The Ringworld Engineers Book Review

Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

The Ringworld Engineers
by Larry Niven
Del Rey (1980)
354 pages
ISBN 0-345-26009-0

Alternative title: Louis Wu gets Busy

tumblr_m5sn9mrBwx1r5zq6ao2_r1_500.gif

While not quite the crowning achievement of Ringworld, this is a solid scifi book that explores the concept of human evolution, using the Ring to expand the space of possibilities.

In the dedication, Larry Niven says he never intended to write a sequel to Ringworld. It was the continual efforts of his fans that persuaded him to do so, and provided a lot of material in the process. Including the hook that drives the action in the book: the Ringworld is not dynamically stable in orbit. A Dyson sphere is, any perturbation of the orbit tends to be cancelled out. Not so, for the Ringworld.

Thus, when Louis Wu is kidnapped and returned to the Ringworld, he finds he must save it, and the trillions of humans who live on it. I call them humans even though they are clearly not the same species as Louis, because "human" isn't really a biological concept at all. I get a lot of mileage out of this quote from John J. Reilly, which will be coming up in a blog post he wrote on October 3rd of 2006.

A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences you don't believe in human beings); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. As for person, which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," is conflated with the notion of person, as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

This very well could have been the book John had in mind when he said that. The other humans on the Ringworld do share a common ancestor with Louis Wu, a really long time ago. However, in the intervening millennia, they have diversified into a vast array of different species, filling empty niches in the Ringworld's ecology, and evolving societies to match.

There are small carnivorous herders with sharp teeth, and large grazers with flat teeth, and scavengers, and so on. And this is all just in the one small part of the Ringworld Louis keeps going back to. The Ringworld is just so big, that lots and lots of evolution will occur, because the rate of favorable mutations spreading scales up with population size, and the population size on the Ringworld is really, really big.

However, it doesn't look to me [or Greg Cochran] like Niven got here in this way, but looking at what selection could do in the time and space available. It looks like he thought this was a cool idea, and he just ran with it. So, hardish scifi.

Also, I am still struck that Niven's Ringworld books are a product of their time. The glue that holds all of the various species of the Ring together is ritual sex between species, which he calls rishathra. As Louis moves through the Ring on his quest, he has sex with pretty much everything that moves, because that is just what you do there.

In fact, it turns out that literally the only temptation in the known universe that Louis cannot resist is his libido. Inbetween the first book and this one, Louis ends up spending most of his time "under the wire", Niven's slangy term for having an electrode implanted in your brain's pleasure center. This turns into a providential plot point at the end of the book, but I find it kind of funny that Louis can resist anything but sex. In the era of #MeToo, perhaps this was unintentionally prophetic.

My other book reviews

The Ringworld Engineers
By Larry Niven

The Long View 2005-10-04: Marvin the Paranoid Android

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In a major break from John, I really liked the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and hated the book. My wife suggested the problem was that I tried to read it as an adult, and since the book is literally sophomoric, you really need to first approach it as a teenager or college student. If only I had known!


Marvin the Paranoid Android

 

I knew it was going to be bad, but I did not think it was going to be this bad. Well, maybe I did. I got around last weekend to seeing the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I stutter in my eagerness to spew invective.

Appalling. Dreadful. Any idiot could make Marvin into a metallic Care Bear, as the makers of this film did, but it took a special attention to detail to botch the orchestration of Journey of the Sorcerer. The signature misstep in this maladaptation is the large prominence given the Vogons. Vogons are not interesting. Two Vogons are less interesting than one Vogon. This film spent a large slice of a generous special-effects budget to realize armies of them.

What is the moral here? When the BBC did their pitch-perfect version of this story many years ago, their single largest budget item seems to have been the cost of Arthur Dent's towel. Nothing ruins the cinematization of fantasy more than the financing of the producer and director beyond their intelligence.

* * *

And that goes double for the nomination of Harriet Miers to the United States Supreme Court.

Shall we be clear on a few issues? Roe v. Wade is a done deal. I don't think that any informed person doubts that it will be overturned. The political class is just positioning itself to accommodate the change. The smarter Democrats know that the prospects for their party will increase markedly when this incubus is taken off them; the Republicans know that a large fraction of their profession-class women voters are libertarians in this matter and so are going to need placating, which will take the form of acquiescence in a liberal abortion regime created by legislation. Both parties, for now, have to continue to embrace the opposite of these realities, but in a few years we will forget which party was on which side.

The cause for outrage here is that the president appointed his personal attorney to the Supreme Court. It is not important that she has never been a judge. What is important is that she's a political hack of no academic distinction and with a narrow range of professional experience. Her chief qualification is dog-loyalty to the person of George Bush.

Frankly, I have been surprised by the caution of the Democrats in reacting to this nomination. The opposition of the Republican base is surprising, too, but chiefly for its cluelessness. Of course this sockpuppet will vote for Movement Conservative issues. The problem is that, when the constitutional changes come, they will come from a court without dignity or credibility, like the Florida Supreme Court in the election of 2000.

* * *

Do you call that an empire? So asks Spengler at Asia Times in his review of Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts : The American Military on the Ground. We read:

Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly longs to be the American Rudyard Kipling, the chronicler of the intrepid subalterns and leathery sergeants who save the empire through pluck and grit.

Alas for Mr. Kaplan, the US military really shows no sign of turning into an imperial military, if by that you mean the militaries of the 19th-century colonial powers. And why is this?

To begin with, the 10,000 or so Special Forces in the US Army are the wrong sort of people: tattooed, tobacco-chewing, iron-pumping Southerners, clever at improvised repairs or minor surgery in the field, and deadly in firefights (although Kaplan never sees one), but without the cultural skills essential to their mission.

He has a point. The American military simply cannot get its act together in the matter of learning foreign languages, for instance. It can build public infrastructure but has little interest in governance. Actually, the officer corps is remarkably intelligent, even well-read, but it works well only with local people who have the same technocratic mindset.

For anyone interested in developing the contrast between the militaries of the 19th and 21st centuries, you might take a look at this piece in Prospect (brought to my attention by Danny Yee), which deplores the passing of the sort of liberal-arts mandarin who used to manage the British empire: From the American founders, Macaulay, Acton, and Mill to de Tocqueville, Guizot, Weber and Ortega y Gasset, the conservative liberals of western Europe and North America feared that universal suffrage would produce "mobocracy." But the nightmare of mass democracy never fully materialised, in large part because of the political and cultural role of the mandarinate, the "new class" of Marxist and neoconservative social theory, the Bildungsbürgertum (cultured middle class) as opposed to the Besitzbürgertum (propertied middle class)....All of this now lies in ruins. Four sources of authority are invoked to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the modern humanism that legitimated the mandarinate: professionalism, positivism, populism and religion.

As for lamentations that America is failing to play the Great Game, I can only repeat that these criticisms are misplaced. The United States is not trying to run a 19th-century empire. It is trying to function as a utility in an incipient Universal State. And look at the flack we get.

* * *

On the topic of Universal States, these remarks by Mark Steyn on the deep reasons for the latest Bali bombings state an important misconception:

Bassam Tibi, a Muslim professor at Gottingen University in Germany, said in an interesting speech a few months after September 11, "Both sides should acknowledge candidly that although they might use identical terms, these mean different things to each of them. The word peace, for example, implies to a Muslim the extension of the Dar al-Islam -- or House of Islam -- to the entire world. This is completely different from the Enlightenment concept of eternal peace that dominates Western thought. Only when the entire world is a Dar al-Islam will it be a Dar a-Salam, or House of Peace."

That's why they blew up Bali in 2002, and last weekend, and why they'll keep blowing it up. It's not about Bush or Blair or Iraq or Palestine. It's about a world where everything other than Islamism lies in ruins.

In reality, Kant's Perpetual Peace and the peace of a universal caliphate Islam are both expressions of the archetype of the Necessary Empire.

* * *

On the matter of misconceptions about evolution, see the essay Stephen M. Barr in the October issue of First Things, "The design of evolution," which answers with some recent attempts to cloud the perfectly satisfactory Catholic position on the matter:

So why did Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, lash out this summer at neo-Darwinism? In an opinion piece for the New York Times on July 7, he reacted indignantly to the suggestion that “the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of” evolution “as used by mainstream biologists – that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism. Brushing off the 1996 statement of John Paul II as “vague and unimportant,” he cited other evidence (including statements by the late pope, sentences from Communion and Stewardship and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a line from the Pope Benedict XVI's installation homily) to make the case that neo-Darwinism is in fact incompatible with catholic teaching...Elsewhere in his article, however, the cardinal is another definition: “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense [is] an unguided, unplanned process of random variation in natural selection.”...[In reality, the] word “random” as used in science does not mean unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated.

Elsewhere in this piece, Barr mentions Simon Conway Morris's argument in Life's Solution as a model in which randomness is compatible with meaning.

* * *

And speaking of First Things, the website now has a blog-like entity on the top page. It is not supposed to be a proper blog, I gather. It may be intended to serve as a place to which the journal's fanatical readers can refer if something really bad happens in the world and they cannot wait until the next issue of the print journal to get the party line.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-08-05: Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

Not the Assassins of Alamut

Not the Assassins of Alamut

The Aga Khan reportedly protested that the Assassin's Creed series falsified the history of his sect, the Nizaris. I am entirely sympathetic. But falsification may be more than the series is truly capable of, since it features an unusually insipid storyline.

I am also sympathetic to John's take on Intelligent Design. It is wrong, but not for the reason most of its opponents imagine, which is that it is religiously inspired and claims that God created the world. It is wrong because it doesn't give God enough credit.


Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

 

The case for treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem was made in a recent article in the Times of London:

Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.

So what purpose was served last week by police crying, --They're still out there and trying to get you--? What good are daily briefings on --the inevitability-- of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.

There is something to be said for the policy of "pay no attention to them; that's just what they want." In this context, though, that attitude is lethally inapposite. There are three reasons:

The official response must differ in kind with the size of the threat: If the police suspect you are storing pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter book in your basement, then they call you "sir" when they knock on your door, and if you insist, they show you a warrant. In contrast, if your neighborhood is burning down and the only way to stop it is to make a firebreak, the police may kick down your door and blow up the building without so much as an "excuse me." It is true that society can get along with high levels of street crime. What it cannot live with is crimes that close down the transportation system or put the lights out. The rule has always been that such situations are not handled as ordinary criminal matters. There is no reason why terrorism should be an exception now.

Popular participation is needed to address the threat: The police by themselves can deal with the problems posed by a criminal gang that seeks to commit crime in secret. Only public vigilance can control a social underground that seeks to commit public outrages.

Multiculturalism is one of the underlying causes: Both official and popular response must take into account the possibility that cultural differences, which multiculturalism exists to preserve, might make a difference in the proclivity to commit terrorist acts.

It would be a disaster for Britain if everyone of South Asian ancestry were just deported, or ghettoized, or if Islam were simply proscribed, but draconian policies like that are false alternatives. It is entirely possible for liberal societies, in the old sense of "liberal," to defend themselves against threats like that posed by early 21st-century terrorism, quite without ceasing to be liberal. Before they can do that, however, they must recognize that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

* * *

The archetype of holy terrorism is, if course, the sect of the Assassins, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in the 12th century. Time Magazine records a visit by one of its reporters to Alamut, Sabbah's base in what is now Iran. Legend has it that Assassin recruits were drugged unconscious and brought to a pleasure palace at Alamut, which they were told was paradise. Then they were drugged again and returned to the world. A permanent return to paradise was promised them when they completed their mission of assassination, which generally entailed their own deaths. The reporter spoke to one of the keepers of the site:

"Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?" I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

"Of course not," he replies angrily. "Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck."

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself.

I am inclined to agree with the guard, at least to the extent that it seems unlikely to me that the story about the artificial paradise is true. It is the sort of explanation for other people's behavior that requires they be much, much stupider than the person giving the stupid explanation.

* * *

President Bush, in contrast, favors intelligent design. At any rate, he is on record with the opinion that Intelligent Design (ID, to its friends) should be taught in the schools along with evolution.

The institutional home of ID is The Discovery Institute. Visitors may be reminded of, say, The Heritage Foundation, or of the other partisan think tanks. I have used material from Heritage myself, and even consulted its experts. They will give you a plausible argument; just don't expect a disinterested opinion.

The chief vehicle of ID evangelization these days seems to be The Privileged Planet, which is the title of a book and a related film. There have been confused reports that The Privileged Planet not only questions the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the development of life, but also the reality of the Big Bang. This assertion is apparently quite untrue. What Intelligent Design does question is any cosmology that invokes a Multiverse, either of quantum mechanical timelines or of parallel time-space continua.

This is becoming hilarious. What we have here is an extreme form of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand correctly, ID posits not only the fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants to make life possible, but also some version of the "Rare Earth" argument, which has it that Earth's history and astrophysical characteristics make it the only possible home of intelligent life in the universe. Unlike the Creationists, the ID people understand that the Big Bang is prima-facie evidence for theism; part of the reason the Multiverse was conceived was to disembarrass cosmology of a Creation story. (There are Multiverse Theologies, however.) As for the Rare Earth hypothesis, that was essentially what Stephen J. Gould was going on about all those years when he was proclaiming the randomness and unrepeatability of evolution, in the mistaken belief that he was exorcising religion from biology. Gould was probably wrong about the randomness of evolution. One great irony is that his arguments are now being used as evidence of the miraculous.

The greatest irony of all is that, while the supporters of ID are not, for the most part, interested in the objective pursuit of knowledge, they do at least have the merit of supporting a theory that is falsifiable in the Popperian sense, something which Darwinism is not. Does that mean that ID should be given equal time in the schools? By no means, not unless ID passes the usual tests of scientific utility. Should that happen (and it's possible, if unlikely), it would be a supplement to evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

* * *

Danny Yee is back from Leng, or at least from Mongolia, which is one of those places I did not know that you could go to as an ordinary tourist. A travelog and archive of images are going online here.

Mongolia, apparently, looks a great deal like Ray Bradbury's idea of Mars, down to the architecture.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Lucifer Principle

Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii

This is a rare book I read before John recommended it. I think this is a worthy summary.


The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History

by Howard Bloom

The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995
466 pp., $24.00
ISBN 0-87113-532-9

 

If, like the present reviewer, you are a sucker for theories of history, you could do worse than this Social Darwinist theory-of-everything by Howard Bloom, a writer of popular science and noted PR man. The basic idea is reasonable enough: ideas are subject to much the same kind of survival pressures that genes are. Richard Dawkins, who popularized the notion that living organisms are simply carrying-cases that genes use to preserve and multiply themselves, also suggested that clusters of ideas, which he called "memes," similarly use human brains to survive. Bloom has taken this notion for a spin around the block. Just as genes care little for the fate of individuals and frequently promote behaviors that result in short, violent lives for individuals, so ideas drive people to war, revolution and communal strife in such a way as to promote the ideas' own distribution. The "Lucifer Principle" of the title is the thesis that history has been so bloody because ruthless "natural selection" applies to all levels of life, both the biological and the social.

Theory-of-history buffs know, of course, that one of the charms of this type of literature is the opportunity to watch reasonable-sounding universal principles turn into parodies of themselves as their implications are developed. "The Lucifer Principle" does not disappoint on this score. The book has especially wonderful chapter titles, such as "Oliver Cromwell--The Rodent Instincts Don a Disguise," "Righteous Indignation = Greed for Real Estate," and "Are There Killer Cultures?" It is, of course, perfectly true that ideas often prosper because of their success as social glue rather than because of any intrinsic merit they may have. Still, the fact of the matter is that the chief "survival" tests that ideas must pass are their own internal consistency and their conformance with the empirical world. Bloom sometimes seems to suggest that any idea which is not a matter of immediate sense experience is fictitious, a denizen of "the Invisible World," and so can be judged only with regard to its ability to survive. However, it is perverse to simply assume that abstractions which have spread widely through the world, from the theology of the Trinity to the idea of the number "zero," owe no part of their success to their intrinsic aesthetic properties or to practical utility. To return to the biological analogy, there are indeed genes that survive simply as genes, as biochemical tricks that are played on living organisms. We call such genes "viruses," and we recognize that they are parasitic on real life. Much the same is probably true of ideas.

An interesting feature of the book is the way that memes and their deterministic control over everything seem to have less and less explanatory power as you get to social questions that interest the author. Thus, for instance, the answer to the question "Are There Killer Cultures?" is "yes," and the chief example is Islam. This religion is, it seems, a particularly bloody-minded "meme." It is far more aggressive and cruel than today's Western civilization. Although social interactions are governed by the inhuman struggle of memes to survive, still we are told, with no preamble, that these things are "a matter of degree." The final chapters of the book simply restate the arguments of the "declinists," such as those found in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," augmented by a metaphorical interpretation of international relations as a barnyard pecking order. Bloom's policy recommendations sound less like those of a Social Darwinist than of a back-to-basics education reformer.

The author's metaphysical system (which is what his "theory" is) really leaves no perspective from which to criticize nature, "red in tooth and claw." It is therefore not clear why he expresses the hope we might channel our violent tendencies into peaceful pursuits. It would be more logical to argue, like Nietzsche, that the most natural thing to do is overcome our inherited humanitarian prejudices. The fundamental incoherence of the book is not because of some particular flaw in the author's logic, however, but because of the impossibility of what he is trying to do. Historical reductionism simply does not work, whether the universal principle you propose is class conflict, or a Masonic conspiracy, or a covert extraterrestrial breeding program. In the final analysis, the best such theories of history can be is entertaining.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2005-02-01: The Origins of Bad Behavior

SLC24A5

SLC24A5

We should indeed be wary of Just-So Stories when it comes to the evolution of traits, but not exactly in the way John expresses here:

The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.

That a trait exists very much is evidence it was selected for. If you get more precise and quantitative about it, you can even tell about when it happened, with ancient DNA. It is the why that is very hard to explain, because we don't always know what it really was that selected a given trait.


The Origins of Bad Behavior

 

Regular readers of this space will know that I try to be as non-partisan as possible. However, even I have been moved to ask this question in the months since the November election: why have so many prominent Democrats been going out of their way to look like a horse's ass? What were they trying to accomplish when they forced Congress to debate the validity of the Electoral College votes from Ohio? More recently, what did Senator Kennedy think he was doing last week when he declared the Iraq War a failure and demanded that the US begin to withdraw immediately after Sunday's election? Confronted with this kind of behavior, I am inclined to attribute it to some profound deformation of the political system. Mickey Kaus of The Kausfiles, however, offered a much simpler explanation yesterday:

It used to be that at this stage, opposition party leaders would be making conciliatory noises in an attempt to please voters, and conservative or centrist noises in an attempt to please business lobbyists and PACs. But maybe the amount of money that can be raised over the Internet from Democratic true believers is now more important than PAC money. And if you want to draw a Dean-like share of this Web loot, you have to be ruthless in bashing Bush.

I find this theory strangely comforting.

* * *

Those of us with lefthanded friends, or who are lefthanded ourselves, have often asked how people who don't seem altogether at ease in ordinary three-dimensional space manage to reach adulthood. A recent study attempts to answer the question: Why has lefthandedness survived among humans?

That has long puzzled anthropologists, for lefties face worse disadvantages in life other than struggling with tin openers, guitars, scissors and golf clubs designed for the righthanded majority...French anthropologists believe they have the answer: lefthandedness, far from being a disadvantage, is an evolutionary boon.

Their theory is that lefthanders survived -- and in some cultures thrived -- because they were better at fighting, having a built-in advantage in combat with a righthanded opponent....The idea behind their theory — published on Wednesday in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, Britain's de-facto Academy of Science — comes from sport, where the southpaw technique often gets the better of confused righthanders.

This explanation is tempting. It would explain the widespread conceptual linkage between the "sinister" (Latin for lefthanded) and evil. The study itself, in fact, purports to find a correlation between the murder rates in primitive societies and the incidence of lefthandedness among their populations. Still, we should be wary of this sort of explanation. Too often, they come down to the assertion that we know that natural selection favored some trait because we see that the trait exists.

* * *

And speaking of sinister behavior, we see that the Wicked Spengler at Asia Times had the temerity to publish a column entitled: The dotage of Iraq's democracy:

Genuine births never are in doubt. Either the baby is alive and crying, or not. But in the case of Iraq, democracy was born already in its dotage, hooked up to intravenous devices and breathing tubes...[T]ake any country, and assume that 1) almost all public and private revenues derive from oil, 2) oil is owned entirely by the state, 3) the unemployment rate is above 40%, and 4) everyone depends on state subsidies for basic needs. Then tell people that they have to write down the names of the representatives who will control these revenues and pay out state subsidies. Will they turn up to vote or not?

The evolution of democracy in the West was quite different, the calumniator reminds us:

The [18th-century] democrats were keen to manage their own business, in good part, because they had business to manage.

In the Middle East, today, matters are quite otherwise:

Recall Bernard Lewis' marvelous summation of Middle Eastern economics, namely that the whole Arab world exports (net of oil) less than Finland.

The democracy that can exist in such a context is an inferior sort of animal:

There is a subtler effect when only one political good dominates the whole economy (oil in Iraq, donor aid in Palestine). Distribution of largesse from a central treasury does not threaten traditional social relations...[T]o represent what just occurred in Iraq as a precedent of any kind for anyone else requires better ideological reflexes than this writer possesses.

These bilious remarks echo the critique that Fareed Zakaria makes in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. To quote my own review:

Several Middle Eastern countries have average incomes well about the magic $6000 level [at which liberal government is usually secure], but are still far from being liberal democracies. The problem with the oil states is that they lack the stuffing of liberty. Wealth is not created by society, so the government need not bargain with the governed for the means to support itself. Rather, the government distributes a portion of the oil wealth in order to pacify the people. The rest tends to be stolen.

The short answer to this argument is that Australia and Canada got where they are today by exporting commodities. There are states in the world that are little more than than conveniences for export industries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates fall into this class. Iraq never has.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Iraqi state really was just a patronage distribution system. Is it really such a small matter whether the patronage is distributed by gangsters or by elected officials? And are there really so few other patronage states that might look to Iraq as a model?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: After Darwin

One of John's best quotes is this:

In 1914, when the century began to manifest its characteristic features, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. In 1989, when in a political sense the 20th century was already over, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. There was no other century of modern times that produced so little new intellectual history. Indeed, all but the earliest part of the Middle Ages was livelier.

It seems impossible, but there is truth here. In some ways, nothing much of note happened in the twentieth century.

Which is not the same thing as saying that nothing has happened at all. There was a great deal of intellectual activity in the twentieth century. It seems that we have shifted our focus in a subtle way, choosing to perfect what we have rather than create the entirely new. In the end, there is a lot to be said for this, because it has made the life of ordinary people better faster than anything else in history. It simply doesn't make for fascinating history.

AFTER DARWIN The ice is beginning to crack on yet another section of the cold surface of modernity. The part of the frozen lake that is breaking up this time is Darwinism, or at any rate Darwinism as a worldview with implications for culture and social policy. As happened in the case of Marx and Freud, we may not like what bubbles to the surface when all the ice finally melts.

The death of Darwinism, it is now pretty clear, will be chaos theory (or "complexity" theory, as the researchers in the young science of emergent order seem to prefer). The problem with Darwinism, as all honest Darwinists have always admitted, is that it has nothing to say about how new features of living things arise or how new instinctual behaviors originate. It has a great deal to say about how natural selection can preserve and refine these things once they appear, of course. The search in the fossil record it inspired for the lineages of living creatures has given our natural science a historical depth that makes our civilization unique. Darwinism is not wrong, it just is not the final answer to the question of how living things originate. We've been looking in the wrong place for the answer. It is not a matter of genes, but of the order that arises spontaneously from simpler units, particularly the geometries of complex molecules.

Even children often notice that the paw and foreleg of a dog are like a very strangely distorted human hand, with the thumb appearing as a useless claw partway up the foreleg. The skeletons of all vertebrates, in fact, have long been known to be variations on a few basic structural themes. Anatomical analogies show up among all classes of living things. These analogies were the basis in the eighteenth century for the comprehensive species classification system drawn up by Carolus Linnaeus. Variations on common anatomical themes do not occur only between species, either. Within individual organisms, sophisticated features grow from the variation of more primitive ones, as illustrated by Goethe's still persuasive derivation of all the major parts of a plant from the basic form of the leaf. A description of nature like this invites the search for common mechanisms in living things to generate the archetypical forms. If biology had maintained this perspective into the next century, however, the search might not have produced fruitful results, since the physics of the time was far from being able to address the question of the spontaneous generation of order. In any event, this way of looking at biology was reduced to a minor theme of scientific thought for several generations as more accessible avenues of research appeared.

...

 

A decline in science?

Greg Cochran continues to be one of my current favorite reads. I learned something entirely new to me, the breeder's equation, from his recent post of the same name.

R = h2 S.

R is the response to selection, S is the selection differential, and h2 is the narrow-sense heritability. This is the workhorse equation for quantitative genetics. The selective differential S, is the difference between the population mean and the mean of the parental population (some subset of the total population).

In an aside, Greg also explained regression to the mean using the breeder's equation. I hadn't truly understood what regression to the mean meant until I saw Greg's explanation. Greg is a physicist who went into evolutionary biology, so it isn't surprising to me that I find his point of view readily comprehensible.

The comments on Greg's blog are also very informative, although truth be told sometimes I just browse the comment threads for Greg's smackdown on some poor soul. There were a lot of good links in the comments, and some books I wish I had time to read. Greg and Bruce Charlton have the opportunity to exchange words on the recent Victorian reaction time data, needless to say, Greg is not impressed.

Where it really gets interesting, is when Greg brings up an objection to a decline in intelligence that I also thought of: with that big of a drop, you would see a complete collapse of intellectual endeavour at the highest levels, by which Greg means math and physics. Bruce rejoined: of course it has! Greg's rebuttal was scoffing, Bruce's counter equally scoffing, and ultimately Greg fell back on the argument from authority: Bruce is ignorant of the current state of math and physics, and so cannot really assess them as well as Greg can.

I've pondered whether the rate of intellectual discovery is slowing, but the data I looked at was patent filings and other technological items rather than science per se. Recently, I also suggested there is something intellectually barren about the twentieth century compared to the rest of modernity, especially in the way the guiding lights of Western Civilization seem frozen in time.

Yet for all that, I side with Greg here. Bruce has never struck me as a very quantitative thinker, so I think Greg's accusation is largely correct. Also, despite it's reputed fallaciousness, I think the argument from authority is perfectly appropriate when assessing a question of this type. Greg really is better placed than Bruce to assess math and physics, because he understands these subjects better.

I think the one way Bruce's argument still has force is the way in which science is becoming disconnected from technology and society. The early modern scientists were all about useful inventions, in contrast with the ancient and medieval scientists who were more interested in knowledge for its own sake. Science seems to be trending back towards the knowledge for its own sake model, and as a consequence most people are less interested. When Bruce says,

"I suppose this is hard to settle – but to an outsider, a collapse in the highest levels of physics has very obviously happened, since the quality of the best modern physicists seems qualitatively *much* inferior to those of, say, 100 years ago – or, to put it another way, the supply of geniuses has almost completely dried-up. Maths looks much the same – but I don’t know so much about it."

What I really hear is: scientists of 2013 are less famous than scientists of 1913. Sure, there are TED talks, but nobody is lining up to hear Faraday's lectures on electricity any longer. Now it is Malcom Gladwell. Nobody really thinks Gladwell is part of the leading edge of science himself. Part of the problem here is modern physics and mathematics are way over the public's heads'. I can almost hear Bruce's rebuttal here, but I think the problem is the work has gotten much more abstract over the last two centuries, so much so that it hard for non-specialist scientists to truly understand. Faraday or Maxwell or Darwin have a far wider audience, because their work is both simpler and broader. Greg suggested to Bruce that he study the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, and then they could discuss the subject fruitfully.

I am far from Greg's level, but I don't have any doubt that both mathematics and physics have progressed in impressive ways, on their own terms. What this has not done, however, is given us flying cars. So, no one cares. Science has abandoned it's Baconian roots for an older Aristolielian set of roots, but no one seems to have noticed yet. Plus, nobody really knows what Aristotle actually said anymore, but that is a different post.

Evolution

I just came across an essay by James Shapiro on new and unsettled questions in evolution. The article is written for the educated lay reader, so right about my level of sophistication in biology. There is a lot of interesting ferment in this area at present. A good part of my blog reading these days is on recent human evolution, and the interactions of heredity and culture.

I have a blog post waiting in the wings about paternal age and genetic load, which I thought of when I read this passage in Shapiro's essay:

(2) Cellular Repair Capabilities. First, then, all cells from bacteria to man possess a truly
astonishing array of repair systems which serve to remove accidental and stochastic sources of mutation. Multiple levels of proofreading mechanisms recognize and remove errors that
inevitably occur during DNA replication. These proofreading systems are capable of
distinguishing between newly synthesized and parental strands of the DNA double helix, so
they operate efficiently to rectify rather than fix the results of accidental misincorporations of
the wrong nucleotide. Other systems scan non-replicating DNA for chemical changes that
could lead to miscoding and remove modified nucleotides, while additional functions monitor
the pools of precursors and remove potentially mutagenic contaminants. In anticipation of
chemical and physical insults to the genome, such as alkylating agents and ultraviolet radiation, additional repair systems are encoded in the genome and can be induced to correct damage when it occurs.


It has been a surprise to learn how thoroughly cells protect themselves against precisely the kinds of accidental genetic change that, according to conventional theory, are the sources of evolutionary variability. By virtue of their proofreading and repair systems, living cells are not passive victims of the random forces of chemistry and physics. They devote large resources to suppressing random genetic variation and have the capacity to set the level of background localized mutability by adjusting the activity of their repair systems.

And in the blog post that sent me to to Shapiro, here is a good one from my patron, Thomas Aquinas:

Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.

-- Summa theologica, Part I Q73 A1 reply3

An Aristotelian evolution would look not only to external forces, but to the abilities of living things to create change within themselves.

Thomism and Intelligent Design

Thomist philosophy is not compatible with Intelligent Design, as some ID proponents have discovered the hard way. This may come as a surprise to some, since Thomists do tend to be religious conservatives, but Thomism really cannot abide ID, or to put it more clearly, Thomism clearly exposes the rotten, foolish core of Intelligent Design in much the same way cream or ivory appear white until you put them next to something that is truly white.

One of my favorite Jesuits, Edward T. Oakes, replied incisively to his critics in First Things after reviewing The Wedge of Truth in that journal.  Oakes takes ID to task for its philosophical naiveté, specifically for confusing final and efficient casuality. ID would require the Creator of the universe to micromanage His creation, a considerable demotion. Oakes regards ID as the best breeding ground for appalling ignoramuses such as Richard Dawkins, because it is so ridiculous it is easy to refute.  Dawkins imagines he has refuted all religion when in fact he is tiling at windmills.

Oakes makes a passing reference to complexity theory and the Santa Fe Institute. Just as a robust philosophy and theology has nothing to fear from evolution, a robust biology has better explanations than random walks and Just-So Stories. Biology will probably reincorporate some kind of final causality to explain the much less than random tendencies that evolution exhibits. I await this eagerly, because it will herald the coming of a much better philosophy of science.

h/t Edward Feser

Cross-posted to Dead Philosophers Society

What Would Darwin Do

Scott Adams drew a couple of hilarious cartoons over the weekend about just exactly what constitutes an alpha male for reproductive purposes. I probably find this funnier precisely because I'm a nerd.

It turns out surprisingly often that you can find the proper answer to controverted questions by asking not WWJD?, but rather What Would Darwin Do? We are all familiar with personal Darwin Awards, but the concept applies equally well to larger social units. When was the last time you met a Shaker? On a civilizational level, policies that keep the birthrate below replacement level for extended periods of time are the equivalent of a Darwin Award.