Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork

Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph.

But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.

A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse. To get from a local optimum to a global optimum, you might have to endure a significant trough of things going worse before you reach your destination. (Those troughs would be the points X=3.03 and X=5.02 on the graph.) If the troughs are short and shallow enough, people can accidentally power their way through. If long and deep enough, people get stuck.

The introduction of new technology, exposure to another culture’s solutions, or even random chance can expose a local optimum and propel a group to cross that trough.

For example, back in 1400, Europeans were perfectly happy to get their Chinese silks, spices, and porcelains via the overland Silk Road. But with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Silk Road became more fragmented and difficult (ie dangerous, ie expensive) to travel. The increased cost of the normal road prompted Europeans to start exploring other, less immediately profitable trade routes–like the possibility of sailing clear around the world, via the ocean, to the other side of China.

Without the eastern trade routes first diminishing in profitability, it wouldn’t have been economically viable to explore and develop the western routes. (With the discovery of the Americas, in the process, a happy accident.)

West Hunter (Greg Cochran) writes frequently about local optima; here’s an excerpt on plant domestication:

The reason that a few crops account for the great preponderance of modern agriculture is that a bird in the hand – an already-domesticated, already- optimized crop – feeds your family/makes money right now, while a potentially useful yet undomesticated crop doesn’t. One successful domestication tends to inhibit others that could flourish in the same niche. Several crops were domesticated in the eastern United States, but with the advent of maize and beans ( from Mesoamerica) most were abandoned. Maybe if those Amerindians had continued to selectively breed sumpweed for a few thousand years, it could have been a contender: but nobody is quite that stubborn.

Teosinte was an unpromising weed: it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to try to domesticate it, and it took a long time to turn it into something like modern maize. If someone had brought wheat to Mexico six thousand years ago, likely the locals would have dropped maize like a hot potato. But maize ultimately had advantages: it’s a C4 plant, while wheat is C3: maize yields can be much higher.

Teosinte is the ancestor of modern corn. Cochran’s point is that in the domestication game, wheat is a local optimum; given the wild ancestors of wheat and corn, you’d develop a better, more nutritious variety of wheat first and probably just abandon the corn. But if you didn’t have wheat and you just had corn, you’d keep at the corn–and in the end, get an even better plant.

(Of course, corn is a success story; plenty of people domesticated plants that actually weren’t very good just because that’s what they happened to have.)

Japan in 1850 was a culturally rich, pre-industrial, feudal society with a strong isolationist stance. In 1853, the Japanese discovered that the rest of the world’s industrial, military technology was now sufficiently advanced to pose a serious threat to Japanese sovereignty. Things immediately degenerated, culminating in the Boshin War (civil war, 1868-9,) but with the Meiji Restoration Japan embarked on an industrialization crash-course. By 1895, Japan had kicked China’s butt in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese population doubled–after holding steady for centuries–between 1873 and 1935. (From 35 to 70 million people.) By the 1930s, Japan was one of the world’s most formidable industrial powers, and today it remains an economic and technological powerhouse.

Clearly the Japanese people, in 1850, contained the untapped ability to build a much more complex and advanced society than the one they had, and it did not take much exposure to the outside world to precipitate a total economic and technological revolution.

Sequoyah’s syllabary, showing script and print forms

A similar case occurred in 1821 when Sequoyah, a Cherokee man, invented his own syllabary (syllable-based alphabet) after observing American soldiers reading letters. The Cherokee quickly adopted Sequoyah’s writing system–by 1825, the majority of Cherokee were literate and the Cherokee had their own printing industry. Interestingly, although some of the Cherokee letters look like Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic letters, there is no correspondence in sound, because Sequoyah could not read English. He developed his entire syllabary after simply being exposed to the idea of writing.

The idea of literacy has occurred independently only a few times in human history; the vast majority of people picked up alphabets from someone else. Our Alphabet comes from the Latins who got it from the Greeks who adopted it from the Phoenicians who got it from some proto-canaanite script writers, and even then literacy spread pretty slowly. The Cherokee, while not as technologically advanced as Europeans at the time, were already a nice agricultural society and clearly possessed the ability to become literate as soon as they were exposed to the idea.

When I walk around our cities, I often think about what their ruins will look like to explorers in a thousand years
We also pass a ruin of what once must have been a grand building. The walls are marked with logos from a Belgian University. This must have once been some scientific study centre of sorts.”

By contrast, there are many cases of people being exposed to or given a new technology but completely lacking the ability to functionally adopt, improve, or maintain it. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is full of ruined colonial-era buildings and roads built by outsiders that the locals haven’t maintained. Without the Belgians, the infrastructure has crumbled.

Likewise, contact between Europeans and groups like the Australian Aboriginees did not result in the Aboriginees adopting European technology nor a new and improved fusion of Aboriginee and European tech, but in total disaster for the Aboriginees. While the Japanese consistently top the charts in educational attainment, Aboriginee communities are still struggling with low literacy rates, high dropout rates, and low employment–the modern industrial economy, in short, has not been kind to them.

Along a completely different evolutionary pathway, cephalopods–squids, octopuses, and their tentacled ilk–are the world’s smartest invertebrates. This is pretty amazing, given that their nearest cousins are snails and clams. Yet cephalopod intelligence only goes so far. No one knows (yet) just how smart cephalopods are–squids in particular are difficult to work with in captivity because they are active hunter/swimmers and need a lot more space than the average aquarium can devote–but their brain power appears to be on the order of a dog’s.

After millions of years of evolution, cephalopods may represent the best nature can do–with an invertebrate. Throw in a backbone, and an animal can get a whole lot smarter.

And in chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy you have to put into a chemical system before a reaction can begin. Stable chemical systems essentially exist at local optima, and it can require the input of quite a lot of energy before you get any action out of them. For atoms, iron is the global–should we say universal?–optimum, beyond which reactions are endothermic rather than exothermic. In other words, nuclear fusion at the core of the sun ends with iron; elements heavier than iron can only be produced when stars explode.

So what do local optima have to do with diversity?

The current vogue for diversity (“Diversity is our greatest strength”) suggests that we can reach global optima faster by simply smushing everyone together and letting them compare notes. Scroll back to the Japanese case. Edo Japan had a nice culture, but it was also beset by frequent famines. Meiji Japan doubled its population. Giving everyone, right now, the same technology and culture would bring everyone up to the same level.

But you can’t tell from within if you are at a local or global optimum. That’s how they work. The Indians likely would have never developed corn had they been exposed to wheat early on, and subsequently Europeans would have never gotten to adopt corn, either. Good ideas can take a long time to refine and develop. Cultures can improve rapidly–even dramatically–by adopting each other’s good ideas, but they also need their own space and time to pursue their own paths, so that good but slowly developing ideas aren’t lost.

Which gets us back to Patchwork.


17 thoughts on “Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork

  1. So, years ago, I read nearly everything by Carl Sagan (he was still alive, but had written nearly everything he’d ever write)… Anyhow, I forget which it was, but in one of his lesser known books from the 70s, he talked about how, in order to evolve, it was probably necessary to have lots of subpopulations who didn’t really mix more than once every few generations (so as not to just become completely different species) basically for exactly the reasons mentioned here–too much mixing, and potentially useful mutations get swamped out.

    (I think one of the reasons his lesser-known books don’t get brought up more is that it becomes kind of too obvious how much an orthodoxy has developed in the last few decades. Orwell as instruction manual and all that…)


  2. Your comment on sailing around the world to bypass the Muslims reminded me of a passage in a book I read. I think it was “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk” by Peter L. Bernstein. If I remember correctly the Queen of England sent a ship to pick up spices, [pepper maybe], and made a 10,000% profit on the journey. Talk about profit!


    • Ah, yes, the spice trade. Terrible cost in human lives, though. I read a book about the quest for nutmeg, IIRC, and estimated the death toll on the ships around 75%. No wonder it cost so much when they got to port.


  3. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is full of ruined colonial-era buildings and roads built by outsiders that the locals haven’t maintained.

    I guess there is not a lot of enthusiasm for maintaining the roads and rails to exploit the natural resources when the overseers are gone.


  4. Diversity is valuable, and that’s why separating barriers need to be maintained.

    I’ve often wondered about the seeming correlation of history’s greatest cultural efflorescences with city-state patchworks. Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy, Romantic Germany.


      • I remember in high school reading about the golden age of Athens, and for the first time being struck by the dates and realizing just how short a time span it was. Meanwhile, I had teachers all insisting that learning dates was unimportant. (I mean, yeah, it can be meaningless, I suppose, but without dates, how would I grasp that almost all the things about a civilization that anyone cared about happened in about one lifetime? If everything is presented as a Dreamtime timeless concept, why should anyone worry about, well, anything? And, of course, when the “Dreamtime” idea was presented, there was a clear implication that it was better than our silly linear time… Never quite got that. And we weren’t learning about cyclical theories of history, either.)


      • Speaking of time :)
        Without dates, how do you know what order things happened in?
        I don’t remember specifically learning a lot of dates in history class, but information was presented in order… sort of. In retrospect, my knowledge of history is kludged together from a lot of different courses–an art course here, a literature course there, foreign language here, a textbook there… One thing we definitely did do was fill in a lot of maps. The teachers wanted to make sure we knew where the Danube was and things like that. I’m not sure if that’s better, but somehow I got it drilled into my head that both Germany and Italy didn’t really exist as coherent countries before the 1850s, which I still find vaguely amazing. (Roman Empire excepted, of course.)


      • I definitely had done a lot of reading on my own prior to my high school history class. In my schools, geography was never really taught (I made it to the state geography bee two different years, and aside from requiring a teacher at the school to make sure a bee happened, and parents who provided as many books as I wanted, I was entirely self-taught.)… So, yeah, dates weren’t really taught, and maps weren’t really taught… One of the books I got was a book of maps of the world through history, which is a really good way to develop some respect for Poland and Lithuania…

        As far as foreign language classes, looking back, I realized that a big difference between advanced German and French classes is that the latter give a much more thorough history overview, what with France being a more or less coherent country for over 1500 years.


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