Whither Homo sapiens?

I may have found my prophet.

From The Dark Mountain Manifesto:

[Robinson] Jeffers, as his poetry developed, developed a philosophy too. He called it ‘inhumanism.’ It was, he wrote:

a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence…This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist … It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy… it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

"Human Nature", Conservation, extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Resistance is futile!

This post on the scienceblog The Last Word on Nothing is both a lament and a confession. The writer laments sport fishing’s role in disrupting ecosystems by heedlessly stocking native waters with imported species; and he confesses complicity, in that he has enjoyed catching trout that didn’t evolve where he caught them, and that have muscled out native species with a cascade of consequences.

Conservation is certainly a worthy cause. An ecosystem in balance is like an irreplaceable work of art; a species is a master brushstroke, and biodiversity the whole gallery. To appreciate these treasures, and to recognize that what we gain long-term by studying them could far outweigh what we gain short-term by destroying them, is uncommon sense.


We’re finally just a part of nature, a rampaging, disruptive part that stirs the pot on a scale that probably no other organism bigger than a bacterium can rival. Before we go, we will cause tragic losses and also unimaginable gains. Life will evolve and adapt, perhaps even to microplastics.

Feel guilt, by all means, but feel it with a grain of salt. Some superintelligent rat of the future will thank you. By existing.


"Human Nature", Whither Homo sapiens?

Status and Stature

Our brains are made to reward us with pleasure when we accomplish something. The purpose of this mechanism (the dopamine system) evidently is to motivate us to anticipate the reward and so to repeat the survival-promoting effort, such as hunting. (We have a predator’s version of this instinct; we stalk an insight as intently as a cat fixates on a spider, and make a “killing” on the stock market much as Paleolithic tribesman drove mammoths off a cliff.)
In an unanticipated kink of evolution, though, our brains are also clever enough to figure out how to take a shortcut to the pleasure reward and bypass the effort.
This arguably backfires in the long term—the pleasure loses potency when it’s pursued as an end in itself, leaving us trapped in addiction or stranded in meaninglessness. But in the short term it works very well, and there is loads of evidence that our natural focus, very hard to overcome, is on the short term.
There are a million illustrations of this, but the one I was thinking about this morning was status.
There are people who merit admiration by being masters of what they do, and there are people who go after admiration as an end in itself. You could actually call the first kind of reward “stature” and the second “status.”
The first group of people may enjoy admiration, but they wouldn’t enjoy it without earning it, and it makes them uneasy because they often wonder if they have really done enough to deserve it, and if they will be able to do it again. Such people are intently focused on what they do, and the reward of status, if it comes, is a byproduct—it may even be perceived as a dangerous distraction (the Book Tour Trap), a temptation to rest on one’s laurels and lose one’s mojo.
The first group of people are often not very good self-promoters, because self-promotion doesn’t really interest them. It would be a waste of their time. An example is the great artist who isn’t “discovered” and whose genius isn’t recognized until dead. (Not to get too Romantic about it, there have been exceptions—great artists who are also great self-promoters. They must be people with a double or triple helping of energy, because for most of us either art or self-promotion would be a full-time job.)
The second group of people are interested in a shortcut to status, and their art (think: a banana duct-taped to a wall) becomes a means to that end. They are assiduous self-promoters, often gifted at taking the public’s pulse and riding, or even creating, market trends for the kind of thing they do.
The catch is that people in general have a tendency to be dazzled by status and to overlook or underrate stature, which is loath to blow its own horn. The audience can’t always tell the difference, and their senses are attracted to what makes more noise and draws a crowd.
complexity, diseases, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cancer is the Devil at the Door.

The avenger of hubris. Every time we aspire to pry into the cell nucleus and pry out immortality, beauty, genius, perfection, cancer, the fear, the suspicion, the specter, the threat of it, bars our way. Like Lucifer serving God, cancer, that twisted gargoyle double arising out of self, steps into the path and says, Not so fast, Louie. It ain’t that simple.

The schadenfreude of being sure (I’d bet my nonexistent billions on it) that the tech billionaires working so feverishly on the research to immortalize themselves (and apotheosize their offspring) are going to die despite their best efforts is worth the price of having to die oneself.


climate change, diseases, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Are We As Smart As Cancer?

I have a split reaction to the rapid spread of Zika virus.

On the one hand, it’s terrifying, especially for the young and fertile. (I don’t have grown children hoping to reproduce, but I do have many nieces and nephews in that demographic.) Our natural self-interest as living organisms and members of a beleaguered species makes it imperative that we understand and control this threat: through immunization, genetic mosquito control, whatever it takes.

On the other hand, through a cold eye, such outbreaks, as well as the cancer plague that now afflicts about one in three Americans during their lifetimes, look like Earth’s immune system trying to control the cancer that is us — sometimes with whatever blunt instrument comes to hand, sometimes with an uncanny laser-guided focus: Zika targets the brain, which is, after all, the source of the trouble. It also appears to be transmitted by sex, the other source of the trouble (being, as it is, what makes more of us).

This leaves me, as a childless human who’s had my three score and ten — so anything more is gravy — feeling that if one of those natural killers came for me, I could have no hard feelings. Why me? Why not? From the host organism’s point of view, I’m one more cancer cell, or locust, or virus. Nature doesn’t care whether you hold environmentally correct views (which would make a difference only if they actually became widespread enough to re-subordinate our collective behavior to the health of the whole and rein in the metastatic human impact). It doesn’t discriminate one human from another. To the ecosystem equivalent of a natural killer cell, it’s not who you are, it’s what you are.

I fear for the young, for whom the stakes are so much higher. Owing their existence to our explosive success as a species, they are also slated to pay its price. They place their hope and faith in the continuing acceleration of our success — specifically, in science’s ability to shield us from Earth’s immune system long enough for us to proliferate and innovate towards some kind of breakthrough. Can we ever be as smart as cancer, which does such a brilliant job of outwitting OUR immune system? Can we be even smarter — figure out how to be fruitful and multiply and still keep our host alive?

We can now say that we HAVE scratched the surface. That is something. But that’s about it.



exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Apoptocalypse Now

Finally starting to read that Atlantic article on “What ISIS Really Wants.” The subhead says the group has “carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

It strikes me that the resemblance between the words “apocalypse” and “apoptosis” is not coincidental. Life forms have an instinct to destroy themselves when they detect their own defectiveness. Thus it seems to be with the human species. The subjective aspect of this instinct is rage which, whatever its purported target, is actually provoked by the unbearable frustration and torment of being human.