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Sunday 19 August 2007

Future of the human race [Lurks]

There's a question which I've spent more time thinking about that any other in the last few years. That is, what do we need to do to ensure a continuation of the human species?

Some of you will be sitting back already wondering what he's on about. Here'sa quick backgrounder devoid of much detail:

Human beings are irrational creatures, by and large. Even those who excel at the application of reasoning and logic only do so because they're able to momentarily overcome their base nature. This nature essentially boils down to the fact that our brains aren't computers (sound familiar? I've spoken about this before), they are elaborate pattern matching problem solvers. Powerful learning machines no mistake, but ultimately this is done by taking the most direct of shortcuts.

A tinsy bit of elaboration may be needed here. There's an experiment where researchers taught a lowly pigeon to recognise patterns of light and to peck at the right things in order to trigger a treat. It was pretty good at this, so far so good. Then they switched off the association and basically just had the treat trigger at random intervals. They observed a strange thing. When the food arrived, the pigeon happened to be looking over it's right shoulder. The next time the food triggered, it was also looking over it's right shoulder. Thereafter the pigeon madly looked over it's right shoulder to trigger food.

Stupid pigeon you say. In fact we're little better. I've had 36 years on this planet so far to observe this same basic behavior in human beings. In essence: Thing A happened when Thing B happened. Therefore Thing B caused Thing A. It's often wrong but it doesn't stop people from these incredibly leaps of faith and gives mankind an ability to believe the most astounding things and to be quite difficult to talk around. A fairly good example of the modern age would be an Islamic Terrorist. Let's hold onto that example for a moment.

Let's get off the human condition, hoping that you'll generally see what I'm talking about and agree, and move onto my primary question: what can we do to survive? Right now, there's a lot of people that wish various other people harm for a whole number of reasons. If there's something that marks out the current age it will be our hand wringer over trying to identify with people doing bad things, to find out why they do them. We ask every question appart from asking why people do these things when they know, no matter what has happened, it cannot be justified morally or intellectually.

In a nutshell: Some people want to do do bad irrational things and they're not going to be dissuaded and sometimes they get away with doing the very worst and most irrational things of all.

All that remains is to look to the future knowing what we know about human nature. Technology is improving, medicine is improving, globalisation and the irreversable dropping of information barriers so that increasingly anyone, anywhere, can be exposed to any idea or piece of information. This is about as far away from the environment in which we primarily evolved as it's possible to get.

Eventually in the future there must come a point where it becomes possible for anyone to gain access to the technological means to do almost anything they set their mind to. That sounds really great, we'll all be whizzing around in jet cars wearing flickering animated clothes with our heads permanently jacked into the Web-verse. However it's reasonable to assume that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to want to do really bad things. Here's a list of some bad things which someone could concievably get up to in order of how far away this kind of thing might be away from 'the many'; synthesizing a deadly virus for which no human has immunity, building a nuclear weapon, creating a self-replicating nano machine 'eater'.

All of this things could, and eventually I would put it to you dear reader, probably will ultimately result in the extinction of the human race. It sounds like Sci-Fi but I'd call it a reasonably likely prediction of what is to come. The hall marks are here right now in circumstances we face. Islamic Terrorists would like to blow us up, meanwhile an Islamic rogue state is developing nuclear weapons and said Islamic state has shown no qualms about armingfreedom fighters in a border country under Western occupation. We're at the point right now where we can see a cause and effect and probably do something about it.

However as time marches on, these things get harder to deal with. It's one thing knowing what questionable people are building nuclear weapons (needing to set up tens of thousands of gas centrofuges tends to make it something you can find out about) but what about bio technology? There's nothing. Let's interject a bit of real sci-fi to make the point; what if everyone had a replicator in their kitchen like Star-Trek and let's whack in a house AI from Eureka too. Good morning Sarah, I would like a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs and bacon and an old Vectrex console from the 80s. Certainly, Lurks, that'll be with you in a few minutes. Is there anythign else I can help you with? Oh yes, could I also have a W88 nuclear warhead too please? I'm on it, have a nice day!

I'm being silly here but the point is as time goes on, access to the knowledge and the means to do potentially great harm to a large number of people (or the planet as a whole) becomes easier. Yet the one thing that's not improving, the one thing that remains the same, is human nature. We haven't addressed that core ability to believe in absurd things and of course that core ability to wish eachother harm.

Dr_Dave recently said he thought Dawkins was motivated in tackling religion by this sort of realisation. I think Dawkins would understand the idea well enough but probably also realises it's futile to try talk an entire species around to virtues of everlasting logic and reason. But he's having a go, good on him.

I think at some point we'll actually start to realise the scale of the problem. We'll spend years yet, decades maybe, leaping from problem to problem, wringing hands as to why people would want to do various ghastly things, before we realise the central problem. I'm a fish keeper right. One of the things known to aquarists is that there's some species that need a large amount of space, not because they grow large but because they just plain aren't nice. They might dig up all the plants, attack the rest of the inhabitants or basically secrete so much waste that they end up drowning in it, sound familiar? So we pick species which are suitable. Happy species, non-aggressive species that will not be a danger to themselves and everyone else just because of their bare nature.

The way I see it there's two basic solutions to problem at hand. One is to in essence return to a type of environment in which we can flourish. I'd say village-sized populations for one where social interaction rights all of the kinds of strange things that happens. The second is to modify ourselves. I don't mean talking sense into eachother, I mean some basic reinvention, some bio-engineering. Some getting right into the brain, working out how it works and getting rid of a bunch of the nasty stuff (and maybe boosting the good stuff).

Right now it's hard to see how the second option will be considered. In the age, right now, there's this prevailing view that natural is good. We shouldn't meddle. GM is bad. You shouldn't even screen your children for undesirable traits and we most definately shouldn't expeiment on embryon and so on and so forth. I think that'll change. I think this will be viewed in the future as a kind of illogical superstition of our age. I guess I have to believe it will change.

What of the first option though? It's a small planet now and we are many billion and the planet aint getting bigger and we aint getting fewer. Either we'll end up destroying a very large percentage of our population through one, more or perhaps other unnamed human follies, or perhaps we'll end up finally looking at the stars. I've been thinking about the colonisation of space for a long time and most of that time, I just generally thought we'd do it because it seemed like a good idea and, you know, maybe we could use additional resources or something.

In more recent years I came to understand how expensive it would be. The effort of boosting the weight of any kind of actual percentage of the human race into orbit would be beyond anything we've even considered. There'd have to be a pretty good reason. Not just because you think it's a good idea, and not because you're a bit short of selenium for mobile phones or thorium for your reactors. No, you'd do it if you thought you were going to die otherwise.

So kind of puting these two threads of thought together for the first time, I came to realise that the real reason for colonising the planets - assuming option two never gets on the cards - for spreading the wings of humanity and setting sale for the stars, would not be for any other reason than to... get away from the rest of humanity.

And that's it in a nutshell. I think for us to have a future, we either have to work out a way of modifying the human race to get used to cramp conditions and play nice and wish nothing but the best for our neighbours, not just our family. Or we're going to basically destroy ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we can reach some sort of equilibrium in the post-apocalyptic scenario.

So, will we realise before or after the apocalypse? I think global warming is an interesting thing to watch. If the planet can deal with this, maybe we can deal with ourselves later on. If we can't, then I'd say we've a very rocky ride ahead. Maybe the coachroaches will be all that's left after all.


  1. This is quite interesting, on several levels. What ive seen so far is that it will be absolutely impossible to do such engineering and succeed. Technically it is possible of course, to change humans, and it will only get easier. But what parts to keep? What parts to remove or alter? All you can be sure of is that it will be influenced by the society, political and scientific, from that time and place. And i challenge you to find ONE human, on the entire planet, that could make one recommendation for a behavior, that isnt tainted by a selfish ego factor (after all its Them that is insane, never oneself).

    Science would get nuked if we altered competative behavior, yet that same part is resposible for most violence, on a small scale. Hey, actually most of the packinstincts is directly responsible for violence, and funny enough, progress. The more one thinks about it the more one comes to the conclusion that all the bad things about humans is what makes us human. Remove it and all you end up with is technologically advanced ants.

    Society as we know it is doomed, our way of life is doomed, its the nature of all life. But other societies will rise, humans wont die out, we are way to adaptable for that. One day we might get a pack that is around for long enough, whose curiosity (or paranoia) enables them to move away. But no matter how you do it, it will be the wrong people going :)

    It is tempting to think that we could create utopia, where brains and logic rules. But lets face it, that aint gonna happen. This is because noone really wants it.


  2. Yes you're right, a lot of what we are is closely related to these undesirable traits. Also you're spot on about the fact there will be no consensus. I think it one plausible scenario would be that a group of people agree to edit in a certain way, some subset of people who agree. And then they'll try to live together. Apart from the 'norms' as it were.

    I don't think I agree that you remove all the bad stuff and we become 'technologically advanced ants'. I think it really depends on your perspective. I bet 'norms' would come up with bad words for these people. I don't think you need a nasty violent streak to be competetive to want to succeed. It's possible to do alright for yourself just because you want to try your best, but then I'm guessing - so are you.

    What you talk about in the third paragraph is a very likely scenario. Some sort of major bad stuff happens, possibly a die off, and society changes to cope. All these mechanisms we take for granted, women like to gossip, men like to show-off, socialogicaland remnants of ancient breeding evolutionary mechanisms etc. They're actually a kind of hard wired into us. I think there's a reason that it doesn't really matter which part of the globe you are, what sort of people live there and even if they haven't been apart of the rest for tens of thousands of years, you do see certain kinds of society traits emerging. The first step is actually to know. Actually to know what is hard wired and what is stuff that's a product of your environment. I think that would be amazing to know and that mere knowledge wouldhave massive repercussions on its own.

    What I think is most likely of all is that we'll probably see all of these things. We'll see a major conflict, we'll see man-made catastrophy. We'll see finger pointing, blame. People who turn to illogical stuff, people who ultimate realise they need to apart from everyone else (something of a recurring theme of humankind, amazing how often it crops up - Scotland anyone?) and maybe, just maybe if this all happens down the road long enough that we actually attain the level of technology and understanding about how our brains are actually wired, we might see some people that favor the self-edit approach too.

    But self-editing can't really work unless everyone does it. Can you imagine a non-violent, peaceful, logical sub-species of humans on the same planet as 'norms'? I think the norms would cause a bit of strife for them. The 'edits' may well cooly decide that 'norms' are a threat to the entire race as a whole and, completely without malice, decide that the only future for the human race is to end the entire 'norm' gene line.

    Lots of scenarios seem plausible leading on from this. I'm surprised it's not a more fertile ground for fiction authors really.


  3. There are quite a bit of fiction based on variants of this (cant remember names though, read most of the scifi when i was young).

    The core problem in the whole scenario is that as you say, norms would be a problem and get erased, but without malice? Thats bullshit. If there is a definition for good and bad, then that is it. Or to put it in an example from our time: The terrorist are right and we should get wiped out. Its a alittle bit rich to think that you can create a new breed that is supposed to be good that ends up being the most evil.

    I lived for quite a while in a social cunstruct on the other side of society, and yes, from my experience most "bad" behaviour is triggered. Remove the triggers and you get "good" people. Even most of the really bad ones, violent serial killers, has triggers in the backround. The real challenge is to create a set of laws, and an economy that allows people with brains to live the life they want without having to resort to crime. And having teachers with such skill that they can see when parents fuck up (and of course manipulation skills to alter a fucked up kid, takes not a small amount of convincing to show possibilities).

    Another point that is very interesting is what is logical human behaviour and what is not. Its a nightmare trying to figure it out. For me i firmly believe that the individual is as important as the group. Sure, the logical side, the math, says that the group is more important. But then, the way i see it, we enter antland. So what s logical for me i not what is logical to someone else.

    An undesired (if we should use the most common definition of it) extremely violent behaviour type can only kill so many before getting caught. Sure its tempting to find whats wrong and erase it. But the real evil killers out there is not bad temper and perversions, no its desireble treats, such as love for the ones close to you, curiosity, ambition etc etc etc. So when trying to cure it we will create it, we will cultivate it. As the western world looks today we actually worship it. With us or against us. Stop driving or else, stop smoking or else, stop trying to change it or else. obey us or else. Because we are the good ones. Of course, strongly believeing that they were good and right is a golden thread running through every single really bad and evil society ever. To actually think that one is so right, the ones purpose is so justified that one is set to educate others even by force is, if one actually want peace and good, THE most undesirable treat present in the human mind.

    If we were to try and alter something to get to peace we would have to nuke the entire spectrum of fighting back, the whole lot of feelings that triggers the curiosity and will to change for something better. Add to this the survival instincts and not to mention the instincts for protecting the pack (and yup, thats love gone aswell).

    As i see it, we are humans with all the social flaws that comes with it. And humans will always survive, because the alternative will always be weaker. People who wants to control lack intellect and the personal discipline that comes with it. They rely on power. Thats the threat they face from the outside.

    Getting rid of behaviour? Good luck. Life changes genes. How long until the bad shit starts manifesting itself in the new population? How many generations before before you start seeing that the brain can bypass genetically engineered blocks to gain advantage? Because, as everyone knows, bad behaviour pays for the individual :)


  4. I doubt you'll meet many people who've read more sci-fi than I have. There are some themes which do get explored, things like discrimination based on genetics (which is a major ramification of when we come to understand that hard wiring, as it were), and various big brother/society control type mechanisms too. Even the pretty bad Equilibrium featured a society that had come out the back of an apocalypse and resorted to desperate means (chemical removal of emotion and destruction of all things likely to illicit emotion), so in some sense yes there's plenty of fiction out there. But it seems to go for the throat on those kind of scenarios rather than the many other, richer, more complex scenarios which range from the fascinating to the truely frightening.

    This core idea that people are bad because of circumstances. Well sure, we all know that right? But we have the capability to be bad in the first place. There's been many experiments done and plenty of real-world evidence too, that if you give someone power, they tend to play out that famous saying; power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's part of us, and you're fixating on violence when actually that's only the easier to explain thing. There are many many many other things which are evolutionary throwbacks that serve no purpose. Our ability to get bored and to take things for granted (this is a *huge* one), no matter how good they are. However the really big one is to change the way the mind works into a proper problem solver and not just a short-cutting pattern recognising machine. And maybe that doesn't just require a bit of a re-wire on the genetic level (which it would) but then following on an entirely new education system.

    I said without malice because malice, and hatred, is an often illogical evolutionary throwback. If the edits decide to wipe out the norms, they wouldn't do it because they hated them. They'd do it to survive. That's kinda getting off the point anyway - the point I was making is that norms and edits are unlikely to be able to get on together. So with the best intentions, it may go bad anyway. Or maybe they'll all just say screw you pal, we're loading up in our spaceship and we'll catch you on the flip side. Carry on murdering one another if you like, we'll be in the Perseus galaxy.

    You can debate the moral right and wrong of a society thinking it's better, of putting itself above the individuals etc, until the cows come home. The point is, as we are, we're set up to self destruct. It's not that we're looking for the root causes of why an individual becomes a murderer. The unfortunate thing is that we can all become a murderer, either through circumstance or more rarely just because we fancy it. When a serial killer turns in a mega-death killer, the point of wringing your hands with liberal lefty touchy feely 'oh he's just soooo misunderstood' becomes a pretty secondary consideration to the core problem.

    You say we're humans, flaws and all, and we'll always survive. Well sure, we're humans, but saying we'll always survive is a statement with no basis. We're not bacteria, we're just a single ultra-recent species of mammalian primate. On an evolutionary time scale of this planet we're barely a blip on the radar and we've had previous cousins vanish entirely as well as entire civilisations many times over. What's more, thattthinking doesn't take into account the sheer power of technology combined with the actual will to destroy humankind. Stuff by accident is bad enough, blunders, inaction, all the natural disasters you could think of, but actually combining high technology with a genuine desire to kill as many people as possible... I'd say you'd have to be a fool to bet on the human race's chances if that's what it comes down to. And it *will* come down to that. Sooner or later.

    Sure we'd like to believe other wise, but there's no evidence that the human race has some uniquely priviledged right to survive just because right now we're a few billion odd and we invented coffee icecream. There's a very real possibility that a spontaneously occuring virus could strike out of Asia and kill a significant percentage of the people on the planet before we have any hope of being able to stop it. We've been stockpiling certain drugs known to inhibit the kind of virus we think that *might* be. A man-made one doesn't bare thinking about.

    As for your conclusion, it's true to say in traditional evolutionary terms - selfishness has been rewarded by improved chance to breed. That's what makes us what we are and it's also what makes us such a huge problem too. I think when/if we set down upon the road of editing the 'bad stuff' out of us, it's safe to say that you've started down a very different road. I don't think bad behavior will just spontaneously evolve back. You're talking about people that made a decision to re-write their own genetics. They are clearly not then for subsequent generations decide to randomly pick mates and leave the genetic outcomes to chance. It'll be the end of environmental evolution and the birth of sentient design. There is no precident. We can't even *think* like these people would think, so trying to fathom their motivation beyond that point is not something I think it's that useful to try and guess at. After all, what happens if reproduction was removed altogether as an imperetive and it was done purely on a logical as-needs basis?

    I think that may be a stretch too far, but in some ways it makes sense. I think you could probably look at a first generation of edits being just the very worst stuff crudely cut out. Then maybe we can survive, if a population of them gets far enough away from the norms etc, then they might refine their techniques and carry on the same work until we wouldn't even recognise them any more. As soon as a group has made the decision to edit, all bets are off and my crystal ball gets pretty damn cloudy after that point.


  5. I think you misunderstand me completely here. I dont care about murderers, what is interesting is what made them what they are, so to avoid it. That aint about being a liberal, its about addressing the problem instead of trying to cure the symptom. And a new education system? Fuck yes, the ones we have are basically all fucked up. Instead of really trying to teach how to think, and how to keep the mind working we try to educate and form everyone into some sort of bizarre nonthinking Good Citizen. Sure this works, for the majority, with fear for the law, religion etc.

    But you will also get a society that gladly watch when the rulers kill thousands if not millions. Because its THEM vs US and WE must WIN because WE are GOOD.

    I think we are basically here to stay. Lets face it, society as we know it will die and come alive over and over. Just the flags and guns are different. And for our bodies, well, we can stand different climates, benfit from a huge array of energy and we can change the immediate enviroment to suit us. Wont survive in billions no, but as a spieces we would have some serious issues trying to kill us all even if we really tried.

    I dont see how you come up with the illogical behaviour though. All human behaviour is quite logical. Anger, hatred, boredom and taking things for granted. They are all perfectly logical and extremely effective for their purpose.

    If you take away feelings what do you end up with? Logic? I dont buy it, i mean, what logic would that be? For logic to work you need goals, only differance between the views then is how your values differ. As in how much your willing to pay. They would create exact replicas getting them to experience exactly the same things to assure they get the same base and therefore the exact same goals? Logic as an absolute is nonexistant. So even in a society based upon logic you would get conflict since it would be impossible for everyone to have the same goal. And then there would be bad things again. Or worse, you dont get it and you have created ants.

    So if/when genetic alterings start, they wont work, cause they will be weaker, designed by some retard who thinks he can better the core system that lies behind all life on earth. Some modifications to the bodies about strengh and durability, that could work. But instincts? Why? Its like those idiots that punch air infont of someone in school laughing "You flinched!!!". Yeah, sure, the one who actually try to avoid getting hit in the face is at fault, not the idiot who celebrates genetically inferior suicidegenes :)


  6. Avoiding what makes people murderers, well sure in an ideal world. But then you go on to talk about how education is churning out people told what they can and cannot do. I fail to see how turning out more free-thinking people free to do anything they want (anarchist agenda?) ends up convicing them not to murder anyone...

    Human behavior is not 'quite logical', at all. Hatred, boredom and taking things for granted is not logical. They are not effective, they actively fuck us over in oh so many ways. They were useful once, but you seem to be saying, from later comments too, that all these horrendous throwbacks of violence, malice, envy, greed, selfishness are equally as useful today.

    They're not, that's the entire point. We don't live in the jungle any more. We don't have to be lazy as an energy conservation mechanism. We don't have to take everything for granted, because it turns out when there's enough of you we *need* to be happy with what we have rather than pushing forward this eternal idea of betterment and growth through the entire deeply flawed consumerist/capitalist world view. It's fucked, it's fucking us over, and it doesn't make any of us happier.

    And that's the thing about the human condition that rankles more than anything else. The difficulty in achieving happiness. Gain your hearts desire and happiness will be but a fleeting visit, too soon to depart into familiarity and finally contempt. We actually aspire to be more than that, most of our education from being very young children and upwards is to actually fight against our nature because it's unhelpful.

    Your final paragraph is horrendously flawed. There is no core 'system' behind designing the life that everything became, including us. It's just evolution. However human kind has progressed at a speed which simply doesn't leave enough space for evolution to play it's part. It's like what happened if all the bacteria on the planet suddenly got smart enough they invented antibiotics on their own and they all did it at exactly the same instant before any of them could evolve antibiotic resistance? It's hard to visualise because it's impossible, yet that's what we're faced with.

    I'm not holding up logic as being an absolute at all. It's a pretty bad way of describing what I see as the modernisation of the human brain. As with anything that's evolved, it's pretty much only 'just' good enough for purpose because that's how these things work. There's lots of bad, unhelpful stuff that would absolutely be beneficial to a race of people with all more or less the same modifications. Emotive arguments as so often appearing in cheap trash sci-fi like "oh no but you're removing what it is to be human! we'll be just machines!" type stuff is just that, emotive nonsense again rooted in inadequate, outmoded survival techniques. Our genes scream at us to preserve and pass them on, no matter how blatantly flawed they are.

    Would the first genetic manipulators get things perfect first go? Highly unlikely. As I said, the first time they'd do it would be so they could get on together without wanting to kill eachother because, as I've said previously, that is not something we can survive in the future. Of course there's plenty of other things but what we're talking about is tailoring mankind to be a better fit for the current circumstances because we don't have a few million years to wait for natural evolution to do its thing.

    I'm obviously failing to get this across very well. It's something I could demonstrate in a fish tank easily. Put some lots of one species in a small tank and they kill eachother quickly and die out. Put others in there and they'll happily get along together, school in pleasant shoals and procreate only enough for available space and resources.

    I don't know if you've ever done drugs or been in a room full of people on E. It's pretty amazing. Smiling faces, people sat around actually genuinely interested in what other people have to say. Not dying for them to shut up so they can tell the other guy about themselves. Reinventing ourselves (and I've found I've ended up being backed into a devil's advocate corner here, I put this forward as a scenario - not an agenda of mine) can take so many forms; faster, stronger, smarter, less likely to believe random bullshit, friendlier, longer attention span.

    Everything that has always been spoken about as a utopia cannot exist because of ourselves. If there really is a utopia then it exists in our genes and nowhere else.


  7. I just hope we can hold it together for another couple of hundred years until we have the technology to build permanent self-sufficient colonies in space. Once we can do that, it should be simple enough to strap some rockets to an asteroid head off to other solar systems and exist as a species hopefully "forever". :)