Preamble to the next few posts: Homeostasis
I would like to take what may seem a rather strange tack and talk merely about homeostasis. I believe that this is justified, because at every level of organization, cellular, colony, multicellular organism, family…etc there is feedback from other organisms and the environment itself. If it were otherwise, then we would not have a class of things at that level, merely one thing. If, for instance, deer become numerous in the environment, then their predators will often make themselves more abundant and consume them, or they will overrun their food supply. To make it more convenient. I would like to take a rather broad and anthropomorphic view of homeostasis. I merely believe that it is easier to think of these feedback loops as ‘homeostatic’ because this is the human experience that we are more familiar with. I would like to make a rather simple analogy to people, and ask a relatively simple question, what is the ‘temperature’ of each of these levels of human organizations, and is it well tuned to keep them flourishing for the long term, or is it set ‘hypothermically cold,’ or ‘hyperthermically hot’. I think this question is important because it answers part of the meta-question that sits behind this blog i.e. ‘where should we invest our energy?’ If a given entity already has feedback mechanisms that are pushing it in a direction, then it may be worthwhile to augment, avoid, or push back on those mechanisms, depending on whether we believe that they are creating a positive effect. If some of the mechanisms that used to push the entity back toward balance no longer exist, then does something like them need to be recreated.
Unlike my small example above, I will work from large and slow moving institutions to fast and small institutions, and see what homeostatic mechanisms are in place. This is because the largest organisms often form the strata on which smaller, shorter lived, but more experimental organisms, thrive. I will start with our cultural/religious institutions, then work down to governments, and eventually to the entities where we spend the most of our time, our workplaces/families, and then for us as individuals.
I realize, before I set out, that I am going to be giving these organizations short shrift. If someone would like to give me a generous endowment to write more fully on these topics, and give them the space they deserve, then I would certainly entertain it. Failing that, please note that I will probably agree that I am often oversimplifying, and move on.
Our largest, and slowest moving institutions: Cultures, Religions
These are like the great trees in our forest of humanity. Though they seem to move at a tectonic pace, they are not the ‘ground.’ Before too many of you fault me, let me agree that these institutions themselves are a product, at least in part, of the places from which they spring, which are, in part a result of our particular arrangement of cratons on this particular planet, circling an average star on a regular arm of a barred spiral galaxy which itself is pretty normal. This is, quite literally, the ground, on which our institutions play out their scenes. While there is certainly feedback in this cosmic environment, it is beyond a scale that I can really effect, and it moves at such a slow pace, that I am not sure that it bears speaking about. I would only pause to take note of the previous five major extinctions on the planet earth, many were caused by large collisions/climate shifts, and say that this can cause a bias towards organisms that can rapidly spring back after this kind of event. This is, in itself, a bias, I admitted as much in this paragraph. The time/geographic scale of my life puts these cosmic institutions totally out of reach, though, like all powerful, and slow-moving large institutions they can affect the smaller seemingly-significant ones that take most of our attention. Very occasionally, they will move at a pace faster than we can adapt to. Like a large tree crashing in the forest, they can easily tear down smaller trees, crush small creatures, and uproot the vines that anchored themselves, these large movements in our humble neighborhood of the universe can dramatically affect us.
Back to the main point, the less catastrophic one. Where do our institutions come from? In a book that I have been reading by Francis Fukuyama, he mentions an old story about how our institutions are shaped by our geography, this is echoed by Jared Diamond, and a few others. They point to a few things, the long axis of Eurasia being east-west vs north south as in America/Africa/Oceania, thus allowing the transmission of technologies between large people groups in those areas without intervening climate barriers. More simply, it turns out that reindeer do not do well in the Sahara, and most milk cows do not do well north of South Africa on the African continent. They also point to the geographic boundaries that prevent/allow military conquest, the same one’s that people like Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Sun Tsu pointed to. It seems to be pretty difficult to have large movements of people in broken terrain, be it mountainous, swamp, or otherwise. This is a blessing and a curse, it’s pretty hard to be invaded, but it’s also hard to stitch together a unified society because travel is so difficult. There are not many mountain-societies that dominated the lowlands, or vice versa. The cultures that we seem to have are those of lowland/water people. Mesopotamia, Indus, Yangtze, and the coastal societies of the Mediterranean.
What do all of these societies have in common? Low transportation costs, less difficulty reproducing/growing food, time to store up goods and reproduce. This may all seem obvious, but if you are a Mongol on the Asiatic steppe, then your values are very different than this. Your horse eats a lot, so you need to move, everything you own must be in your yurt or in a cache somewhere, and you probably don’t have a lot of time for those who can’t keep up as they will slow down the whole clan. This can create institutions which are well suited to mobile warfare, and extracting resources rather than planting and growing them.
What then is the feedback for cultures? Do cultures remain relatively static in their environments, or do they change? As I already mentioned, there do seem to be interactions between cultures, even in prehistory. The Rosetta Stone, and the Silk Road are examples of this. Does this remain static? Are the silk road traders forever going to be well suited to moving the goods from East to West? I think this may be a good example. Having spent a year on the old southern branch of the Silk Road, I can attest that given the current alternatives for transporting goods from East to West, and back, that very few people would use the old Silk Road. The ‘road’ such as it was, was merely a series of disparate camel caravans. The modern road, pockmarked as it is from IED blasts, and generally falling into disrepair, would not be much better. What is left of the former silk-road culture of Afghanistan? The people are still an interesting mix of ethnicities, Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik, Pashtuns. Unfortunately, in the absence of a shared purpose, shared trade, or significant mixing, these cultures have fractured and turned in on themselves. The Afghan tribes have united to fight external threats from the British to the Soviets, to the Americans, but left to their own devices, they typically descend into internecine conflict. This is also somewhat similar to the Japanese experience. In the face of an external threat, Japan has often united, but when China has not been on the rise, it has been given to bouts of isolationism and internecine struggle as we saw in the Shogunate period. Christendom likewise United in the face of the Muslim advance, and during the crusades saw a great deal of its purpose as uniting against the occupation of the Holy Land, but after the conquest of the Holy Land, and their continual occupation for some time, Christendom fractured into the protestants and the Catholics, and decided to kill each other on a scale that has rarely been replicated during the 30 Years War.
All that is to say that while humanities largest institutions certainly butt up against one another, and people such as Samuel Huntington, see this as a Clash of Civilizations, it is also true that left to their own devices Religions and Cultures can turn in on themselves and deplete themselves through internal conflict.
So, for our largest institutions, there seem to be three forces that provide feedback, first the natural/physical forces which shape the world, second, the other cultures and religions that they press against, and finally in the absence of an ‘other’ they often turn in on themselves, depleting their own power.
When playing this extremely-long game, does it make sense to spend your effort, and even your life in support of a culture or a religion as modern Jihadists, Christians in the 30 Years War, and Hindu Nationalists have in Indian Independence movement? If the holy books of these institutions are to be believed, then there is literally nothing else of consequence. There are people who abandon other institutions for the sake of these large institutions. Here is a brief sample of those exempting themselves from the other institutions for the sake of this one:
- The ‘conscientious objector’ status of the Amish or Haredi Jews, refusing military/governmental service on the basis of their religion
- Monks refusing to work, preferring to live on the handouts of others.
- The Catholic priesthood refusing to take wives/families of their own to serve the institution instead
There are much less extreme versions of this, but people nonetheless dedicate a great portion of their lives to these big institutions. Bible college professors, or the faculty at the Confucius Institutes that China has been erecting around the globe are people who are nonetheless dedicated to these largest of human institutions. Most people would not ‘bat an eye’ at people who work in the service of these institutions at a slightly lower level. In fact, such participation is likely to be lauded by many people.
If there are three major ways that cultures and religions are changed or held in check, then the real question is whether we can aid or change those methods:
- To the physical forces that shape culture/religion. There is almost no way that I can think about changing this, and thereby and impacting culture. The tools required to reshape continents/weather/water are so large, and so expensive that it seems unlikely that any individual could amass this power. With the current cultural arrangement.
- To the clash-of-cultures homeostatic mechanism, there is a way that we can shape this. During times of cultural/religious institutional strife, the likelihood that an individual’s contributions would have much impact are minimal. Think back to the time just after 9/11, how much choice did the leaders of Western, nominally Christian, countries have? Think of all of the strife that Jacques Chirac got himself into for refusing to go into Iraq with the rest of the West, and essentially no one, not even Vladimir Putin, condemned the incursion in Afghanistan.Think back, as well, to the Cold War, how successful were politicians in, for instance India, at creating a ‘third way’ away from Communism or Capitalism?
- To the internecine conflict homeostatic mechanism, individuals can make an effect here, though the trip up to the levers of power may be long. Imagine the road to the top of a given Christian denomination, the road this is a career-long commitment.
To the meta-question of this blog. Should I (or indeed anyone with a similar perspective) invest anything into this level of institutions? I would like to approach this with an ‘expected value’ calculation. That is, I would like to multiply the size of the impact by the probability that I can make a difference. The size of the impact at this level is indeed large. The duration that the great major religions have lasted is measured in thousands of years, and the number of people that they touch is measured in billions. If you are to believe one of them to be true, then the impact may well be eternal. If this is true even on an individual scale, then almost nothing else matters, as anything multiplied by infinity is also infinite. We cannot even use infinite series mathematics to discount these values, as there is no logical reason to believe that a year 1.45×10^234, for example, will be any less likely/valuable than the present one.
You do not need to be certain that these are true to consider investing in this option. Even a small inclination that they may be true makes this option worth considering. A wager was made by Blaise Pascal about the existence of God is instructive here. He reasoned that if God existed and he committed his heart to Him, and live his life as though he did, but in the end he was incorrect, and God does not exist, then he have lost very little. On the other hand, if God does exist, and Pascal wagered that God did not, then he would have lost a great deal, indeed, all of eternity.
Pascal’s wager may be enough to consider this, and perhaps even enough to commit your life personally to this, but the issue I always had with it is that it never seemed to be the level of submission or belief that would be required for the base level of participation in the world’s religions. Additionally, though this was not really an issue for Pascal, if a modern person were to make this wager, then they would undoubtedly try to consider all of the world’s great religions, and most of them do not allow a lot of belief in others (the Ba’hai, and Hindus are the primary exceptions, to my knowledge), so there is a real possibility, that you may pick the wrong one.
Back to the secondary issue of expected value. If you believe that a religion is not in major conflict with another, and thus ripe for personal investment, and you believe that it will last for a great deal more time (i.e. the impact is high), then you must still believe that your personal impact on the religion/culture can be meaningful. This creates another layer of complication revolving around the commitment of a person to the religion they are espousing. It seems seems unlikely that the level of commitment that someone taking Pascal’s wager seriously would make much of a difference in the religion or culture. Could we imagine a pope saying, in Latin, naturally, that:
My people, I am here largely because I made a reasonable calculation that this would make an impact on the world, and I am wagering that God exists, and further wagering that what I am hearing is more than the voice in my head, so please follow this new papal bull, and make similar wagers…
A speech like that would undoubtedly raise people from their chairs, not for applause, but to sack the College of Cardinals that elected such a pontiff. I suspect that there are people who could move from this position primarily of doubt to one of true and earnest belief, but still I suspect that these people are unlikely to make a large course-change in the religion that they are attempting to change.
In any case, I don’t need to answer this in the general case, but in the specific. I do not believe that I would be able to have the prophetic or messianic zeal, required to make a lasting dent in the course of a religion. I certainly don’t have the fervor of a Christ, Mohammed, or even a ‘minor’ apostle.
I realize that I started out talking about both culture and religion, and then ended speaking primarily about religion. Let me briefly speak about culture. I concede that cultures, or the agglomeration of traditions, preferences, and methods of doing things, that are collectively known as a culture can be nearly as large as a religion in terms of people, Western culture can be measured in billions of adherents, as can Eastern or Sub-Continental. If you just paused and said ‘wait, didn’t you just lump together a lot of really different people groups’, then I am with you. Cultures often defy easy categorization, and their adherents often do not even think of themselves as members of a given culture. Their diffuse natures make them very difficult to try to lead to much of anywhere. To parallel an old question, ‘Who do I call if I want to reach Europe’, ‘Who do I call if I want to reach the Western world?’ Though they operate at the same scale and have similar longevity to religions, it’s not easy to make a lasting impact on a culture. Perhaps, at least, that is true for me. I don’t live somewhere easily identified as being in the ‘core’ of many cultural groups, and being located in a relatively small city in one of the most sparsely populated countries on the face of the Earth, I think that I am unlikely to be able to affect much change in this arena. Even those who may think of themselves as something of cultural mavens, are unlikely to have an impact beyond a few decades. I am thinking here, of the cultural ‘rock star’s’ both literal and figurative, that we look to. One of the blog posts that I love looking at is a post called Horizontal History, not only does it make me feel small, but it quickly reminds me how small I am as an individual, and highlights how quickly my knowledge of pretty famous people is limited. In very short order, they need to start counting by decades, and even with that handicap I quickly start recognizing names, but have no idea what these people did. Certainly, I don’t need to know who first created the Mistletoe to enjoy the tradition, but it seems like a reasonably good heuristic (in the absence of any others) for how much of a difference one individual can make in this realm.
Let me wrap up this section by saying that in the right circumstances, it seems possible to impact these largest of human institutions positively, but the type of commitments required to make any impact on a religion are likely beyond my personal capacity without sacrificing other commitments and developing a zeal that I do not presently possess for them. My ability to influence a culture is perhaps larger, but it is difficult to know because of their non-hierarchical nature, and because of my pretty minor position within society. I would like to create a standardized ‘impact size’ and ‘can I personally make a difference scale.’ To start this with religions/cultures is especially difficult, I have to predict the population centuries into the future, the ongoing existence of these institutions, etc. I have tried to create such a metric, but my calculations here will have a large margin of error.
Of the two, I think it a bit easier to invest in a culture, but the impact is likely commensurate with the cost/energy. Perhaps the question to explore here is how to maximize the impact of my relatively small contributions. I was going to write this article about how Vladimir Putin views the world as it stands. Perhaps I will use it, and a similar article that I was thinking about writing as an experiment for how many minds I can change. Perhaps I should actually build that into the article in the form of a questionnaire. Any suggestions on how to do that would be welcome.
Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.
Interesting Stuff I have read since the last post
- I gave a workshop at MEAFA (Methodological and Empirical Advances in Financial Analysis) on the use of BigQuery, R, and Cloud Datalab for datasets of greater than 100Mb, the worksheet is here
- Great podcast about someone who makes $10k-$30k off of fake news
- I, and a team of ~25 Googlers I cobbled together, raised $60K from Googlers to help refugees who are looking to create jobs/small businesses in Sydney, story. My observation is that while it may be strictly more rational for people to donate $8K and save a life through bednets that based on the performance of the other charities we supported, people would not have given as much. I think the question Effective Altruists/Givewell ask is not applicable. Whether we can get people to ask the question ‘what would by the highest good for my donated dollar’ is a question that also relates to funding…I would love to know what the ‘conversion rate’ is on getting people to ask that question. In theory for Effective altruism to make sense the following must hold:
- (Marginal impact of new charity)*(Amount Given)-(cost of conversion for asking the ‘right’ question)>=(Marginal impact of original charity)*(Amount Given)
- As if on tap, this interesting podcast from Sam Harris came up about why empathy makes it hard to make the right decisions in giving
- As if further on queue, the Open Philanthropy Project created this post about worldview diversification. It goes well with my Chaos post.
- This was a great, if tragic, story from this American Life about how we have let down those who served with us.
- I love how Australia gives everyone a breakdown of exactly how your taxes are spent, see here
- Awesome tool (free) for visualizing multidimensional data that we just opened up to the public
- Greenthread: Great company run by a friend of mine. Good quality men’s shirts, delivered.
- The best Podcasts I can find are here as an OPML and a backup file (if you use PodCast Addict as I do) I’ll do my best to keep it up to-date.
- This is simply hilarious, and worth 9 min of your life for a laugh
- Interesting article, with good links about how you might change someone’s mind
- Another of Hans Rosling’s great talks about population and health in the last 200 years
- One of the more interesting videos I have seen about bacterial mutation
- Very interesting site that provides both crowdsourced and algorithmic categorization of the news by left, center, and right. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely US domestic focused
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life: an interesting book about the microbes we live with