The Life of Civilization

Regions in viability space. Living, dead, viable, precarious and terminal regions of the viability space. The dead region or state lies at [A] = 0, above which the living region appears. Inside the living region three different sub-regions are distinguished: the viable region (light grey) where the system will remain alive if environmental conditions don’t change, the precarious region (medium grey) where the system is still alive but tends towards death unless environmental conditions change and the terminal region (dark grey) where the system will irreversibly fall into the dead region. See text body for detailed explanation. (Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egbert)

Regions in viability space. Living, dead, viable, precarious and terminal regions of the viability space. The dead region or state lies at [A] = 0, above which the living region appears. Inside the living region three different sub-regions are distinguished: the viable region (light grey) where the system will remain alive if environmental conditions don’t change, the precarious region (medium grey) where the system is still alive but tends towards death unless environmental conditions change and the terminal region (dark grey) where the system will irreversibly fall into the dead region. See text body for detailed explanation. (Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egbert)

Tenth in a Series on Existential Risk

What makes a civilization viable? What makes a species viable? What makes an individual viable? To put the question in its most general form, what makes a given existent viable?

These are the questions that we must ask in the pursuit of the mitigation of existential risk. The most general question — what makes an existent viable? — is the most abstract and theoretical question, and as soon as I posed this question to myself in these terms, I realized that I had attempted to answer this earlier, prior to the present series on existential risk.

In January 2009 I wrote, generalizing from a particular existential crisis in our political system:

“If we fail to do what is necessary to perpetuate the human species and thus precipitate the end of the world indirectly by failing to do what was necessary to prevent the event, and if some alien species should examine the remains of our ill-fated species and their archaeologists reconstruct our history, they will no doubt focus on the problem of when we turned the corner from viability to non-viability. That is to say, they would want to try to understand the moment, and hence possibly also the nature, of the suicide of our species. Perhaps we have already turned that corner and do not recognize the fact; indeed, it is likely impossible that we could recognize the fact from within our history that might be obvious to an observer outside our history.”

This poses the viability of civilization in stark terms, and I can now see in retrospect that I was feeling my way toward a conception of existential risk and its moral imperatives before I was fully conscious of doing so.

From the beginning of this blog I started writing about civilizations — why they rise, why they fall, and why some remain viable for longer than others. My first attempt to formulate the above stark dilemma facing civilization in the form of a principle, in Today’s Thought on Civilization, was as follows:

a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes

This formulation in terms of the failure of civilization immediately suggests a formulation in terms of the success (or viability) of a civilization, which I did not formulate at that time:

A civilization is viable when it successfully changes when the world changes.

I also stated in the same post cited above that the evolution of civilization has scarcely begun, which continues to be my point of view and informs my ongoing efforts to formulate a theory of civilization on the basis of humanity’s relatively short experience of civilized life.

In any case, in the initial formulation given above I have, like Toynbee, taken the civilization as the basic unit of historical study. I continued in this vein, writing a series of posts about civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, Revisiting Civilization Revisited, Historical Continuity and Discontinuity, Two Conceptions of Civilization, A Note on Quantitative Civilization, inter alia.

I moved beyond civilization-specific formulations of what I would come to call the principle of historical viability in a later post:

…the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change…” or “A union fails when it fails to change…” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”

And in Challenge and Response I elaborated on this further development of what it means to be historically viable:

…my above enunciated principle ought to be amended to read, “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes” (instead of “…when the world changes”). In other words, the kind of change an historical entity must undergo in order to remain historically viable must be in consonance with the change occurring in the world. This is, obviously, or rather would be, a very difficult matter to nail down in quantitative terms. My schema remains highly abstract and general, and thus glides over any number of difficulties vis-à-vis the real world. But the point here is that it is not so much a matter of merely changing in parallel with the changing world, but changing how the world changes, changing in the way that the world changes.

It was also in this post that I first called this the principle of historical viability.

I now realize that what I then called historical viability might better be called existential viability — at least, by reformulating by principle of historical viability again and calling it the principle of existential viability, I can assimilate these ideas to my recent formulations of existential risk. Seeing historical viability through the lens of existential risk and existential viability allows us to formulate the following relationship between the latter two:

Existential viability is the condition that follows from the successful mitigation of existential risk.

Thus the achievement of existential risk mitigation is existential viability. So when we ask, “What makes an existent viable?” we can answer, “The successful mitigation of risks to that existent.” This gives us a formal framework for understanding existential viability as a successful mitigation of existential risk, but it tells us nothing about the material conditions that contribute to existential viability. Determining the material conditions of existential viability will be a matter both of empirical study and the formulation of a theoretical infrastructure adequate to the conditions that bear upon civilization. Neither of these exist yet, but we can make some rough observations about the material conditions of existential viability.

Different qualities in different places at different times have contributed to the viability of existents. This is one of the great lessons of natural selection: evolution is not about a ladder of progress, but about what organism is best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular area at a particular time. When the “organism” in question is civilization, the lesson of natural selection remains valid: civilizations do not describe a ladder of progress, but those civilizations that have survived have been those best adapted to the particular conditions of a particular region at a particular time. Existential risk mitigation is about making civilization part of evolution, i.e., part of the long term history of the universe.

To acknowledge the position of civilization in the long term history of the universe is to recognize that a change has come about in civilization as we know it, and this change is primarily the consequence of the advent of industrial-technological civilization: civilization is now global, populations across the planet, once isolated by geographical barriers, now communicate instantaneously and trade and travel nearly instantaneously. A global civilization means that civilization is no longer selected on the basis of local conditions at a particular place at a particular time — which was true of past civilizations. Civilization is now selected globally, and this means placing the earth that is the bearer of global civilization in a cosmological context of selection.

What selects a planet for the long term viability of the civilization that it bears? This is essentially a question of astrobiology, which is a point that I recently attempted to make in my recent presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress and my post on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization.

An astrobiological context suggests what we might call an astroecological context, and I have many times pointed out the relevance of ecology to questions of civilization. Pursuing the idea of existential viability may offer a new perspective for the application methods developed for the study of the complex systems of ecology to the complex systems of civilization. And civilizations are complex systems if they are anything.

There is a growing branch of mathematical ecology called viability theory, with obvious application to the viability of the complex systems of civilization. We can immediately see this applicability and relevance in the following passage:

“Agent-based complex systems such as economics, ecosystems, or societies, consist of autonomous agents such as organisms, humans, companies, or institutions that pursue their own objectives and interact with each other an their environment (Grimm et al. 2005). Fundamental questions about such systems address their stability properties: How long will these systems exist? How much do their characteristic features vary over time? Are they sensitive to disturbances? If so, will they recover to their original state, and if so, why, from what set of states, and how fast?”

Viability and Resilience of Complex Systems: Concepts, Methods and Case Studies from Ecology and Society (Understanding Complex Systems), edited by Guillaume Deffuant and Nigel Gilbert, p. 3

Civilization itself is an agent-based complex system like, “economics, ecosystems, or societies.” Another innovative approach to complex systems and their viability is to be found in the work of Hartmut Bossel. Here is an extract from the Abstract of his paper “Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets”:

Performance assessment in holistic approaches such as integrated natural resource management has to deal with a complex set of interacting and self-organizing natural and human systems and agents, all pursuing their own “interests” while also contributing to the development of the total system. Performance indicators must therefore reflect the viability of essential component systems as well as their contributions to the viability and performance of other component systems and the total system under study. A systems-based derivation of a comprehensive set of performance indicators first requires the identification of essential component systems, their mutual (often hierarchical or reciprocal) relationships, and their contributions to the performance of other component systems and the total system. The second step consists of identifying the indicators that represent the viability states of the component systems and the contributions of these component systems to the performance of the total system. The search for performance indicators is guided by the realization that essential interests (orientations or orientors) of systems and actors are shaped by both their characteristic functions and the fundamental and general properties of their system environments (e.g., normal environmental state, scarcity of resources, variety, variability, change, other coexisting systems). To be viable, a system must devote an essential minimum amount of attention to satisfying the “basic orientors” that respond to the properties of its environment. This fact can be used to define comprehensive and system-specific sets of performance indicators that reflect all important concerns.

…and in more detail from the text of his paper…

Obtaining a conceptual understanding of the total system. We cannot hope to find indicators that represent the viability of systems and their component systems unless we have at least a crude, but essentially realistic, understanding of the total system and its essential component systems. This requires a conceptual understanding in the form of at least a good mental model.

Identifying representative indicators. We have to select a small number of representative indicators from a vast number of potential candidates in the system and its component systems. This means concentrating on the variables of those component systems that are essential to the viability and performance of the total system.

Assessing performance based on indicator states. We must find measures that express the viability and performance of component systems and the total system. This requires translating indicator information into appropriate viability and performance measures.

Developing a participative process. The previous three steps require a large number of choices that necessarily reflect the knowledge and values of those who make them. In holistic management, it is therefore essential to bring in a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, mental models, and social and environmental concerns to ensure that a comprehensive indicator set and proper performance measures are found.

“Assessing Viability and Sustainability: a Systems-based Approach for Deriving Comprehensive Indicator Sets,” Hartmut Bossel, Ecology and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2, Art. 12, 2001

Another dimension can be added to this applicability and relevance by the work of Xabier E. Barandiaran and Matthew D. Egber on the role of norms in complex systems involving agents. Here is an extract from the abstract of their paper:

“One of the fundamental aspects that distinguishes acts from mere events is that actions are subject to a normative dimension that is absent from other types of interaction: natural agents behave according to intrinsic norms that determine their adaptive or maladaptive nature. We briefly review current and historical attempts to naturalize normativity from an organism-centred perspective that conceives of living systems as defining their own norms in a continuous process of self-maintenance of their individuality. We identify and propose solutions for two problems of contemporary modelling approaches to viability and normative behaviour in this tradition: 1) How to define the topology of the viability space beyond establishing normatively-rigid boundaries, so as to include a sense of gradation that permits reversible failure; and 2) How to relate, in models of natural agency, both the processes
that establish norms and those that result in norm-following behaviour.”

The author’s definition of a viability space in the same paper is of particular interest:

Viability space: the space defined by the relationship between: a) the set of essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine the system’s organization and, b) the set of external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary for the system’s self-maintenance

“Norm-establishing and norm-following in autonomous agency,” Xabier E. Barandiaran, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind, and Society, Dept. of Logic and Philosophy of Science, UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country, Spain,, and Matthew D. Egbert, Center for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K.

Clearly, an adequate account of the existential viability of civilization would want to address the “essential variables representing the components, processes or relationships that determine” the civilization’s structure, as well as the “external parameters representing the environmental conditions that are necessary” for the civilization’s self-maintenance.

In working through the conception of existential risk in the series of posts I have written here I have come to realize how comprehensive the idea of existential risk is, which gives it a particular utility in discussing the big picture and the human future. In so far as existential viability is the condition that results from the successful mitigation of existential risk, then the idea of existential viability is at least as comprehensive as that of existential risk.

In formulating this initial exposition of existential viability I have been struck by the conceptual synchronicities that have have emerged: recent work in viability theory suggests the possibility of the mathematical modeling of civilization; the work of Barandiaran and Egbert on viability space has shown me the relevance of artificial life and artificial intelligence research; the key role of the concept of viability in ecology makes recent ecological studies (such as Assessing Viability and Sustainability cited above) relevant to existential viability and therefore also to existential risk; formulations of ecological viability and sustainability, and the recognition that ecological systems are complex systems demonstrates the relevance of complexity theory; ecological relevance to existential concerns points to the possibility of employing what I have written earlier about metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality to existential risk and existential viability, which in turn demonstrates the relevance of Bronfenbrenner’s work to this intellectual milieu. I dare say that the idea of existential viability has itself a kind of viability and resilience due to its many connections to many distinct disciplines.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Accidental World

6 February 2013


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To travel is to be schooled in one’s own irrelevance — one’s dispensability (if not disposability) at home, and one’s anonymity and fungibility abroad. Life goes on, with us or without us, so that our presence is essentially indifferent to the business of the world.

So I have now come to Tokyo for a week, and am being schooled in my own irrelevance and anonymity in this, one of the largest cities in the world.

When I was walking out of the Narita Airport I saw a large sign with a stylized depiction of a map of the world — the sort of thing that one sees everywhere because familiar projections of the world map have become iconic. This particular rendering of the world map reduced the image to oversized pixels, but the image was still immediately recognizable, much like the famous image of Lincoln’s face in photo mosaic by Leon Harmon, which was then adapted by Salvador Dali in his Lincoln in Dalivision.

As I rode the Narita express train into Tokyo I thought about this iconic image of the world, and how we now identify with it so easily. This was not always the case; in fact, this recognition of the planet entire as an icon represents the confluence of many factors: the mapping of the world (which has been going on since antiquity), wide dissemination of basic scientific knowledge (which is a fairly recent historical phenomenon), space technology which has allowed us to see the world whole, a media culture that repeats particular images until they become imprinted upon us, and other developments peculiar to our industrial-technological civilization.

The particular outlines that the continents happened to have assumed during the historical period, when they have been systematically mapped by human beings, have become iconic to us, and since they are now shown to us with casual regularity, and in addition we have photographs that reveal to us the outlines of the continents as they have been mapped, we intuitively respond to these images and identify with them as readily as we identify with our faces in the mirror, which latter are equally the products of chance, i.e., accidents of history. In the case of island nation-states, like Japan, Britain, and Australia, the familiar outlines of an island, seen whole, may even evoke feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

The individual variability upon which natural selection is predicated implies the biological uniqueness of the individual, and this biological uniqueness extends to our physiognomy, our metabolism (i.e., the individual life of the individual body), and to our brain, which ultimately means the uniqueness of the individual mind emergent from the uniqueness of the body. There is a sense, then, in which it is right that we should identify with our individual faces as expressive of our individual identity. Perhaps, then, there is also a sense, mutatis mutandis, in which it is right that we should identify with the particular outlines of the landmasses of the world, upon which our existence and the shape and structure of our lives is predicated.

All of these unique, individual expressions of life — the life of the planet and the life of the individual, inter alia — we identify as being uniquely ours: our planet, our continent, our country, our people, and our body, our face. These are the accidents of history upon which natural selection acts, and in so acting generates further unique expressions of life, including entire unique species, and the worlds upon which they live. Indeed, our species expands its numbers, and therefore expands its range and the extent of its civilization, by a systematic randomizing process — sexual reproduction — that ensures children will always be unlike their parents, i.e., that they will be unique individuals in their own right.

It has become something of a contemporary commonplace to critique the egoism of individuality, and this critique of egoism is properly understood as a Copernican critique — or, contrariwise, the macroscopic Copernican critique of anthropocentrism and geocentrism and all Earth-centered thinking may be understood as an extension and an extrapolation of the critique of egocentric thinking.

Yet the individual is unique, and therefore possesses unique value — i.e., the individual possesses axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness. However, the unique value of the individual has primarily been conceived and expressed in terms of the individual’s exemplification of universal values and principles — this is particularly striking in the case of Enlightenment universalism. Here, the individual serves as a mere cipher for the universal (in Hegelian terms, a concrete universal, or, in the language of analytical philosophy, the token of a type).

The Foucauldian critique of the Enlightenment, which has been called “anti-humanist,” has often been implicitly cast as also anti-individualist, but it could with equal justification be called anti-anthropocentric, which is to say that the Foucauldian critique is an extension of the Copernican critique. Like most science as we have come to know it in its modern form, the Foucauldian critique (following the Copernican critique) is a denial of privileged forms of being. This ontological critique of privilege emerges not in spite of but rather because of an appreciation of individual uniqueness in all its contingency.

In a sense, this perspective is akin to contemporary object oriented ontology (OOO), which, in speaking in terms of a “democracy of objects” (as in Levi R. Bryant’s book of the same name), also denies privileged forms of being.

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A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Löwenmensch or Lion Man sculpture, about 32,000 years old, is a relic of the Aurignacian culture.

Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.

Map of the Aurignacian culture, approximately 47,000 to 41,000 years ago.

Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.

Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.

I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:

…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.

Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.

Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.

Human speciation could be facilitated by biotechnology in a way not unlike the facilitation of the industrial revolution by the systematic application of science to technological development.

Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.

In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)

To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.

I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.

From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Darwin’s Cosmology

12 February 2012


Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.

To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.

In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:

“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”

Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:

“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”

Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker

What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.

Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):

“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”

Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood

This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.

One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.

Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”

Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.

There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.

I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.

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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago in Why the Fermi paradox must be taken seriously I attempted to demonstrate that the technology of any peer civilizations extant in the Milky Way would have singled out the earth as an interesting place to visit and thus would likely have made us the target of alien exploration if advanced peer civilizations existed in the Milky Way.

I neglected to mention that, to a certain extent, this applies even to nearby galaxies, although the farther away the galaxy we reference, the more difficult it would be to obtain the scientific knowledge of the earth at a distance, and the more difficult it would be to travel. But difficulty is not impossibility, and if we contemplate the possibility of very old peer civilizations in the universe, their technology would be so advanced that the difficulties would be reduced.

It is one of my dissatisfactions with most books on astrobiology, exobiology, SETI, and space travel that they implicitly confine their scope to the Milky Way galaxy without explicitly acknowledging this restriction. Of course, the Milky Way galaxy is a very big place, but in the several posts in which I have referenced the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image (which has been called “the most important image you will ever see”), when we consider the universe on a very large scale, galaxies fill the sky like the familiar stars filling our night sky. The Milky Way is a very big place, but the universe is a much bigger place, and we must understand the Milky Way in the context of the universe.

The nearest large galaxy to us (excepting the Magellanic Clouds) is the Andromeda Galaxy, which is an elegant spiral galaxy larger than the Milky Way. In the fullness of time, the Andromeda spiral galaxy and the Milky way galaxy will collide, the supermassive black holes at the center of each galaxy will eventually merge, and a new and even larger galaxy will be born from the collision. But that will be a very long time from now.

In the meantime, the Andromeda galaxy is about two and half million light years from us. That means that any observation of the earth from Andromeda would be two and a half million years old. While this is a long time ago for us, in geologic terms it is not all that long ago. While a peer civilization in the Milky Way would experience a lookback time of not more than 100,000 years, bringing observations to the time of the emergence of homo sapiens, the lookback time from the Andromeda galaxy would bring the observer back to a time when several hominid species were ranging around Africa. This corresponds roughly to the time of the emergence of homo habilis and the beginning of tool use among hominids. While this time scale means a lot to us, the biosphere then and now is almost identical, and to an advanced peer civilization then and now on the earth would look pretty much the same. The earth would still be positively brimming with life and therefore a very interesting place to visit.

Assuming only advanced technology and no exceptions to the laws of physics, a starship launched from the Andromeda galaxy would take at least two and a half million years to arrive, but due to time dilation at relativistic velocities, hardy explorers could make the trip in a single lifetime. Somewhere I read (I can’t recall exactly where) that a starship accelerating at the relatively modest rate of 32 feet per second (which has the added value of providing artificial gravity onboard) would only experience about 24 years of elapsed time on the ship during a voyage between Andromeda and the Milky Way. If we were to combine this sort of feasible travel technology with induced hibernation, it is entirely plausible that a group of explorers could travel between galaxies. And the closer one approximates the speed of light, the greater the time dilation, so for explorers there would be a strong incentive to “push the envelope” as it were.

Again, this involves some very advanced engineering, but it doesn’t violate any known laws of physics, and the technology involved is at least comprehensible to us, even if we aren’t in a position to build it ourselves any time soon.

Now, you might ask why anyone would leave behind their world by two and a half million years in order to go to another galaxy. In the books I have been reading lately I have found that several authors are remarkably sanguine about this, and confidently predict that robotic exploration would be so much more preferable to actual exploration by conscious agents that the latter possibly is simply set aside. For example, I have found this more or less to be the implicit viewpoint of Timothy Ferris in Coming of Age in the Milky Way, of Michio Kaku in The Physics of the Future, and of Paul Davies in The Eerie Silence.

I don’t buy this at all. Just as there are, in our contemporary civilization, many people who enjoy the comforts of home, there are always a few people who climb mountains. And, similarly, when the technology is available, many people will continue to enjoy the comforts of home, but there will always be those who are so driven by the need to explore that they will leave behind home and family and indeed the entire world that they know in order see to what lies beyond the horizon. It is perfectly reasonable to me that a group of explorers might choose to leave behind the Andromeda galaxy merely for the purpose of investigating an interesting planet in the Milky Way. In fact, I might choose to do this myself, were it a viable option.

As we consider galaxies and possible peer civilizations at a further reach, beyond the local group and the local cluster of galaxies, the possibilities of relativistic time dilation continue to make exploration possible on an inter-galactic scale, but it would become much more difficult to find interesting planets at this distance, even with techniques like gravitational lensing. However, as we have seen, difficulty is not the same thing as impossibility.

However, another factor comes into play as we move further away from the Milky Way. While those on board a very fast intergalactic starship (approximating while never achieving the speed of light) would experience very little time, time outside this starship would elapse at the accustomed rate, and that means that the more distant the galaxy, the longer ago in time a ship would have to have been launched.

The problem with this, and the problem with much SETI research, is a failure to engage with the anthropic cosmological principle, which seems to be concerned with human existence, but is equally valid (in its valid forms, that is) for any organic conscious agents that emerge according to the laws of nature and natural selection. The farther away we consider, the further back we go in time, and the further back we go in time, the less the universe has evolved toward its present state. At much earlier states of cosmic evolution the elements requisite for peer life, and most especially for peer industrial-technological civilizations, simply do not exist.

A solar system that could support peer industrial-technological civilization would have to have formed after the heavier elements had been formed inside stars from earlier stellar populations, since the only way you can get elements like iron and uranium from an initial stage of hydrogen is, over the course of galactic evolution, for these elements to be cooked up inside successive generations to stars, and then ejected into the universe by way of supernovas. These elements then go on to form solar systems that include the kind of metals that are required for industrial-technological civilization. This takes many generations of stars. As a result, if you have far enough back in time, you arrive at a time before these generations of stars have elapsed, and therefore the conditions for peer civilizations do not exist.

There is a cosmological window in the natural history of the universe for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge. We cannot yet state with any precision how long this window persists, or when it starts. Almost certainly there could be peer civilizations a million or more years old in the universe, but somewhere there is a limit older than which a civilization in our universe could not be. Thus when SETI researchers confidently speak of civilizations millions years old, I am immediately skeptical. It is not impossible, but the further back in time you go, the less possible it becomes.

It is worthwhile to think about this in more detail, as it also has consequences for the Fermi paradox. If we regard it as a mere matter of chance when an industrial-technological civilization emerges from its organic origins — which, it seems to me, is something we must acknowledge in the spirit of methodological naturalism — then it is just as likely that our civilization just happens to be to first such to emerge in the Milky Way, on perhaps even in the local group of galaxies, as it is that we are not the first. Of course, this is not a function or mere chance — it is chance constrained by the anthropic cosmological principle, as well as chance constrained by natural selection. But this is only a rough formulation. An adequate formulation would take more time and more thought.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Selection for non-sentience

17 January 2009


The historical circumstances of machine evolution have resulted in machines being selected for automatism and non-sentience.

1. Machines have been employed at every task that can be easily automated.

2. The least challenging tasks are the easiest to automate.

3. Machines have been employed on the least challenging, most easily automated tasks.

4. Overcoming challenges is a spur to development.

5. Minimal challenge elicits minimal response.

6. Machines have been minimally challenged by their rote, automated tasks.

7. As a result of minimal challenges, machines have not been spurred to greater developments.

8. Machines have been removed from the historical continuum of natural selection, and hence further development, by being designed for a particular purpose rather than responding to environmental selection pressures.

9. Machines are being selected for automation and selected against ability.

10. Machine consciousness is being hampered in its emergence by machine selection for automation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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