; eg Switzerland) that I can think of are some of the ancient Greek city states, and even then they limitted the franchise to adult male property owners."

    I guess "large-scale" is a relative term. Greek city states (men of property) and even Switzerland are fairly small (and very homogeneous) compared to most countries with economic power these days. Here in the US New England SMALL towns seem to be where this survives.

    But applying direct democracy to much of the society in the US would be a fail. It certainly would be at the various community groups I was a part of while my kids were growing up. And even with small ELECTED groups running things like our community pool and various booster clubs there always seemed to be a low to mid level revolt against authority occurring. I'm talking groups made up of 50 to 250 families with, in theory, a very common set of goals and interests.

    99:

    Charles
    Mexico actually has 130,000,000 citizens in the sense that they can vote in Mexican Federal elections. It's just that 25,000,000 live in the US at present, most with US citizenship, some without.
    Mexican presidents have had campaign events in US cities.
    I may be able to establish Hungarian, possibly Slovakian or Czechian citizenship based on my grandparents being from those areas. In Mexico, origins are much more recent and citizenship is very easy to demonstrate for purposes of voting.

    100:

    Where Divine Right started?

    Eridu.
    First city state. First instance of a "neutral" code of laws (not based on family ties, etc).
    The new lawful order claimed to be instituted by Enki, the wise "trickster" god.
    To drive home the point, they also built the first ziggurat.

    When the concept of a lawful order with its obvious boost to trade proved successful enough to make the claim of supernatural origin believable, it became copied all over the place (the meme-plex replicated).

    These first copies are known to us as the Sumerian civilization. And a lot of the source code is still present in today's societies.

    You don't need a lot of imagination for example to see the US Congress (the building itself) as a descendant of the ziggurat of Eridu.

    101:

    Yes, and they looked after them. See any livestock farmer for a rough approximation of the mindset today - no-one puts the kind of effort into keeping an animal alive and well I've seen some farmers put in solely for the monetary return, yet they will still turn around and sell that animal for slaughter.

    102:

    I don't know what you'd call a system of government that works by federated bonobo-style sexual grooming

    "The fucking government", same as today. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    103:

    The medieval monarchies of western Europe were largely successors of early medieval German tribal leaders...

    Nope.

    Germanic culture before close contact with the Roman Empire and the societal structure during the rule of Charlemagne for example do not compare.
    The Holy Roman Emperor always had the claim to be "Defender of the Faith" by "Divine Right". At least in theory.
    Since these obviously imported ideas often clashed with more traditional Germanic notions of leadership the outcome in practice was often some kind of hybrid. Not as clear-cut and extreme as Middle Eastern instances of God-king rule but still obviously influenced by it.

    104:

    Err, sociopaths seem to be able to 'read the minds' of other. else they couldn't function the way they do.

    Some people think Theory of Mind is not an entity, but consists of multiple subsets.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10822043

    There was one article arguing sociopaths are relatively intact in the social-perceptual sphere, e.g. they can observe cues, but that they have some deficits in the social-cognitive sphere, e.g. being able to comprehend others.

    http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/daniel.nettle/nettle%20and%20liddle%20ejp.pdf

    105:

    That's absolutely true. I just want to point out that Mexican candidates have stopped campaigning in the U.S., except as an action aimed at home audiences --- turnout among the emigrant population is dismal, an Mexican-Americans with U.S. citizenship show little to no interest in Mexican politics. (This is different from other immigrant populations in the United States.)

    Here's another measure of Mexico's importance (besides its outsized stature in the social science literature): GDP. It's the 14th largest economy in the world, with 1.6% of world GDP.

    On the other hand, Charlie's blind spot is shared by most Britons. (Yes, I think it's inexcusable; and those who know me know I'm not being hypocritical.) Monsters actually had jungles and pyramids overlooking the Tamaulipas-Texas border, not to mention all the Guatemalan flags and accents and place names. Really??

    106:

    Nobody has mentioned the Dwellers, from Iain M. Banks' "The Algebraist". Seemed to me like Banks was trying to describe an entire society run by open-source programmers, in which various social roles and functions performed by whoever was interested in the task. Even that society had an underclass though: the Dweller children, who were trod on by their elders until they managed to survive into adulthood. They were probably the answer to who would do the kinds of tasks nobody wanted to volunteer to do.

    107:

    I'm afraid you're misreading me. What I said was "early medieval Germanic tribal leaders", which of course means after contact with the Roman Empire. (To be more precise, one should perhaps specify "tribal confederations", as in the Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians, etc.) The Anglo-Saxon kings of England, for example, were descended from the leaders of small bands of invaders.

    Since these obviously imported ideas often clashed with more traditional Germanic notions of leadership the outcome in practice was often some kind of hybrid. Not as clear-cut and extreme as Middle Eastern instances of God-king rule but still obviously influenced by it.

    Well, we're not necessarily disagreeing here on the idea of hybridization, though one ought to note that the more direct hybridization was with: a) late Roman ideas of leadership; and b) Christian doctrine. It's not like medieval Europeans were able to read the Epic of Gilgamesh...

    (And you have to keep in mind that Christian doctrine was opposed to the idea of a "God-king" -- all humans are sinful and inferior to God, and those Roman Emperors who claimed to be gods were the enemies of early Christianity.)

    My main point was that to claim that the Western European idea of "the divine right of kings" is seamlessly descended from ancient Near Eastern ideologies of kingship is flat-out wrong.

    108:

    Actually, the bird at the front of the flock changes pretty regularly, just as the bicyclist at the front of a pack changes pretty regularly--they are pulling other birds along, and they have to work harder. Otherwise, I agree with Bruce's response.

    As for birds getting it right the first time they fly--uh no, some of them don't. In fact, watching ravens learning to fly can be pretty hilarious. When they first launch, they're not strong enough to climb back to their original nest, so they're literally semi-powered gliders who don't know how to steer. They learn by doing. First flights are usually a youngster calling at the top of his lungs and flying in wide, awkward turns, while a parent flies alongside to see where they land. The parents usually care for them for days as they go crash-landing all over the place, until they get strong enough to fly back to their original nests. For a bird as big as a raven, developing the simple strength to climb apparently takes days of exercise.

    109:

    meme vs. idea:

    The most interesting aspect of the discussion so far have been the repeated allusions to modeling in my eyes.

    I want to weigh in, that in smaller groups it is indeed possible to model each other's intentions and behaviour, in larger groups substitutes seem to play a role.

    If you have a single supreme ruler, it may be sufficient to correctly model motivations and behaviour of this one person to successfully navigate life (kiss His ass and everything is fine). Ditto with a micro-managing omnicient, all-powerful God.

    So, from the cognitive load standpoint, you have a very promising shortcut, with the risk of being abandoned by the God of your choice when the blasphemous Romans come with shiny weapons.

    The above implies the existence of underlying assumptions in your personal choice of mental shortcuts for societal modeling. And shortcuts you need, because 6-7 billion complex individuals are beyond your powers of computation.

    A meme therefore is an idea with consequences to these underlying assumptions of your choice of shortcuts for mental modeling, indirectly but powerfully influencing your real behaviour.

    The belief in a powerful God and the assumption that this specific form of belief is present in a large number of people (believers) obviously has consequences for your behaviour.

    So does the belief in reason. The "religion" of the age of enlightenment. Again the true power of the idea lies in the fact, that reason is accessible to other people as well and quite likely to inform their actions.

    So does the belief in a code of law that is informed by ethics (be they rational or religious) and uniformly enforced.

    We don't have to worry about Bakers poisoning us, if we can assume a) it doesn't pay for a Baker to poison the costumer, b) Bakers are intelligent enough to understand this.
    Obviously the mechanics are different, if it indeed does pay in the case of a big company (let's say Philip Morris) and a non-functional government.

    The big problem with scepticism as a dominant meme is: it makes us aware of all the possible failure modes. And if we can't rely on certain modes of behaviour in our contemporaries ourselves, we become increasingly difficult to compute for others.
    This is effectively a destructive feedback loop.

    So postmodern scepticism is a meme insofar as it influences our world-view and behaviour and replicates. But the current instances of late postmodernism are not connected to a stable Nash equilibrium anybody would like to live in.

    A society - to survive - needs a reason to be ethical stronger than a simple fashionable mood and I very much hope we find one.

    110:

    We don't have to worry about Bakers poisoning us, if we can assume a) it doesn't pay for a Baker to poison the costumer, b) Bakers are intelligent enough to understand this.

    Not true. Otherwise, why do we have food safety and ingredient labeling laws?

    111:

    #108 Para 2 is very true; see my #92 for a personal account involving a "stuck" corvid. The garden had hedges it couldn't climb fast enough to fly over all around it.

    112:

    What's so bad about Cracked? It's often amusing and, unlike many online magazines, at least has the decency to link to secondary sources.

    113:

    A serious lack of fact-checking, for one (e.g. a claim that Ireland has the highest per capita redheads in the world when in fact that's Scotland. All it takes to check that is Wikipedia).

    114:

    My argument was from the average person day to day perspective.

    In a world with food safety and ingredient labeling laws that are reasonably well enforced and widely respected as just, a small unsophisticated, but reasonably successful business is quite likely to simply follow those rules.

    A traditional baker in a civilized country is not likely to deliberately poison you.

    The problems start, when the rules are unjust, arbitrary or corrupted, enforcement lacks or companies are sophisticated enough to quantify the risks of specific forms of illegal behaviour.

    115:

    I just watched a trailer for the movie "Limitless" in which the protagonist deals with a chemically boosted mind (however dubious the "only use 20% of brain" premise may be).

    I have often thought that near-future SCI-FI involving boosted/modified human traits (intelligence, selective autism, mirror-neuron enhancement, etc..) would offer rich what-if scenarios to mine for stories.

    In the context of the current discussion the chemical ability to dramatically enhance mirror-neuron strength (call it massive empathification) would shift human interaction models. So far the discussions of human dominance models all assume we maintain our current inherited/societal-meme themes.

    I think as biotechnology progress continues we will start seeing entire groups of people start modifying their baseline responsiveness by chemically enhancing/de-enhancing various aspects: boosted intelligence, boosted empathy, selective autism periods, selective manic phases, cold as 'SPOCK' logic phase, etc... As time goes on the competitive nature of life will require you modify to compete and society will fragment even more than we have now from "selective information filtering/communication models".

    At some point we will find some bio-tech modification that adjusts a baseline characteristic to the point that for all intents and purposes its a new branch of humanity or even new species. How would this change your attempt to extrapolate out evolutionary biology effects on societal design when entire groups of people are competitively modifying their innate behaviors through chemical or gene-line changes?

    The exploration of the solution space entailed in "possible societal interactions" seems to assume we remain set in our current evolutionary derived baseline. Whereas for the purposes of near future SCI-FI I think all bets are off.. once we start easily modifying mental/emotional characteristics it will steamroll into widespread changes in society.

    Think of the importance entire groups place on: plastic surgery, best possible chance for my kids, emotional happiness, mentally out-competing the competition in business, etc... once Pandora's box is open a few generations out your talking stem line modifications to ensure the advantage persists. At that point debates of maximal societal control methodologies become massively more complex.

    Not trying to derail the discussion but mostly we tend to focus on technology progress and Moore's Law. Whereas bio-technology offers a way shift away from what we would call "baseline human" into realms that change the game as much as pure technological changes do...

    116:

    I can't think of any cases of poisoning by bakers, but the simple fact is that food manufacturers have been trying to increase their profit margin for many centuries if not millenia by adulterating what they sell. In a small enough society, eg a village, there will be immediate and perhaps rather painful sanctions to be applied.
    In a large society in flux with greater mobility, no such sanctions can be applied without central power. This power is usually that of government, and ideally it matches that of the corporation doing the baking. In practise, holders of economic and political power are closer together now than they have been for years.

    In the case of the baking, we've effectively delegated a large part of our trust to the company selling us the cakes and the food standards agency who is or aught to be making sure that the company is using the quality ingredients it claims to be using. I can see this working well enough in the current setup of nested hierarchys with some chains of responsibilities from top to bottom, but I can see it also working well enough in a more democratically organised society.

    117:

    The traditional route for dictators to 'step down' without fear of death, is exile.

    118:

    The logic in your meme vs. idea is waaay to rigid.

    The central fault is the theory that people are optimizing rather than bet hedging. This is demonstrably fallacious, and I'll give one example: In The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, the authors discuss how misleading things like employment statistics are by talking about the example of an acquaintance, who works occasionally in a hotel, fishes, works on a small farm, acts as a fixer for visiting academics, and probably does a few other things to make ends meet. Their question was: how many of those jobs does he have to lose before he's counted as unemployed by the statisticians?

    But the bigger point is that most people hedge their bets, like this Greek. Where failure=death, you don't want to maximize your success, you want to minimize your failure. You may kiss the dictator's ass, but you also make sure your nephew's talking to the rebels if you can't safely do it yourself.

    Mathematically and logically, bet hedging is much harder to model than optimality, so it tends to be systematically ignored by academics (who have their own agenda of retaining funding and getting tenure with limited hours to invest).

    Despite this academic neglect, people and other organisms that live in the real world hedge their bets all the time. Since they're not necessarily trying to optimize any particular outcome, any logical analysis that assumes they are doing so is fundamentally flawed.

    119:

    @erald:

    Check the link at John's posting (#30)
    http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/05/dinosaurs_come_out_to_play.php

    Burghardt's been working on reptile behaviour for over 30 years, as I recall, and he's always said that you get more behavioural lability in reptiles than you would expect, given their encephalization.

    120:

    I don't know about the wonders and benefits of a more responsive Government? Anybody remember Herbert's Bureau of Sabotage?

    n Herbert's fiction, sometime in the far future, government becomes terrifyingly efficient. Red tape no longer exists: laws are conceived of, passed, funded, and executed within hours, rather than months. The bureaucratic machinery becomes a juggernaut, rolling over human concerns and welfare with terrible speed, jerking the universe of sentients one way, then another, threatening to destroy everything in a fit of spastic reactions. In short, the speed of government goes beyond sentient control (in this fictional universe, many alien species co-exist, with a common definition of sentience marking their status as equals).

    I'm very much not a libertarian (U.S. definition) btw. But it seems only fair to point out that this sort of thing is probably the biggest problem humans have had to deal with, the most relevant for the most people in their day-to-day existence . . . and after tens of thousands of years, still mostly unsolved.

    By which I mean to say I feel free to sneer at every scheme to resolve these sorts of conflicts without feeling obliged in the slightest to offer up any ideas of my own :-)

    Or to put it still another way, ISTM that what you need for better conflict resolution is the New Soviet Man or the Heroic Capitalist or the rational utility-maximizing Homo Economist . . . you know, the sorts of beings that aren't human beings. Uh, maybe genetically re-engineered and technologically enhanced Post-humans?

    121:

    There is a theory that this has happened for a long time; see death before decaff with me, or symposions (greek for 'drinking together') ever since some early hominid forgot his fruits in the sun and gut a buzz from ethanol. As for human societies incorparating this, AFAIR Herodot said something along the lines the Persians used to discuss anything two times; first when drunk and second, when sober (maybe on the day after, which gets us into KNURD territory). And Ethanol has some effects on social cognition:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18562409

    As for mirrot-neuron enhancing, there was a SciAm article once arguing MDMA might be a starting point for enhancing mirror neuron functioning, but they didn't offer any proof of action of serotonin releasing agents on the system. Leaving issues of neurotoxicity aside (I more or less like my serotonergic system the way it is, thank you), there have been studies with fenfluramine, another neurotoxic serotonin releasing agent in autism, which weren't that impressive. Maybe one of the non-neurotoxic releasing agents might be an option, but then, anecdotal observations on the effects of MDMA on empathy (see: Love Parade or "Youth trains for carnival", as Wiglaf droste called it) imply it might be at least in part explained by hype.

    Also note reports of "enhanced empathy" not necessarily means people are better with 'mind-reading', another explanation is they are impaired to "unskilled and unaware of it"-levels of impaired.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    Yeah, life, a tragedy to people who feel, a comedy to people who think...

    122:
    We don't have to worry about Bakers poisoning us, if we can assume a) it doesn't pay for a Baker to poison the costumer, b) Bakers are intelligent enough to understand this.

    Not true. Otherwise, why do we have food safety and ingredient labeling laws?

    Just because the old duffer is in the news again, and because this sort of discussion is a bit less academic than something like the minimum size of an interstellar multi-generation spaceship:

    Luig Zingales writes a very interesting article about some of the new scandals in financial markets (the insider-trading trial of Raj Rajaratnam). ... From the article you can see that there is a sense of disbelief about what is happening:
    "It is so difficult to imagine that successful executives would jeopardize their careers and reputations in this way that many of us probably hope that the accusations turn out to be without merit."
    This quote reminds me of a recent one by Alan Greenspan regarding the behavior of financial institutions prior to the crisis (from October 2008):
    "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief."
    Despite his disbelief, Zingales admits that there is some recent evidence that supports the idea that personal networks can be a source of excess returns in financial markets.

    I'm quite sure that Greenspan was telling the truth when he spoke of his shocked disbelief at seeing financial titans go against their obvious self-interest. Just as I am constantly amazed at the things supposedly rational and intelligent human beings do that go against their obvious self-interest. And as no doubt they are amazed at the behaviours of mine that go against my obvious self-interest.

    For that matter, my daughter's mother is constantly reminding me that the quality of my life would be immeasurably improved if only I did exactly what she tole me to do, instantly and without any argument. Mixed in with these lectures are expressions of astonishment - if not outright disbelief - that I don't intuitively and immediately see this, seeing as how I'm supposed to be a pretty smart guy.

    I'm thinking I'm seeing a pattern here :-)

    123:

    As already mentioned, your example of bakers has some problems, especially since there are different values of poisonous, e.g. in mushrooms, you got everything from Amanita phalloides level of poisoning (spare liver, anyone?) to Cortinarius level of poisonous (somewhat toxic to kidney) or even Coprinopsis level of poisonous (edible, but coprine inhibits metabolism of alcohol, so bad idea with wine). Also note Amanita muscaria levels of poisonous, which overlap with Amanita muscaria levels of recreational. And even the tobacco industry doesn't want to poison its customers, it's just inhaling burned plant materials isn't that healthy.

    Concerning bakers, one of the main problems in mills I'm aware of, besides $EVIL GEOs[1], is Claviceps. And the alkaloids in question might be a lot more toxic to some (people with vascular disorders, pregnancy) than others. Which gives us something of a moral hazard, since throwing away all of your product because of ergotamine and like is costly. Since there is a NOEL. the bakers can use some flour with Claviceps without danger. But if people buy from multiple bakers and most bakers adhere to the norms, there is some profit to be made from using a little bit more without impunity. If one or two do it, no problem, but if all do it, there is some danger to the customers.

    Which raises one other question; is there some prerequisite for gullibility in an intelligent species, else all members go mad from paranoia?

    [1] Seems like the quality assurance guys have settled on "how much GEOs in our product?", not "any GEOs in our product?".

    124:

    Oh how our Gracious Host doth lead us into strange byways .. on that ref to Bread I instantly thought of BEER ..and why not? - given that laws against adulteration of it and of wine are among the most ancient of Health and Safety regulations ..with all sorts of Horrible penalties but lets have a look at more modern practices ..

    " One of the most dangerous forms of wine fraud is when producers use hazardous materials such as lead, diethylene glycol and methanol to wine in order to increase sweetness and alcohol content, respectively. Some chemicals maybe used to mask other wine faults and unpleasant aroma. Government authorities, such as the European Union and the American Food and Drug Administration, across the globe have set up laws and regulations of acceptable chemicals that can be added to wine in order to avoid some of the scandals that have plagued certain wine producing countries in the 20th century.[1]

    In 1985, diethylene glycol appeared to have been added as an adulterant by some Austrian producers of white wines to make them sweeter and upgrade the dry wines to sweet wines; production of sweet wines is expensive and addition of sugar is easy to detect. Fortunately, the amount added was not high enough to be toxic except at impossibly high (for most people) levels of consumption (one would have needed to ingest about 28 bottles per day for approximately two weeks in order to suffer fatal effects). Twenty-three people died in 1986 because a fraudulent winemaker in Italy blended toxic methanol (wood alcohol) into his low-alcohol wine to increase its alcohol content."


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

    This as I search for my copy of " The Life and Times of The Late Demon Rum " by Furnas that I'm reasonably sure does contain a reference to a formula for Gin that did incorporate Sulfuric Acid...and why not indeed! Serves these vile Bibers Right ..though perhaps not since they do deserve the chance to do The Right Thing and turn toward Temperance and .... Prohibition ?


    125:

    If there is a relatively fixed bag of tropes by which liberalism may be defined, this is surely one of them: If only people understood situation X - or so the liberal thinks - then they'd know that liberal response Y to that situation X was not only the best one, it would be intuitively obvious that it was the best one.

    Mining this idea has a long pedigree in the sf field, of course. You have guys like Philip E. High writing in the 60's about how Telepathy Will Solve Everything. More contemporary writers can't resist laying down their own riffs on the theme either, for example, Greg Egan's Tap. Egan being who he is and the times being what they are, the gimmick here is an improved language made possible by advanced technology, but the basic idea is still the same.

    It's a notion I disagree with, btw. Not that understanding another person's point of view isn't a good thing in and of itself. I'm just skeptical that said understanding will significantly change people's behaviour for the better.

    126:

    Problems with bakers:
    --Weevils and other beetles in the grain
    --rodent droppings in the grain
    --sawdust mixed in as filler
    --dirt mixed in as filler
    --weed seed coharvested with the grain and not cleaned. Some of the weeds can be quite toxic.
    --Yes, Claviceps. Also (and worse) aflatoxins if the grain was improperly stored and got moldy.
    --Flour-air mixtures are fairly explosive, so careless milling can kill a lot of factory workers, just as slipping millstones used to kill people fairly regularly.
    --Bread that gets moldy from being stored improperly (and not all molds are friendly penicillium. Aspergillus has some nasty species)

    And that's just the flour. Add in the milk (adulterated with cow urine at the source, or just water if you're not lucky), the butter (see above), and so on, and you have a plethora of possibilities.

    Note that the only cost for most of these are decreased sales and the potential lawsuit, but you can solve that by making *cheap* bread out of adulterated ingredients, and selling it to people too poor to fight back. Sound familiar?

    And if you're into eating meat products, go back and read Upton Sinclair.

    Yes, I like food and water safety laws. They rock my world.

    127:

    FYI, for a couple of people: "meme" is a contraction of "memetic replicator". I'm not sure that Richard Dawkins came up with the idea, but he certainly popularised it.

    It's part of the broader "everything is a replicator"/Selfish Gene concept, which I personally think has been more of hindrance than a help in evolutionary biology. Not to mention giving Maggie Thatcher undue encouragement, according to legend.

    128:

    Arrghhh!

    Specifically. On Sinclair and MEAT and " The Jungle " and because I once read the Sinclair opus that has long since passed into the realms of " why ever was he so popular " ...

    " The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by journalist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wrote the novel to point out the troubles of the working class and to show the corruption of the American meatpacking industry during the early-20th century. The novel depicts in harsh tones poverty, absence of social programs, unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness prevalent among the working class, which is contrasted with the deeply-rooted corruption on the part of those in power. Sinclair's observations of the state of turn-of-the-century labor were placed front and center for the American public to see, suggesting that something needed to be changed to get rid of American "wage slavery".[1] The novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. It was based on undercover work done in 1904: Sinclair spent seven weeks gathering information while working incognito in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards at the behest of the magazine's publishers.[2] He then started looking for a publisher who would be willing to print it in book form. After five rejections by publishers who found it too shocking for publication, he funded the first printing himself.[2] It was published by Doubleday, Page & Company on February 28, 1906 and has been in print ever since."

    Well worth reading, but, his deeply meaningful leftish political " Lanny Budd " series that I borrowed from a public library and read in a week whilst I was a ..well, sort of caretaker, part time on the Night Shift from my main job ... on the basis that .. 'it can't continue to be this Dull, I mean this is supposed to be ...' and so forth.

    "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanny_Budd#The_Lanny_Budd_series

    Which work is now in literary Limbo alongside such company as Dornford Yates, who was once wildly popular and often found in second hand book shops, that still existed when I was young, but whose work has now mostly vanished away save for historical references and Academic Work.

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

    The Worthy often lie interred next to the merely popular.

    129:

    I really should keep notes when I run across such findings on:
    http://www.physorg.com/biology-news/
    or
    http://www.eurekalert.org/

    One memory enhancement in mouse models:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21209202
    Which admittedly is a weak correlation to human models at this point but does suggest a future with Alzheimer target drugs being used "mis-used" as smart drugs. My friends in med-school regale me with tales of widespread "smart drug" use such as Modafinil. I imagine as pathways in cognition and memory are discovered, drugs enhancing these pathways will be equally mis-used..

    Perhaps I choose poor examples from memory, but I'm convinced that some easily exploitable nootropic effect will be discovered soon that will be the explosive equivalent of aspirin, vaccines, or match the monetary value found in that sexual function drug we all get spam on. The first drug with a dramatic cognitive boost will will spread like wildfire outside of its therapeutic targets.

    I don't imagine many will refuse full hair growth treatment that works for months:
    http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2008/july/follicle.html

    or

    Stem cell tooth regeneration:
    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/189248.php

    The market for fake/dubious biological enhancements is huge (Think supplements to boost breast size, ginko biloba, or 80% of the stuff on shelves at your local heath market store). Anything to gain an edge over your competition (botox injections anyone?).

    Once drugs/procedures come out that have real concrete results, adoption rates should be dizzying. Maybe some rewiring of the brain to puzzle out the most optimal booster drug would be necessary :)

    http://www.laibamedical.com/neurology-news/599.html
    (brain zapping and puzzle solving)

    130:

    The basic name, "selfish gene" gets misunderstood, badly. See Ken MacLeod on the subject.

    131:

    And if a couple of pieces of bread are moldy, you must throw all of the bread out. It can spread without being seen. On cheese, however, you can cut off mold and use the rest of it.

    132:

    "And now I'm trying to get my head around how coordinating behaviour might develop among a self-aware species of tool-using communicators who aren't basically shaved apes in suits."

    I'm not clear what you mean by "coordinating behavior". Are you suggesting directed behavior, e.g. everyone follows some agreed upon direction, like "build a cathedral"? Because, if so, society doesn't need to have that. It could operate more like the coordinating behavior of a cell, or a social insect society. Indeed, one might think of modern industrial, primarily market based, economies as self organizing rather than directed.

    If emergent memes transfer rapidly, wouldn't the effects seem rather similar to directed behavior? IOW, the idea of building a cathedral emerges, the meme dominates and this results in the building of a cathedral, with the co-ordination emerging from local communication.

    133:

    i saw that lion program,, the wife going 'awww, look at the cute lions..' and my eyebrows going so high they needed oxygen
    'Sandra, that is a cat the size of a setee, and it WOULD eat you, that is not CUTE'

    134:

    Here's another approach that's sort of in Peter Watts' bailiwick.

    Start with the assumption that the so-called Laws of Magic (see Bonewits, for example) are actually a reasonably good description of humanity's instinctive data processing algorithms and social behavior (they seem to work well in politics, and US Teabaggers certainly subscribe to them). We tend to see things as alive whether they are or not, we tend to think names are important, we tend to follow laws of sympathy and contagion, especially in politics, and so on.

    So another possibility for cooking up an alien race is to come up with a different set of magical laws. This is a staple of fantasy of course, but the idea here is that what you're really describing are the ways your species will instinctively behave, even when it might "know" better.

    135:

    Yeah, that's part of the reason I think the concept has done more harm that good. Although I have heard a professor of molecular biology refer to organisms as "the custodians of their genes" with a straight face. Which struck me then, and still does now, as a completely bassackwards way to think about things.

    I have some problems with the underlying concept though (and I do understand it in its proper complexity, I assure you). It's interesting to contemplate that the reductio absurdum where each base-pair is a "gene", and try to define a conceptual boundary between that and individual genes in the typical sense.

    136:
    It's interesting to contemplate that the reductio absurdum where each base-pair is a "gene"

    Nitpick: I don't think you can really go further than seeing each codon as a "gene", and even that's pretty absurd. The traditional view of a gene as the sequence between stop codons that codes for the amino acid sequence of a protein is as small a scale as I think really makes sense, and even that view has a problem: see the next paragraph.

    My problem with Dawkin's view of things is that his idea of a gene doesn't really fit what happens at the molecular level very well: his ideas work fine if you think of a gene in the Mendelian sense, but when you try to map that to what happens to codon sequences on chromosomes, it just doesn't fit. At a global level, and just looking at genes that directly code for protein synthesis, it's not usually the case that a single protein controls a single phenotypic trait that is going to get selected for all by itself; usually it's whole constellations of proteins that coordinate to produce some function or structure. And when you add in the epigenetic behavior of genes that control the expression of other genes, well, the lone gunman "selfish gene" just isn't in the picture.

    137:

    This is an interesting idea; I'd like to see an attempt at a description of the notions of magic of an aquatic species or an avian species, for instance. Would they be different because the beings who developed them move in three dimensions more freely than land animals do?

    ISTM that many of the concepts of magic that I've read about in various cultures started out in an animistic view of the world. When you have no real idea of the workings of physics or chemistry, you have to fall back on what you can observe in the natural world around you for notions about the nature of causality, and what the prime causes of actions like the wind and the rain are. The causes you normally see are the intentions of humans and animals, so it's quite reasonable to assume that the action of the wind or the motions of earthquakes are caused by sentient forces, spirits or something very like, that reside in what to the unaided senses seem like inanimate objects.

    138:

    Ah, but things like microsatellites (and even weirder classes of things that I don't know enough to talk about) DO fit the definition of selfish replicators. They're often really short, don't form codons because they're in non-coding sections of DNA, yet they get replicated along with the rest of the genome and appear to actively replicate themselves within the genome. Yet they aren't genes at all, by the classical definition. See what I mean about the fuzzy boundaries?

    139:

    "the truth is as true on one person's lips as another's". Perhaps not actually perfectly true - one person might have more hinterland of understanding related to a particular phrase than another, but it likely has something to do with it. Then you could debate which society would seem to be the best, perhaps coming up with democracy.
    This idea might underly the "democracy" means of getting along with one another.

    Also, does anyone see freedom as pretty close to the rule "no dominating people"?

    140:

    Coming to this debate VERY late ....

    Also we, the UK, are actually in a Republic with an hereditary Head-of-State. I know Charlie and I disagree on this one but: consider what happened to Edward VIII when he stepped too far out-of-line (and Wallis Simpson was very convenient excuse - she wasn't the real reason he was got rid of...)
    See also @ 48.
    Republics, of course, are not inherently superior either.
    Huge numbers of them are/were Oligarchies - classical Venice must be a good example. Or the USA for most of its' history ....

    @ 6
    N. Korea is ruled by God-Kings. Especially since communism is a religion anyway. See also Charlie @ 16, 33.

    @ 27 And it is called; "The Culture" - is it not?

    Charlie @ 28
    Not quite. Juan Carlos could see the modern world happening, and that the Franco-model would not work for a current European state, especially with better communications. He deserves more credit than he was given, especially from the idiot socialists - who got their sharp lesson when the subsequent revanchist coup failed. (Thanks to Juan Carlos)

    Bruno @ 43, 44
    Gaddafi rates only a 2 ... and precisely. Look at Tunisia/Egypt. The "bosses" tried to quell the revolutions by cutting off the INTERNET! Oops - which REALLY started the revolution.
    Interesting, no?

    @ 46
    Erm - the Censorship Wars in "Glasshouse"?

    Unholy Guy @ 69
    Not even wrong.
    Religion is the OPPOSITE of democracy.
    Theocracies are the most oppressive form of dictatorship possible. Even C. S. Lewis, of all people, spotted that one:
    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

    @ 94
    Very good.
    The Stuarts tried too hard, since they saw the rise of a middle class as a threat, not an opportunity.
    Unlike their predecessor who said, and meant both of the following: "Little man, the word "must" is not used to Princes"
    AND
    "But I have reigned, and hope to reign with all your loves"
    She knew enough to give-way gracefully, when it became obvious that part of guvmint policy was wrong ...
    But, then, that was Gloriana.

    @ 122
    "Going against their obvious self-interest"
    Two classic examples.
    1] ANY religious believer
    2] Anyone voting Rethuglican in the USA.

    Last thought.
    Self-selecting small power groups in smaller sections of society.
    To those in the UK, think of Derek Hatton's lunacies in Liverpool approx 1975-90, which nearly destroyed that city, both socially and economically - yet he managed to get people to continue to vote for him - by indirect bribery.
    And other examples of "entryism", as it is now called in other political parties (all of them) in various parts of the UK, where self-selecting religious groups of (usually) one particular religion are attempting to take over, and subvert at least the local power structures.
    THEY will benefit, but everyone else won't. But most people won't notice unless it's too late, usually, especially as we must always "respect" other peoples' beliefs.
    Erm.

    141:

    Let's go further: the term "gene" has outlived its use. Like "singularity" in (cough) SF, it has two or more distinct meanings with radically different implications, and should therefore not be used in serious discussions.

    Mendelian genes were the basic unit of hereditable phenotypic traits. Post-1947 Crick-and-Watson-and-Franklin DNA studies assumed that exons corresponded one-to-one with Mendelian genes ... and in some cases that comes close to representing the situation (especially if you go all the way up to the operon level), except it seems to break down when we move from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, and collapses in ruins when we look at tissue differentiation in multicellular eukaryotes (like ourselves), for example, where whole complexes of Crick/Watson/Franklin "genes" are set in motion to produce quite subtle effects which have side-effects which interact with the side-effects of other complexes to result in us sprouting arms on our shoulders instead of our foreheads.

    142:

    The problem is seperating the facts from the hype; take methylphenidate here, it's wonderful in ADHS sufferers and similar people (for 'thanks I don't have to ruminate all the time if I really switched off the oven and closed the door' levels of wonderful), problem is, in people good at short term memory tasks and concentrating (there are indications the latter is a pleonasmus) it worsens abilities. And even then, it's hardly new, cocaine has a similar pharmacology to MPH, with some additional side effects (according to some friends visiting Bolivia and like, local anesthetic effects in the mouth remind you of dentistry, for starters), and in its relatively benign form of coca leaves, it's been used in South America for millenia. BTW, some indio groups have high levels some alleles associated with ADHD, but well, here is another hype, then...

    http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/CBD/downloads/Chen_et_al-DRD4_&_migration.pdf

    When you look for PDE-4 inhibitors, one molecule with appropiate profile is Mesembrine, an ingredient of Sceletium which was used by Kung-San for hundreds of years.

    And working on NMDA and GABA, well guess what alcohol is all about?

    Recent biomedical research means new targets, more potent and selective tools and better ideas what's going on, but hominids have been haking their brains for a long time. Maybe even in the last common ancestor of humans and chimps:

    http://jinrui.zool.kyoto-u.ac.jp/CHIMPP/CHIMPP.html

    Maybe Fukuyama would stop ranting for once when he looked into the history of biomedical interventions for once. But Hegelians and actual research, yeah, never the twain shall meet...

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

    143:

    Thanks for the list of problems, my main source till now was the brother of my cohabitant in the chateau de nerd, who works in the legal department of a milling company.

    Funny side note, talking about some of the ingredients in confectionery, he wasn't that surprised and said talking to the guys from the legal department of the neighbouring confectionery store always gives him the jibes, but that's legal drugs for you. M(erchants).O(f).D(eatch). Squad, anyone?

    And then there are the foods where deliberate tainting is part of the deal. I mentioned alcohol, but what's bout chees, tea, coffee...

    144:

    I'll admit that my sources for some of the problems are things like travelers' complaints about products in Third World Countries, stories from the Victorian era, and so on.

    That's kind of the point, really. We live in such a sanitized environment that we don't really think about how bad it can be, or what many of the poorest people put up with as a matter of course.

    And it's not just a luxury, either. Imagine if you had to be in the state of a 1970s Indian housewife, who might insist that a dairyman bring the cow around and milk it in front of her, to make sure he wasn't cutting the milk with water or urine. How much time would you have for a career and hobbies if you had to do that for all the food you ate, just to keep your family safe?

    Those laws can be burdensome (as witnessed by the legal department at the bakery), but the burden is minor compared to the billions of hours they free up for other uses. Personally, I'm thankful that there are inspectors and lawyers out there making my life easier for me.

    145:

    I'm going to suggest something heretical, which is that animism, consciously applied, makes a lot of sense. Let me explain why and how I came to that conclusion.

    The reason why is that human brains have a massive capacity for analyzing social interactions. We can't help it, and in fact, anyone who does not have that capacity is labeled sick or crippled.

    Animism makes things into people, and when you do that, you're co-opting the social part of your brain to help with intuitive analysis of whatever you're working on. The trick when doing this is to remember that you're being consciously animist.

    It's a very useful technique for hypothesis generation, because even the nerdiest of us are instinctively social, whereas we have to learn and practice logic.

    I realized this when I started doing research on symbiosis. If you read the literature on symbiosis, there's a lot of (to be frank) silliness, because complex relationships are analyzed logically, using optimality criteria. Furthermore, when you teach the subject, students roll their eyes and complain about all the mushy terms they have to memorize (what does amensal mean, again?)

    I learned to lectures on symbioses with something like the following routine: "Most of you have been in relationships, right? If only with your parents and siblings? (audience all nods). Okay, a mutualistic relationship is supposed to be mutually beneficial. But that's like the ideal marriage, right, good all the time? How often is that true?" Everyone grins, everyone relaxes, and all of a sudden, instead of a bunch of oppressed students trying to memorize recondite terms for the next test, I've got a bunch of relationship specialists engaged in understanding what's going on and making cynical suggestions about why partners might cheat and how they can benefit each other.

    The point here is that *conscious* animism can be a powerful tool. I don't think that symbiotic fungi live in a soap opera, but we can certainly make some good guesses about their interactions if we assume there's a soap opera going on.

    I agree that placating the earthquake god may not be a useful approach for preventing earthquakes, but treating an earthquake as a malevolent entity isn't a bad idea at all. Nor is caring about your computer as if it was a pet. We've evolved to relate, and as logical beings, we should take advantage of that fact, rather than denying it.

    146:

    Honestly, any IT guy who hasn't threatened his computer or thought about dancing naked covered in chicken shit in front of it at least once in the preceding month is not really in IT... *g*

    About the funghi soap opera, well that's something for the public education sector.

    147:

    brucecohenpdx @136

    "My problem with Dawkin's view of things is that his idea of a gene doesn't really fit what happens at the molecular level very well: his ideas work fine if you think of a gene in the Mendelian sense, but when you try to map that to what happens to codon sequences on chromosomes, it just doesn't fit. "

    charlie@141

    "[Mendelian genes]...collapses in ruins when we look at tissue differentiation in multicellular eukaryotes (like ourselves), for example"

    If anything that strengthens Dawkins' arguments, not weakens them. Genes are conserved sequences of DNA, usually translated to one or more proteins, but not necessarily, and more than a conserved enhancer region. It is the replication of sequences that are relatively conserved compared to other sequences that are most important and is the whole basis of comparison of genes.

    148:

    In what way is "singularity" a bad term? IIRC it denominates an interval in a function that is not differentiable. That only means that this model cannot be used to describe or make predictions for this interval, which is not very esotheric. Did I miss something?

    149:

    Did I miss something?

    Only the past 18 years in science fiction, since this talk by Vernor Vinge and the subsequent co-option of the term by second-handers like Ray Kurzweil.

    150:

    Vinge himself is quite clear on the concept that the singularity he talks about is inherent to current techno-socio-economic models. He doesn't state or imply that there can't be an applicable model. Singularities as I understand them are always a property of a model, a pattern of explanation if you will, not of reality. In this understanding there can be many types of singularities, just as there can be many mathematical models of reality. A phenomenon that is encompassed by a singularity in one model is not necessarily so in another.

    151:

    The problem is the term "technological singularity" has come to mean a whole bunch of things. To Vinge, it's AI or IA resulting in superhuman thinking. To Kurzweill and a bunch of others it's the rapture of the nerds, in which we all go to upload heaven. To many more, it's an exponential slope in the rate of change of technology.

    The point is, the term has been used imprecisely by so many people that it has become useless; it's a desert topping, a floor wax, and anything else you want it to be (as long as it's fast and shiny).

    152:

    Interesting sidelight on theories of molecular genetics: I've been reading Evelyn Fox Keller on the history of biology lately1. She's a physicist turned molecular biologist turned historian and philosopher of science. In her view, 20th century biology, and especially molecular genetics in the second half of the century, focused most of its investigation on prokaryotes, on the assumptions that they would be easier to study than eukaryotes and that the mechanisms of eukaryotes would be simply larger and more complex versions of those in prokaryotes2. This is one of the reasons so many biologists were caught off-guard by the discoveries of the large portion of eukaryote genomes that don't code for protein synthesis, even though elementary arguments of information theory had long ago made it clear that none of the genomes we knew of could possibly code for the post-development structure of complex eukaryotes.

    1. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-century Biology and Making Sense of Life : Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines in particular.
    2. This despite the elephant in the room represented by cell type differentiation and the influence on organism development of the phenotype of the parent in eukaryotes.

    153:
    If anything that strengthens Dawkins' arguments, not weakens them.

    I don't agree. AIUI, Dawkins is saying that a given replicator is "selfish" in the sense that its conservation comes at the cost of other replicators (I'm deliberatley not using the word "gene" here). But we know of many cases of genetic replicators which were selected individually in some lineage of organisms and then later were incorporated into constellations of replicators which became conserved as a group. This can, and I think often does, mean that the original replicators are constrained by conservation of the constellations they are in to not increase their numbers by duplication or by expression by themselves without the rest of the constellation. This, in my view, is not "selfishness" but conservation through cooperation.

    154:

    I agree, animism is a useful metaphor. I've heard engineers and scientists say many times, "That X wants to ..." or "It's purpose is ..." as a way to talk about the function or structure of an isolated subsystem without constant, complicated circumlocutions. I do it myself a lot. It's especially useful in dealing with grey areas between the dumbness of hammers and the intentional stance of animals. Anything that has at least one feedback loop in it, and any system that maintains itself far from equilibrium has some aspects of intention, and it helps to use language that reflects that fact.

    155:

    The problem with early-medieval kingdoms is disentangling theory and rhetorics (like 'what some lone monk did in his spare time after drinking too much beer and reading some bad latin tracts', or 'high level memos from cuckooland') from the actual power structure of treaties and like (like 'the way most contemporaries expected things to run like' or 'local management wants you to know') from the actual way things happened (god-kings seem to invite experimental theology, AKA assasination attempts, and some vassals were way more powerful then the emperor, or 'why the hell has my predecessor scanned the signature of the boss's wife and put it in his personal belongings folder?').

    That being said, what early-germanic power structures were we talking about? Leaving aside the definition of 'germanic' (like 'everything east of the Rhine' for the Romans, even if most members of a group besides the leaders spoke a Celtic or even putative Nord-West block language), there might have been differences in social and political structure; 'king' seems to derive from an old word that was borrowed quite some time ago into Finnish as 'kuningas', so this seems to be a common Germanic concept, though it might mean something slightly different from the later use. Seems like pagan Germanic kings were something like high priests, so the divine king might not be a foreign borrowing, but a local tradition. Besides this, above the local tribal unit, there seem to have been some tribal unions akin to Greek amphictyony, so we're stepping into religious territory again, but at the other extreme of sophisticated organization (see: lack of), Tacitus groups the Peucini as sedentary but close to the nomadic Sarmatians and Finns.

    Concerning the minutes of ritual, most Germanic kings we know about were men, but Tacitus mentions the Sitones have a queen, guess the Droit de seigneur[1] was interesting there.

    Also note most of the entities coming out of the migrations period had many non-Germanic ethnic elements to them, see 'Vandalorum ALANORUMque', where the Alanes were one of those pot-smoking ephedra-drinking Indo-Iranian nomads, so extrapolating from them to earlier structures seems difficult.

    As for Christianity and the divine right of kings, well, concerning original sin, even Augustinus is only 354 and the Second Council of Orange was 529, so using the concept of original sin against divine right of kings would have been a rather weak defence in the early Medieval.

    And then, Christianity seems to favor authorative modes of gouvernment, even in the case of the death warrant of Pilate, Jesus says Pilate had no power if it wasn't given from above, which implies any form of government is god-given and right. Paulus of Tarsus says similar things in the letters attributed to him, along with some things that'd get the blood of Geert Wilders steaming[2], but I digress.

    As for Roman emperors and Christianity, let's just say it's a serious love-hate relationship concerning the latter, hmkay? Even prostituting to a total prick like Constatine the (cough) Great.

    [1] Yeah, I know the Droit de seigneur is an invention of some sex-deprived early modern writers. Leave a middle-aged man to his dreams, ok?

    [2] I can't take critics of Islam who point to 'our Judeo-Christian' heritage that serious.

    156:

    "This, in my view, is not "selfishness" but conservation through cooperation."

    We're going to get into dangerous territory here and I don't think this is the venue to get into this technical debate. My thoughts are more aligned with selfish gene explanations, but I accept that interesting arguments against this have been renewed of late.

    157:

    This is all a bit above my head, however, breathes deeply.

    It seems to me that some ideas are 'catchy' in the sense that they become viral, even if they are completely wrong. I remember John W Campbell, I think, in an Analog editorial talking about the alligators in the New York Sewers as an example of something that was widely believed but utterly false. I seems that a lot of conspiracy theory stuff falls into the category of having a 'zing' to it, in the sense that it gets a 'hell yeah!' reaction.

    The reason I am mentioning this sort of material is that it is almost always a shorthand explanation or packaged in a news item sized byte as an explanation. It suggests to me that it is because some (most?) human beings are essentially willing to consume an idea without much thought, at least if it does not adversely effect them or their immediate group.

    You can live a happy and productive life on this planet without considering the origins of the Universe. If you are not very interested, then 'God did it' is enough of an explanation.

    158:

    Charlie @151: "To many more, it's an exponential slope in the rate of change of technology. ...has been used imprecisely by so many people that it has become useless."

    I agree that it doesn't make a lot of sense if you see it in this context. If memory from high-school algebra serves me right in a two-dimensional graph only the intervals where you can't determine the Y value for a given X is a singularity. A point of exponential curvature certainly isn't, a point of infinite curvature is. For me misuse of the term still doesn't lay waste to the concept of singularity in principle, in fact I love the thought that our models will be superseded by more elaborate ones that will allow for ventures where no mind has gone before, including former singularities.

    Far be it from me to suggest using spoiled terms in future fiction, but whenever I encounter singularities in fictional literature I always think of them more as characters in a parable than the actual thing. Even if I didn't I think it has to be de-spoiled, but I assume that is a tall order for a fiction writer.

    Was going to hold this, but seeing as things are going in that direction anyway:

    Glen @19: "In the future they might be able to give me a slow release medication that eliminates all of my ADD symptoms. Including my creativity. Is this good in the sense that I can now hold down a normal job and interact with people in the way they prefer, or is it bad because it flattens out all the human differences. Brave New World and all that."

    Now there's an interesting thought. I think we can all agree that determining the human average for every type of psychological response and then engineering everybody to precisely match it is not desirable. Disallowing drug use to alleviate the symptoms of neurochemical imbalances doesn't look like the way to go either. But where does acceptable drug use start and where does it end? Can we only treat symptoms of hereditary disease and trauma or also phenomena that occur in "normal" individuals like sleep deprivation and where is the distinctive difference?

    Is it o.k. for a person with a high stress job to take a little something to make it more bearable (mother's little helpers are an ancient concept)? Would you rather be treated by a doctor that is asleep on his feet or one that tweaked his alertness, when having a really awake one is not an option?

    In the end I think there is no other practical option than to allow us to engineer ourselves to whatever end we deem worthy at the time, even if it will almost certainly come back to bite us in the ass.

    159:

    The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is now looking at all the dye in foods. They're following up: "Two recent studies sponsored by the British government found that children given foods made with some artificial dyes and a food preservative, sodium benzoate, showed an increase in hyperactivity. The study sampled children in the general population, not just those known to show hyperactive behavior." As usual, food manufacturers are disagreeing.

    Laura Anderko of Georgetown University Medical Center suggests "Moms and dads will say, ‘Here’s a fruit roll-up — that must be healthy.’ But it’s filled with dyes. And emerging science suggests it’s a harm to children."

    What the article doesn't mention is that fruit roll-ups are full of sugar, too.

    160:
    Let's go further: the term "gene" has outlived its use.

    Heated agreement. Now that molecular biologists have finally accepted that information theory and the thermodynamics of information are useful concepts when applied to genetics1, maybe we can get agreement on some fresh concepts of what the genome is composed of.

    One of the more hilarious interviews I've read in the last few years was one with Crick, in which he admitted that he really hadn't meant to call it the "Central Dogma of Molecular Biology", but he couldn't think of another word at the time. So a proposal that he put forward as tentative, and which he says he really doesn't believe in anymore, became almost a religious principle for 2 generations of biologists. Moral: keep a thesaurus handy when proposing sweeping generalizations.

    1. And they've stopped misunderstanding the meaning of "entropy".

    161:

    I agree that the concept of gene is also showing its age. If I can veer into philosophy for a second, I think the problem with the selfish gene (and meme, for that matter) isn't only the gene, it's the concept of self in this context.

    One of humanity's greatest laws of magic is the existence of a self. It's the thing you count, and it's the fundamental concept you use when calculating selective advantage (how many more individuals are born with x vs. y?).

    The problem with genes, as with memes, ideas, and computer programs, is that it's actually very difficult to determine what "an individual gene" is. Some proteins come from multiple sequences, some come from partial sequences, all are annotated by methyl groups, and all are controlled by non-coding regions.

    In an environment where it's difficult to identify and count what the individuals are, a theory of selfishness is, at best, only metaphorically true and marginally useful.

    162:

    The big point I took from The Selfish Gene is that the survival of the gene (whatever that is) doesn't depend on the survival of the organism carrying it. Which is a bit different from what I was being taught in school, in the last few years before Thatcher.

    163:

    I agree as Evolutionary Biologist and ex-Biology teacher that "gene" is an obsolete terms, patched and exception-hacked to epicyclic uselessness. As to humans versus chimps, in genotype, phenotype, and culture, let me keep this short by using only my abstract.

    The Shifting Border Between Chimpanzee and Human
    By
    Jonathan Vos Post, Computer Futures, Inc.
    Draft 7.0 of 21 January 2010, 41 pp., 16,800 words;
    [replaces Draft 6.0 of 15 January 2010, 34 pp., 15,000 words

    ABSTRACT:

    Are we sure of the border between chimpanzees and Human Uniqueness? How much do Chimpanzees have in common with our earliest human ancestors, in terms of cognition and social behavior? This paper informally surveys several recent studies in the context of several dozen research and survey papers that seem to establish:
    (1) Wild Chimps Have Near Human Understanding of Fire;
    (2) Chimps Have Been Found Using Caves For Shelter;
    (3) "Referential" gesturing was recently observed in wild chimpanzees;
    (4) Chimpanzees Discovered Making And Using Spears To Hunt Other Primates;
    (5) Wild Chimpanzees Exchange Meat For Sex;
    (6) chimpanzees will help other unrelated humans and conspecifics without a reward;
    (7) chimps use a range of tools to chop food into smaller pieces;
    (8) Transcription Factors Guide Differences in Human and Chimp Brain Function;
    (9) A new study of chimpanzees living in the wild adds to evidence that our closest primate relatives have cultural differences, too.
    (10) Chimpanzee and human Y chromosomes are remarkably divergent in structure and gene content.
    (11) Humans, chimps, and gorillas were few in number 1.2 million years ago.

    If we take these as a source of analogies, rather than definitive scientific hypotheses, we may see these as suggesting that both Chimps and humans share capabilities with technology, shelter, communicative gestures, weapon-making:

    (1) The technology often claimed as unique to humans, fire, may almost be understood by wild Chimps;
    (2) The dwelling places identified with “Cave Men” are also used by Chimps for shelter;
    (3) "Referential" gesturing as previously thought to be used best by humans was recently observed in wild chimpanzees;
    (4) Humans and Chimpanzees both make and using weapons (spears) to hunt;
    (5) A primitive precursor to economics is seen in the correlation (causality is not claimed) when wild Chimpanzees exchange meat for sex;
    (6) Chimpanzees share crucial aspects of altruism with humans;
    (7) Although chimps did not cook food (as only humans do) they make a variety of tools for obtaining and processing food.
    (8) The roughly 1,000 genes in common between chimpanzee and human appear linked to the action of roughly 90 mRNA-related transcription factors, especially in the brain;
    (9) "The most reasonable explanation for this difference in tool use was that chimpanzees resorted to preexisting cultural knowledge in trying to solve the novel task," said Klaus Zuberbühler of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "Culture, in other words, helped them in dealing with a novel problem." "Culture" in this sense refers to a population-specific set of behaviors acquired through social learning, such as imitation, Zuberbühler explained. That's in contrast to an animal or human learning something on his or her own through trial and error, without taking into account what others around them do, or behaviors that are "hard-wired" and require no learning at all.

    At the same time, the origins of complex human social behavior have been pushed further back in time, including the use of fire, domesticating crops 11,400 years ago, processing of grains and grass seeds to proto-bread 100,000 years ago [Mercader , 2009], and the special segregation of social activities 750,000 years ago [Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2009]; [Powell, 2009].

    (10) “By conducting the first comprehensive interspecies comparison of Y chromosomes, Whitehead Institute researchers have found considerable differences in the genetic sequences of the human and chimpanzee Ys -- an indication that these chromosomes have evolved more quickly than the rest of their respective genomes over the 6 million years since they emerged from a common ancestor.”

    (11) “In biological terms, it seems, humans were not a very successful species, and the strategy of investing in larger brains than those of their fellow apes had not yet produced any big payoff. Human population numbers did not reach high levels until after the advent of agriculture.”

    The more closely one looks, the more subtle are the differences between Human and Chimpanzee social behavior, and inferred cognition.

    164:

    Funny thing is, in some tests caffeine seems to be of similar effectiveness than amphetamine and like.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19238808

    Tolerance is a bitch, though. Oh, the days of 2 cans of coffee a day...

    165:

    In this thread, I see some avant-garde enthusiasm for abolishing the word or concept "gene". Of course, that proposal will gain zero traction with actual geneticists, who spend their days studying genetic expression and browsing genome databases... It's a bit like telling particle physicists that they shouldn't talk about particles, because the world is actually made of quantum field excitations, rather than clashing Democritan billiard balls. Well, Democritus certainly never imagined a quantum field, and quantum fields can do all sorts of remarkable things, but they can also produce persistent, spatially localized excitations that engage in elastic collisions, and that's what matter is made of. Similarly, even in the brave new world of alternative splicings and RNA interference, it's still true that specific subsequences of a chromosome get transcribed, conveyed to a ribosome, and translated to protein, and it's still true that proteins, and thus the sequences which encode them, have determinate functions. And that's enough to make the concept of "gene" still valid.

    166:

    Actually, I've seen some enthusiasm for abolishing "gene" expressed in the press by geneticists.

    The geneticists know what they're dealing with, and much of it is not Mendelian genes. As noted above, proteins can be made out of multiple or partial sequences, and in some cases (like the spacer regions in the mitochondria), the "non-coding DNA" is critical, because when transcribed, it coils in a particular way to bring the pieces of the ribosome pieces together in a functional unit.

    The problem is that the public (read journalists) knows Mendel, and so the default language for non-geneticists is Mendellian genetics.

    167:
    What the article doesn't mention is that fruit roll-ups are full of sugar, too.

    As an old person (64 at the moment) who has been diagnosed with ADD and has probably had it since age 12 or 13, and who has raised two children, one diagnosed at age 12 with ADHD and the other not diagnosed but probably having ADD, I can testify from long experience that sugar can have extreme effects on children. Hyperactivity, stomach upset, mood swings, and the list of symptoms goes on. Long term effects? Almost certainly, but that's much harder to tease out from anecdotal evidence.

    168:

    You and your readers might be interested in a forthcoming presentation at Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems, June 26 - July 1, 2011
    Boston Marriott, Quincy, MA, USA. The Proceedings will eventually be on-line.
    "Predicting Locations of Ethnic Violence" by Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon, Justin Werfel, Alexander Gard-Murray, Shlomiya Bar-Yam, and Yaneer Bar-Yam.
    Abstract: How can violence between groups differentiated by ethnicity, culture, religion or language be predicted? We have formulated a model which identifies likely locations of outbreaks of violence based upon the spatial distribution of groups. [1] Applying a wavelet filter to census data we identify group size and the structure of boundaries between them, from which we can predict the propensity to violence at a given location. Predictions for India and the former Yugoslavia have a correlation with reported violence of 99% and 90% respectively. This model is currently being extended and applied to other contexts.

    [1] M. Lim, R. Metlzer, and Y. Bar-Yam. Global Pattern Formation and Ethnic/Cultural Violence, Science 317, 5844 (September 14, 2007).

    169:

    heteromeles @ 145
    Interesting idea.
    I come at that from the opposite side - my training is in science and engineeering, yet I'm still amazed at the number of people who treat "Machines" with no sense or respect, and are then suprised when said machines fail.
    I don't mean faulty design or poor manufacture, either.
    The simplest example I can think of is the htousands of people who can't wait for the last few drops to fall out of a water-tap, and screw down the top even tighter - thius causing it to fail, in short order.
    Car-drivers are another subset, who wonder why their car is defective, and blame the manufacture/garage, when it's their fault.

    Have considerations for the things (in the widest sense) that you are interacting with.

    170:

    I propose there is no such thing as a self.
    There are only hierarchically nested entropy inversions.

    The whole concept of a self in my humble opinion is traceable to a structure in the brain that has evolved to integrate all known actions of people we regularly interact with (ourselves among others - for the truly intrested: I'm refering to the medial prefrontal cortex in connection with a few other structures like insula).

    In other words a "self" is an integrated model - a very useful one mostly - that feels true and natural to us, because its part of the way we think.

    But of course a truly "selfish gene" would be the equivalent of a selfish cell - something we call cancer - only on another rung in a set of hierarchically nested interdependent structures.

    When we talk about autonomy or "survival", then we clearly have to see the mechanics (in the sense of out-of-equilibrium thermodynamics) of the whole thing.

    And you have to be pretty blind or Richard Dawkins, not to see that human biological systems for the most part have given up much of their structural autonomy to even larger autopoietic structures. Hell, guys are willing to die for God and country all over the place. An Indonesian suicide bomber, motivated by a bearded Arab he never even met, is not exactly advancing the survival rate of his genes.


    It's much more logical to see societies or religions as independent autopoietic structures, dependent on humans just as humans depend on cells and able to manipulate them just as human biological systems manipulate cells.
    You can even postulate an evolving meta-society "global public opinion".

    Common to all levels of organisational complexity is that informational structure can react to entropy shocks with EITHER an arms race to safeguard autonomy OR integration into a less vulnerable structure.

    171:

    Oh, I agree that self is an illusion. Like animism, it's a useful illusion, at least for us. We get into trouble when we uncritically extend that illusion, typically by trying to count things that aren't units.

    My very modest epiphany came when I was working on a particular group of symbiotic fungi that form mycorrhizae. They don't have cell walls, rather their mycelia are swarms of thousands nuclei. When I was doing my research, several mycologists were claiming that they had found genetic differences between nuclei within the swarm of nuclei within a single fungus. It also appeared that they were asexual. The finding has since been questioned, but at the time it provoked an uproar.

    Think about it for a second: with fungi, if you cut their bodies (mycelia) in half, you have two fungi. So if this group of fungi is neither genetically nor physically distinct, what the heck is an individual fungus? My first understanding of the illusion of self was trying to see the world from the viewpoint of these fungi.

    Now this is "esoteric," until you realize that these little things are among the most common fungi on the planet, that they helped land plants evolve back in the Devonian (their mycorrhizae pre-date the evolution of plant roots by quite a few million years), and that in certain plant communities, they play a big role in increasing diversity. Not bad for a lowly, supposedly asexual fungus.

    172:

    I don't agree that proximity begets empathy

    Mirror neurons aren't hand-waving, they are scientific fact. Even mice show greater sensitivity to pain after they have seen a familiar mouse writhe in pain:

    http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23764/


    -- after all, masters saw their slaves every day, no?

    Not really, a whole stratum of overseers was groomed for just this purpose - to be a buffer between owners and the dirty business of their own cruelty.

    Indoor slaves such as house servants were treated much better, and sometimes even regarded with condescending affection.

    Now it's certainly *possible* to be cruel to those right in front of you, but it isn't as easy. Look at the level of rudeness on Internet as compared to, say, the sidewalk.

    And what's the rate of road rage between pedestrians or bicyclists, compared to people whose faces are hidden inside of cars?

    173:

    Marilee @159; Don't you just love it when a new study discovers an old idea?

    I grew up, in the 70s, on the Feingold Diet; no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Some of the first words I learned to read. Hyperactive was just one diagnosis my parents were given when I was a toddler. I couldn't say if it actually worked, and I've come to think it more likely that it was the Raynaud's (diagnosed at 3) associated migraines that made it hard to concentrate.

    174:

    brucecohenpdx @ 153:

    AIUI, Dawkins is saying that a given replicator is "selfish" in the sense that its conservation comes at the cost of other replicators (I'm deliberatley not using the word "gene" here).

    No, that's not what he was saying. He used "selfish" to mean "acts first and foremost for its own benefit." (Not: "is necessarily implacably hostile and exploitative towards others"...) Replication via cooperation is certainly allowed, and Dawkins discusses quite a few examples in his book.


    Bruce, have you actually read The Selfish Gene? (If you have, you may need to re-read it, because it sounds like you haven't.) Dawkins devotes a whole chapter to the messy concept of "what is a gene", and is quite happy with the idea that that, for example, "gene complexes" and "linkage groups" can be units of selection. His point of view is nowhere near as rigid or simplistic as you seem to think it is.

    175:

    " Not really, a whole stratum of overseers was groomed for just this purpose - to be a buffer between owners and the dirty business of their own cruelty." ..

    STRAW BOSSES ...


    " Since straw is fundamentally a by-product of the real business of a farm, it's not surprising to learn that a "straw boss" is not the "big boss" of any job, but rather an assistant or subordinate boss, usually on the level of the foreman of a work crew. The term is said to have arisen from the usual arrangement of workers threshing wheat in the fields. The primary boss would be in charge of the wheat entering the threshing apparatus, while the assistant, or "straw," boss would supervise the crew gathering and baling the straw that the thresher discarded. "Straw boss" first appeared in print in the late 1800's, and quickly became a metaphor for any low-level supervisor. And since straw bosses rarely wield any real power aside from the ability to make those under them miserable, "straw boss" today is often a synonym for a petty and vindictive superior. "

    http://library.neit.edu/Special/Vote_2004/straw_poll.htm

    Since the erosion of 'Middle Management ' in the late '70s of the last century until the present day the function of Straw Boss has been assumed by the Personnel or H.R.M. department that sits between the REAL owners of Power in any organization ..Oligarchs/ Aristocrats ... and the Simple Folk who sit just above the Un-deserving and Deserving Poor.

    The beauty of this social system is that the 'Straw Bosses ' really, REALLY, believe that they Rule and will fight desperately hard to preserve what little they have against the Forces of Darkness and social disruption ...Otherwise known by such Signs of The Devil as SOCIALISM and, in the U.S.A. its minion Socialized Medicine.

    176:

    OK, allow me to apologize. After re-reading parts of The Selfish Gene, I'd agree that it is fair to characterize "selfishness a la Dawkins" as you do. But one has to be careful and not get carried away into thinking that "at the expense of other replicators" mean "all other replicators, constantly, in every single instance".


    Your subsequent objection isn't really at odds with anything Dawkins says, as far as I can see.

    we know of many cases of genetic replicators which were selected individually in some lineage of organisms and then later were incorporated into constellations of replicators which became conserved as a group. This can, and I think often does, mean that the original replicators are constrained by conservation of the constellations they are in to not increase their numbers by duplication or by expression by themselves without the rest of the constellation.

    Two points:
    1) If "overreplication" by the original subunits makes the complex as a whole less likely to survive and replicate, then it is in their own (selfish) interest to not overreplicate.[*]
    2) It is in at least some cases perfectly justifiable to refer to the "constellation" itself as a selfish replicator -- as Dawkins explicitly argues.

    [*] I'm not sure what you're suggesting is anything other than the realization that groups of "genes" (however defined) within a single organism must, perforce, cooperate at some level, since they rely on the same survival-and-reproduction channel.

    177:

    I saw some discussion of proper terminology (Hominids (Hominidae) include Homo, Pan, Gorilla and Pongo) in the comments, but it seems no one has directly addressed the second part of this statement:

    "Hominids are not bonobos — or baboons, or common chimpanzees. We're not descended from apes: rather, we share a common ancestry with them."

    We aren't descended from apes? Ridiculous. We are apes, and we certainly descended from other apes. If you want a true statement along those lines, try this:

    "Humans (or Homo) are not bonobos — or baboons, or common chimpanzees. We are not descended from existent apes: rather we share a common ancestor with them."

    Although maybe you should go further and replace "baboons" with "gorillas" or "orangutangs", as baboons are not any kind of ape, and this phrasing seems to imply that they are.

    178:

    Slightly strange to put forward the case for the existance of proximate empathy by referencing research which displays a singular lack thereof, inter-species or not.

    "... scientists injected acetic acid into one or both of each pair of same-sex adult mice they were studying, causing them to writhe in pain, and allowed them to observe each other. An injected mouse writhed more if its partner was also writhing, but only if the mouse had previously shared a cage with its partner for more than 14 days."

    You might want to look up why Alexander Shulgin, pharmacologist and the rediscoverer of the empathogen MDMA, decided to drop all animal experimentation some 40 years ago. It's precisely this type of research which gives science a bad name.

    I can see no discernible reason for 'proving' things that are self-evident to any rational, sentient being who is non-sociopathic. The same way as I would have seen no reason for a papal decree to legislate on whether the inhabitants of South America had souls had I been a conquistador. I obviously do agree that distance decreases empathy, as precisely this type of research less than admirably demonstrates.

    Back to democracy, someone above described Switzerland as homogenous. It's not, there's a running, and unresolved, debate as to the existance or not of a 'national identity' and what exactly constitutes it if it does indeed exist. However, it does show various ways in which the modern, Western-type democracy fails.

    Switzerland has one of the highest percentages among developed countries (~20%) of 'foreigners', that is people who have right of residency but not the right of vote. Coupled with an ageing population, low electoral turnout and the fact these 'foreigners' have higher birthrates (due to socio-economic factors) and the fact that there is no clear national pathway to the obtention of citizenship (regulated at the local level), it's fast becoming a paranoid minority gerontocracy as evidenced by the recent, and quite odious, referendum on the repatriation of 'foreign criminals'.

    This raises interesting problems, as to 'democracy' defined as majority rule, nationality and borders in an age where people move more than in the recent historical past and in which information flows with a speed and throughput we have never seen. Unless of course we subscribe to druidic interpretations of the function of great oaks. Also, it seems that democracy is intrinsically more susceptible to subversion by populist extremists than reform by moderate rationalists.

    I obviously don't have a solution but it seems that more flexible systems and definitions are necessary. Fast. Possibly, the 'net' could make a more direct, modular, ad-hoc form of democracy viable. It's also somewhat scary in the sense that if you look at Twitter 'trending', Facebook 'liking' etc. and then consider that perhaps the gravest problem in our current political systems is short-termism.... Well, envision a world coalition gov't composed of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Britney, Barack, Ashton Kutcher and Oprah taking its cue from flash SMS opinion polls and formulating edicts in 140 chars, or less.

    On the other hand, Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Blair/Cameron, Blocher, Kaczynski and yes, even Obama... are hardly paragons of statesmanship, so...

    Finally, despots/tyrants/dictators/generalissimos: I think it's hard to generalise(yup)... The two 'rational' examples given by Charlie are already not that similar. There was no Yugoslavia before Tito and under him it was possibly, on some levels, the least defective of the Eastern Bloc countries. With caveats. It also self-destructed quite spectacularly after him, which I assume was what he wished to avoid in the first place. In that sense it was a failure.

    As for Jaruzelski, it can be argued that the gov't he seized power from was actually illegitimate, at least from the point of view of the gov't-in-exile in London since 1940 or so. It would be hard to argue that he gained anything personally from the venture, except as a focal point of public hatred, which is still simmering along nicely fueled by right-wing populism which needs him as the bad guy in their creation myth.

    So it's not just about rationality, but also geo-political and historical context and ultimately, end results and legacy. Even with people like Saddam or Gaddafi, as I understand it, things like public health and education, or financial disparity between classes actually improved. I'm not sure that was the case for say Stroessner or Pinochet. Again, this is with huge caveats and nothing that a friendly external 'liberation' cannot undo with surgical strikes in a few days...

    I apologise for my lack of brevity, I found the whole thread a great read (especially the comments on animism).

    179:

    @Charlie

    The view of the bonobos you're describing has some problems.

    Hohmann has witnessed a number of kills, and the dismembering, nearly always by females, that follows. Bonobos start with the abdomen; they eat the intestines first, in a process that can leave a duiker alive for a long while after it has been captured.

    Another choice bit:

    Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female. (He might also have mentioned keepers at the Columbus and San Diego zoos who both lost bits of fingers. In the latter instance, the local paper’s generous headline was “APE RETURNS FINGERTIP TO KEEPER.”)
    180:

    @179:

    John Wayne Bonobo-Bobbitt

    181:

    Personally I blame all those naughty scifi authors for diluting the term.

    182:

    Maybe one of the non-neurotoxic releasing agents might be an option, but then, anecdotal observations on the effects of MDMA on empathy (see: Love Parade or "Youth trains for carnival", as Wiglaf droste called it) imply it might be at least in part explained by hype.

    I've certainly heard of people who went out dancing, had a great night, and woke up the next day feeling less wrecked than usual only to discover their MDMA stash where they forgot it the night before, untouched...

    Forget the philosophy - well, law is a form of practical philosophical inquiry. Is it fraud if the placebo tabs really work? It certainly isn't possession with intent to supply Class As.

    109: It's quite plausible both that some drugs that appear to render people more pro-social work by reducing some functioning, or that it's the Dunning-Kruger effect doing the work. The two aren't mutually exclusive by a long chalk.

    In fact, if you model the level of empathy as a function of homophily and scepticism about motives, probably the most obvious way to increase it temporarily is to turn down the sensitivity of the suspicion-detector. Adjusting gain on sensors and varying lag in feedback or feedforward is a pretty classic control systems engineering trick.

    Also, would you take the flip pill? There's got to be a good queer-SF/bio punk short in that?

    183:

    What do you mean, "in the future"? There's a thriving market in possible Alzheimer's drugs used as cognitive enhancers. Also, see the racetam family.

    184:

    I don't agree that proximity begets empathy-- after all, masters saw their slaves every day, no?

    Not all of them, no, and in every documented slaveholding society house slaves, whom their owners DID see every day were treated on the average[1] much better than field slaves whom the master saw rarely or never.

    [1] There were individuial exceptions, of course

    185:

    By "in the future" I mean some medicine you take that gives you unequivocal results, like a talent you didn't have the day before.. one where the haves will far outshine the have-nots:

    (1) photographic memory for the anatomy test! Click this link to order.

    (2) sociopath suddenly can "relate" after court ordered drug series... cries during bambi

    (3) tinnitus drug announced to have unexpected side effect of increasing the sensitivity to sounds in normal people to over 2x their previous, repairs high-frequency responsiveness too

    (4) Autism ON drug now required by employers of Indian programmers. After the initial trials demonstrated uniform high-functioning autism between 8-5, the FDA approved its use in the workplace.

    (5) Recent accusations of chemical doping in Ad agencies has uncovered the routine illegal use of the street drug "Manic High", which purports to give the user all the benefits of a bipolar manic phase with none of the downsides. Agencies were routinely combining this with the TMS (Transcranial magnetic stimulation) procedure "Creativity-Plus" to wildly outproduce their competitors.

    (6) The Chess Federation has joined with other events like WSOP (world series of poker) in banning the use of mentatic enhancment drugs such as "PerfectMem and NumberBoost" (tm). They will be instituting drug screens before all events by March 2015.


    I could go on and on... but once we have isolated chemical control of various aspects of mentality you can just take current headlines about performance enhancement drugs in the physical realm and rewrite about mental.

    Currently, pulling red blood cells out and reloading before a run or the use of steroids (or whatever) fill the headlines in sports as everyone tries to out-compete.

    Once you have the drug "PerfectMemory_24hr" or the like you are in territory that will ask questions like this:

    Does the Chess Federation go the route that the 2020 Olympics did with splitting our venues?

    Open-Olympics --- Any physical enhancement mods allowed excluding robotics. (Gene vendors and chemical modders spend billions to market their specially modded athlete, we could really use similar endorsements)

    Closed-Olympics --- Traditional baseline humans. No gene-line mods or chemical enhancements allowed. Genetic testing and drug tested required from birth.

    We all know how wildly more popular the Open-Olympics are to television viewers...

    186:

    A longer article on food dye in the WashPost yesterday listed some foods and the problems with them. They had some illos in the paper version, including mac & cheese labeled Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

    A casual restaurant called Noodles & Company had a deal where if you brought in three boxes of mac & cheese yesterday or today to be given to Food Bank, you'd get a free bowl of mac & cheese from them*. I took the three grocery house-brand boxes from my cupboard today and looked at the ingredients first. The colorings were annato and paprika. So some companies are already getting rid of bad dyes.

    *I knew their mac & cheese would be bland because I have two friends who really like it. I ordered the "spicy" version and was pleased there was a hot sauce bottle on the table. I like everything else I've had there.

    187:

    Marilee@186 "I took the three grocery house-brand boxes from my cupboard today and looked at the ingredients first."

    Will you marry me? Although the obvious thing to do I seriously doubt this is the type of response that is to be expected from women in general. Maybe I'm a little under-confident here.

    188:

    Markham @185:

    I love those extrapolations. I request permission to use them in my novel manuscript, now over 150,000 words long, Alzheimer's War. Set around 2020 AD the maguffin is the Alzheimer's Vaccine that has been administered to all Americans having unexpected side-effects, including vastly enhanced memory in centenarians and supercentenarians.

    I'd also like to thank Mr.Stross. A year ago I posted some paragraphs of a different novel on this blog, and his redaers firmly told me that they were almost unreadble. So I wrote 4 more novels since then, and crowd-sourced reactions on Facebook. I was wrong; both Charlie and the good readers here were right.

    189:

    Will you marry me? Although the obvious thing to do I seriously doubt this is the type of response that is to be expected from women in general. Maybe I'm a little under-confident here.

    My god. How many kinds of idiot are you?

    190:

    Permission granted.

    Let the "boosterspice" novels (to paraphrase Niven) flow... Since "singularity" is typically tied to technological progression (plus being a tired overused term) we need a new term to cover all the changes to come due to biotechnological progression.

    191:

    I guess it's not only me out there to be well over a magnitude greater an a**hole than you can imagine. Believe me, I've never felt even remotely as remorseful about being gratuitously non-feminist as I feel about having to do some of the things I'm going to have to do today.

    193:

    This is kind of interesting to me because I'm currently reading Peter Watts' Blindsight. Also, I was fascinated to learn that there are a large number of different primate formations. I suspect hominids were neither purely hierarchical nor matriarchal but instead connected nuclear in some groups and different forms in others, but that could be completely wrong.

    194:

    Have you looked at some new products? They have some nutrition information on the front of the product (not protein, which is what I want, but it's still in the long bit on the back). I think that will bring more people to look at the back; the problem is whether they understand the nutrition info. I know my grocery store is giving classes on it.

    And while I appreciate your proposal, when I got really sick and saw what most couples with one caregiver became, I stopped dating.

    195:

    Sorry to be so long in replying; I've been dealing with taxes and business matters in Real Life.

    It's been quite some time since I read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, so it's possible I'm exaggerating his position somewhat, but I don't think I'm distorting it beyond recognition. And my take on him is to some extent colored by the debates of the time of his writing (the late 1970s and early 1980s). Aside from the primary argument of gene selection versus group selection, in which Dawkins pushed gene selection very hard as an alternative to group selection, which he did not believe in at all, that was the period in which the importance of symbiosis and parasitism as drivers of evolution was debated. This turns out to be a very useful notion, but Dawkins and many others argued against it as being non-reductionist; too much like the argument for group selection.

    And that's the point I disagree with Dawkins on the most: I think his definition of reductionism is much too rigid because it insists that only causes at the lowest level are "real". The way I see it, if you talk about replicators, not genes, you need to recognize that there isn't a one-to-one mapping between the two; Dawkins may accept that now, but he certainly didn't when he wrote The Selfish Gene. Reductionism is a useful tool, but it's not a universal truth: if you apply it too strictly you run the risk of overlooking the effects of high-level systems operating far from equilibrium, that is to say, most of the things that the biological sciences find interesting.

    196:

    "About every 40 years (for over 800 years plus) economies go through trancendent eras, and 40 years later or so cycle back to crisis eras."

    I've seen lots of Strauss and Howe's 'Generations' stuff recycled, but this has got to be the worst.

    197:

    Charlie : To what end and at what stage of development would this coordinating behavior be compared to say in Human development?

    Are we talking the development that would take a species beyond hunter gatherer / small tribes to something larger?

    If so we would suppose that every burgeoning civilization would have to deal with coordination of scarce resources and time. So it would seem that some form of pricing and the bazaar would always be a factor.

    I've always thought that the first words uttered out of the vocal orifice of a visiting alien species would be, "Dude, I've got this Thorium refinement process that you have got to see. What have you got?"

    198:

    Well, having had my fair share of, err, electronic dance music events without monoamine relasing agents[1], music and rhythmic syncronized body movements, err, dancing are other ways of hacking your brains in general and specifically messing with your mirror neurons.

    IIRC there is some discussion about the role of dopamine containing structures in the brain, the old euphoria neuron narrative doesn't fit together up that well, even in addiction research.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21318566

    It seems like it's more related to salience and like, or expectations and their comparison with results, the latter fits quite well with musical systems, e.g. classical scales, twelve-tone or even atonality.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21217764

    Which fits into my point that both the transhumanists and their conservative opponents are mistaken, we have been hacking our brain with chemicals like alcohol, physical agents like music, psychotherapy like folk-CBT(aka certain forms of meditation), poetry etc. for a long time, one could even argue it's one of the things that show some progression in hominids, like tool use, language and like. But I digress...

    Concerning the effects of MDMA and like, one has to keep in mind they have some psychostimulant effects. They seem to be different from plain amphetamine, maybe thanks to the higher release of serotonin, but well, they are somewhat speedy. Maybe the serotonin release leads to the more 'cloudy' feeling, like with some people on SSRIs:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19916063

    Now, well, Psychostimulants seem to improve motor coordination and learning:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19713615

    Note this is also one of the areas where mirror neurons are implicated, though I'm not aware if there has been any research into this; but then, there seems to be a certain population in the overlap of ADHD and autism which are both socially and motorically inept[2], I don't know how this relates to the deprecated Asperger category, but maybe there is a common substrate for both deficits, and in this population, psychostimulants seem to improve both faculties.

    Looking back at MDMA, there was one test about its effects on social cognition, where it worsened detection of frightened faces:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20947066

    Looking at another club drug, alcohol also seems to mess with detection of facial emotions:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12590407

    And it seems to make us less racist, which is somewhat counterintuitive, but then, the early days of skin culture had whites and blacks partying together to gang on green, err, Pakistanis:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20130972

    Now, how about augmented reality googles as a social drugs use substitute? Oh shit, Douglas N. Adams already did it, IIRC.

    On a related note, science marching on about beer goggles...

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17259210
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21375128

    Concerning the gay pill, well, there are some procedures for acute serotonin depletion,

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16407905

    and there is an old antihypertensive drug that inhibits synthesis of serotonin:

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

    There is anecdotal evidence of the latter leading to heightened sexuality in women, IIRC, so it might not be so much a 'gay pill' but more of a 'coitus pill', where the sex of the, err, consenting or non-consenting partner doesn't matter any more, as mentioned in one of the other articles about the knock-outs.

    Side-note, when you read the description for 'borderline personality disorder', there is some mention of hypersexuality, often not caring for the sex of the partner; psychodynamic theories (read: psychobabble) link this to problems with ego boundaries and like (hey, we have excluded homosexuals from DSM, don't say we have to do the same for bisexuals), but maybe this is just an inate or acquired high score on impulsivity, again. Besides that, SSRI are used in BPD, though I'm not aware how they relate to hypersexuality, but there might be some eerie similarities to the mice there. If you excuse me please, I have to make some notes on my evil overlord list, ok, 'Buy some para-chlorophenylalanine for my female underlings and some citalopram for the males', err[3]...

    [1] Unless you count nicotine; and then there was this Goa party where we ran out of money and were even short on caffeine. Oh, and we nearly stumbled into a SF con. Those were the days...
    [2] Oh, the good old days of psychomotoric exercises...
    [3] Being a more or less heterosexual male, the other way round might lead to strange values of fun...

    199:

    Your 'Manic High' drug got me smiling, there is already a drugs like that, and anecdotal evidence suggests it's in widespread use in advertisements; at least, that might explain some of the ads I've seen. YMMV about the 'no side fx', though...

    http://www.popcrunch.com/montana-meth-project-print-advertising/

    Well, funny thing is such shocking stories just make the stuff more attractive, as anybody experiencing a normal part time binge drinking youth can tell you...

    About the intelligence booster, you're invited to explain what behaviours constitute intelligence and how they relate to neural function?

    Easily seeing pattern ? Can be done. Not that great.

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

    Distrusting said patterns? Can be done. Not that great.

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

    Photographic memory? Good for Chinese Imperial Examination. For what else?

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

    Also note that we're talking about substances working on the CNS, where side effects are the norm:

    http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2010/01/20/a_database_of_side_effects.php

    And I'm somewhat reserved about the perfect brain doping when the same research still has problems with antidepressants and antipsychotics; don't get me wrong, the current drugs work, but they are still a far cry from perfect.

    Mentioning doping in physical sport raises an interesting point; when looking at the records in question, one would expect some hazzle in the years between the discovery of, say, amphetamine or anabolics and the discovery of test for them. But at least with cycling, that doesn't seem so:

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

    That's especially interesting since one of the guys confessed to being high on amphetamine when doing his record.

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

    For comparison, the stuff was used since the 1920s.

    Doesn't surprise that much, since getting more muscle raises power, but also weight; and blood count improve oxygen transport through capacity, but changes fluid characteristics.

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