Tag Archives: Dangerous ideas

A green tree superimposed over stars in space.

Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought

Every once in a while, out of the murky chaos of human life and society, glimpses appear of what real human beings in the future may think, feel, and desire. Lately, I have been watching a particularly interesting pair of trends, which may foreshadow a revolution in human thought over the next few decades. I’ve noticed signs that the numerous technological, environmental, and ethical interests of our modern era are coalescing into two different waves of paradigms and values.

One wave is being called Black Sky Thinking; the other could well be named Green Earth Thinking.  Both focus on how human beings connect with our human nature, our place within the universe, and our technological capability, but they take opposite positions. Continue reading Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought

When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bierce was being funny when he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, but his definition of history seems pretty well on target. Or so we might think, given the usual portrayal of history as the speeches, battles, and poor-to-middling decisions of kings, beggars, and senators making the same mistakes over and over again.

That “over and over again” is a problem. If history were just about the decisions of individual human beings, we’d expect their actions to look like chaos on all scales. That doesn’t happen. We see plenty of chaotic behavior in normal life, but the further we zoom out, and the larger the time scale we examine, the more regular and repetitive history appears. To explain this regularity, people have proposed plenty of theories of history, ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. One problem with most of them is that they tend to be qualitative, or concept-based, rather than quantitative, or based on consistent relationships between numerical data. When you’re trying to systematically predict or describe events, a quantitative theory goes a lot further than a qualitative one.

So I was pleasantly surprised several days ago, when I stumbled across this post on the Long Now Foundation‘s blog: Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History. The post briefly describes a remarkable computer simulation of 3,000 years of Eurasian history, recently conducted by ecologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

Simulation? History? That means a quantitative model. I was curious.  I dove into Turchin’s report, which you can read here, along with its supporting documents.

Turchin and company created their simulation very simply: they took a map of Africa and Eurasia and chopped it up into “cells” of 100 kilometers square. Each cell was classified as sea or land; land cells were assigned elevation and further classified as desert, steppe, or agricultural land. Every agricultural cell was supplied with a “community” that could possess two types of social traits: military technology and ultrasociality. (Ultrasociality, as the study defines it, is humans’ “ability to live and cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”) Agricultural cells were randomly populated with ultrasociality traits, while military technology traits were granted initially to cells bordering the steppe, and spread outward from there (a way to simulate the effect of the steppe highway on the transmission and development of military techniques, most notably mounted warfare). The cells were programmed to attack their neighbors. Victorious cells built multi-cell empires, imposing their ultrasociality traits on the vanquished. Victory was more probable over cells with low elevations and fewer ultrasociality and military technology traits than their attackers. Continue reading When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?