Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memetics and Evolution

So in talking to a new acquaintance about philosophy and permaculture last night, the recognition of our precarious position occured to me again. I was really tired and couldn't articulate it well, but here's what I would have liked to say:
The idea of permaculture is definately admirable and worthwhile from the perspective of living with a balance of consumption and production. However, I would argue that we are currently so far out of balance that individual actions to reduce consumption, even as a cultural movement, will be insufficient to prevent humanity from coming to a breaking point. Why? Because as the rest of the world develops, the richer parts can't very ethically say to them "listen here; you're standard of living is improving too quickly. You need to be content with living with limited educational opportunity, rudimentary healthcare options, and unfufilling work." Improving those things requires tons of economic development, and it seems quite distinctly wrong to ask aspiring people to abandon their dreams.

Then again, maybe they (and we all) should just be happy with the level we're at. We could, conceivably, live happy, 40 to 50 year-long lives in the total absence of technology, education, and advancement. We could save ourselves alot of pain and frustration by abandoning these silly attempts to find meaning in work and social pursuits and discovery, and just live day to day and enjoy our lives.

We could, but we don't have to. We have a huge amount of cognative capacity that I think would quickly tire of all that serenity. The problems and drama we create for ourselves give us rich environments to which we can apply our considerable creative power. Advancement beyond biology is the reason intelligence evolved, after all; genetics can model behavoirs into organisms over the course of millenia, intelligence (ie memetics) can model behaviors into organisms over the course of the individual organism's own lifetime. Plus, memetically-modeled behaviors are corespondingly more flexible and responsive to changes in the environment.

[For anyone who's missed it: Memetics is the theoretical analog to Genetics. The idea is that from a high level of abstraction, Genes can be viewed as merely complex patterns of chemicals that replicate themselves and respond to selection pressures in the environment, thus evolveing. Memes, then, are patterns of ideas that replicate themselves via communication between organisms, respond to selection pressures, and evolve in a way that may be similar to genes. See Richard Dawkins for more depth.]

I've heard the quip that "humans have stopped evolving" and that "civilization inhibits natural selection" relatively often. Two points I'd like to make, and the second one will tie it back into the memetics idea. First: humanity's only been around for a blip in evolutionary time, so expecting to see our bodies changing in response to evolutionary pressures is just an error in timeframe-perspective. Second (and more significantly), those quips ignore the breakneck pace at which human ideas have been evolving. Is this a valid comparison, one might ask? What's so significant about patterns of chemicals changing rather than patterns of ideas? The ideas are alot more powerful anyway, so I think it would be accurate to say that humans are evolving faster than anything ever has before, and doing so via cultural transmission.

The point of saying all that is to expose the basic choice we have to make: evolve memetically faster than our environment changes, or return to the level of sustenence that our genes alone are designed to handle. The latter option is itself unsustainable in the very long run, as we can count on the earth changing to some state that's not suitable for our mode of existence (with or without our interference).

So my take: augment permaculture with technologocal advancement. Then you basically get singularitarianism, which is of course my point.

I just noticed that I seem to be in a habit of making titles in the format "X and Y."


Matthew J Peterson said...

There is one thing I want to say: I am not sure that other cultures have to go through the exact same stages as the industrial west did to come to the information age. Indeed, nobody has ever had to reinvent the wheel. I am convinced that Africa, China, whoever, can adopt permaculture methods as Europe (and the US) develop them, without having to start from scratch. Same as with cooking; if I want to make bread, I don't have to learn all about yeast and how to make butter and grind flour. I just go buy the ingredients and follow a recipe. We can offer them the recipe for permaculture (once we've refined it and made it marketable) and they will gladly use it.

Also, I have faith that a "simpler life" (however we'd define that) doesn't necessarily mean a more boring life. Humanity does not need to push themselves so hard to find intellectually stimulating ground. It can be argued that it's all over the place. It's simply a matter of whether we pursue our investigations or not. But of course, should Google be part of our brains, thought will be quicker, more efficient, etc.

Lastly, let me throw a curve ball for fun. Maybe the better way to put "simpler life" is not to say "simpler", but actually "harder", since our ideas must come from scratch more often, without such quick and easy access to all of humanity's knowledge. So maybe it is actually more intellectually stimulating not to have research assisting technology!

TJ Murphy said...

Mr. Peterson,

I quite agree, sir; we can indeed transfer our best and most sustainable practices accross the world to help other countries to develop in a healthy way. The problem is in making it "marketable," as you say. It's often easier to ignore all the externalities involved in daily life; for instance its cheap and easy to heat your house with soft coal (the really dirty kind; I understand that this is the predominant source of in-home heat in much of China presently). So the question is: how do we overcome all the politcal, linguistic, and cultural barriers that do indeed exist and convince enormous groups of people to follow the more difficult, better path?

This applies to practical things like burning coal, but also to more personal-value-oriented questions like "do I really need X luxury item?" "do I really need to seek more than I have?" "Do I really need to try to live a longer life?"

All sorts of normitive answers to such questions could be and frequently are offered, but ultimately each person must decide for themselves (unless there's an instrument of force deciding otherwise; IE the state). My question is: can you surpass all the afforementioned barriers and convince all these disparate peoples to be content with a simple existence? And can you do it within the next fifty years?

I mention the time constraint because, quite frankly, I assume thats about how much time we have. The developing world is increasing their level of consumption quickly, and there's nothing to pevent them from reaching and exceeding the US's. Its not hard to imagine serious resource constraints emerging, and some rather negative consequences as a result. Depressions, economic collapses, and wars come to mind.

I can imagine a few ways such a future might be avoided. First is that everyone decides to be content and live peacfully. Being as there has been major cultural pressure in this direction for millenia (in the form of various sucessful religions) yet humanity's hunger remains unabated, I think this is an unlikely course of events.

Another possibility is that some instrument of force decides to enforce a sustainable level of consumption and lifestyle. Ethical questions on this approach aside (it's pretty effing wrong), given that same human hunger and our sense of injustice, this course is not a balanced equilibrium. It would lead to revolution or more collapse.

Lastly, and my preference: humanity can develop technology that enables it to live comfortably and pursue whatever various and unconstrained goals. without consuming resources unsustainably. The dream of nanotech fulfils this fantasy; and there's not much credible evidence that it cannot become a reality. Then consider all the transhuman possibilities; private/public virtual worlds... and so on. Its a bright future, if we can make it there.

And finally addressing your curveball: what you say is probably true; it is more fun and intellectually stimulating to discover things personally and for yourself than to just passively receive the benefit of others' hard work. And while thats true, its also true that as one's own personal knowledge expands, so does the sphere of things that they can be personally interested in and make new discoveries in.

I'd say this is true in both art and science. The more concepts one holds in one's head, the more creative analogies one can make between concepts. The potential for seeing beauty in the world thus grows and grows as your internal model of it becomes richer and more sophisticated.