Friday, July 30, 2010


Things that caught my eye in the last week or so:
  • I had not known that in some societies, paternity is thought to be "partible", because they believe that "a fetus is made of accumulated semen" and hence can have multiple biological fathers (the quote is from this book, which sounds interesting, p. 60, via the Less Wrong post linked above, which is also interesting).
  • The art of sleeping in seminars. Must remember all the rules next time I sleep in one.
  • I found that I had mixed feelings about the possibility of a world without mosquitoes: though apparently their extermination would not be especially damaging (other species would apparently do many of the things they currently do, with the usual caveats that our understanding of their ecological role is limited), I have a quasi-aesthetic negative reflex reaction to the possibility of intentionally exterminating completely another life-form, even one that causes a lot of misery (and even as I know species go extinct from natural causes all the time). I wonder if there is anything out there about the morality of species-cide? I know there was some discussion at some time about the possibility of completely eradicating the smallpox virus, for example, but I don't know if there is serious literature about the morality of the practice (not that we are about to exterminate mosquitoes, mind you - the possibility is purely theoretical). 
  • Theatre for audiences of one. I suppose this is closer to conceptual art than to traditional theatre.
  • The intelligence of Octopuses. The thing about octopuses is that their "intelligence" is not a by-product of their sociality: they are solitary creatures. Presumably this means that octopi could not develop intelligence that depends on the manipulation of meaningful symbols or language?
  • Why the one-eyed do not rule among the blind. An interesting point on the social mediation of insight. 

Polybius and the Dialectic of Forgetting (Or, Theoretical Models in the Classical World)

(Warning: A very long footnote – 2,500 words - about Polybius, human moral psychology, and the use of “models” in the Classical World, written as part of research for this project.)

The extant fragments of book VI of Polybius’ Histories contain a famous (in certain circles) discussion of the “cycle of regimes” (VI.5.10-9.14). The story goes more or less like this.
Human beings start in something like the “state of nature,” without arts or sciences, and in particular without highly developed moral norms, where we herd together like other animals following the strongest or most daring man (the basic primate pattern, we might say today: I can’t help viewing a lot of the stuff I’m reading right now through the lens of Boehm’s book, and this post will be no exception). This is what Polybius calls “monarchy” (μοναρχίαν), where the authority of the leader is limited by his physical strength and daring. This sort of “natural monarchy” then evolves towards kingship (βασιλεία) properly speaking, which is no longer a simple hierarchy sustained by strength and daring but a moral community where the authority of the leader is very much constrained by relatively egalitarian ideas about justice. In such a community, the king does not attempt to distinguish himself from his subjects by their dress or in their food and drink, and he gains the support of others only insofar as he coordinates the enforcement of community norms (VI.6.11-12), even as he may be weak and infirm; tendencies to domination are effectively kept in check.

Polybius explains the development of these ideas about justice as the result of spontaneous reflection about reciprocity (VI.6.5-10): because we expect others to reciprocate our good deeds, and value the good deeds of others, norms codifying those expectations emerge, in turn sustaining the authority of those leaders who coordinate their enforcement. Our “natural” ideas of justice are thus quite egalitarian (cf. the use of “democratic” language to describe these norms in all regimes: VI.8.4 πολιτικς σότητος κα παρρησίας, VI.9.4 τν σηγορίαν κα τν παρρησίαν), though they will accommodate some hierarchy to the degree that a leader can enforce them. But Polybius argues that this sort of “egalitarian” kingship is not stable; insofar as kingship becomes hereditary (something that is common, Polybius suggests, due to the popular belief in the inheritability of virtuous dispositions) it develops necessarily into tyranny, i.e., a regime where egalitarian community norms no longer constrain the leader. The increase in the security of the position of the king’s heirs, which comes also as a result of other changes (e.g., the emergence of resources such as fortified places that can be monopolized by the leader), increases their temptations to try to dominate others. They begin by trying to distinguish themselves from the others by dress or other signals (VI.7.7), and end by trying to obtain more material resources and reproductive advantages than anyone else in the community. The basic mechanism of change in the Polybian theory of change appears here for the first time: security of position enhances a human tendency to domination (as I was writing this, I came across this recent piece by Ryan Balot that makes a similar point).

But this tendency to domination is counterbalanced by an apparently equally natural tendency to resent domination in the name of the earlier egalitarian community norms. The “best” men – those who are most high-spirited and resentful of domination – will tend to rise up and overthrow the tyrant in the name of these norms, setting themselves up in their place. As speculative political history and anthropology, this is perhaps not self-evident (why would tyranny necessarily give rise to aristocracy rather than democracy or a renewed kingship?), though in general I think Polybius gets the basic features of long-run political development right, even if modern anthropologists would insist on a finer gradation of steps from the basic primate hierarchy to relatively acephalous egalitarian societies to “big man” societies to the kind of morally constrained “chiefdom” that corresponds to Polybius’ notion of kingship and eventually to tyranny. At any rate, the transition from tyranny to aristocracy does fit the history of Rome well enough (and remember, Polybius is writing a history of the growth of Roman power). But as a depiction of a common political psychology, Polybius’ idea is very much on target, insofar as human nature does seem to contain both tendencies towards domination (at least among males) and tendencies to resent domination, and our “default” social norms are mostly egalitarian.

We could thus say that political change, in the Polybian story, is all about the emergence of egalitarian norms, their violation by individuals capable of accumulating resources, and the restoration of such norms by those outside the “winning coalition” who still value such norms. The pattern is repeated at the next step in the cycle. As time and generations pass, the sons of aristocrats become again secure in their position, and again engage in attempts to dominate others in contravention of community norms: this is the beginning of oligarchy. Polybius describes how these new leaders no longer have any experience of the previous egalitarian norms (πειροι δ καθόλου πολιτικς σότητος κα παρρησίας), and have forgotten the misfortunes that led their parents to rise up against tyrants (VI.8.4-5). There is a kind of normative drift: signs of distinction that had been freely given to their parents for their services are interpreted by their sons as things that they deserve naturally, so that the relatively egalitarian norms that had regulated the conduct of their parents no longer regulate their own conduct. What happens instead is that the oligarchs abandon begin to pursue unrestrainedly material and other advantages: they take from others without reciprocating. But the egalitarian norms still remain strong within the rest of the population, and so eventually the people rise up and overthrow the oligarchs, banding behind any leaders who credibly promise to enforce the old moral norms. The people, however, remember with fear both the kings (and their transformation into tyrants) as well as the more recent oligarchs (note the emphasis on memory, which is partly the historian’s domain); they thus decide to manage their affairs by themselves, and democracy is born.

In democracy, as in aristocracy or kingship before, egalitarian norms remain strong as long as some are alive who experienced the previous form of domination; but when the experience is lost (with the grandchildren of the founders of democracy, VI.9.4-5), their influence weakens. People begin to take such norms for granted, and those with resources (the wealthy) begin to attempt to “aim at pre-eminence,” i.e., attempt to dominate others. This competitive struggle among rich individuals sets in motion a process of far-reaching social disintegration, where each wealthy individual corrupts the people by turning their desires in the direction of material accumulation and accustoming them to getting what they want by raiding the wealth of other wealthy individuals. This turns the democracy into a rule of violence (χειροκρατίαν), where multiple demagogic leaders compete to dominate by promising each other’s wealth to the people; the process ends with the masses turning into beasts again (cf. ποτεθηριωμένον, VI.9.9), i.e., returning to the state described at the beginning of the cycle, herding like the other animals without real social norms, and eventually getting a new “master,” a new leader who is only limited by his capacity for violence, though under social conditions that are different from those operating at the beginning of the cycle.

In summary, Polybius claims that simple regimes develop according to the following cyclical pattern: pre-social state of nature/natural monarchy->;kingship->;tyranny->;aristocracy->;oligarchy->;democracy->;mob rule/post-social state of nature->;natural despotic monarchy (repeat). This “theory” has sometimes been criticized by modern scholars (see, e.g., von Fritz, p. 84) for its apparently “deterministic” or “rigid” sequence of changes, and indeed Polybius’ presentation is a far cry from the nuanced discussions of political change found in Plato (on which he claims to draw, though Polybius’ discussion is very different from what we find in books VIII and IX of the Republic and in the Statesman) and Aristotle (whose discussions of the problem of political change in book V of the Politics he may not have known, given the possible loss from public view of a lot of Aristotelian writing between the third and the first century ADBC). Moreover, the “theory” of the cycle of regimes sits uneasily with Polybius’ “historical” sensibilities; it is abundantly evident to any observer of historical reality that regimes sometimes change in ways that do not fit a clear pattern (as it was to Aristotle, for example, who criticized – wrongly - Plato for a similar idea). Democracies sometimes turn into oligarchies (as when the Thirty took power in Athens in 404BC), monarchies into democracies, and in general any kind of regime into any other kind, as Aristotle documented in exhaustive detail in book V of the Politics. Writers who knew their Polybius well often tactfully pointed this out after summarizing Polybius’ “theory.” Thus Cicero notes in De Re Publica I.68, after a discussion of regime change that is obviously influenced by Polybius, that regimes tend to change in ways that do not necessarily fit any simple pattern (a remark that is attributed to Scipio, who had been a friend of Polybius in real life), and Machiavelli notes that a community would be unlikely to experience all the stages of change described in the theory before it was taken over by a more stable and better organized state (Discourses I.2 – there is a bit of a puzzle here, for though Machiavelli is clearly describing something like Polybius’ theory, he knew no Greek, and book 6 of Polybius had not been translated at the time). Given that Polybius was not politically or historically naïve, it seems unlikely that these observations would have escaped him.

Yet the criticism is unfair. Polybius explicitly indicates that he is simplifying the “more precise” discussions found in Plato and other philosophers (VI.5.10), which he finds too complicated for pragmatic purposes. The “simplified” theory of the cycle of regimes is not to be taken as an accurate representation of historical reality, but as something like a “model” in the sense in which economists use the term: a distillation of the incentives and other influences affecting the main political actors in a regime, and pragmatically useful as a tool for analyzing political changes in more complex regimes, like the Roman one. (Polybius’ “solution” to the difficulties of the cycle, the “mixed regime,” is also best understood as that sort of model, though that is a subject for another post). These incentives are not simply incentives to behaviour (as in much modern rational choice theorizing) but to character: the model describes how certain characters emerge endogenously from certain regimes, given some assumptions about human nature and about the preservation of historical memory.

What is especially neat about Polybius’ presentation of the “cycle” of regimes is how he ties experience and forgetting with the natural tendencies to both attempt and resent domination in the explanation of political change. Constitutions change for the worse because people forget their experience of earlier attempts of some to dominate others, or rather, because the people who overthrow bad regimes are unable to pass on this experience with sufficient clarity to their children as the children’s position in society becomes increasingly secure. Without real fear of domination (which mostly comes from actual experience of such attempts), egalitarian norms do not survive, a point that applies as much to the newly victorious Rome of Polybius’ time as to other polities. (Incidentally, this seems to indicate that the historian’s role is to remind his audience of these misfortunes, a point argued at some length by Balot with many examples from the rest of the Histories). Thus we have a dialectic between the tendencies to resent domination (which sustain egalitarian norms) and the tendencies to dominate (which corrupt these norms): as one gains the upper hand, it immediately begins to weaken. This dialectic is also a process of corruption: healthy norms are first destroyed among a small elite, then among a larger elite, and finally among the entire people as the historical memory of domination is lost first among the heirs of the monarch, later among the heirs of the larger elite that overthrew the tyrant, and finally among the people themselves through the corrupting effects of the competitive struggle for position among rich individuals. A secure, healthy simple regime is in a sense bad for the education of its leaders, whereas a certain kind of misfortune is a good education, a theme that Polybius emphasizes throughout the Histories.

Ultimately, of course, this “model” of political change is used by Polybius to understand and analyze Roman history: Rome was successful insofar as its leaders instinctively chose courses of action that constantly prevented them from giving full rein to their dominating tendencies (e.g., the “checks and balances” of the Roman mixed constitution, which has, I think, been much misunderstood by modern historians who point out, rightly, that Rome during Polybius’ lifetime was basically an oligarchy; but that is another topic) and will be unsuccessful insofar as it achieves full security (as is evident from the later books of Polybius’ Histories, or at least of what remains of them). The model may be historically implausible (in its assertion that typically tyrannies turn into aristocracies, and oligarchies into democracies, for example) but it is no more implausible than some of the rational choice models of political change in use today (which are useful too, I should note), and it has the added benefit of incorporating a plausible moral psychology. By contrast, Aristotle’s exhaustive description of political change in book V of the Politics, though empirically better informed and starting from a basically plausible principle about how the violation of norms about justice leads to political change (where justice is always understood as a form of equality, though differently in different regimes), seems to miss the forest for the trees. Aristotle spends too much time looking at purely accidental causes of political change (“exogenous shocks” in the contemporary economic jargon, such as foreign conquest or institutional drift), or exploring varieties of a single cause of political change (the attempts to dominate others by high-status individuals), whereas Polybius’ model almost begs to be formalized as a story about the interaction between tendencies to domination and tendencies to resent such domination in the absence of perfect memory about the consequences of domination, and it seems readily applicable to a variety of cases even when it cannot explain them completely. From this point of view, it does not surprise me that Polybius’ simplified story was much more influential, historically, than Aristotle’s complex and empirically informed catalogue of the causes of political change: it identifies a key cause of political change for ill, and suggests ready remedies (basically, keeping the fear of domination alive through “checks and balances,” a remedy that is mentioned by Aristotle as well, but only among many other suggestions, some major, some minor).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Extremophile Blogging: The Pompeii Worm

The Pompeii worm (photo credit: Wikimedia commons). After water bears (which are apparently pretty common - I didn't know, but you can find them in an average pond!), Pompeii worms are the most temperature resistant complex organisms that exist (capable of living in 80C water, and sustaining huge temperature differences between their head and their tail). They basically live in the gates of hell.

Also: not extremophiles, but lots of neat pictures here of interesting new species. I especially like the Dracula minnow and the psychodelic frogfish.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cicero and Machiavelli on Fear and Love

(Warning: some thinking out loud about some passages of Cicero and Machiavelli, in the course of doing some research for a work in progress. A footnote of interest to historians of political thought or political theorists with a historical bent, perhaps.)

Cicero, Philippics 1.33-34 (the Perseus text is unaccountably missing the last lines of 1.33; a full translation is found here):

What I am more afraid of is lest, being ignorant of the true path to glory, you should think it glorious for you to have more power by yourself than all the rest of the people put together, and lest you should prefer being feared by your fellow-citizens to being loved by them. And if you do think so, you are ignorant of the road to glory. For a citizen to be dear to his fellow-citizens, to deserve well of the republic, to be praised, to be respected, to be loved, is glorious; but to be feared, and to be an object of hatred, is odious, detestable; and moreover, pregnant with weakness and decay. And we see that, even in the play, the very man who said, "what care I though all men should hate my name, so long as fear accompanies their hate?" [The Latin is much more concise and lapidary: "oderint, dum metuant"] found that it was a mischievous principle to act upon.
I wish, O Antonius, that you could recollect your grandfather of whom, however, you have repeatedly heard me speak. Do you think that he would have been willing to deserve even immortality, at the price of being feared in consequence of his licentious use of arms? What he considered life, what he considered prosperity, was the being equal to the rest of the citizens in freedom, and chief of them all in worth.
Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter XVII:

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.
At first glance, it looks as if Cicero and Machiavelli were presenting diametrically opposed positions: Cicero argues that a political leader should avoid being feared, and that it is better that he be loved, whereas Machiavelli suggests that it is fine if the prince is feared. This fits in with the "standard view" concerning Machiavelli's relationship to Cicero (see, e.g., Skinner; consider also, for example, the discussions in The Prince asserting that generosity or honesty are inessential to political leaders, which clearly reverse Cicero's discussion of the need for these virtues in On Duties). There are some (partial) dissents (e.g., Colish), but in general the consensus seems to be that Machiavelli and Cicero present fairly opposed views of the virtues of political leaders.

Yet it is clear from these passages that both Machiavelli and Cicero agree that being hated is fatal to a political leader. They differ mostly insofar as Cicero seems to think that becoming feared without incurring hatred is unlikely, whereas Machiavelli is more sanguine about this possibility. But even this difference can be attributed to the fact that Cicero is considering the kinds of actions that someone who used to be an equal (Antony) would have to do in order to become dominant; and in his view (perhaps exaggerated for rhetorical effect?) these actions are likely to incur hatred alongside fear, and are unlikely to bring real and durable fame. And that thought does not seem to be in conflict with Machiavelli's views at all.

Unrelated point: working through Cicero's Philippics after reading Boehm makes me think that the upper level of Roman society behaved very much like a tribe with a strong ethos of equality, despite the otherwise tremendous material and status inequalities in Roman society. Like tribesmen everywhere, Cicero and his contemporaries among the senatorial class seemed to be extremely sensitive to suggestions that this or that person aimed to become dominant over them, and expended great energy arguing over the symbols of such domination (the office of the dictator, crowns, funeral monuments, public thanksgivings), even as the real threats to their equality lay in the ability of the proconsuls to basically create private armies during their long periods of imperium away from Italy (by Marc Antony's time, they could sometimes spend 5 years on campaign away from Rome). Also, it is amazing how the Romans of the time, like many of the tribes described by Boehm, had few mechanisms to deal with persistent attempts at domination other than assassination. It's actually kind of astounding the sheer violence present in the background of politics at Rome in the waning days of the republic – people are being killed right and left, the senate is often surrounded by armed men, and prominent political figures, Cicero included, are always conscious of the very real threats to their physical safety. And yet they seemed to think that such extrajudicial killings were often quite legitimate, though they of course disagreed about which ones! Late republican Rome was really a Machiavellian jungle, and Cicero was very good at surviving in it; it would seem unlikely if Machiavelli's ideas about political survival were entirely alien to Cicero.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Footnotes on Things I’ve been Reading: Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999).

This is a book about human “political nature.” Clearly the mature fruit of a long life of anthropological research, the book considers a question that goes back to Hobbes and Rousseau: the origins of inequality (or rather, of equality, in this case) and its relationship to “human nature.” To answer this question, Boehm draws on a wealth of ethnographical and archeological evidence, as well as studies of primate societies (primarily chimpanzees and bonobos, but also baboons and gorillas).

The starting point of the book is the observation that, though human societies range from the extremely egalitarian to the abjectly despotic, and our closest primate relatives create basically despotic groups, human forager bands are always extremely egalitarian (Boehm knows. He obviously read almost all significant ethnographies of forager bands as of the late 1990s). This egalitarianism is of course partly due to basic material causes: in a forager society with little division of labor it is difficult to stockpile durable resources or acquire scarce skills in ways that can be exploited for political advantage, as Rousseau saw, especially when dissatisfied individuals have a relatively cheap (though not costless) exit option (people can move between bands easily). But the material causes are not the whole story, as the despotic forager social groups created by our close primate relatives, who also have little “property,” show. In particular, human forager bands are politically egalitarian (and not just economically egalitarian), recognizing no real, permanent authorities (there are typically no chiefs or “alpha males,” and decisions are made by consensus) and displaying a “democratic” ethos of autonomy where each individual thinks himself the equal of the rest (Whether women are considered equals within the band varies from forager band to forager band, partly depending on environmental factors and patterns of exogamy, but for the most part women in forager bands tend to have higher status than women in other forms of society). Boehm tells some striking stories about the general ineffectiveness of “chiefs” in forager bands: people who try to give orders in them basically get ignored.

This observation about forager societies is important because it seems reasonably well established that foraging societies were our “ancestral societies,” i.e., the environments where any natural dispositions that human beings possess even today evolved. We probably lived for at least 100,000 years in such societies before we came up with different forms of social organization, and so the (controversial, but at least plausible) assumption is that insofar as human beings have a political nature, it would be manifested most clearly in such societies, or at least it would have been shaped in such societies (though it is not clear that the forager societies of today are good proxies for the forager societies of 100,000 years ago): there should be a sense in which we were ecologically adapted to life in such societies (rather than in contemporary complex societies). The question is, then, what explains the egalitarianism of forager bands, both current and historical? And is the explanation for forager egalitarianism something that we can attribute to “human nature”?

Boehm’s main thesis is that forager egalitarianism is sustained by moral communities that enable the rank and file to build coalitions to put down would-be “alphas.” Forager bands, in his view, have “reversed” dominance hierarchies that prevent bullies and aggressors from creating a dominance hierarchy of their own: egalitarianism is sustained by the coordinated dominance of the strong by the weak. Without the ability of the rank and file to form large coalitions to put down would-be dominators, the primate tendency is to establish dominance hierarchies, as we see in chimpanzees and bonobos; but the ability to form large and stable coalitions in turn depends on the development of the capacity for symbolic communication, and, to a lesser degree, of projectile weapons. (Low-ranking chimpanzees can sometimes band together and put down alpha males, as the chimpanzees at Yerkes Primate Research Center are reported to have done, but they do not seem to be able to create stable coalitions that get rid of the entire dominance hierarchy, unlike human beings). This seems right to me: in order for status equality to be resilient against attempts to subvert it, it requires a vigilant community to sanction upstarts and bullies; and the vigilance of the community is primarily made possible by a set of norms that strongly promote values such as generosity, sharing, and the like and proscribe certain forms of arrogance, etc., as Boehm notes.

But Boehm goes further: he argues that the emergence and maintenance of egalitarianism in forager societies supports a view of human “political nature” that he calls “ambivalent:” human beings (especially males) display tendencies towards dominance, just like chimpanzees and bonobos (though within a group the strength of these tendencies will be variable, of course), but they also resent being dominated, and in humans that resentment of domination is able to generate strongly egalitarian societies in the right material circumstances. (Boehm suggests that the same resentment of domination can be observed in chimpanzees and bonobos, though without the ability to form stable coalitions for egalitarian purposes they can’t do much about it, especially since male chimps and bonobos do not have an “exit” option: solitary males who leave the group are liable to be killed on sight by other groups). Hobbes and Rousseau, in other words, are both right: in the “state of nature” it is the case both that “every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate that he sets upon himselfe” (Leviathan XIII) which leads to attempts to dominate others (to “extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage,; and from the others, by the example,” what Hobbes also calls “glory”), and that this very same tendency, when combined with the ability to form large coalitions, informed by an ethos of equality (and with a general lack of “property,” understood as durable and potentially scarce resources that can be exploited to create personal forms of dependence, as Rousseau noted), results in the sort of fierce independence that Rousseau praised in the Second Discourse, at least under the right material conditions (little division of labor or durable property). By contrast, similar tendencies among chimpanzees or bonobos evolved into more or less stereotyped dominance and submission behaviors (which make sense from an evolutionary perspective, since they seem to obviate the need for actual conflict over resources, with its attendant risk of death) and the development of clear status hierarchies.

The most interesting and controversial part of Boehm’s book is in the last couple of chapters, where he tells a story about how the emergence of egalitarian moral communities in our distant forager past changed the selection pressures operating on human beings to produce some altruistic tendencies. The story is too complicated (and necessarily speculative) to summarize here, but basically it has to do with how egalitarian moral communities neutralize the reproductive advantages of bullies and aggressive individuals and increase the force of “between group” selection pressures (favoring “altruistic” dispositions) against “within group” selection pressures (favoring “selfish” dispositions). For example, Boehm has some fascinating remarks about the “meat sharing” systems that almost all foragers develop. Hunting is an important source of protein in forager societies, but it is also irregular. Since some people are better hunters than others, these people could perhaps exploit their hunting skills to extract various advantages (including political domination and reproductive advantages), and indeed they sometimes try. But in all forager societies the group basically “randomizes” credit for kills (by giving credit to the owner of the arrow, for example, but swapping arrows incessantly!), so that the actual hunter cannot exploit the fact that he made a kill to dominate the group in any way. Such meat-sharing systems thus seem to reduce the “reproductive” advantage of selfish dispositions.

In general, this is an excellent book, despite some occasional repetition and somewhat pedestrian prose. But it is worth wondering whether it implies much of anything for politics in complex societies. Boehm is too good of an anthropologist to suggest that we simply have a “natural” tendency to create egalitarian societies (there are many human societies where the ethos of equality of forager bands does not exist, as he notes) but he does seem to think that democratic societies (including larger, more complex societies with formal checks and balances, from the Iroquois confederacy to modern representative democracies) are in far better accord with “human nature” than other forms of society. It is not entirely clear to me what this means. Partly, I suspect that he means that we are happier in more equal societies, or at least that we have a tendency to view justice through the lens of equality; if indeed in the vast sweep of human history over the past hundred millennia we have mostly lived in egalitarian societies, it should not be surprising that we have some deep preference for such societies (I was thinking of this when reading this interesting proposal for “income and wealth ceilings” through taxation – deciding collectively that no one should have more than, say, $100,000). But we would need a more robust moral psychology (I’m inclined to think that this moral psychology would follow “Rousseauan” lines about the interaction between self love and love of esteem) to think properly about this question; and it seems to me at any rate that Boehm underplays the ways in which our moral ethos interacts with material factors. It seems rather important that truly egalitarian societies only exist in circumstances where the division of labor is minimal and the possibilities for exit from the group relatively large, and that complex societies are all over the place in terms of the despotic/egalitarian continuum; much of what Boehm says suggests to me that egalitarianism is actually quite fragile once material conditions change. And if the story of forager societies for 100,000 years is basically a story of egalitarianism, the story of complex agricultural societies has been one of inegalitarianism for a good 5,000 years, which, though not as impressive, is still a pretty long time and has involved more people than the previous 100,000 years. Whether truly egalitarian complex societies are possible seems like an open question, and one that cannot be answered by simply pointing to modern democracies (which have many inegalitarian spaces and some egalitarian spaces).

Human nature, it seems to me, is best understood as capable of “moral coalition” formation (coalitions that are also moralized by a specific justificatory ethos). Under some conditions, these coalitions can be used to generate egalitarian societies, but in others they generate inegalitarian societies (every dominant dictator in a complex society needs a coalition to support him, and these coalitions tend to be moralized and justified in various ways). This seems consistent with what Boehm says, but is perhaps a more “pessimistic” about the possibilities for egalitarianism in complex societies. Anyway, I did not intend to write this much about the book, but it is really good; heard about it via Robin Hanson (thanks!), who also has many interesting things to say about how we might describe human nature.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Computational Ability as Intelligence

I sometimes come across articles like this, where things like the following are said:

He said that plants used information encrypted in the light to immunise themselves against seasonal pathogens.

"Every day or week of the season has… a characteristic light quality," Professor Karpinski explained.

“So the plants perform a sort of biological light computation, using information contained in the light to immunise themselves against diseases that are prevalent during that season."

Professor Christine Foyer, a plant scientist from the University of Leeds, said the study "took our thinking one step forward".

"Plants have to survive stresses, such as drought or cold, and live through it and keep growing," she told BBC News.

"This requires an appraisal of the situation and an appropriate response - that's a form of intelligence.

The move I want to highlight is in the last line: why insist that this is a form of intelligence? It seems to me that “intelligence” is a “status” term: when we apply it to something, we raise (or lower) the status of that something, without necessarily adding to our comprehension of the phenomenon (the recognition of this problem is very old; see my post below on Plato and the idea of distinguishing animals from humans through the criterion of “reason”). If the experiments described are appropriate, it seems clear enough that the plants are performing some kind of computation; but in saying that they thereby have some kind of intelligence we do not learn something more about the plants. At best, we only learn about an attempt to increase the status of the research – to make it seem “sexier” perhaps? – and of the researchers.

The same point could be applied with respect to discussions of human and artificial intelligence. Human intelligence, in its many varieties, seems to be simply a form of computation, distinguishable in degree from other forms of computation but not necessarily in kind: it is a complex of abilities, more or less integrated, for pattern recognition, actuarial calculation of costs and benefits of action, social relationship tracking, and the like, augmented by social rules and institutions (themselves the planned or unplanned emergent consequences of interaction). Some of these abilities can be more or less functionally replicated in modern computer hardware (e.g., the ability to play chess), whereas others cannot, at least not yet or with current techniques. Yet when we ascribe intelligence to people or things, we do more than express that they are able to engage in particular forms of computation. Rather, we are for the most part raising (or lowering) the status of whatever it is that we say has “intelligence.” A sign of this is the way in which the term is often used in a proprietary manner: people may object to descriptions of human intelligence that reduce it to computation, or to descriptions of artificial forms of computation as intelligence. Or people become hugely exercised about ideas about intelligence differentials – either to stress that such differences exist or to deny that they exist or matter.

The problem with ascribing intelligence to various computational systems seems to be less the idea that intelligence is a form of computation than the reduction in status accompanying this reduction: to say that human intelligence is merely a form of computation seems demeaning in some ways, since it diminishes the “scarcity” of intelligence as a distinctively human possession, or makes it less special. But if intelligence is computation, then it can be found, to different degrees of “intensity” and “specialization,” in all kinds of systems: plants, animals, insect colonies, social institutions, and of course suitably programmed computers. Some forms of computation in these systems might be more powerful, for particular purposes, than the grab-bag of abilities powered by the human brain; and some forms of computation may be more or less exploitable by individual human beings (your own brain power is usually exploitable, but the computational abilities of other systems may not be so easily exploitable by people in your position). Moreover, computation is always relative to problems: some systems are more effective at computing solutions to certain problems than others. And though there is such a thing as universal computation, the abstract notion of the universal Turing machine does not imply anything about the ability of universal computers to successfully solve a particular problem in a limited time frame – that always depends on the particular “program.” If the human brain seems unusual, it is because it seems to be able to solve a very large number of problems, either by itself, or in conjunction with tools and institutions that amplify and distribute the computing power of human society.

It seems to me that if we could banish the term intelligence and substitute for it a more status-neutral term, a lot of discussions about cognition and “reason” could become clearer (at least until the new term acquired a sufficient positive or negative status valence). Indeed, this seems to have been one purpose of Turing’s “imitation game”: to break down the preoccupation with demarcating the “intelligent” from the “non-intelligent,” by substituting computation for intelligence as the more interesting concept from a theoretical perspective. There is a quote that appears as the epigraph to Accelerando, from the AI pioneer Edsger W. Djikstra, that expresses this attitude perfectly: “The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” The question of whether X is intelligent is often no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim: what may matter is the kind of computation that it is able to perform, either by itself, or in conjunction with other agents.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ideal and Non-ideal Theories of Justice

(Warning: 1500 words on a somewhat technical problem in political philosophy).

A couple of days ago I went to a talk about the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in contemporary political philosophy. The distinction is typically presented as a distinction between a theory that describes a perfectly or completely just society, and a theory that describes what justice requires in imperfect societies with varying levels of injustice in order to improve it (but not necessarily to make it perfect). There are more precise ways of articulating the distinction (see, for example, here), but probably the most common way of making it precise is the one that Rawls follows in his A Theory of Justice (where the terminology originates): namely, as a distinction between a theory that describes what justice requires when we can expect everyone or almost everyone to be well disposed to act justly ("full compliance" conditions, in the jargon) and a theory that describes what justice requires when we cannot expect everyone to do what justice requires, or to the full extent that justice requires ("partial compliance" theory). To use Rousseau's terminology, this would be a distinction between theories that take people "as they should be" (and can be, if the institutions of society were correctly ordered) and theories of justice that take people "as they are" (but try to suggest institutions that could improve them).

Rawls famously (or infamously, depending on whom you ask) presented his own theory as ideal ("full compliance") theory. But he did not think that ideal theory was unrealistic, or that it incorporated false assumptions about human nature. Since the development of the moral powers is dependent on institutions, and just institutions would reinforce the development of the moral powers, there is nothing "impossible" about full compliance: the right institutions would produce the maximal amount of compliance, because people who grow up in such institutions would develop the moral powers as much as possible (dispositions are "endogenous" to institutions, to use a bit of useful economic jargon). Of course, Rawls might be wrong about the effects of well-ordered institutions on human characters and dispositions, but the theory is not ideal because he assumes something false about human beings, but only because he assumes (on the basis of what he takes to be the best available knowledge about human moral development) something that does not obtain now but might obtain in a different institutional environment, namely, full compliance with the demands of justice.

Since we do not live under the best possible institutions, we need something like a theory of just transitions, i.e., a theory that prescribes or describes just changes along the path towards a well-ordered society; hence, according to Rawls, we need not just ideal theory but also non-ideal theory (which he did not propose to develop). Crucially, however, he argued that without ideal theory it would be impossible to properly develop non-ideal theory. Rawls' model of action seems to have been, like that of most philosophers, a model of making (in Arendt's terminology): we need some kind of ultimate blueprint if we are to be sure that we are moving in the right direction. But this assumption has been attacked by a number of people (as it was at the talk) who think that the (academically dominant) preoccupation with ideal theorizing has become a kind of scholasticism. The objection is basically that ideal theory is superfluous: we do not need ideal theory to tell us which injustices are important and need to be addressed immediately (e.g., slavery, which we might all agree is unjust – why would we need Rawls' theory of justice to tell us this?), and at any rate ideal theory is insufficient to tell us what to do in other cases (how does knowing what the ideal society look like help us figure out what to do about, e.g., female genital mutilation, if anything?).

There are a few obvious responses to this criticism. On one view, for example, ideal theory helps us clarify the values that should be guiding our actions in the non-ideal world: we need to be able, for example, to know what a commitment to "equality" or "freedom" really entails before we go around making changes to various existing social arrangements in their name. In this case ideal theory does not serve as a blueprint for (long-term) action, but rather as an exploration of the structure of our values and of the kinds of trade-offs among them that we should find permissible. But it occurred to me that one useful way of understanding the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory is as a relationship between global theories of justice and local theories of justice.

A global theory of justice is a theory about the just arrangements affecting an entire social order (e.g., a country or the entire world): it prescribes changes to the entire structure of institutions that define a social order so as to make such an order just. A local theory of justice, by contrast, prescribes changes to specific institutions or practices on the background of a (e.g., a local theory of justice might be concerned with the rules of war, or with the problem of poverty in some particular context). Typically, global theories of justice will appear to be ideal relative to local theories in that global changes might seem to require many steps, each of which would be more or less likely to happen, which implies a low likelihood of eventual realization, whereas local changes might seem to require fewer steps, so they appear to be feasible. There is often a relatively clear path to implementation for the prescriptions of local theories of justice, whereas there is no such clear path for global theories. Moreover, global theories of justice may incorporate assumptions about human nature, the nature of justice, and about the possibilities of socialization, that are more uncertain than the assumptions that local theories of justice need to make; so, for example, we are less certain about whether any set of institutions can produce dispositions resulting in "full compliance" than we are that some set of institutions might produce the desired behaviour in some particular field of endeavour. From this point of view, we might assign a much lower probability of being true to any global theory of justice than we would to a local theory of justice.

But global theories of justice might still constrain local theories of justice. For example, it would count as evidence against a local theory of justice that it leads us to a situation where certain apparently desirable global changes seem impossible without injustice. Consider a concrete example discussed in the talk. Buchanan and Keohane have argued for a rule enabling some kind of preventive war, so long as it was waged by a suitably defined "reliable moral actor" or coalition thereof. This is a "local" theory of justice, intended to address a specific problem: Buchanan and Keohane think there are circumstances where it would seem to be a good idea to have the "good guys" wage war to prevent the "bad guys" from doing bad things, and they argue that these circumstances would need to be circumscribed through a specific institutional process. But it would also seem that if the rule proposed by Buchanan and Keohane were to become entrenched, it would prevent developments in the international system towards more "ideal" states (e.g., a Kantian cosmopolitan federation), since the rule seems ripe for abuse by militarily hegemonic powers (like the USA). So from the point of view of an "ideal" theory of justice, one would want to say something like "avoid entrenching a rule that is easily exploitable by military hegemons." This would only be evidence against the local theory of justice, not proof against it; given that the global theory is uncertain, no such proof would be given. But presumably a good local theory of justice would be properly informed by a global theory of justice insofar as it tries to avoid a merely "local" maximum of justice (which could not be abandoned for a more global maximum without injustice), or situations where local improvements in justice in one area (e.g., the rules of war) may lead to injustices in some other area (e.g., institutions concerning the distribution of wealth or income). (Note also that there might not be any "universal continuity" of justice: maybe there is no path towards a globally just society that would not involve injustice). To be sure we do not know much about the global maxima of justice (the states of maximal justice), if there are any such, so that for the most part we are reduced to arguing about local improvements in justice; but to the extent that we can constrain arguments about local justice and injustice byviews about what would be globally just, that would seem to be a good thing no? Anyway, the thought seemed more interesting at the time, but here it is. (I had some other thoughts about the "ought implies can" principle as well, but I will leave these to some other post).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Things that caught my eye over the past week or so:
  • Automated debt-collection lawsuits. This is like something out of one of my favorite SF novels, Charles Stross' Accelerando (free e-book!), where sentient financial instruments coexist with automated legal systems. I suppose it's only a matter of time before the techniques used to automate debt collection lawsuits are used to automate P2P lawsuits, or some other form of highly routinizable legal work; I know some legal work in the US is now routinely outsourced to India and other low-cost destinations (I'm sure there must exist some research on this).
  • I didn't know that the Iroqois confederacy issued its own passports. I suppose it makes perfect sense for sovereign Indian nations to do so, but it certainly makes it difficult for them to travel. I wonder how the world would look if more non-state groups did this - would the need for a passport diminish, or would we see even further differentiation in the value of a passport (with high-value passports, useful for entry to a lot of places, for some groups of people, and low value passports - like my own - for other groups)?
  • Some physicists apparently have been trying to argue that gravity is an effect of the second law of thermodynamics, not an independent force in itself. Though I cannot claim to understand this (and the article's author does not even try to explain), I always feel a certain frisson of excitement about this sort of work. I can imagine that it makes sense - that much about the universe is well described as an effect of the laws of probability (which is basically what the 2nd law of thermodynamics ultimately amounts to: the highest probability configurations of the world are those that take place on the macroscale). This sort of mathematical physics fits in with my instinctive platonism about physics and mathematics. (Really, click the link - platonism is alive and well at the highest levels of physics and mathematics: Tegmark argues that the universe, at the most fundamental level, simply is a mathematical object. And the early parts of the paper are not even too difficult to understand).
  • We are basically just walking bacterial ecosystems. One of the interesting things about our evolving understanding of our microbiota is that it seems that our "genes" should include the genes of our live-in bacteria. Thus, though we have about 23,000 protein-coding genes (and an unknown number of RNA-only regulatory switches and stuff we don't really understand) there are really something like 3 million protein-coding genes in our "extended genome" (i.e., counting our bacterial symbionts). These genes even get passed from parents to children in some imperfect ways (from the moment of birth, even).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday extremophile blogging: Tardigrades ("Water Bears")

Cute, no? These creatures can withstand the vacuum of space and suspend their metabolism for up to ten years. They can also survive being heated to 150deg. C or being frozen to near absolute zero. And they are multicellular organisms! Much tougher than you are.

Reason and Persons in Classical Greece

In a post I wrote three years ago, before I abandoned this blog for the first time (in accordance with its name) I mentioned a passage in Plato’s Statesman (266e, if you must know) where the Eleatic Stranger, the main character in the dialogue, concludes a long discussion of what appears to be the “definition” of human beings with the claim that human beings are “featherless bipeds,” a definition that, if we are to judge by its presentation in Diogenes Laertius VI.40, achieved a certain kind of comic notoriety (see below). Only a few lines earlier the Stranger had suggested that an equally good definition of human being was the “two-legged pig” (266a5-b9; more precisely the two footed animal that is kin to the pig), and in the discussion leading to these odd conclusions the Stranger had explicitly argued that it is not a good idea to treat the human possession of rationality as the defining characteristic of human beings. To claim that human beings are distinct from other beings because of their possession of reason is to ignore the possibility that other animals might also be rational (cf. 263d, on the possibility of “rational cranes” [!]) and indeed to forget that divine beings are also rational (the rational cranes would be inappropriately “making themselves sacred” if they claimed to be special in virtue of their rationality). In sum, there is something much like “pride” in attempting to distinguish human beings from all other animals by the criterion of rationality, as the Stranger suggests in criticizing young Socrates (the main respondent in the dialogue; he is not related to the elder Socrates, who is the main character in most of Plato’s other dialogues) for his excessive haste in trying to separate human beings from all the other animals on that basis (262a; cf. also 263d).

I simplify a bit. The joke about humans and pigs rests on a comparison between the square root of four (likened to the nature of the pig) and the square root of two (likened to the nature of man – see Campbell, ad loc.) which has the effect of suggesting that in reality the natures of human beings and pigs are “incommensurable” even though the Stranger has just made them commensurable by a quirky mathematical “squaring” procedure (and even though, oddly, human nature is the one that turns out to be “irrational”). The claim that human beings are “featherless” uses a rare and poetic word (πτεροφυής, literally “feather-growing”) that points to a passage in the Phaedrus (251c) suggesting that human beings can “grow wings” and hence rise to gaze upon the forms of order – the good and the just, but especially the noble or the beautiful – even if they no longer have such wings. When my book on the Statesman comes out, you will be able to read my interpretation of these passages at excruciating length. Or you can consult my dissertation, if you are the hardy type and prefer the even longer version.

But regardless of these complications, throughout the dialogue human rationality is clearly presented as something deeply problematic, and certainly not as something that unambiguously marks the boundary between humanity and animality. Though the dialogue appears to be explicitly concerned with the question of what is a human being from 261b to 266e, the Eleatic never gives a simple and satisfactory answer to this question, much less asserts that that human beings are “rational animals;” on the contrary, his answer(s) merely emphasizes the physical differences between animals and humans (their featherlessness, lack of horns, etc.) . In the extraordinary myth that the Stranger makes up shortly after that discussion (my favorite in all of Plato, a story about a time when life ran “backwards”) he speaks about talking animals and attributes rationality not only to human beings but to a number of other embodied, animated creatures, including the universe as a whole (269d), which is indeed described as a kind of rational “animal.” To the extent that human beings have reason, the myth implies, it is divided into a multitude of forms of knowledge or arts which serve to make up for physical deficits that most animals do not have, rather than integrated into a genuine wisdom that truly differentiates us from them. Moreover, these arts are likened to the things that came out of Pandora’s box (274d-e; cf. Hesiod Theogony 536ff, Works and Days 42ff), increasing our physical powers (and hence allowing us to defend ourselves from wild animals) but not necessarily our ability to rule ourselves in a wise and reasonable way (but on the contrary creating the possibility of warfare and other political conflicts). Art or knowledge, in other words, is not for the most part presented as what distinguishes us from other animals but as the adaptive mechanism that enables us to survive as animals (just as horns or hooves are some of the adaptive mechanisms that allow animals to survive as animals).

Thus, whatever one may think of Plato’s ultimate views, it is not clear that he was overly concerned with saying that human beings are distinguished from animals on the basis of their rationality, or that he thought that the question of what distinguishes human beings from animals is easily answered by a formula. Moreover, it is not clear that Plato and later Ancient Platonists, in comparing human beings to pigs (or birds, for that matter) simply assumed that pigs were especially risible or low, as Stephen Clark points out in a lovely piece that is unfortunately inaccessible to anyone without access to a good research university library (“Herds of Free Bipeds”, 1995). On the contrary, there is some evidence that they considered that “curious, naked omnivore” (Clark’s words) worthy of respect. (And Plato perhaps followed the Pythagoreans in thinking this, but who knows?) . If the Eleatic points to the continuity between human beings and other animals, he does not necessarily imply that this is a sufficient reason to think that human beings are of little interest or importance, though he does suggest that we should not be too quick to assume our superiority.

To be sure, Aristotle and the Stoics are perhaps more concerned than Plato with distinguishing humans from other animals, and more definite about the essential difference between humans and animals; indeed, for the Stoics, the definition of human being as the “rational animal” would become a sort of commonplace (see, for example, Chrysippus, On Emotions, of which the relevant extant fragment is found in Galen [=SVF 3.462]). But contrary to popular belief, Aristotle himself, working in the shadow of Plato, never did clearly define human being as the rational animal: the passage normally and erroneously quoted to this effect (Metaphysics Z.12, 1037b13-14) actually has him saying that human being is the “two-footed animal” (τ ζον δίπουν), as if quoting Plato’s Statesman. This is not to say that Aristotle did not believe human beings were rational (he clearly thought that an important feature of human beings was their capacity for rational deliberation), or that they were not “higher” in some sense than other animals (he does say elsewhere that plants and animals exist “for the sake of” human beings, generating a natural hierarchy of beings which is not quite as easy to find in Plato). Yet it does suggest that Aristotle did not think that the question of the definition of human beings vis à vis other animals was the most important question we could ask about the nature of human beings. Indeed, to the extent that Aristotle is preoccupied with the question of human nature, he tends to emphasize that human beings are preeminently political animals (Politics 1253a1-4), a characteristic which they share with cranes, wasps, ants, and bees (History of Animals I.i.11), even if they are more political than these other animals. The important differences between human beings and animals do have something to do with the human capacity for reasoned speech (which only humans truly have, according to Aristotle), but these differences are ultimately best understood as differences of degree rather than of kind, for other animals have a capacity for communicative speech (though not reasoned argument or logos) and social or political life as well as human beings.

The reason for bringing all of this up is that I’ve been recently invited to respond to a paper by a colleague on conceptions of human beings and freedom in both the East (primarily India) and the West (including several conceptions traceable to ancient political thinkers like Plato and Aristotle). The paper claims that most of the “Western” conceptions of human being fail to define human beings properly, since they use criteria that are shared by other animals (like some forms of rationality and language, which are shared with the great apes), something which may in fact be true of some of these conceptions. But it seems to me that at least Plato and Aristotle were not overly concerned with precisely distinguishing human beings from other animals. In particular, I would argue that for Plato the idea that human beings are rational is a kind of hypothesis or aspiration, not a well established fact; the interesting question, for him, is what follows from our being rational (if in fact we are), or from our lack of rationality for our ability to rule ourselves wisely, not the question of whether we are the sole rational animals. Much less hinged on determining whether or not reason is the distinguishing mark of the species than in determining what the possession of reason implies for our ethical, moral, and political lives; and the nature of reason was itself put in question. (And also: the classical thinkers were much weirder than we give them credit for. The fact that they have been absorbed for so long into the history of Western thought should not prevent us from seeing them as just as foreign than the Indian thinkers that my colleague studies; they came, after all, from a world that was very different from ours in every important economic and social respect, and that world was full of gods and demons).

The transformation of this line of thought into a mere formula – that man is the rational animal – closed off some of the avenues for thinking about the nature of human and animal rationality that were still open to Plato and Aristotle. Much later on, however, Kant would turn the idea of man as the rational animal upside down to emphasize that what mattered for moral and political thought was not human being but rational being: the categorical imperative and other moral laws apply to rational beings, not just human beings, and Kant does not assume that there is only one kind of rational being. And similarly, in contemporary times, many ethical thinkers (such as Peter Singer) suggest that whatever characteristic is important for ethical or moral life, it is important across all beings sharing it, whether or not they are human; what matters is not the question of who is a human being, but who is the subject of ethical concern (a feature of Singer’s thought that accounts for its apparent callousness: some human beings lack the requisite characteristic, whereas some animals have it).

These thinkers take, in their different ways, the Eleatic’s critique of Young Socrates seriously: being excessively concerned with distinguishing human beings from animals (as some of the 20th century existentialists were, by the way) bespeaks a kind of unjustified “pride.” Though humans and other animals are clearly different, it is all too easy to take excessive pride in whatever difference is found (tool use, language, reason, “freedom,” etc.) and hence set ourselves up as “sacred” without justification (as the cranes in the Eleatic’s view). It is too similar to the same processes that lead us to identify with this or that nation (as the Eleatic indicates by using examples of “nationalist” classification in his criticism of young Socrates: 262d-263a), those arbitrary lines that distinguish among human beings on the basis of their ability to “interbreed” (the joke is too complicated to explain here). And perhaps we can go further today, in the shadow of Darwin: most truly significant distinctions between humans and others are ultimately matters of degree. If human beings and other animals are all ultimately related in a web of descent with very fuzzy borders, it may not make sense to try to fix these frontiers and erect imposing border control regimes. That only encourages unclear thinking.

To be sure, there will be differences between “us” and other living beings; but it may make little sense to determine the meaning and moral consequences of these differences a priori. I do not know how we are to relate to elephants, or whales and dolphins, or the great apes, all beings that are political animals in the strict Aristotelian sense of the term, displaying language enough, and family structures, and politics and war enough (I’ve just been reading about hierarchy in the forest); or how we may need to relate to AIs one day perhaps, or indeed to ourselves, in all our multifarious variety of our social forms. But I do suspect that to attempt to find something that strictly distinguishes us from these other beings as if that characteristic were of ultimate importance, is to fall into young Socrates’ error. What distinguishes us from other similar beings may not be the most important thing about us; it may just be our featherlesness.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Footnotes on things I’ve been reading: Epstein and Axtell, “Growing Artificial Societies”

Epstein and Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies

I've become very interested in the "artificial societies" approach to social science. The idea is that we attempt to understand the workings of a society not through "discursive" models (as in qualitative social science) or through game theoretical models with extremely simplified assumptions and homogeneous agents (as in more "quantitative" approaches), but by creating a simplified version of the society in silico. So we use software (or pen and paper; Schelling's pioneering models of segregation were studied without the benefit of a computer) to generate an environment and simplified agents that interact with one another, and then we see what happens. The advantages of this approach is that one can add complexity to a model in a controlled manner and study the resulting dynamics (rather than merely static equilibria); so, for example, one might start with agents who move and eat, then see what happens if you add the ability to trade, and so on (besides, it's fun to play around with such models). The disadvantages, however, come from the very flexibility of the approach, which allows for highly complex models: it is sometimes hard to tell whether or not a particularly interesting result is simply an artifact of the simulation or the consequence of some particular simplifying assumption (though it should be noted that the same is often true of traditional models, where striking results, like the pareto-optimality of free markets, are sometimes basically artifacts of the simplifying assumptions made for the sake of creating "tractable" models).

Epstein and Axtell report in this book the results of a pioneering 1994 simulation: "Sugarland". They start with a very simple environment, the "sugarscape", consisting of a two-dimensional surface (technically, a torus) with an unevenly distributed resource ("sugar") and add some very simple agents who can move around the sugarscape according to simple rules and "eat" the sugar. As they add more complex rules, they basically "generate" a number of features of societies – like migration patterns, cultural transmissions, combat, trade, credit relationships, disease transmission, etc. – and study how some simple rule changes affect these patterns. The book does not describe in detail how to do this (they give some information that might help in replicating the simulation, but no code); instead, one can read it as a kind of advertisement for the generative approach to social science. Epstein and Axtell excitedly argue that many phenomena can be understood as "emergent" effects of the interaction of agents following simple rules, and hence that the best way of understanding them is by looking at which simple rules are able to generate them. In general, I am very sympathetic to this idea; it is unlikely that we will ever fully understand polities and economies through models composed of homogeneous, fully rational agents.

But though Epstein and Axtell's results are often suggestive, it is not always clear that they have properly looked at the ways in which minor changes in the parameters of the simulation might disrupt the patterns they find, or sufficiently thought about how to interpret the results of their simulations. As a result, the book is somewhat disappointing: if you are already convinced of the utility of the generative approach, you may not learn much here, and if you are not, then you may think that the authors have not really addressed the important objections to the generative approach. A good example is in the chapter of the book on combat and cultural transmission. Here the assumptions made about how to model cultural transmission and combat between agents seem rather arbitrary (rather than based, for example, on research about human or animal combat), and though they explore a number of alternative specifications, the results seem only lightly grounded theoretically, more an artifact of the simulation than an illuminating model of actual cultural transmission or combat. (By contrast, the chapter on trade and credit is probably the most solid in the book, since they ground the results in economic theory and systematically explore some of the space of alternative rule specifications and parameter values for their agents. Nevertheless, their results there do not go beyond what most sophisticated economists already knew, and do not add much knowledge about the properties of dynamic adjustment in markets – we get no bubbles or other interesting phenomena, for example, and we would need to introduce something like production functions to make the model better reflect actual economies).

Of course, the book is 16 years old right now, and new advances have been made in agent-based simulation. Besides, as I mentioned above, the book is perhaps best read as an advertisement for the virtues of the "artificial societies" approach rather than as a contribution to the study of actual societies; it opens your appetite rather than satisfies it (I wanted to do some programming as I was reading it, to try to see if I could replicate their results). But I think it is fair to say that the book does not quite succeed at showing that the artificial societies approach is actually worth taking seriously (unless you are already convinced of its merits).

I suspect that in order to make the "generative" approach work better, we need to be clearer about how the simple rules that agents follow in the simulated world relate to the kinds of rationality displayed by real political and economic agents than this book is. I also wonder how we could use this approach to model political and not merely economic phenomena. This is something I would like to do: how would you model the emergence of the state, or the choice of political regime? Do you need to incorporate more rationality into the agents, or a way of representing social conventions? Anyway, all in all, I enjoyed reading the book, and people may find it gives them new ideas, if nothing else.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sunday Extremophile Blogging: Deinococcus Radiodurans

The toughest of them all. Will sustain a radiation dose between 5 and 15 thousand times higher than the dose that would kill a human being, and repair its own radiation-damaged DNA. (Perhaps life travels like this between the stars).