Archives for category: evolution

The oldest surviving civilized nation, China, calls itself Zhongguo.
The Middle Kingdom. ‘In the middle’ of the barbaric people that surrounded her but also at middle distance between Heaven and the rest of the Earth. The aforementioned barbarians.

And, according to Confucius, it was the emperor’s job to ‘keep things as they should remain’.

Which makes sense. After all, the whole kingdom was the exclusive property of the emperor. And whose job is to watch over one’s property?

Well, things went on long enough for those involved to believe this was the natural order of things.
Until the whole arrangement was upset by a small number of people which had come, more or less ‘under their own steam’, from the other side of the world. And who were, at that time, a lot less civilized than the Chinese.

How can be explained something like this?
OK, the Aztec and the Inca empires might have been primitive relative to the Spanish invaders. They might have prevailed over the small number of invaders by brute force but they had been overcome by the sheer novelty and the apparent sophistication of the assailants.
But China had been in contact for centuries with the rest of the ‘civilized’ world! And way advanced than the rest. Both culturally and economically.

So, what had happened?
How can something like this be explained?

We might try to take the ‘historical route’. And observe that, exactly as Confucius and Laozi had told us, China’s destiny had been tightly linked to the ability of those in charge – the emperors, to manage the empire. From the paleolithic migrations until the Mongol invasion in 1271, nothing from outside had any significant impact over the Chinese hinterland. But the fortunes of those living in that hinterland had oscillated from the misery induced by almost constant ‘live conflict’ during the Warring States period to the various prosperous eras. The Han, Tang and Song dynasties, to mention just a few of them.
The same principle had been valid also for what went on while foreign dynasties had been in power. As long as the ‘managers’ were doing their jobs, things continued to improve. As soon as the helm was grabbed by an incompetent leader… all hell broke loose.

But is the emperors’ incompetence enough to explain what had happened during the XIX-th century? The most advanced, and numerous, nation on Earth had been subjugated – for all practical purposes, by a bunch of drug pushers pretending to act in the name of the far away, and far weaker, British King?

Or we can take the sociological route.
Along which we’ll notice that the ‘drug pushers’ were only nominally subjects of the British Empire. Which empire was behaving imperially only towards the exterior while inside it was already a democracy!

Sounds familiar?

Ancient Athens, the first known democracy, had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for as long as it had retained its democratic character and had failed, abysmally, each time it had reverted to tyranny?
Ancient Rome had established a huge empire as a democratic republic and collapsed four short centuries after becoming a totalitarian empire?
And so on…?

And what might be the difference between a totalitarian empire and a democratic one?
On the face of it, a democratic empire sounds like an oxymoron… yet there’s plenty of such examples in our history…

As you might guess from the title of this post, the ‘famous’ middle class was both the engine and the explanation for the ease with which the ‘democratic’ empires had been established. And yes, the Spanish and Portuguese ones can be explained in the same manner. At that time none of the Iberian monarchies was yet behaving in the absolutist manner they had pursued as soon as the looted precious metals had started to pour in…

But what makes the middle class so special?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb would tell you that the middle class has enough skin left in the game to really care about the outcome and I’m going to add that the middle class is simultaneously distanced enough from the fray to act in a reasonable enough manner.

Let me put back, for a short while, my historian’s cap.

Most of us consider that the middle class is a late appearance. That most of the time, humankind had been divided in two. The haves and the have-nots. The powerful and the meek.
Well, I’m not so sure about that…
For the first 60 000 years after we had learned to speak – which had made us really human, we had been living in small packs. Led by the more powerful male member of the group – if we consider that our ancestors used to behave like our Chimpanzee cousins, or ‘self managed’ in a more or less democratic manner if our ancestors had used the model followed by our other cousins, the Bonobos.
Or we could look at how the surviving ‘primitives’ lead their lives. None of the Hadzabe, Yanomami or Inuit, who have survived in the most difficult conditions on Earth, have a hierarchical social structure.
Primitives?!? Maybe… but not because of their social arrangements. After all, they are freer than most of us.
And what is it that we, proudly modern people, value more than our individual freedom?

Money? I’m going to let this rest… for a while.

Let’s go back to our ancestors.
Who, by all indications, had been living as ‘extended middle class societies’. Without any 0.1% and without people who went to bed hungry while the rest of the gang had been gorging themselves.
Let’s remember now that during those times we had actually transformed ourselves from apes to humans. And if you consider this to be a small feat, just try to teach a bonobo to speak. Then remember how many people who had been born in poor and backward countries are now successful business people or scientists. After passing through a thorough educational process, true! Only that educational process is in no way accessible to any bonobo…
Don’t disparage the long evolution we had graduated from, as a species, while living in ‘extended middle class societies’.

‘But you haven’t explained what you mean by middle class! Most of us see the middle class as those people who make a certain amount of money each year and you keep speaking about primitive people… who have absolutely no use for any money…!’

OK.
For good or for bad, our present society consist of three categories of people.
The haves, the in-between and the dirt poor.

I’m not going to assign numerical values to any of these.
Taleb’s Skin in the Game criterion is far more useful in this situation.

The haves qualify only after they have no skin left in the game. In the sense that they have so much ‘money’ that come hell and/or high water they feel safe. What they make of this world is heavily influenced by the thick ‘insulation’ which separates them from the rest of the world.
The dirt poor – or the lumpen proletariat, in Marx’s terms, have all their skin in the game. In fact, they are the famous ‘Boiling Frog’. They have no way of leaving the kettle so…

In a sense, both haves and the dirt poor are  prisoners. Neither can leave their respective cell blocks. Simply because the dirt poor have no way to go anywhere while almost none of the haves would be able to survive ‘outside’.

the boiling frog

Wesley Chang, The Boiling Frog, Medium.com

Which leaves us with the middle class.
Who have some resources stashed away – or enough credit available, to weather some crises. But not enough to last them for their entire remaining lives.
Which makes the middle class the only really interested people in the long term well being of the entire society. The only ones really interested in maintaining the freedom of the market as the main economic engine. The only ones really interested in maintaining democracy as the main manner of avoiding catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by the too powerful autocrats.

Or, from a psychological point of view, we can look at the haves/dirt poor as being stuck in an immobile state of mind while the middle class are the only open minded members of the society.
In fact, I prefer this last approach.
You see, until recently the American Dream was relatively accessible. With some luck, a ton of determination and a fair amount of brain power, the sky was the only limit. Belonging to any of those three categories, haves, middle class and dirt-poor was as much about the state of mind of those involved as it was about actual economic conditions.
The haves were free to consider the big picture, the dirt poor could contemplate brighter perspectives while the middle class were doing their thing. Keeping the whole show afloat.

I’m afraid we have reached an inflexion point. A watershed mark, if you prefer.
For whatever reason – I’m not ready to tackle this subject right now, we’ve become so preoccupied with something in particular that we’ve lost sight of everything else.

Including the middle class.

Exactly those which were supposed to maintain their cool heads and open minds.

part of the problem

Matthew Stewart,
The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy,
The Atlantic

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thor

“Before being rescued, Thor had dragged himself around the streets of Mexico for months. A young woman named Eva pulled over to the side of the road seeing that the dog was barley alive. She took a picture and sent out a desperate cry for help. The REAL Bark (located in Los Angeles) saw it posted and immediately committed to this handsome pitt-bulldog mix. He was broken, paralyzed, and wounded, and a lot of doctors advised the rescue to put him down. Even if he lived, which was unlikely, he would need to be in a special-needs chair for the rest of his life. Jf Pryor, the founder of The REAL Bark, claimed that Thor’s eyes begged, “Let me live. Let me show you”- so instead of ending his life, The REAL Bark team began it.

His therapy, or “thorapy” as The REAL Bark team calls it, consisted of acupuncture, hydrotherapy, laser therapy, muscle building, and stretching. The most difficult part of recovery was helping end the enduring pain Thor was experiencing. Thor’s main doctor and biggest advocate was Dr. Jessica Waldman, the owner of California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE). When Thor attended CARE, the rescue team knew he needed a new set of wheels, a cart for him to pull his lifeless body along. Dr. Jessica Waldman surprised the team however with her response, “You can borrow a cart, but there is no need to purchase.” Thor’s doctor continued, “We will get him walking,” she said. “He wants to walk”. This hope kept the team going.”

eaten alive by scabies

“The scabies that infected Zeni’s body had become so severe that bacteria seeped into her bloodstream. She died in 2015 at age 93.

Zeni’s death is now the subject of a lawsuit filed against PruittHealth, a for-profit company that owns dozens of nursing homes, including Shepherd Hills in LaFayette, Ga., where Zeni lived for five years until she died. Shepherd Hills, a nursing home that had multiple scabies outbreaks in recent years and a history of health violations, failed to follow policies and procedures to prevent the occurrence and spread of the highly contagious disease, documents say. Instead of providing the care that Zeni desperately needed, the lawsuit alleges that the nursing home allowed her to die an agonizing death.

“The last six months of her life, she was in constant pain,” Prieto said. “She was literally being eaten alive from inside out.””

We, humans, pride ourselves on many things.

On being smart/intelligent. And on being the only animals able to brag about their achievements with their peers…

But what is it that qualifies us as humans?
That would, of course, depend on what a human really is…

OK, let me use another tack.
What are we really good at? What sets us apart from the rest of the animals?

Practical intelligence? Our ability to solve really complicated problems?

Then watch this wild New Caledonian Crow treating itself to a piece of meat.

new Caledonian crow

Our ability to figure new meaning and to overcome our natural impulses?

Then read about Sheba the Chimp using language to suppress her greed:

In a celebrated study that investigated impulse control, Sally Boysen of Ohio State University asked chimps to choose between two dishes of M&Ms®.

SALLY BOYSEN: Now, you watch real carefully. We’re going to put one, two, three, four down here. Are you watching, Miss Priss? Sheeby? And we’re going to put two in here.

Give those to Sarah. Okay.

Well, I have to give these to Sarah, and Sheeba gets two. So Sarah gets four and Sheba only gets two. Aw, too bad.

NARRATOR: The twist was that the chimp got the candy she didn’t point to. Could the chimp learn to resist her impulse to reach for the bigger pile?

SALLY BOYSEN: You want Sarah to have these? It’s okay, it’s okay. You get to have that one. Yeah, Sarah gets five, and Sheba gets one. Oh, that is such a shame.

NARRATOR: Amazingly, chimps never overcame their greedy urges. They always reached for more and, so, ended up with less.

SALLY BOYSEN: And Sheba gets two, so Sarah gets four. See?

NARRATOR: Impulse studies have also been run on humans. In a classic experiment from the 1970s, a researcher gave a four-year-old a simple choice.

RESEARCHER : So, if you wait for me to get back, I’ll give you this bowl with all of these gummy bears, okay? But if you can’t wait, you can push that button, like this, and then I’ll come back and you can have this bowl with just this one gummy bear, okay? Okay, I’ll be right back.

NARRATOR: According to an inconclusive but intriguing study, the longer children resisted temptation, the higher their S.A.T. scores were years later. In any case, the differences between people are small compared to the gap separating humans and apes.

BRIAN HARE: Maybe one of the first things that happened during our species evolution is we became much less emotionally reactive. And maybe that’s one of the big differences that may explain why we solve problems so differently. We sort of got control of our emotions.

NARRATOR: Can apes be given skills to help them master their emotions? Sally Boysen trained a chimp to understand numerals. Then she repeated her M&Ms experiment, but now offered different pairs of numerals rather than treats.

SALLY BOYSEN: You want to give two to Sarah? Okay. Two goes to Sarah, and you get six.

NARRATOR: Remarkably, chimps were now able to learn what they couldn’t before: point to the smaller number to get the bigger prize.

Symbols can make you free. They can help distance an ape from its impulses. But outside of the lab, apes don’t seem to use symbols. Still, ape minds seem to share many of the amazing features of the human mind.

There is a video which depicts all this. Click on this link and see if it’s available “in your area.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/ape-genius.html.

How about our consciousness? Our ability to ‘observe ourselves in the act of observing‘.
Well, that alone wouldn’t have made us any more special than an octopus…

self aware octopus

But what if our individuality resides in us having taken all three to ‘a different level’? One which hasn’t yet been attained by anybody else? Not necessarily higher, mind you!

I’ll deal with ‘trade’ now and I’m afraid you’ll have to come back for the rest.

‘Trade’ wasn’t even mentioned in those three examples?
What was the crow trying to do?
Feed itself? As in exchange matter with the ‘outside’?
What was Sheba trying to do?
Figure our what was going on? As in trading information with the surrounding world?

In this sense all living things are engaged in all forms of trading? And continue to do so for as long as they remain alive?
What did I tell you about us doing nothing really new? Only different?

OK, we had already figured out – long before Adam Smith described it as ‘division of labor’, that by dividing tasks amongst us we’ll be able to accomplish far more things than if we had attempted ‘individual autarky’. And then we had invented ‘trade’, as a manner of exchanging the different wares each of us was proficient in doing…
Wait! Even this is not really ‘new’!
Mother Nature had already invented sexual reproduction – a very extreme ‘division of labour’, a very long time ago…. but not before bacteria were already adept at ‘trading’ genetic information.

 

 

We need to breathe.
We absolutely need to breathe. Just as we absolutely need to drink and to eat, only not so often.

Yet we seldom think about breathing, we remember to think about drinking only when we’ve forgotten to take along a bottle of water for that two hour drive and we somewhat constantly keep warm in the back of our heads the nagging ‘what’s in for dinner?’.

What makes us so indifferent to breathing – as long as our lungs remain OK, anyway, and so choosy when it comes to our ‘daily bread’? After-all, both are equally important…
And how come we almost never think about the air we breathe but equally almost never forget to dream about our precious car? The future one, of course, not the present! Or about a beach holiday, a diamond ring, Jimmy Choo shoes …

So.
There are some things that we actually need, some we actively want and things which belong to both categories.

Then why don’t we actively keep tabs on all the things we actually need and why do we bother so much with those which are more or less superfluous?

Maybe because we are not machines? And because life is neither simple nor forthright?

Let me start from the beginning.

We belong to the realm of the living things.
The difference between living things and inanimate matter being that all individual organisms eventually die while inanimate matter might, theoretically at least, remain unchanged for ever.

Otherwise put, inanimate matter has only ‘inertia’ and living things have both inertia and an innate ‘will to survive’.
Another difference between the two being that all kinds of inanimate matter are ‘isotropic’ while ‘life’ is almost synonymous with ‘individual organisms.’
It’s just as impossible to differentiate between two water molecules as it is to find two identical organisms – even if they belong to the same species. N.B., not even clones are identical to each other.

As an aside, sometimes it is possible to differentiate between two water molecules. For instance, heavy water is slightly different from regular water. Also, there are some differences between the water molecules which have in their composition different Oxygen isotopes. But if you know what an isotope is… you get my drift.

Coming back to the difference between inanimate and living, the inanimate does not change in time.
A molecule of water remains the same until something happens to it and water, as a substance, has never changed since….
On the other hand, each individual living organism changes, however minutely, with ‘every breath it takes’ while species are undergoing a constant evolutionary process.

Furthermore, we can draw a parallel between inanimate substances and animate species. Both of them, substances and species,  are ‘organized’ along some common ‘information’.
‘Water’ has a certain ‘blue print’, ‘vinegar’ has it’s own – different from that of ‘water’, and ‘wolves’ have yet another one – which is different from that of ‘poplar’.
Only the parallel can be drawn only so far.
All molecules ‘belonging’ to the same substance share the same ‘constitutive information’.
All individuals belonging to the same species do have a lot of ‘constitutive information’ in common yet each of them is different from all of the rest.

Hey, wait a minute!
– You promised us something about needs and wants and now you’re lecturing us about the difference between life and death? What next?
– Bear with me. I’m getting there!

One last difference and we’re almost done.

I told you a little earlier that life is about change while inanimate is… boringly stable!
Actually life is also about exchange, not only about change.
No inanimate molecule ever exchanges anything material with anybody, lest it becomes something else.
No individual living organism can survive for any sizeable amount of time without exchanging substance and information, in an ‘organized’ manner, with it’s surrounding medium.

In my ‘original terms’, each individual living organism has needs while individual molecules have none – except for the ‘need’ to be ‘left alone’ in order to ‘survive’.

I’m not going to enter into details. For now, all I’m going to say is that the above mentioned ‘organized exchange’ is regulated by a ‘membrane’ according to information passed along from generation to generation.
Each individual living organism has it’s own set of information, coded in its DNA (RNA for the more ‘primitive’ ones). Which set of information has a lot in common with but is slightly different from that which has belonged to the previous generation.

For instance, each E.coli bacteria has a membrane – which separates the interior of the ‘organism’ from it’s surrounding medium, a nucleus which contains its ‘constitutive information’ and some other things which are of no importance for this discussion.
For as long as that individual bacteria is alive, the membrane plays two roles. It keeps the bacteria together and mediates the exchanges between the individual organism and its medium. It lets food and oxygen in. It makes it so that ‘excrement’ and CO2 are purged out.
And all these are happening according to the information contained in the genetic material passed over from the previous generation.

In a sense, exactly because each individual organism somehow manages to remain – for a while, at least – in one piece while constantly exchanging substance with the surrounding medium, one may say that each individual bacteria has a form of (proto?) conscience. Remember that it does ‘survive’ on its own, ‘guided’ exclusively by information contained in it’s own DNA. As long as its surrounding medium remains in certain parameters, of course, but this is another issue.

Let’s jump now directly to us, human beings.

OK, we are multi-cellular organisms hence we are provided with a second ‘membrane’ – which is usually referred to as  ‘skin’.
The rest is basically the same. The ‘skin’ keeps us together, breathes in, breathes out, excretes the by products of our metabolism…
Well, not exactly the same! We have yet another layer of ‘membrane’. Using a very modern word, I’ll describe this third layer as being “virtual”.

I’m speaking about our infinitely more complex conscience.

The proto-conscience of the E.coli is  similar to a ‘mechanical’ function.
‘Mechanical’ in the sense that the information contained in the nucleus is more or less directly expressed. The bacteria is not able to asses the results of its actions, to watch itself ‘doing things’ or to learn anything from what’s happening to it.

Time for another aside. Recent scientific research strongly suggests that even unicellular organisms are capable of learning. Something. This is very important, and very helpful towards increasing the ability of any given organism to survive, but doesn’t change much of what I have to say here.

Our conscience is anything but mechanical.
OK, it very much depends on our brains. Hence on our DNA.
It also depends on everything that has happened to us from the moment each of us has been conceived till the very present moment. A single minute spent without being able to breathe during birth can wreak havoc with out brains. Hence with our ability to develop a full fledged conscience.
Furthermore, being born into a relatively well off family during a peaceful era leads to being exposed to a completely different set of stimuli than if born into a poor family during a war.

Coming back to my initial example – very few of us really think about breathing, simply because most of us are accustomed to air being freely available, people exposed to those two different sets of ‘initial inputs’ will have a different attitude towards ‘normal daily needs’.
The first kid will grow with an innate sentiment that having enough to eat is comme il faut and nothing to worry about while the second…
Also, the first kid will grow accustomed to people around him ‘parading’ a host of satisfied ‘wants’ almost incomprehensible for the other kid.

Don’t tell me these two kids will develop the same kind of conscience.
Equivalent? Maybe.
Geared towards the same goal? Survival of the individual AND that of the social norms into which the individual has been socialized? Certainly! Only the social norms I’ve just mentioned will never be exactly the same in those two cases… regardless of those two children belonging to the same broad culture.

As a consequence of their different fortunes, each of them will maintain a different balance between needs and wants. Even if their fortunes will change in time.

The ‘conscious membrane’ can change, and it usually will, following the changes in the surrounding medium. But those changes cannot fundamentally alter the ‘initial orientation’ – that forged during the early childhood.

Human nature has evolved considerably since we’ve climbed down the proverbial tree/been made in His own image.
Some of our ancestors used to eat their fellow human beings/the first brother had killed his sibling for profit while a sizeable proportion of the present humankind governs itself in a democratic manner.
No individual has ever been able to change, by themself, the human nature. Time and time again, this has been attempted in vain. Plato, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin…
Yet each of us can change their own persona. This is what Buddha and Jesus have been successfully teaching us.
This is how we’ve figured out that eating our brother might satiate our hunger for the time being but will never solve the problem. Feeding ourselves for the long run demands cooperation. It cannot be achieved through mindless/cut-throat competition.
As long as more and more of us understand this, we’ll have a fighting chance to survive. As a species.

Let’s face it, all of us have asked ourselves, ‘why do we have to go through all this’?

Why are we thrown into this world, without any of us ever been asked about it, only to end up dead?

Well, I haven’t got an answer to this particular question. Sorry for getting your hopes too high.

But, thanks to a friend of mine, I’ve just found the answer to the next best one.

‘Now, if we’re already here, is there anything that we can do about it?’

The gamut of a potential answer to this question runs from ‘end it this very minute’ to ‘let’s do our best, which ever that might be’.

‘End it this very minute’ has the obvious plus of avoiding any additional suffering to that already experienced – and we pretty much know what we can expect as we’ll be getting older, and the equally obvious minus that no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Literally.

Who amongst us knew, thirty five years ago, that communism will fall? With a bang!
Who amongst us knew, thirty years ago, that the internet will allow us to exchange ideas so fast, across so much of the world?
Who amongst us knew, five minutes ‘before’, who was the soul-mate each of us have been so happy to share everything with since ‘that happy moment’?

OK, let’s do our best then.
But what is this ‘best’?
How can we define it?!?

To each, their own…

It was exactly here that my friend’s input was invaluable.

“Curiosity is an important source of wisdom, but nowhere near as important as pain.”

The very moment that I was reading this, my fingers started to itch:

“I’m afraid both are ‘equally’ important.
The way I see it, curiosity and pain are, intellectually speaking, very similar to man and woman. You cannot have wisdom without a ‘healthy’ dose of both curiosity and pain, just as you cannot possibly conceive a child without enough of both man and woman.
Furthermore, the kind of wisdom/child you end up with depends heavily on how well both factors manage to cooperate in their ‘discourse’. Not to mention how important is the ‘environment’ where wisdom is ‘attempted’ and ‘child’ is raised.
In this sense, curiosity and pain are just as equal as man and woman are equal.
Or should I say ‘so complementary that neither of them can fulfill their meaning if the other is absent’?”
At first glimpse, this whole thing seems extremely reductionist.
What about those who cannot/want not to have children? Am I implying they’re wasting their lives?
And what about the few who cannot even comprehend the concept of wisdom? Are they to be ‘set aside’?!?
Take a deep breath!
What I’ve just understood is simple.
Basically, these are the only two things over which we have the slightest degree of control.
To give birth – to the next generation of humans, and to learn. To add something to the accrued understanding which is known as ‘culture’.
‘End it, this very minute!’ versus ‘Do our best!’
In order to add something to the future of mankind, not all of us actually need to ‘give birth’. Not all of us actually need to become the next Steven Hawking – I have chosen him as an example because he had just passed away this morning.
But how better this world will become as more and more of us will learn to balance ‘curiosity’ and ‘pain’?
As more and more of us will learn to encourage ‘curiosity’ – their own as well as that of others?
As more and more of us will train themselves to apply only the least amount of ‘curative pain’ whenever they are in control?
As more and more of us will understand that in so many instances both curiosity and pain are more a matter of chance than of ‘due diligence’, and, as a consequence of their newly found understanding, will be more willing to extend a helping hand to both curious and painful?
Flash back from earlier this morning.
Another friend of mine had mentioned a Russian proverb – his translation, I don’t speak the language.

“Do not try “raising/shaping” your kids.

Whatever you do, they’ll still grow to resemble you.
Educate/shape yourself.”
There’s nothing else left to be done but to shape ourselves.
This way we’ll contribute both to the future of mankind and to our own.
It’s a lot nicer, and safer too, to live among people who entertain an atmosphere of mutual respect amongst all of them than to attempt to survive in a ‘top dog takes all’ ‘urban jungle’.
the golden rule

We are constantly being told that we’re living in the best possible world.

I agree with that.
Of course it’s the best possible one… specially since there’s no other!

On this side of the Styx, anyway…

Let’s get real now.

This is the Century when we’ve managed to open up all corners of our round Planet. We’ve ‘conquered’ the most remote and inhospitable places – both poles, all mountain tops and most of the ocean floor, including that beneath the Arctic Ice Sheet, and, way more important, made most of the Earth solid surface accessible for almost everybody. By car, by train, by plane, by bike, by ferry …
We’ve managed to populate all the ‘cubicles’ designed by Mendeleev and we found uses for most of them.
We’ve managed to identify a vast array of natural resources. We’ve developed matching technologies to exploit each of them, to transform and combine them into what we thought it would fit our fancies and to distribute the results to whomever wished to receive them.
We’ve continued to develop already invented means of communication and we transformed them into something totally different. Practically, we’ve restored the world to it’s ‘Golden Age’. We now live in the Global Village.

Which is not that much different from the old one…

Now, with the world watching Aleppo burn, Daraya fall, and Idlib and other Syrian cities suffer so brutally, Pope Francis’s description of Syria as “abandoned and beloved” rings chillingly accurate. After Bosnia, I was sure the international community would never again stand by and watch in silence as hundreds of thousands of people were bombed relentlessly, starved, beaten, traumatized, and denied the most basic human rights, including education and medical facilities. During the height of the worst years in Sarajevo, from 1992 to 1994, you could chart the ebb and flow of the city’s hope, like the steady flow of the Mijacka River, whose shelled bridges we had to run across to avoid getting hit by snipers. Food supplies ran out; soldiers were getting slaughtered on the fronts; the hospitals’ generators went down.

Janine Di Giovanni, From Sarajevo to Aleppo, Lessons on Surviving a Siege,
The Atlantic, October 12, 2016

What happened with “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, the wise man learns from the mistakes of others“?

OK, back to square one…

1918 had seen the end of the First World War.
Which was the first ‘mixed’ war and the one which should have been the last…

‘The last’ part is obvious, let me elaborate on ‘the first mixed’ one.

Basically, people are both lazy and easily frightened. Their natural tendency is to ‘give in’, a.k.a. ‘trade in’ rather than ‘fight for it’ ‘to the ultimate consequence’.
Which actually makes a lot of sense. Just imagine what would have happened if we were just a tad more combative than we used to…

Need a clue? Click on the picture below.

sex bonobos chimps

Welcome back.

The proposition “Laziness and congeniality is our default mode (mood?)” is valid but from a ‘statistical point of view’.
On a ‘case by case approach’, the manner in which each of us reacts in specific circumstances depends both on those circumstances and on our own interpretation of what’s going on. In fact, it’s our individual consciousness which makes things even more complicated than the situation described in the video above.

During most of our history, human social arrangements have closely resembled those of the chimpanzees. Alpha males have somehow managed to climb to the top of the food chain while the ‘laziness’ of the rest kicked in and allowed the alpha males to do more or less what they pleased.
Which had included a lot of unwarranted aggression.

Up to WWI, most wars had been started by aggressive rulers who had somehow convinced their followers to attack one or more of the neighbors. Which neighbors were also organized more or less like a chimpanzee troupe – ‘lazy and congenial people’ ruled by which ever alpha male was aggressive/cunning enough to remain in power.
These social arrangements had a very interesting consequence.
All conflict was between rulers and all wars were ‘turf wars’.
The belligerents were not attempting to out-kill each-other but to establish hierarchies. More prosaically, war was nothing but ‘protection racket’. The loser had to pay a certain amount of money to the winner – ‘war reparations’, surrender a piece of the ‘turf’ or both at the same time.

In time – due to particular circumstances, some of what are currently known as ‘nations’ have learned that ‘chimpanzee social order’ leads to unnecessary suffering and have (re)invented an alternative. A.k.a. democracy.

WW1 was the first major war which pitted authoritarian regimes against democratic ones.
Yes, humankind had already witnessed some wars which had been started by more or less democratically run countries – the British Empire had attacked the Boer Republics in South Africa, for example, only this is but a blog post, not a 500 page dissertation…
Unfortunately, the democracies which had won the WWI had behaved totally inappropriately… with dire consequences. For them, as well as for the rest of the world.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed a huge amount of war reparations upon the main loser. Germany.
Two consequences have arisen from here.

The obvious one was WWII. And almost nobody disputes this.
The less obvious one was that those war reparations had transformed war itself.

A democratically run coalition imposing war reparations upon a defeated and leaderless/dispirited population had transformed war from a dispute between rulers into a dispute between nations.

This was the ‘accelerant’ used by Hitler to start the second funeral pyre which had engulfed Europe…

Democratically run nations behaving inconsiderately towards other nations also established an immensely dangerous precedent.

The first example of which had occurred less than 20 years later in Spain.

 

It was Hegel who first noticed that how much of ‘something’ was available at some point in place and/or time was determining the evolution of things.
Later, Marx and Engels ‘hijacked’ the idea and then corrupted evolution into revolution but I’ll set aside that subject for the time being.

“It is said that there are no sudden changes in nature, and the common view has it that when we speak of a growth or a destruction, we always imagine a gradual growth or disappearance. Yet we have seen cases in which the alteration of existence involves not only a transition from one proportion to another, but also a transition, by a sudden leap, into a … qualitatively different thing; an interruption of a gradual process, differing qualitatively from the preceding, the former state”

Georg Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic

According to Ernst Mayr, evolution is a process which weeds out the misfits.
Which ascertains that at any given moment only those individuals/species who can survive the present conditions continue to enjoy life.
Regardless of who’s responsible for any changes in those conditions, of course…

And did I tell you that evolution is an impersonal process? Which has no goal, whatsoever?

We are currently witnessing an accumulation of heat on our Planet.
I’m not going to argue whether we are the main culprits or not. I don’t command any expertise in this domain, except that I know for a fact that increasing the relative content of CO2 in the atmosphere does increase the retention of heat by the aforementioned atmosphere.
I also know for a fact that we’ve burned in the last three centuries fossil fuels which had been accumulated during God only knows how many millennia. Releasing a huge amount of CO2 ‘in the aforementioned atmosphere’
Was it enough to raise the level of CO2 to the present figure? I don’t know… Volcanoes are another ‘prolific’ source for this fateful gas…

„Then why are you writing this post? Only to acknowledge your ignorance? Why should we bother?”

Dead saiga antelopes

Dead saiga antelopes in a field in Kazakhstan. About 20,000 of the species were found dead in one week. Photograph: Reuters

„The scientists on the ground pinpointed blood poisoning as the cause, but were puzzled as to why whole herds were dying so quickly. After 32 postmortems, they concluded the culprit was the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, which they believe normally lives harmlessly in the tonsils of some, if not all, of the antelopes. In a research paper published in January in Science Advances, Kock and colleagues contrasted the 2015 MME with the two from the 1980s. They concluded that a rise in temperature to 37C and an increase in humidity above 80% in the previous few days had stimulated the bacteria to pass into the bloodstream where it caused haemorrhagic septicaemia, or blood poisoning.”

You see, this post is indeed about ignorance.
We just don’t know what will happen if enough of something accumulates somewhere.
Until it does, of course.

And to find out we’ll need to survive the ‘happening’…

I keep hearing about this issue and I can’t stop wondering about how parallel to each other are those defending this idea with those denying its merits.

Pro:

-Robots are eating more and more jobs so more and more people will end up hungry.
-AI will make robots so productive that it will be far more efficient to use robots than human workers.
-A decent income is a human right.

Con:

-This is a socialist move, hence it will end up in failure – no other reason offered.

As it is obvious to all, both sides score big.

Yes, including ‘a decent income is a human right’ and ‘all socialist ideas end up in failure’.

Then what are they fighting each-other about?!?

Let me rephrase that.
WHY are they fighting, in the first place?

Because neither listen to what the other has to say… as simple as that…

Let me discuss some of the practicalities involved.

Robots eating up jobs and AI being able to continually increase financial efficiency are so evident that they do not deserve much consideration.

‘All socialist moves ended up in failure’.
We need to define socialism in order to make sense of this sentence.
Mainly because ‘socialism’ is one of the most abused words nowadays, on a par with liberalism. Sometimes they are even considered synonyms…
Well, ‘liberalism’ comes from liberty and  bona fide liberalism is concerned with individual freedom.
Socialism, on the other hand, comes from social. And is concerned with the the workings of the entire society.
The point being that there are two types of socialism. One which is ‘somewhat’ synonym with liberalism – the ‘reverse’ side of liberalism, actually, while the latter is the exact opposite.

I’m not making any sense?

Let me start from the other side.
All forms of socialism which have failed have been excessively centralized forms of government. And it was because of that excessive centralism that they had failed, not because of being ‘socialist’. The evident proof being that the same thing has happened with all right-wing dictatorships, which had used the very same excessively centralized decision making mechanism – the totalitarian government …

Which brings us back to the problem at hand.

For Universal Basic Income to work – or Guaranteed Basic Income, as some insist on calling it, it has to be financed.
Through taxes, right? Which means that those owning the robots would have to be somehow convinced to give up a huge proportion of their profits… Then why bother in the first place…? Why start any businesses, at all?
We’ll have the government run the whole show? Remember what history teaches us about centralized decision making?

So?!?

Well, not all is lost while there’s still hope!

Let me rearrange the arguments.

We not only live in an inherently limited space, with inherently limited resources, but we’ve also finally started to understand our predicament. Which calls for as much efficiency as possible.
Only for a different kind of efficiency than that we’ve accustomed ourselves to.

Until recently, we’ve been trying to get as much money under our belts as possible. Without much regard for anything else.
That’s why we’ve been cutting down secular forests, feeding almost all the fish we’ve been pulling from the oceans to the domestic animals we were raising for their meat, polluting our breathing air, selling our fellow humans which happened to had a different skin color than ours into slavery… As if there was no tomorrow…

Slowly, we’ve started to realize that this won’t work for very much longer.

That no matter whether we’re responsible for the global warming – or if it’s real at all, sooner or later we’ll exhaust the planet.
OK, it is highly plausible that we’ll discover/learn to use new classes of resources.
But this eventuality doesn’t constitute, in any way, a valid reason for us to continue squandering the meager resources we have at our disposal.

Hence the need for increased efficiency.

Only this has to be a different kind of efficiency. The kind that focuses on minimizing waste instead of maximizing profits. The kind that recycles because it makes obvious sense, not because it is cheaper.

Along the same path we’ll discover that it would make a lot of sense to help the less developed nations to catch up with the most advanced ones.
For starters, because the ‘advanced economies’ no longer need cheap workers. They use robots instead.
Secondly, because better living people tend to have less children than those struggling to survive. And we’ve already agreed about the planet being rather limited…

Nothing too fancy… until now, right?

Well, the next item will be trickier..

Remember that Ford had raised dramatically the wages he paid to his workers?
With tremendous results?

OK, his reasons were not the ones, generally but erroneously, attributed to him.
He didn’t do it to ‘encourage’ his workers to buy cars from him… or because of philanthropy…

Actually, it was the turnover of his staff.

At the time, workers could count on about $2.25 per day, for which they worked nine-hour shifts. It was pretty good money in those days, but the toll was too much for many to bear. Ford’s turnover rate was very high. In 1913, Ford hired more than 52,000 men to keep a workforce of only 14,000. New workers required a costly break-in period, making matters worse for the company. Also, some men simply walked away from the line to quit and look for a job elsewhere. Then the line stopped and production of cars halted. The increased cost and delayed production kept Ford from selling his cars at the low price he wanted. Drastic measures were necessary if he was to keep up this production.”

But, whatever Ford’s reasons were, the long term results have been abundantly clear.
Nowadays people who build cars are being paid well enough to afford buying the same kind of cars they are building. At least in the advanced economies…

What happened was that Ford, in order to keep the assembly line going, paid his workers as much as he afforded to. With spectacular results.
While nowadays most employers tend to ‘compensate’ their employees with as little as possible. Which makes perfect economic sense… doesn’t it?

The same economic sense which used to drive us into “cutting down secular forests, feeding almost all the fish we’ve been able to pull from the oceans to the domestic animals we were raising for their meat, polluting our breathing air, selling our fellow humans which happened to had a different skin color than ours into slavery… As if there was no tomorrow…”

See what I mean?
Instead of attempting to mandate a ‘Guaranteed Basic Income’, calculated by the central government and financed through forcefully levied taxes, how about hiring as many people as it would make sense, let them work as little days per week as they want and pay them as much as we can afford to instead of programmatically replacing as many of them with robots and paying the remaining ones as little as we possibly can?

OK, some of us won’t get as rich, as fast, as our grand-fathers did… So what? None of us can eat even close to what our grand-fathers used to… and food is a lot cheaper, anyway…

This is would be a considerably shorter way to get more people out of poverty than any scheme concocted by any government and it would have the same snow-ball effect as Ford’s wage increase had.

Economists describe this as Rostow’s ‘take off effect’.

 

For attaining adequate finance for take off it is necessary that:

(a) The community’s surplus over consumption does not flow into the hands of those who will utilize it by hoarding, luxury consumption or low productivity investment out-lays;

(b) Institution for providing cheap and adequate working capital be developed;

(c) One or more sectors of the economy must grow rapidly and the entrepreneurs in these sectors must plough back a substantial portion of their profits to productive investment; and

(d) Foreign capital can profitably be utilized for building up social and economic overheads.”

 

Obviously, any attempt to instate a guaranteed basic income, (except for those too young, too old or otherwise un-able to pull their weight, of course) would grind any ‘take-off’ to a stand-still.

And no, getting people out of poverty is not a valid goal, per se.
Poverty is a relative thing, which relies more  on feelings than on hard reality.
The real problem with poverty is that it reduces the ability of poor individuals to lead meaningful lives. Poor people are a lot less autonomous than self sufficient ones, meaning that decision making ability is impaired by the fact that they need to focus their attention on the short term time span.

This whole thing has long term consequences on societal level.

Remember what I said about centrally planned socialist countries constantly failing.
About all dictatorships eventually crumbling under their own weight, because of too much decision power being concentrated in too few hands?

Excessive wealth polarization produces the same results. Economic decision becomes too concentrated, political decision follows through and…

What next?
The world has already experimented with communism. Didn’t work.
It also experienced two economic meltdowns, exactly when wealth polarization was at relative peaks.

income-inequality-08

When are we going to learn anything from what happens to us?
Why do we continue to waste the accumulated lessons collectively known as ‘history‘?

 

Let me first clear up something.
I’m an engineer. Converted to sociology, indeed, but still an engineer.
So don’t expect any fancy wording or very sophisticated philosophical considerations!

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we’ve just arrived on this planet. Just ‘you and me’, not ‘us humans’.
Being sent by some alien civilization to see what’s going on here.
Like we, ‘the civilized people’, study the natives still living in the Amazonian forest – minimum contact and so on, no intention what-so-ever to invade the territory or any other-way purposely intervene in the natural evolution of things.

I don’t know about you, but my report would be something like this:

The most interesting aspect of the planet is the manner in which the intelligent inhabitants have evolved.
Those living in a relatively small and isolated corner of the landmass have somehow developed the most consequential culture and then imposed some very important aspects of it on most of the rest.

Even more baffling is the fact that all major religions observed on this planet start from the same tenet.

the golden rule

The only thing which singles out those who had managed to impose their culture on most the rest being that they apply the rule in a ‘pro-active’ manner.
‘Do unto others what you wish others to do unto you’ versus ‘do not do unto others what you don’t like being done unto you’. ‘Normative’ versus ‘preemptive’.

– Why are you so baffled about any of this? The universal law of evolution maintains that things which are not suitable enough for the environment where they happen to exist will eventually disappear… Each culture produces a certain civilization – modifies the environment according to its wishes/as a consequence of its mistakes, and the other cultures have to adapt/evolve to the new situation… nothing new or peculiar here…

– Nothing new, indeed, except for the fact that while most of the cultures on this planet learned to ‘live and let live’ – “do not do unto others…”, while the two most successful ones have adopted the slightly but very consequentially different “do unto others…”, a.k.a. ‘who’s not like us is against us’….

– Is there any explanation for the most aggressive attitude being the most successful one?
Until now, at least… considering that the two cultures which share the ‘do unto others what you wish to be done unto you’ attitude seem to ‘have worked themselves up’ into a rather ‘confrontational situation’… both intra and inter culturally…

– The only putative explanation I can come up with for such a divergent evolution is that Plato, the seminal intellectual figure of the ‘doers’, taught his followers not only that the world is knowable but also that he who has reached a learned state must, forcefully if necessary, lead his peers to the ‘light’ he had found while the ‘significant others’ believe that the learned ones should speak out, at their discretion, only when somebody asks them to.

.

.

– One more thing.
The immediate consequence of Plato’s teachings was that Alexander – an emperor who was tutored by Plato’s eminent student, Aristotle, had conquered most of the then civilized world only to die, untimely, a drunkard’s death… intoxicated by booze, intoxicated by power… who cares?

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