Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dangerous Ideas

"What is your Dangerous Idea?" was the Edge annual question of 2006. I am a bit old fashioned and don't like scrolling on a screen, so I bought the book which I've just finished reading. (Okay, actually my husband bought the book, but he never got to read it, sorry bout that.)

The answers from 108 "top intellectuals" range from brilliant to bizarre. It's a good read if you are lying in the garden wiggling your toes. If you don't have time for that, let me highlight some of the more interesting contributions.

To begin with I want to mention the usual suspects from physics who promote their pet ideas:
  • There is Leonard Susskind whose dangerous idea is the anthropic principle, and that we are living in a vast multiverse of possible environments most of which are uninhabitable for life. Which he finds dangerous because it threatens "physicists' fondest hope - the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics" .

  • Brian Greene finds it dangerous that people might take Susskind seriously "The danger, if the multiverse idea takes root, is that researchers may too quickly give up the search for [...] underlying explanations."

  • Lee Smolin features the idea that the universal laws of nature have evolved by natural selection. I fail to see what's dangerous about that, but like the question he raises "What about the fact that laws of physics are expressed in mathematics, which is usually thought of as encoding eternal truths?" Consider what would happen if your bank starts claiming the laws of maths have just changed! Sounds like a dangerous idea to me.

  • And Carlo Rovelli finds it dangerous that we might understand General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

Besides this one finds a whole number of sociological problems pointed out that grow increasingly important with technological progress, e.g.
  • Philip Campbell mentions that public engagement in science and technology can seriously go wrong because "those half-baked [perceptions and discussions] carry influence on the Internet and in the media"

  • Geoffry Miller extrapolates 'Runaway consumerism' in an excellently written piece, and explains that we haven't made contact with aliens because they've all gotten addicted to computer games. More seriously, he argues that progress in part of our civilizations turns more and more from real to virtual life. Neglecting reality, so his prediction, will be the doom of these civilizations which will be outlived by societies of 'practical minded breeders'.

  • Marco Iacoboni writes about imitative violence. Research in neuroscience has shown that watching other people's actions is 'mirrored' in our brains. What then does all this violence shown in the media to us? It activates a mirror system that was probably meant for us to learn through watching...

  • And Freeman Dyson warns us of the domestication of biotechnology with "cheap and user-friendly do-it-yourself kits for gardeners to design their own roses and orchids and for animal breeders to design their own lizards and snakes - a new art form as creative as painting or cinema".

Now lets go to the more bizarre pieces:

I'd like to mention Denis Dutton's contribution "A Grand Narrative", because I wasn't able to find out what he tried to say. Rupert Sheldrake thinks it is dangerous that we don't know "how green turtles find Ascension Island from thousands of miles away to lay their eggs." My award for the most bizarre essay goes to Rudy Rucker who speculates that "the mind is some substance that accumulates near ordinary matter - dark matter or dark energy are good candidates." I am looking forward to seeing the equation of state for mind-condensation.

The most embarrassing essay is Matt Ridley's promotion of neo-liberalism who proclaims that 'no society has grown poorer and more unequal through trade, exchange, and invention' and that the way to choose is as little government as possible because 'this is the process that has given us health, wealth, and wisdom on a scale unimagined by our ancestors'. One is tempted to ask, exactly who is 'us'?

Luckily, Ridley's writing is balanced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's contribution who correctly points out that it is dangerous to believe that the free market is 'the ultimate arbiter of political decisions, and that there is an "invisible hand" that will direct us to the most desirable future [...]. This mystical faith is based on reasonable empirical foundations, but when it is embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind, it risks destroying both the material resources and the cultural achievements our species has so painstakingly developed.'

Further, there are several self-referral answers which find it dangerous that an idea can be dangerous, or find it dangerous to promote dangerous ideas (i.e. by writing a book about them?). Randolph Nesse redirects the question to 'unspeakable ideas', which according to his definition are 'ideas that are dangerous to anyone who expresses them'. As an example he suggests an idea that 'offers dramatic data - you could respond to your spouse's difficulties at work by saying, "If they are complaining about you not doing enough, it is probably because you just aren't doing your fair share." In the earlier days, this was called honesty. I find it a dangerous development that saying the truth could be perceived as an 'unspeakable idea'.

And what is your dangerous idea...?


  1. Re: Denis Dutton's contribution
    I think what he's looking for is a common frame for the academic humanities, his "grand narrative", based on the fact that all humankind shares a common history starting in the Pleistocene. He calls it "Darwinian aesthetics". I quote: "In the sense that it would show innumerable careers in the humanities over the last forty years to have been wasted on banal politics and execrable criticism, Darwinian aesthetics is a very dangerous idea indeed."

  2. Hi Andreas,

    Yes, thanks... I was exaggerating a bit to illuminate my frustration about this somewhat entangled writing. I'm not sure why it would be dangerous though. It's probably unpleasant to realize that 'innumerable careers' have been wasted, but in what sense is it dangerous?



  3. Dark matter sounds like a terrible candidate for mind-stuff: how does it even interact with the ordinary, non-dark matter which we already know is doing stuff in the brain? And dark energy is even worse: pump that into your cortex, and you're going to get a swollen head (or, possibly, an eternally inflating ego).

    And given Sheldrake's mystical blather about "morphogenetic fields" (stealing a perfectly good word from developmental biology), I'm not surprised he wants animals to migrate using "a sense of direction involving new scientific principles". Ssh! Don't tell him about the people actually working on the problem. It's certainly simpler to imagine whole new forces and energy fields than to think that turtles might be able to combine multiple types of sensory data. Of course, all the results showing that animals can and do navigate by the sun, by the Earth's magnetic field and even by ocean currents should be discarded in favor of the navigation by morphic field hypothesis. No doubt about it!

    What a load of tripe. Even my mother's cat can associate stimuli from different senses with common referents (sound of can opening = cat food; smell of fish = cat food). I don't think the cat's whiskers are picking up vibrations in the morphic field broadcast by canned tuna.

    Doesn't Edge have standards?

  4. Dangerous? Physics can't handle dangerous!

    1) The vacuum is chiral (anisotropic); therefore
    2) The Equivalence Principle has a mass sector parity violation; and
    3) Both are measurable...
    4) common equipment.

    Empirical EP violation falsifies General Relativity (postulated) and string theory (BRST invariance). Anisotropic vacuum through Noether's theorem ends conservation of angular momentum. No prior observation in any venue at any scale is contradicted - only opposite parity mass distributions are anomalous.

  5. Mine is similar to that expressed on page three by Scott Sampson, Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History; Associate Professor Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah; Host, Dinosaur Planet TV series.

    He got his ideas from Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan (who is the son of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis), who got it from James Kay... who is, most unfortunately, dead before his time.

    The dangerous idea is this: the purpose of life is to [efficiently] disperse energy.

    Wait a minute... didn't Susskind recently steal this idea?... heheh

    He might actually have something if he dump the landscape and get a real theory.

  6. The most dangerous idea in the entire history of mankind, and therefore the future of mankind, is the idea of god.

  7. Hi Island,

    I too found this contribution interesting, though I think it's more complicated than this. One way or the other, at this stage it's just a bunch of words - and not even a terribly new or original one (look up Lee's 1st book for references on this and similar issues). Best,


  8. Hi Anonymous:

    Hmm, that's an interesting comment. The next time my mood plummets to 'fatalistic' I will write up my most dangerous idea -- you'll find a shade of your concern in it. Best,


  9. lol Blake, are you suggesting cats are the higher beings, because they've trained humans to can "dolphin friendly tuna" and open the tin of cat food for them.

    Purring at the feet of humans is an acquired skill, not a natural or innate instinct for a cat. Mind you neither is hunting for prey - any tiger cub (or cat) that is not trained to hunt by the mother, won't survive long in the wild.

    PS - I wonder who dreamt up the notion that cats like fish, (probably a fishmonger with surplus fish or loads of rotting fish). We always see the sketch of the cat trying to get at the goldfish in the bowl, but have you ever seen a cat 'fishing' in the river or by the lake.
    They are more prone to chase our little furry or feathered friends.

  10. Hi Quasar:

    Friends of my family had a small pond in their garden, and I've seen their neighbor's cat repeately sitting there trying to catch a gold fish (mostly unsuccessful). Not sure though if it was for food or just for fun. Best,


  11. lol Bee,
    gold fish in a bowl or in a pond.
    cats also chase lights, and balls of wool and yarn

    We assume animals and humans have certain instincts which we call natural that are not wholly so.
    Every chic needs to be fed by its parents, and then taught what to eat, where to find it and how to catch it.

    And human babies put anything and everything in their mouths, we have to teach them what is safe, and what is not.

    Among humans we also find another set of talents or skills, either latent or nurtured, such as the ability to paint (even cubism), to do maths (see E8 or strings? lol), to compose or play music ... and so on. They are NOT common to all humans, and they are not necessarily inherited genetic traits.

  12. Bee,

    What about the fact that laws of physics are expressed in mathematics, which is usually thought of as encoding eternal truths?"

    If this is dangerous so is string theory? :)

    I put a can of tuna under my cat's nose while sleeping, I must say they sure can work like they are awake :)

  13. Bee, I would agree that Sampson, Sagan, Schneider, and even Kay are clueless when it comes to cosmological applications, but these guys are mostly environmental biologists.

    "Efficiently" is my own interjection, which we do so because we are lazy... and this also maximizes work.

    So does a flat expanding universe.

    Course... I already said all of this in the conversation that you were involved with in Dorigo's blog, and Susskind is evidentially justified to use the idea.

    I honestly thought from Lee's past writings that he would see the relevance of my point when I told him about it at CV quite some time back... but...

  14. That was indeed a fun book, although I agree that several of the contributers seemed more focused on promoting their pet idea than on sharing a new dangerous one. They just have to tack on a few sentences about why it's dangerous in some contrived way...

  15. Well, I have a few dangerous ideas, but one is that we can find more about a photon than conventional theory (regarding the projection "postulate" - not like conservation laws...) predicts. I discussed it a bit earlier in the "Consistency" thread, so maybe best to recap with a few changes:

    I think we can get better than binary answers to questions about the polarization of a single photon. Knowing that isn't like knowing position and momentum accurately, since the latter violates the consistency of the Fourier composition of the wave function. It seems odd to me, since we can produce photons with definite polarization traits. So, it should be possible to "back engineer" such a photon as if you already knew that.

    I proposed a way to perhaps do that, based on known properties of half-wave plates and no unusual theories or assumptions. The discussion I started about that on sci.physics.research made its way to #1 etc. on Google search for "quantum measurement paradox" for years, but oddly dropped down to #9 and below in the past few days.

    My later version of that paradox involves sending a polarized photon through the same half-wave plate many times, with a corrector to reverse it's circularity again after each pass, instead of using a set of many HW plates. The point is, I said you could measure the magnitude of circular polarization, like plus, zero for linear, negative, etc., not just yes/no results, based on how much angular momentum was collected after many passes. Hey, if many photons of given polarization passing through once each would give that final result, then one photon passing through a plate many times should also: photons don't have "identity." Since it would take millions of passes to get measurable angular momentum, this is hard to do - but also thereby doesn't contradict known experiments, almost all of which are based on single interactions with particles! This is related to the now-hip concept of "weak measurements" that looks more valid all the time, AFAIK.

    I will put more explanation and justification in a short while for anyone needing more detail.

  16. OK, here's further explanation if you need it:

    Photons can be superpositions of the pure circularly polarized plus and minus spin base states. The general representation is [photon wavefunction] = Az |+> + B |->, using typical keyboard approximations for bra ket etc. A and B are amplitudes (so A^2 + B^2 = 1) and z is a complex number of modulus one that expresses relative phase between the constituent base states. This composite wave is certainly “real” in the sense that vector addition of the equivalent E and B vectors produce the resultant polarization. If A = B, then we have a linear polarized wave, with z determining the angle. We know that photons of this type are not to be confused with a mixture of purely plus and minus CP photons, since all of the former will go through the matching linear filter instead of random 50/50 hits.

    You’re thinking, if we set up a conventional experiment to measure spin, we get a hit of either plus or minus and no middle ground. That’s true, so far. But consider what happens if thousands of photons of a given composite A and B makeup go through a half-wave plate. HWPs flip the spin of photons: they switch the values of A and B for the spin components (so that means, 0.8, 0.6 turns into 0.6, 0.8 etc., not just for pure states.) The photon may come out with a different polarization angle, but the circularity value (A^2 – B^2) is always same magnitude but opposite sign. We know, because after passage we can always still get a linear photon to go through the matching linear filter, etc. However, despite there being no “collapse” of the passing photons, their going through a HWP still causes an average fractional increase in spin, based on the average angular momentum for the combined state. IOW, since the spin is flipped and thus doubling the transfer to the plate: Delta S = 2n(A^2 – B^2)hbar, where n is the number of photons passing through. We know that has to happen, from either experiments (like Beth experiment) or optical theory.

    Now here’s the rub: Suppose that, instead of sending many photons of a given mixed state through the HWP, we send the same photon over and over again, by reflecting it around a course. (We need to re-invert the circularity, which can be done with either a correcting second HWP or mirrors.) According to QM, that should produce the same result as sending the same number of photons through, “once each” due to indistinguishability. So if we start with a photon with A = 0.8 and B = 0.6, it comes out from first pass as A = 0.6 and B = 0.8. Then is corrected back to A = 0.8 and B = 0.6, passes again, etc. Now suppose the photon goes through one million times. That should be the same as one million photons going through once each, for a total angular momentum transfer to the plate of 560,000 hbar. That’s enough angular momentum to measure classically, and now we find out approximately the circularity of the photon, not a mere yes/no answer to “is it plus or minus circular” with 64% change of getting “plus” and 36% chance of getting “minus.” If you are worried about evolution of the wave during repeated passes, that is a good question. It may happen, and I want investigation of that. However, if the photon starts linear or close to that, the wave should tend to wander back and forth in circularity and not grow towards one or other eigenstate. Hence, it would measure out as basically neutral.

  17. Dear Bee,

    actually my husband bought the book, but he never got to read it, sorry bout that.

    Never mind, I've got an excellent "executive summary" instead :-)

    Schneider and Sagan's "Into the Cool" was in the same amazon shipping, but while you made it through the "Dangerous ideas", I got stuck quite at the beginning.

    But I have to say, I am quite intrigued by the idea they convey that life exists to maximize energy dispersal, or so.. It is somehow turning around the prerequisite of energy gradients for the emergence of life into a purpose... Hope I can say more and less vague things some time soon :-).

    Best, stefan

  18. I can't really express my favorite dangerous idea at the moment. ;-) But another one is that I would really like to be a dictator. :-)

  19. Neil: The only thing that's dangerous about your idea is that you risk I delete all of your comments which are completely off-topic. So would you please stop abusing my blog to promote your ideas. Thanks - B.

  20. Ok Bee, here goes
    Transhumanism and Eugenics

    For something really scarey Bush Arnie Morph return of the Terminator?

    Future Generations Please be forewarned that most ideas expressed on this website are "politically incorrect."

    "I find it a dangerous development that saying the truth could be perceived as an 'unspeakable idea'." - Bee

    PS - Stefan, thanks for the Into the Cool link.

  21. I remember when I read it.The most dangerous idea was the one proposed by Leo Chalupa. 24 hours of complete silence. :-)


  22. Well, sorry my last comment wasn't at all "intellectually serious". ;-)

    I was skimming Dutton's and some of the others and my dangerous idea is that a belief in some kind of god(s) is inherently human and has evolved in much the same way that Dutton suggests about the common themes of art, etc.

    But I'm considering Cochran's idea (even though he has been extremely rude to me on another blog and even took it to email) and think that maybe because god(s) is inherent now it could change as humans continue to evolve. Those two essays kind of combine to me because they both deal with Darwinian processes of our psychosocial development.

    This is a fascinating topic and I'm a little pissed that I can't take longer to ponder it. ;-)

  23. Dear Rafa: Exactly my thought! It wasn't only the best idea, but also the most original one. Best - B.

  24. maybe a dangerous idea is to fight islamist extremist by humor!



  25. Hi Klaus:

    Thanks for the link :-)
    The problem with humor is that it's not an universal language. You only have to read this blog and comments to figure this out.

    - B.

  26. Dangerous Idea... How about the secret mission of the Catholic church?

    Catholic church documentary

    ( See, now this is a good reason to post anonymously. ;)

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  28. Dangerous idea: having children is no fun at all, and is something that you will [secretly] regret for your entire life.

  29. Hi Bee, I apparently misunderstood the assignment here. Your final question, "And what is your dangerous idea...?" implied to me that commenters' own ideas could be valid examples. Well, an unorthodox concept in quantum mechanics is dangerous, because it challenges convention. So it seemed right on topic to me, if too long - of course, I should link long on-topic expositions. I didn't get the impression you meant just to pick something we heard from someone else. Well maybe I just indulged that example too much, sorry about that if so. If you clarify your expectations a bit I can comment more appropriately; maybe that would help other visitors too, thanks.

  30. The most dangerous idea that I can think of is that I'm going to lie in the garden and wiggle my toes.

    (When you all join me, the world will come to a screeching halt).

  31. Vipassana Yoga - if the taped instructions are left out - 10 days of no talking, no words, no reading.

    For the original yoga practitioners, no instructions either.

    Predates Chalupa by 2500 years.

  32. My dangerous idea is that if Y is determinable from X by a transformation that is simpler to describe than either X or Y itself, then Y will correlate with X---enough to give the impression that there should be some more particular theoretical reason why X "causes" Y, when in fact there is none other.

    Here X and Y can be conditions and outcomes of particle experiments---and note that one outcome can be the next femtosecond's condition...

    This idea comes from the universe-is-a-computer mindset, e.g. J. Schmidhuber's "Algorithmic Theories of Everything" paper (which well-defines "simpler" and has some physical predictions). It is dangerous because it asserts limitations to explaining "cause" by theories that appeal to human intellect, beyond the cold robotic interpretation of "it-from-bit".

    It also relates obliquely to Item D of your old post on the anthropic principle, since "Y optimizes f(...)" is a simple description of Y (given that f is simple---and note that if y=Y optimizes f(X,y), then X simply determines Y). What notable work has been done recently on that Item D, e.g. when trying to define probability priors for multiverse vacua? I've tried to ask this question recently at Cosmic Variance and Shtetl Optimized.

  33. To me there are two dangerous ideas: dark energy and dark matter. It not the expense involved in looking for something that like the aether that probably never exists in the first place.

    It is the fact that these two notions keep scientist from realizing that the mass-based theories of gravity of Newton and Einstein place us in a "Kuhnian crisis".

    If they faced the implications of a theory that required 95 % of the mass of the universe in order to account for known gravitational phenomena, then they would start looking for a better gravity theory or at least recognize it when it came along.:

  34. Dear Bee, you ask: "Who is us?" The answer is all of us human beings who are not communists and who don't dramatically misevaluate reality. But I am afraid that this idea is too dangerous for you, indeed.

  35. Dear Quasar: People do sometimes link together "Transhumanism" AND "Eugenics"... Journalists especially, in order to give a distasteful spin on the Transhumanists. But people who link the two together almost never describe the implicit assumption that every transhumanists carry, which is: body mods are voluntary, and not imposed by force from some other agent. And what defines a body modification, exactly? If one can accept contraception and vitamins, then should be able to accept all self-improvement body modifications, because the same logic applies.

    Now.. for my future, I would like to see the same healthy enhancement tools be available for my pets.. OK, I am not sure hot to convince a dog that he could sing like Pavarotti if took that pill. But don't you think it would be cool to have an intelligent conversation with an iguana, someday? :-)

    P.S. I also think that children should be allowed to vote.

  36. This comment has been removed by the author.

  37. Hi Bee,

    I wrote a comment less than a day ago on PW's blog, which has since been deleted. Essentially the main point I wished to raise was that the generalised Riemann hypothesis, which basically is a criticality statement for the class of functions \sum_{n}f_{n}/n^{z}, where f_{n} is a bounded complex sequence, is an example of a corollary of a "landscape theory". The fact that no counterexample has yet been found lends considerable support to the conjecture, which, if true, would essentially say that "criticality result such and such is valid over the "landscape" of solutions characterised by bounded complex sequences".

    I made the observation, which is by no means new or original, that the modern viewpoint about the prime numbers is that they are best viewed in analogy to a physical dynamical system, which is the key approach to many ways of tackling the RH, amongst other things. So there is some connection to physics here.

    I think what made Peter censor out my comment was because it was dangerous, in the sense that it could be used as ammunition by being deliberately quoted out of context by anthropic theorists to support their non-science (I tried to stress that "landscape theories" and "anthropic theories" are not in 1-1 correspondence, but I think I failed to sell that particular point).

    I said a number of other things as well, but I think, in danger of this becoming an uncontrolled ramble, I'll stop here.

  38. Amara,
    some people think Eugenics should be voluntary, and not imposed.

    From its inception eugenics was supported by prominent people, including Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Margaret Sanger.

    Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities. Funding was provided by prestigious sources such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, and the Harriman family.

    Embryonic Stem cell research?

    Do you think animals used in labs should have to sign a consent form, or as the british transplant group wants - we will all become donors by default (oops road kill) whether we carry a donor card or not.

    If my dogs sang like pavarotti, they'd have to find another home.
    You haven't had an intelligent conversation with an iguana, yet?

  39. Biocomplexity Spiral

    PS - I support the concept of eliminating disease, suffering and debilitating genetic defects. Our brains may not be 'hardwired' to a mainframe, but most of us are keen to share our thoughts on the Internet. And a paralympic athlete with bionic limbs wants to compete in the Olympics. And Dick Cheney hopes his heart surgeon can keep him alive ad infinitum.

  40. My dangerous idea: that there should be a limit on how many many times you can put a c, s, or z in a name.


    Consonant OVERLOAD. How do you even pronounce that?

    Oh yea, a serious dangerous idea. The concept of do-it-yourself biology scares the /shit/ out of me.

  41. Dear Lubos:

    A completely free market works fine in many regards but is not a miraculous cure for everything. There is no reason to expect it will lead to a situation where wealth is equally distributed and there is evidence this is indeed not the equilibrium the world will reach if capitalism is left to itself. Gaps between rich an poor can indeed increase instead of decrease.

    Here is an already extremely positive prediction from the World Bank's Global Economic Prospects 2005

    "However, progress is highly uneven across and within countries. The global target will largely be achieved because of the significant progress on poverty reduction in China and India. Sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind, and though poverty rates are much lower in some of the other regions, for example Latin America and the Caribbean, progress over the last 15 years has been insufficient to be on track to achieve the income poverty target in 2015 without more rapid growth or policies that are better targeted to the poor. Within regions, progress has also been uneven. Despite the huge overall reduction in East Asia, several countries, for example, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Papua New Guinea, are off track to meet the goal. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are only eight countries—representing 15 percent of the subcontinent’s population—that will potentially make significant progress toward achieving the income poverty target. Within countries, such as China, there are large pockets of poor people, and reducing poverty in these pockets is difficult [...]

    While progress on income poverty in parts of the world, particularly East and South Asia,
    has been spectacular if not historic, there is no room for complacency. As mentioned earlier, there are significant pockets of poverty even within the more successful countries. Moreover, there are other dimensions of poverty in which progress has been more limited, and almost all developing countries are off track. In East Asia, for example, [...]"

    It is in this regard interesting to note that some of those countries with the fastest growths (China, India, Malaysia, Chile) actively protect their economies using capital control and trade barriers, i.e. their market is *not* free.

    For a more extreme version, see Divergence, Big Time.

    The article I've criticised is embarrassing because it doesn't even mention any of this.

    As I've expressed in the post above, it is hopelessly naive to expect a completely free market will 'automatically' lead to eternal happiness. It might work well over a long range and in many cases as it has, but it's not a final solution that will work without our active feedback on what we actually mean with 'happiness'. Best,


  42. Hi Neil,

    Well, an unorthodox concept in quantum mechanics is dangerous, because it challenges convention.

    Well, if you think so. I guess my sense of 'dangerous' is somewhat different. Even if it was true what you say, then what? Every electron would suddenly decide it doesn't want to stay inside its atom and all matter would collapse? The only thing that would happen is that textbooks get an additional page. Best,


  43. Bee:
    There's an interesting site called gapminder that's put together all sorts of social and economic statistics in visually impressive ways. There's also this great TED video. The bottom line seems to be a dangerous idea: The world is getting better, even for the poor.

  44. Stefan, you really should spend some time on my blog, (linked through my "name"), or my website at because I have been talking about this for years. Skip down to the middle of the page at and you'll find a link to Sagan and Schneider's book, and an entire section of my website is dedicated to "The Entropic Anthropic Principle".

    I'm burly-dangerous, man... ;)

  45. Dear Quasar:

    "some people think Eugenics should be voluntary, and not imposed."

    I'm glad about the _some_ people. I have a moral, philosophical issue with the complement. (_not-some_ people).

    "From its inception eugenics was supported by prominent people [...] Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities. Funding was provided by prestigious sources [...]"

    I understand, and I support all of that research (because it is voluntary), and I'm glad that we can talk about it. As soon as someone brings out the Nazi card, however, then usually all rational discourse ends. Or another way to put it: The topic is loaded with the baggage of forced, government-mandated programs from 60 years ago that make the topic difficult to talk about.

    "Embryonic Stem cell research?"

    I wish there was more!

    "Do you think animals used in labs should have to sign a consent form, or as the british transplant group wants - we will all become donors by default (oops road kill) whether we carry a donor card or not."

    Now there is a difficult area, and even the transhumanists don't have clear ethical position. Since the topic just appeared today on another mailing list, I'll quote Anders Sandberg's answer:

    [[I know we have some strong animal rights people out there like David Pearce, and James Hughes have argued for the protection of big primates from most animal experiments. But given the pro-research stance of most transhumanists I would guess a lot are in favor of animal testing. (I'm somewhat conflicted myself; I dislike damaging or hurting any complex system, yet we need to do so in order to advance our understanding and in the long run create more complex systems. Despite being in an ethics department I have not found any ethical approach that completely makes sense in this case)]]

    "You haven't had an intelligent conversation with an iguana, yet?"

    On paper, yes. :-) I finished a science fiction story today, in which my main character, a phaugmental (=posthuman+augmental) is cohabitating in a thriving networked city on a cubewano 42 AU out in the solar system with another intelligent species who resembles an iguana. My story is called: "A Day in the Life on a Cubewano". They were communicating quite well!

  46. Hi Garrett:

    You're missing my point. I'm not saying the world has not gotten better (though you might want to clarify what you mean with 'better') but I'm saying there is no reason to expect the free market is the tool to guarantee this will proceed 'eternally'. There is a tight correlation between economical growth and happiness over a long range (mostly through health and security) but this correlation is not an equality. Besides this there is the question how well-being it is distributed and how stable the situation is. A free market, trade, economy etc can do a lot of things but it fails in all areas where values can't be rated with money. This is where politics has to balance economy. There are several reasons for that. One is that it is possible to avoid people suffer unnecessarily. Take away all governmental regulations and you get a system that's not only cruel but also extremely sensitive to perturbations. These are known weaknesses and the reason why our economies have safety regulations and most civilizations have a social system of some kind. Another reason are things that can't sensibly be assigned to be anybodies property. The air that we breath. The weather. But the maybe most important factor are long-term developments.

    Capitalism is a nice tool for local optimization, but it does so rather blindly and hardly takes into account *known* time evolution that can be expected, and it's not helpful to find a better optimum if there's a valley to be passed. E.g. We'll be running out of oil sooner or later - yet there probably won't be any sensible preparation until we already experience (oil price?) it firsthand. If there was no politics at all there would be even less of a preparation. In cases like this, counting on the free market to work is like running into the wall with closed eyes - even though you've been told this would happen.



  47. Dangerous Revisions

    I just remembered that I wrote to Scott Sampson after I saw his initial dangerous idea, which was short, vague, flip, and he did not give due credit to Sagan and Schneider, just likey they don't give credit to Kay. I asked him if he knew them because some of his statement rang with their words, and he changed his entire statement after that to what it is now.

    It now reads like something that Sagan wrote... and I suspect that it is.

    Keepin-em-honest is what I do best... ;)

    Kay, I'm done... sorry, Bee

  48. 1) "Embryonic Stem cell research?"
    I wish there was more!

    Wouldn't it be easier to destroy the embryo that turned into a human that has the condition?

    Just using Vulvcan humour (logic), is the research for the benefit of the patient or the benefit of the researcher, surgeon, specialist.

    2) I dislike damaging or hurting any complex system, yet we need to do so in order to advance our understanding and in the long run create more complex systems.

    So that's a YES. But hey at the end of the day we still have to use humans as guinea pigs for trials on humans. Refer to point 1

    3) "You haven't had an intelligent conversation with an iguana, yet?"
    On paper, yes. :-)

    lol Amara, I was thinking of a comversation face to face on earth, but since you read the book on earth, I guess it counts.

    PS - I am ambivalent about how to treat human conditions, however I have difficulty making a logical separation or moral objection to terminating fully grown humans, or terminating defctive embryos and foetuses that made it thru the net. Is it based on a pseudo-religious conviction of the sanctity of life.

    Spartans and early hebrews would have had no conpuction taking the child with visible genetic abnormalities from the mother and throwing it over the walls of Sheol.

    But that would put a lot of people working on medical research out of work. Now that is cruel - lol!

    The real fear is who gets to decide which foetuses get to see the light of day. In the days of before Moses, it is said Pharaoh instructed his midwives to kill all the male new borns of his slaves.

  49. Did the poll about Dangerous Ideas occur before Backreaction was created?

  50. Every electron would suddenly decide it doesn't want to stay inside its atom and all matter would collapse?
    No, they would act the same permy multiple interaction proposal. I had "measurement theory" in mind, which is rather heh uncertain in some ways (some called "postulates" thereby.) If, as I theorize, we can find out more about photon polarization than binary information, that could have revolutionary consequences.

    However, nothing would "happen" differently to look at any one thing. Yet we might be able to communicate superluminally, from knowing that distant polarizing filters were being turned. (I forgot to mention that last time.) Superluminal communication is certainly a dangerous idea, from all the weird causality issues it brings up. If we could do it, more than one additional page for textbooks would need to be written.

  51. Sabine:
    You have described exactly the two reason why I am not a Libertarian, but rather refer to myself as a Liberaltarian. Without a social safety net, the poor would make my world a much worse place -- so I think there should be just enough social services in place to keep the impoverished and diseased from bothering me much. ( Heartwarming, aren't I? ;) The second problem, the tragedy of the commons, is similar. I don't think a free market could manage shared common resources well. There needs to be laws in place to protect our common environment.

    Now, I disagree on dealing with oil supply. I think the free market could handle that problem just fine. Government subsidies and controls on commodities are inefficient and wasteful.

    All of this is subject to debate, of course. And, sadly, we only have one big social collider.

  52. Garrett:

    The trouble with the free market and oil supply and similar is that the consumers can't immediately and directly feel the bad results of either side effects of usage (like global warming) or of diminishing total supply. (The word "supply" in economics is misleading, since it means basically what is "in play" not the total amount "in the world" to the extent the latter applies.) So their choices are not rational per those subsidiary and future problems. Mainly, it means they buy a lot until the problems are really bad and the genuinely defined supply is too low to effectively plan for replacement/adaptation.

    There needs to be management of such resources. I know that's dangerous too, but the alternative is rather terrible (except for certain speculators.)

    Sorry, but I find you wanting a safety net to keep you from being miserable (instead of for the ones caught by it) to be rather pitiful. Can't it matter, that they should have it? I once wrote that true ideal rational beings would care just as much about other equivalent beings as themselves, since "me" v. "you" is a relational description and not a true difference in kind like circle v. square. Such a being would have no logical basis to favor him/herself over another (except for actual differences in kind or achievement, like strength or training.) Is that dangerous?

  53. Hi Neil,
    But we are not rational beings. Besides, you might want to look up Kant's categorical imperative.

    Hi Garrett,
    I guess I can live with 'Liberaltarian'. Regarding the oil price however, I'd like to know what you mean with 'just fine'. Many aspects of our so-called civilization crucially depend on energy and can't take a significant and sudden shortage. It will have serious effects on the infrastructure and supplies. Today, many people live in circumstances where they are dependent on constant support that is not locally available and it all goes back to the availability of energy - most of which is currently in the form of gas and oil. If these consequences that a shortening in supply can have are realized too late there might just not be sufficient time left to deal with it without having many people suffer from it. Also, I am afraid that in case the situation gets tougher governments will come back to the obvious available energy source they have in stock: nuclear fission. Best,


  54. neil:
    Yes, it's dangerous -- it's called communism. (Lumo, you want to chime in? Heh, damn, we might agree on something.) If you really think that, then to be a true rational being you should send a check for half your net worth to the next person who emails you from Sierra Leone. I'm sure you'll get a nice thank you letter. Me, I'm selfish -- but I don't see you writing that check, so I just think you're selfish and delusional.

    In a free market, intelligent speculators see a limited resource and invest accordingly, driving the price to exactly where it should be. As oil, or even new oil prospects, run low, the prices go up, and the world adjusts accordingly. The government can only get in the way. Intelligent people, without government intervention, are actively planning and preparing for the day when oil runs out -- you can count on it.

  55. Sabine:
    I stand for nuclear power. 8)

  56. Hi Neil,

    Such a being would have no logical basis to favor him/herself over another (except for actual differences in kind or achievement, like strength or training.) Is that dangerous?

    It's just got nothing to do with mankind. Might work for ants or so. If we were all perfectly rational we wouldn't need any laws to begin with. The point is humans are selfish, illogical, and our minds have all kinds of build in weaknesses. Of course I favor myself over billions of other people who I've never meet, the only exception being close friends and family. All utopias that build up on an idealized human are doomed to fail. E.g. research shows it's not actually so much important for people's happiness to have a high income, but to have a 'higher' income (than your neighbor). It's not important to be 'good', but to be 'better' (than your colleague). Communism doesn't work because it takes away that fun. Bottomline is, we're all assholes, and we need politics to figure out a modestly decent way to kick each other's ass.



  57. I argue on my blog that everyone being perfectly rational can still lead to a overall lousy outcome.

  58. Dear Bee: People are not all assholes, nor are they all angels, so any social system that depends on these two premises will fail. Given that people are not usually living and working in isolation suggest that a look of their environment could give some information for the range of individual behaviors.

    If one is living in a 'no trust' environment (Italy is one), then one is not likely to give freely, voluntarily to strangers, and so the most effective interactions will be only among close friends and family. In high-trust environments (U.S., Germany), organizations work alot more effectively among strangers. The book: _Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity_ by Fukuyama describes these kinds of societies. Yes, it's still a simplistic treatment, but I think it is going in the right direction to explain the complex interplay between individual and society.

    You said: "we need politics to figure out a modestly decent way to kick each other's ass."

    I don't agree that a group of people paid (by my nonconsensual money) to spend all day figuring out laws that restrict my life is a good thing...

  59. Dear Quasar: The question of 'who'. Isn't it the woman, the owner of the foetus, who decides?

  60. Dear Amara:

    I apologize for overemphasizing my argument beyond the sensible range. I didn't mean to insult anybody with saying we're all assholes. I just meant to express that a society that counts on humans caring for each other as much as for themselves would not work. Though altruism is part of the human nature, evolution left us with a built in programme to value our own life (and that of closest peers) above that of strangers.

    I don't agree that a group of people paid (by my nonconsensual money) to spend all day figuring out laws that restrict my life is a good thing...

    Neither do I. So I am not sure who you disagree with. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I also think that laws and restriction should be as minimal as possible. I don't think though the present system, whether you call it liberal or not, does this very well (neither in the US nor in Europe afaict). Best,


  61. Most of my dangerous ideas are mainly dangerous only to myself, but I won't talk about them.

    The prototypical "dangerous idea" was Darwin's natural selection. An idea is only dangerous if it's capable of vast destruction, and Darwin's idea destroyed much of the world picture of the 19th century. Susskind's dangerous idea might be dangerous to physics, but I doubt that it will shake the councils of state or panic school boards and pastors.

    Dangerous ideas (DIs) tend to be double-edged - they have within capabilities for both good and evil. Not all though. I think racism is pretty much an unmitigated evil, and with it several allied isms, but it's a powerful idea because it plays into human nature's distrust of the other.

    DIs can be rather concrete - the idea for the nuclear bomb, for example. The ideas of gods or one God are at the opposite pole.

    I didn't notice any ideas in the list that I would consider genuinely dangerous, but there are some older ideas working their way through humanosphere that are: intelligent robots, for example, and the internet. Surely they will replace us all someday.

    Finally, let me insist on my own candidate for worst dangerous idea - a bad but old one: the idea that people who disagree with you, or believe differently, should be persecuted, shot, blown up, or tortured. That one has been a favorite of villains always.

  62. Ahh, I guess you all (we need a true second person plural in this dopey language) don't appreciate Socratic gadflies seeking consternation and reflection? I didn't really claim it as my own ideal, just that it would technically be the logical ideal. Remember, it would still depend on actual differences of situation, which could include what people deserved etc. - but no distinction just because of the observer's relative point of view. Anything that was an expression of agents' logic wouldn't be communism or any other "system" either since it wasn't imposed by a holder of power over unwilling subjects. So, food for thought and that certain annoyance from ironists teasing you, maybe? Kant - well he is indeed thought-provoking, must re-read some of that.

    Oil: Yes some folks are thinking about it running out (Google for "peak oil"; what I mean is, the consumers (supposedly what it's all about) don't see those contextual features.) Well, so what is so bad about fission anyway? I know there's some waste trouble, but CO2 is more dangerous right now (yet I have to believe we can take better advantage of all that sun beating down on the earth.)

  63. Amara in today's Western world the woman may appear to have the freedom to terminate a perfectly healthy baby (because it interferes with her career plans and/or happiness), and on the other hand choose to give birth to a genetically unhealthy baby - which will be condemned to a life of misery, a litany of surgical interventions and after much suffering and a very peculiar experience of life, inevitable death - for whatever irrational motherly motives, instincts or selfish desires.

    However as you know not long ago there was a limit in China to one child per couple, in India still some women kill their new born daughters because of custom or tradition (men seen as workers or bread winners) hence there are now more men than women in India (since they haven't been engaged in the ritualistic slaughter of males of the species in tribal warfare for some time).

    But there may come a time in the non too distant future where if the lower classes or workers of the species do not continue to use and accept voluntary contraception it may be imposed from 'above'

    It may soon become a necessity because of the burden on the health services to use DNA profiling to discourage certain couples from having children, and introduce voluntary euthanasia for the elderly as an acceptable social responsibility.

    So how do you feel about designer babies, and how do you feel about having donor babies - ie: babies specifically to provide a bone-marrow match for an ill sibbling.

    And how do you feel about women in the third world having babies to 'sell' - not for adoption, but as farmed organ donors ready for harvesting.

    Embryo, foetus, new born, they all 'belong' to the mother, right?

    PS - I dunno how we ended up walking down this thread, since I presume you are more interested in using stem cells to grow neurons, organs (eyes, lungs, hearts) and limbs(?) to alleviate the human condition - and super stem cells to grow super neurons, super organs (eyes, kungs, hearts) and bionic limps to create improve the species or create a super race.

    Just saw the stepford wives again, and the notion of using chips implants in the brain to create the perfect little wife does appeal to my male sense of humour and vulcan logic. But then again I know it is wholly unrealizable.

    If nature would have wanted us to be perfect little 'whatevers' it would have introduced the chips in the brain, but I cannot help wonder why nature introduced mortality into the design, or whether mortality is a flaw of nature - one humanity must cure(?)

  64. Quasar:

    "Amara in today's Western world the woman may appear to have the freedom to terminate a perfectly healthy baby (because it interferes with her career plans and/or happiness), and on the other hand choose to give birth to a genetically unhealthy baby"

    How the society in which she lives accomodates such decisions depends on the level of social support, that is, how much everyone else pays for her decisions. With little social support, if she knows that the baby will have difficulties for its life, then it is her responsibility to take care of that baby/child. But in a society with social support, then others have a say, and the situation becomes muddy, I agree. Who is 'others'? Those who are paying the social support. But those people's voices are susceptible to any political group that has better resources and hence 'louder'.

    "So how do you feel about designer babies, and how do you feel about having donor babies - ie: babies specifically to provide a bone-marrow match for an ill sibbling. And how do you feel about women in the third world having babies to 'sell' - not for adoption, but as farmed organ donors ready for harvesting. Embryo, foetus, new born, they all 'belong' to the mother, right?"

    Quasar, there are some millions of years of evolution between a foetus and a baby. I would answer in the same way as James Hughes did on another list when talking about animal 'rights'. And those for robots and posthumans. What matters is how you think and feel, your consciousness and your level of complexity in interaction with your world. A baby is an extremely complex and conscious system! So is a great ape. So is a dolphin. I would not accept babies bred for harvesting. Did anyone ask the baby what he/she wanted?

    If all one cares about in a society is a particular class of characteristics, then we are following a route of racism that only leads to suffering, and I hope that we humans have (can?) grown (grow) out of that. Isn't it in everyone's interest to have diversity? We must be prepared to accomodate the range of possible consciousnesses, complex systems, intelligent-life-as-we-can't-imagine-it-now, in our future, and not go the route of who is stronger, wins. I would say, who is smarter, wins, so then please use technology to find another solution that doesn't squash complex, thinking and feeling systems. Please use technology in a way that doesn't limit our possibilities!

  65. I didn't notice any ideas in the list that I would consider genuinely dangerous

    CIP, some of them entail that there is no such thing as free-will or choice.

    That seems like this would require a paradigm shit that would do serious damage to the world view of all but a few that have already accepted it, like me.

  66. eh... I'll just say... WHOOPS!... lol

  67. Hi Island,

    Interestingly, just yesterday I wrote a lengthy blahblah about the alleged dangerousness of denying the existence of free will. I doubt it would matter much. We certainly have the illusion that we influence the future, and knowing or not knowing it's an illusion doesn't make a large difference. Before the days of quantum mechanics there was no free will either, and people didn't all commit suicide when they thought determinism rules. I can't quite recall who said it in one of these infamous debates around Lee's book (might have been George Johnson) but it still sounds in my ears: People don't care about [physics] one way or the other. We're taking ourselves much too seriously.



  68. Hi Neil:

    I am afraid you still don't get my point. I'd love to live in a world full with peaceful, open-minded, self-reflecting, meditating, intelligent, nice people, but what you say would 'technically' be 'the logical ideal' is just not how the world really is. You're welcome to dream of a better version of mankind, but if you're trying to build up a society on your idealized humans it's going to fail.

    Plus, rationality is often boring.



  69. Hi Bee,

    -- The most dangerous idea is *not* to have dangerous ideas.

    Perhaps the ability of having dangerous ideas is a prerequisite to the rising of intelligence.

    But I could be completely wrong and the thing could be just the other way around!

    Perhaps our human species is completely stupid for having dangerous ideas from time to time.

  70. Anyway, what is innocuous for someone might be dangerous for others -- and not realizing this is perhaps the most dangerous idea one might have.

  71. Hi Bee,

    See, I told you, (back when), that Einstein should have killed Bohr and Heisenberg when he had the chance!... er, "opportunity" may have been a better word here than "chance"... ;)

    I just have a little nit to pick that even a que-ball that's used in a pool game "influences the future", but I'm pretty sure that you meant to say that we have the illusion that we are free about how we influence the future.

  72. Sabine: "I just meant to express that a society that counts on humans caring for each other as much as for themselves would not work. Though altruism is part of the human nature, evolution left us with a built in programme to value our own life (and that of closest peers) above that of strangers."

    Dear Bee: This isn't true. Evolution did give us a 'buit-in program' to value other strangers' lives more than our own, under some circumstances. To know what are those circumstances, you'll need to know some game theory (Prisoner's Dilemma), and some evolutionary biology (Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene) too.

    If you google: "Evolution of Cooperation Axelrod", you'll find 25 years of studies looking at every angle. Here I'll give some pointers.

    This and this, and this overview gives the basic points of the Evolution of Cooperation ideas. For one aspect, the biological aspect, Dawkins' 'Selfish Gene' and 'Reciprocity Theory' ideas have been expanded. For example, Look here:

    The Evolution of Cooperation Author(s) Joel L. Sachs, Ulrich G. Mueller, Thomas P. Wilcox, and James J. Bull Identifiers The Quarterly Review of Biology, volume 79 (2004), pages 135–160

    Darwin recognized that natural selection could not favor a trait in one species solely for the benefit of another species. The modern, selfish-gene view of the world suggests that cooperation between individuals, whether of the same species or different species, should be especially vulnerable to the evolution of noncooperators. Yet, cooperation is prevalent in nature both within and between species. What special circumstances or mechanisms thus favor cooperation? Currently, evolutionary biology offers a set of disparate explanations, and a general framework for this breadth of models has not emerged. Here, we offer a tripartite structure that links previously disconnected views of cooperation. We distinguish three general models by which cooperation can evolve and be maintained: (i) directed reciprocationmdashcooperation with individuals who give in return; (ii) shared genesmdashcooperation with relatives (e.g., kin selection); and (iii) byproduct benefitsmdashcooperation as an incidental consequence of selfish action. Each general model is further subdivided. Several renowned examples of cooperation that have lacked explanation until recentlymdashplant-rhizobium symbioses and bacteria-squid light organsmdashfit squarely within this framework. Natural systems of cooperation often involve more than one model, and a fruitful direction for future research is to understand how these models interact to maintain cooperation in the long term.

    Axelrod has an extensive annotated bibliography, (where you can download papers), and you can find Prisoner's Dilemma software to try out some of the ideas too.

    I should say that I'm not an expert. I know the keywords, some of the ideas, and enough to know that I would sink months if I wanted to understand it deeply. It's a fascinating area of research.

  73. Bee, since nobody has mentioned them:
    nuclear weapons arsenal
    the reality of antimatter

    Hi Amara,
    There is a sort of Symbiosis betweeen humans & pets, humans & horses, and humans and domesticated animals
    But it is usually a one way street, animals for food, animals as workhorses, animals as hunting aids - though of course nowdays we think of pets as having some therapeutic value - they are still disposable, a puppy or kitten is sometimes only for xmas.

    And though many of us may dream of swimming with dolphins, only a handful of people get to really play with dolphins

    If humans had spent as much energy in cooperating, as has been wasted on competition & destruction, we could have built utopia on Earth, and reached beyond our solar system

  74. Quasar: I like this play with dolphins better ...! :-)

    (it's an earworm, I can listen to it for hours)

  75. Dear Amara:

    Thanks for the references, I am aware of that. As I've acknowledged above, altruism is part of the human nature, so is cooperation - but it for sure isn't the human nature per se. Now I don't know what you claim is not true of what I said. Do you deny that egoism and competition is part of the human behaviour. Do you deny that we don't treat everybody else like we'd treat ourselves and closest peers? If so, how then do you explain violence, war, and essentially all of human history which is based on - well, fighting with each other to our own advantage.



  76. Adding to what Amara wrote...

    Perhaps one can think of groups as humans that live in tribes (as we all used to do until a few thousand years ago) as "super organisms".

    Recently I saw a documentary about a tribe in somewhere in Africa. When people get ill or injured, they go to the "medicine woman". She told before she became the medicine woman, her mother used to be the medicine woman and before that her grandmother etc.

    She told that she can communicate with spirits and asks them for advice. She takes some plant extracts that appears to induce hallucinations. But, it could be that she is (mildly) schizophrenic which makes her more suceptible to having hallucinations in response to taking certain drugs.

    I think that it would be important that at least someone in a tribe would have the ability to talk to the spirits. And it would also be desirable that this talent runs in families.

    Now, we know that approxiately 1 percent of the world's population is schizophrenic, but there are more people who hear voices from time to time or see things that aren't there who don't suffer from this and they don't talk about it (because they don't want others to think that they are crazy).

    So, it could be that "hearing voices", is simply a talent that evolved because there was a need for that when we used to live in tribes.

    There exists competition between tribes. Tribes that do better (have better medicine women or me ,better hunters) will grow faster. If there are too many people in a tribe, it will split up.

    Now, even if the "super organism" model doesn't apply, you can explain why cooperative behavior would be expected to arise, as the refs given by Amara point out.

    You need those mechanisms to explain how a super organism could have evolved from a group of animals in the first place.

  77. Bee: "altruism is part of the human nature, so is cooperation - but it for sure isn't the human nature per se."

    Hmm. This sentence looks contradictory. What I'm saying is that are there _are_ biological (genetic), psychological, and sociological reasons for humans to be altruistic, in some circumstances. I don't know how dominant, e.g. dominant in time or dominant at the particular times that matter, those circumstances are, because this is not my specialty, but there is a lot of literature on it.

    Of course competition is part of human behavior.

    No, I don't think that it's always true that "we don't treat everybody else like we'd treat ourselves and our closest peers". Sometimes we treat them better. And also sometimes orders of magnitude worse! But you'd have to include the particulars of that culture in addition to evolutionary biology, game theory and probably also evolutionary psychology (EP) to understand why. I don't agree with the kind of blanket, all encompanssing statements about human behavior that you're making, because I don't think that human behavior is that simple.

    "If so, how then do you explain violence, war, and essentially all of human history which is based on - well, fighting with each other to our own advantage. "

    There are many reasons to explain violence in human behavior, Bee, and wars in humans' evolutionary history. And periods of peace as well.

    Have you thought why there has _not_ been a major war in Europe in 60 years?

    Or how humans _can_ be the monsters that our history books (and newspapers) show them to be? For example, 1945, with its devastation, displacement, and horror, was not the result of a few madmen and their befuddled followers, not just of 'others,' but of humanity as a whole and of our culture as a whole. Nineteen forty-five is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem. Can we explain that?

    If you want to hear one take from an EP angle for some of human behavior, especially wars, my friend Keith Henson has an EP theory about that.

    He says the reason is due to _psychological_ traits that evolved during the long stone age period. Predators are no longer effective in limiting the hominid population of the modern age, so that humans are forced to become our own predators. War is the result when the population exceeds the resources, or more correctly, war happens when hominids who are good at anticipating the future see things looking bleak. Perception of a bleak future activates a psychological mechanism that increases the gain on the class of xenophobic memes. While memes are in the causal chain leading to wars, any xenophobic meme will do to work the population, particularly the warriors, up onto a killing frenzy. He says that *some* meme will get enough influence to motivate the population. His explanation for why has Europe stayed in "war off" mode for the last 60 years is because population growth stayed below economic growth.

    He says that it's also why the IRA lost the support of the Irish population. About 30 years ago the birth rate in Ireland took a major drop. Eventually economic growth got ahead of population growth. Rising income per capita maps into good times for our hunter gatherer ancestors, time to hunt and raise kids rather than attempt to kill off the neighboring tribe.

    So his angle is pretty depressing. According to him, if humans don't want to succomb to our brutal stone-age psychologically-evolved behaviors, then we had better grow our resources and economy well!

  78. Folks:

    Although I said later I posted it more as Socratic irritant than a "serious" proposal (remember that a proposal means what will actually be agreed to, not just what's ultimately "right"), I find it odd it didn't get more respect as a logical point about how intelligent beings would regard other beings. (I said that a rational being knows he or she doesn't objectively deserve better than anyone else, except for definable differences.) And yes, surely genes have influence on brains and those traits are selected, but I find it odd that we treat behavioral genetics as if most particular behaviors were represented individually and directly by genes, and selectable as such thereby. That strikes me as the genetic analog of phrenology. Why not suppose, that many genes drive overall "appreciativity" in the intelligent sense, cognitive/emotional styles broadly speaking, etc., more often than "behaviors." "Genetic behaviorism" seems as dumb to me as discredited behaviorism per se.

    Hence, appreciation of the logical basis for altruism would be based in large part on overall insight development, not a specific "altruism gene" of the phrenological genetics sort. I believe I have a conceptual appreciation for the reality and importance of other being's worth, and am tired of it always being imagined as emotional sympathy (there's that also.) Can we get some level of agreement to that?

    PS - Did Sean ever explain what happened to his site? It was down for hours. Plus, I hope to get answers to whether Google changed its search ranking criteria a week or two ago, since I started getting some different results around then. ty

  79. Bee: "Plus, rationality is often boring."

    So is capitalism. :-)

  80. Brief re-finessing: I'd say a serious proposal is something that has a chance of being agreed to, v. my slip of writing shortly above. However, it is important to appreciate that wielders of power, public and private, often consider and enact proposals that most of us don't like. More food for thought.

  81. Hi Neil:

    I am definitely all for 'insight development' and I understand where you are coming from. I was just saying that your 'logical ideal' has little chances to become reality any time soon. A considerable part of the political task at hand right now is how to best deal with our irrationality.

    Dear Amara:

    Thanks for the photo, this is nice :-) Though I don't think capitalism is more or less boring than other economical systems.

    Besides this, I still don't know what you think is contradictory about what I said since it seems to me we basically agree. Human behaviour has many facets, it's not explained by egoism and competition only, neither altruism and collaboration only. I've never said so. I don't know either to what degree and under which circumstances which factor is more or less important. That however doesn't change the fact (and that was what I originally meant to say) that we currently don't live in a world full with peacefully collaborating people. So we need a way to deal with that.

    Have you thought why there has _not_ been a major war in Europe in 60 years?

    1) People usually don't kill each other without a reason. There aren't even all that many animals who kill just for the fun of it. If survival is guaranteed and pleasant there is no reason to fight for ones own well-being (or that of family and country). That doesn't change the fact that if pressure raises, humans will do whatever they can to save their own life and protect their families.

    2) We've found other ways to lead 'wars' that re-direct our competition away from killing and conquering. We're fighting on the stock market, in the Olympic games, be leaders in technological progress, the discovery of the universe... As I've said elsewhere, this is why I think the way to deal with terrorism is to give these people a non-violent way to make themselves heard. They are afraid their culture is in danger and they are fighting for a survival of their values. Give them other means to do that than blowing up innocent people.



  82. Hi Bee, Then I misunderstood you. From your paragraph here, we seem to agree.

    I hadn't heard before your opinion about what to do about terrorists. I'm happily in agreement about that too. My thoughts (argued with someone on a blog a couple of years ago :-/ ) is:

    *we* (the world) have no right to "change" the nature of the societies that are breeding terrorism. It is exactly that mindset that contributes to the breeding of terrorism.

    If a person... or a group of persons.. (governments are not good at this kind of thing) wish to encourage societies to create an environment that is less likely to breed terrorists then:

    give them fresh water
    give them food to eat
    help them build roads
    help them have electricity
    encourage a free press
    encourage free elections

    and then *let them build their own society* appropriate to their history, language, culture, ...

    And yes about Kosovo..I was thinking I should include it as I was writing what I wrote. It might be useful to check the birthrates and compare to their economic conditions at that time to test Keith's theory.


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