Mitochondrial Memes (part 1: Logos)

In the beginning, there was the Word.


On the molecular level, you are a braid in spacetime, a homeostatic system bringing in energy and nutrients, building cells, removing wastes, and up- or down-regulating processes as necessary to keep you properly warm, rested, and healthy. Homeostatic malfunction leads to chaos: death.

from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen
from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen

Your children are physical continuations of yourself. Your family, your community, businesses, your nation, and possibly the entire Earth itself are homeostatic. They live and they can die.

Thought is still a tricky matter. We don’t know, exactly, how we get from neurons lighting up in the brain to conscious thoughts, feelings, and desires. We know, for example, which parts of the brain control desire, but we don’t know how, exactly, you end up dreaming about a square of carefully crafted dark chocolate.

Nevertheless, we know that thoughts originate here, in our brains. Our ideas are the physical manifestations of the particular state of our neurons–a particular experience of a particular point in our journey through our spacetime braid. But unlike, say, the particular arrangement of molecules in my stomach, which I cannot convey to you, I can convey to you my ideas. And if it takes a certain configuration of active neurons in my head for me to experience a thought, then it takes another, probably similar configuration of active neurons in your head.

Conversation–understanding of each other–requires sharing each other’s brain states; our brains physically repeat each other’s patterns. Ideas create brain states; brain states create ideas.

The natural world => stimulus => neural activation => ideas => physical encoding => stimulus => neural activation => action => changes in the physical world.

Ideas are created by and create in turn the physical world.

Different physical environments favor the propagation of different kinds of ideas.

Part 2: Aliens Within

Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 8O And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.


How to decrease defection and encourage cooperation?

As I was saying yesterday, functional societies are places where people cooperate rather than defect (prisoner’s dilemma style), but now people are trying to advance their own personal interests by accusing others of defecting–that is, in effect, defecting against them. Our particular class and racial dynamics have exacerbated–or perhaps caused–this dynamic.

So how to change things? A few thoughts:

1. Government has the most obvious power to curb defection and increase cooperation, and indeed, this should probably be thought of as one of the prime functions of government. All societies require cooperation merely to exist, and more cooperation => more society.

Libertarianism has many fine points in its theory, but it deals poorly with multipolar traps. In cases where someone can profit themselves by being a free rider (defecting,) chances are they will–and they will pass on this advantage to their children, until you have a nation of cheaters. I remember an example from my own school days: A group of farmers gets together one year to higher a crop-dusting plane, and they all enjoy a larger harvest as a result. But the next year, the guy with the field in the middle of the area being dusted decides not to pay in. His field gets dusted anyway, just because it’s impossible not to dust it in the process, and so he gets all of the rewards of crop dusting without paying the price.

The government effectively solves this problem by eliminating the possibility of being a free rider. Everyone now has to pay a tax that goes to hire the annual crop-dusting plane, and you must pay your taxes or go to jail.

2. The vague–or not so vague!–sense that others are defecting while you are cooperating may just be instinctual. Therefore, it is probably in the interests of any government to put in place some kind of measures to make sure people aren’t defecting and to reassure people about this.

However, it is critical that such systems not get turned into further vehicles for defection.

For example, many (if not most) of the lawsuits corporations lodge against each other are totally bogus and exist for the sole purposes of A. inconveniencing the opposition and B. benefiting the lawyers. Millions upon million of dollars and hours of human labor are poured each year into activities that only serve to mutually weaken corporations.

In lawsuits over patents that actually get all the way to court, to give a sub-example, it is extremely common for the patent itself to simply get thrown out on the grounds that it is a bad patent that should have never been granted. (I’ve seen estimates between 25% and 77%.) In many of these lawsuits, a company will just scatter-shot sue a dozen or two different companies all at once over a clearly bogus patent, in the hopes that the sued companies will cut their losses and settle out of court. There are even businesses whose entire model is just to buy crappy old patents companies don’t want anymore before they expire and then sue everyone in sight. It’s called “patent trolling.”

Assuming we want patents to keep existing, then people have to be able to sue others for infringement, but patent trolls need to be shut down. The obvious solution here is to identify patterns of patent troll behavior and then punish the trolls for it. First, once a lawsuit has been filed, don’t allow the parties to settle out of court. They must go before the judge/jury. Second, companies that lose due to patent invalidation must pay the sued-party’s legal costs.

I could go on, but people who are actually trained in legal matters can do a far better job of recommending fixes to the patent system than I.

To make another example: there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether or not the police are killing and imprisoning black people at higher rates than whites. The police should be (and be perceived as) trustworthy. This is a matter that the government should solve–figure out who is actually doing the defecting, publicize the results, and then do some trust-building between the police and their communities.

3. If white Yale professors think Yale needs fewer white professors and more black ones, the easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are not defecting against other white professors (who might otherwise receive those spots) is to give up their own professorships in order to make room for black candidates. Alternatively, they could just give up their paychecks to provide funding for the new positions.

4. People seem most willing to cooperate when they are all ethnically similar. Not only are they surrounded by people who are obviously behaving the same as they are, thus reducing concern about misbehavior, they have a genetic interest in cooperating. Defecting against your children or your siblings is a bad strategy in the genetic sense, because fewer copies of your genes end up existing, so people who defect against their own families tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving behind people who are good at cooperating with their kin.

Japan is an example of a society that is extremely ethnically homogenous. Just look at their little section in the graph at the top of the blog! (They’re on the far right.) Compare the smooth transition from yellow to cream with the jagged lines of the Uzbeks or the Bedouins. And the spirit of public-minded cooperation in Japan is extremely strong. The Japanese are clean, helpful, polite, and commit vanishingly little crime.

By contrast, high levels of ethnic diversity are correlated with high levels of violence, civil war, etc. in countries. There are a few exceptions to this rule, in countries that are so shitty that no one wants to move there, like Haiti. But in general, where people see themselves as ethnically different from their neighbors, they tend to defect on their neighbors.

Hartshorn ran a computer simulation of ethnic cooperation and defection strategies, with colored tiles on a board randomly assigned to cooperate or defect with tiles of their own color and to cooperate or defect with tiles of different colors. (4 different strategies in all.) In every simulation, the tiles that cooperated with their own colors and defected on other colors eventually took over the entire board.

So if two ethnic groups are living in close proximity, there’s a good chance that A. one or both of them will in fact be defecting, B. The group that defects more will actually benefit itself at the expense of the other, thus “winning”; and C. that both groups will become hyper paranoid about watching the other group for possibilities of defection, even if it isn’t happening. This is how wars get started.

The obvious answer to ethnic conflict is don’t have ethnic conflict. Only let people into your country who you would be willing to marry (in the hypothetical sense, not the literal,) and in such numbers that you can absorb them. You might also be able to let in people who are similar enough in behavior that you don’t really notice that they are ethnically different–for example, the Mormons are polytheists who tend to marry other Mormons, but they are generally polite, clean, hardworking, and easy enough to get along with. You could live next door to a Mormon and never even notice.

If the groups in a country do not effectively merge, you end up with two separate groups in one nation, which more often than not results in a bunch of people living in ghettos, and then you are very likely to fall into the mutual-defection trap. If having two (or more) separate groups in your country is inevitable (say, because they’re already there,) then I see two possibilities: A. try very hard to get everyone to think of each other as brothers and sisters in a metaphorical sense, perhaps through national holidays or forced conscription; or B. Give each group a bit of space so that they have fewer opportunities to defect on each other, and don’t set up systems that make people think defection is happening. Letting the Mormons live in Utah, for example, solved the problem of everyone thinking Mormons were weirdos back in the 1800s; letting the Amish be basically self-contained keeps them from getting into too much conflict with their neighbors today. (I think. I don’t have much experience with the Amish.)

Federalism was thought up as a way to let different people in different places effectively manage their own affairs. This system requires, however, that people actually abide by it. If we all agree that each community can educate its own children as it sees fit, and then one community decides it doesn’t have enough money for its schools, then the other communities have to be able to withstand the pressure to bail it out. Once you start bailing out other communities, they aren’t independent communities anymore but your wards, and they have to start abiding by your rules just as children obey their parents, or else we’re back to defection.

(Obviously helping each other out in times of environmental emergency may be perfectly reasonable.)


Homeostasis, personality, and life (part 2)

Warning: This post may get a little fuzzy, due to discussion of things like personality, psychology, and philosophy.

Yesterday we discussed homeostatic systems for normal organism/organization maintenance and defense, as well as pathological malfunctions of over or under-response from the homeostatic systems.

But humans are not mere action-reaction systems; they have qualia, an inner experience of being.

One of my themes here is the idea that various psychological traits, like anxiety, guilt, depression, or disgust, might not be just random things we feel, but exist for evolutionary reasons. Each of these emotions, when experienced moderately, may have beneficial effects. Guilt (and its cousin, shame,) helps us maintain our social relationships with other people, aiding in the maintenance of large societies. Disgust protects us from disease and helps direct sexual interest at one’s spouse, rather than random people. Anxiety helps people pay attention to crucial, important details, and mild depression may help people concentrate, stay out of trouble, or–very speculatively–have helped our ancestors hibernate during the winter.

In excess, each of these traits is damaging, but a shortage of each trait may also be harmful.

I have commented before on the remarkable statistic that 25% of women are on anti-depressants, and if we exclude women over 60 (and below 20,) the number of women with an “anxiety disorder” jumps over 30%.

The idea that a full quarter of us are actually mentally ill is simply staggering. I see three potential causes for the statistic:

  1. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants willy-nilly to everyone who asks, whether they’re actually depressed or not;
  2. Something about modern life is making people especially depressed and anxious;
  3. Mental illnesses are side effects of common, beneficial conditions (similar to how sickle cell anemia is a side effect of protection from malaria.)

As you probably already know, sickle cell anemia is a genetic mutation that protects carriers from malaria. Imagine a population where 100% of people are sickle cell carriers–that is, they have one mutated gene, and one regular gene. The next generation in this population will be roughly 25% people who have two regular genes (and so die of malaria,) 50% of people who have one sickle cell and one regular gene (and so are protected,) and 25% of people will have two sickle cell genes and so die of sickle cell anemia. (I’m sure this is a very simplified scenario.)

So I consider it technically possible for 25% of people to suffer a pathological genetic condition, but unlikely–malaria is a particularly ruthless killer compared to being too cheerful.

Skipping to the point, I think there’s a little of all three going on. Each of us probably has some kind of personality “set point” that is basically determined by some combination of genetics, environmental assaults, and childhood experiences. People deviate from their set points due to random stuff that happens in their lives, (job promotions, visits from friends, car accidents, etc.,) but the way they respond to adversity and the mood they tend to return to afterwards is largely determined by their “set point.” This is all a fancy way of saying that people have personalities.

The influence of random chance on these genetic/environmental factors suggests that there should be variation in people’s emotional set points–we should see that some people are more prone to anxiety, some less prone, and some of average anxiousness.

Please note that this is a statistical should, in the same sense that, “If people are exposed to asbestos, some of them should get cancer,” not a moral should, as in, “If someone gives you a gift, you should send a thank-you note.”

Natural variation in a trait does not automatically imply pathology, but being more anxious or depressive or guilt-ridden than others can be highly unpleasant. I see nothing wrong, a priori, with people doing things that make their lives more pleasant and manageable (and don’t hurt others); this is, after all, why I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning. If you are a better, happier, more productive person with medication (or without it,) then carry on; this post is not intended as a critique of anyone’s personal mental health management, nor a suggestion for how to take care of your mental health.

Our medical/psychological health system, however, operates on the assumption that medications are for pathologies only. There is not form to fill out that says, “Patient would like anti-anxiety drugs in order to live a fuller, more productive life.”

That said, all of these emotions are obviously responses to actual stuff that happens in real life, and if 25% of women are coming down with depression or anxiety disorders, I think we should critically examine whether anxiety and depression are really the disease we need to be treating, or the body’s responses to some external threat.

I am reminded here of Peter Frost’s On the Adaptive Value of “Aw Shucks:

In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).

If more women enter the workforce–either because they think they ought to or because circumstances force them to–and the workforce triggers depression, then as the percent of women formally employed goes up, we should see a parallel rise in mental illness rates among women. Just as Adderal and Ritalin help little boys conform to the requirements of modern classrooms, Prozac and Lithium help women cope with the stress of employment.

As we discussed yesterday, fever is not a disease, but part of your body’s system for re-asserting homeostasis by killing disease microbes and making it more difficult for them to reproduce. Extreme fevers are an over-reaction and can kill you, but a normal fever below 104 degrees or so is merely unpleasant and should be allowed to do its work of making you better. Treating a normal fever (trying to lower it) interferes with the body’s ability to fight the disease and results in longer sicknesses.

Likewise, these sorts of emotions, while definitely unpleasant, may serve some real purpose.

We humans are social beings (and political animals.) We do not exist on our own; historically, loneliness was not merely unpleasant, but a death sentence. Humans everywhere live in communities and depend on each other for survival. Without refrigeration or modern storage methods, saving food was difficult. (Unless you were an Eskimo.) If you managed to kill a deer while on your own, chances are you couldn’t eat it all before it began to rot, and then your chances of killing another deer before you started getting seriously hungry were low. But if you share your deer with your tribesmates, none of the deer goes to waste, and if they share their deer with yours, you are far less likely to go hungry.

If you end up alienated from the rest of your tribe, there’s a good chance you’ll die. It doesn’t matter if they were wrong and you were right; it doesn’t matter if they were jerks and you were the nicest person ever. If you can’t depend on them for food (and mates!) you’re dead. This is when your emotions kick in.

People complain a lot that emotions are irrational. Yes, they are. They’re probably supposed to be. There is nothing “logical” or “rational” about feeling bad because someone is mad at you over something they did wrong! And yet it happens. Not because it is logical, but because being part of the tribe is more important than who did what to whom. Your emotions exist to keep you alive, not to prove rightness or wrongness.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Men and women have been subject to different evolutionary pressures, for example. But this is close enough for the purposes of the current conversation.

If modern people are coming down with mental illnesses at astonishing rates, then maybe there is something about modern life that is making people ill. If so, treating the symptoms may make life more bearable for people while they are subject to the disease, but still does not fundamentally address whatever it is that is making them sick in the first place.

It is my own opinion that modern life is pathological, not (in most cases,) people’s reactions to it. Modern life is pathological because it is new and therefore you aren’t adapted to it. Your ancestors have probably only lived in cities of millions of people for a few generations at most (chances are good that at least one of your great-grandparents was a farmer, if not all of them.) Naturescapes are calming and peaceful; cities noisy, crowded, and full of pollution. There is some reason why schizophrenics are found in cities and not on farms. This doesn’t mean that we should just throw out cities, but it does mean we should be thoughtful about them and their effects.

People seem to do best, emotionally, when they have the support of their kin, some degree of ethnic or national pride, economic and physical security, attend religious services, and avoid crowded cities. (Here I am, an atheist, recommending church for people.) The knowledge you are at peace with your tribe and your tribe has your back seems almost entirely absent from most people’s modern lives; instead, people are increasingly pushed into environments where they have no tribe and most people they encounter in daily life have no connection to them. Indeed, tribalism and city living don’t seem to get along very well.

To return to healthy lives, we may need to re-think the details of modernity.


Philosophically and politically, I am a great believer in moderation and virtue as the ethical, conscious application of homeostatic systems to the self and to organizations that exist for the sake of humans. Please understand that this is not moderation in the conventional sense of “sometimes I like the Republicans and sometimes I like the Democrats,” but the self-moderation necessary for bodily homeostasis reflected at the social/organizational/national level.

For example, I have posted a bit on the dangers of mass immigration, but this is not a call to close the borders and allow no one in. Rather, I suspect that there is an optimal amount–and kind–of immigration that benefits a community (and this optimal quantity will depend on various features of the community itself, like size and resources.) Thus, each community should aim for its optimal level. But since virtually no one–certainly no one in a position of influence–advocates for zero immigration, I don’t devote much time to writing against it; it is only mass immigration that is getting pushed on us, and thus mass immigration that I respond to.

Similarly, there is probably an optimal level of communal genetic diversity. Too low, and inbreeding results. Too high, and fetuses miscarry due to incompatible genes. (Rh- mothers have difficulty carrying Rh+ fetuses, for example, because their immune systems identify the fetus’s blood as foreign and therefore attack it, killing the fetus.) As in agriculture, monocultures are at great risk of getting wiped out by disease; genetic heterogeneity helps ensure that some members of a population can survive a plague. Homogeneity helps people get along with their neighbors, but too much may lead to everyone thinking through problems in similar ways. New ideas and novel ways of attacking problems often come from people who are outliers in some way, including genetics.

There is a lot of talk ’round these parts that basically blames all the crimes of modern civilization on females. Obviously I have a certain bias against such arguments–I of course prefer to believe that women are superbly competent at all things, though I do not wish to stake the functioning of civilization on that assumption. If women are good at math, they will do math; if they are good at leading, they will lead. A society that tries to force women into professions they are not inclined to is out of kilter; likewise, so is a society where women are forced out of fields they are good at. Ultimately, I care about my doctor’s competence, not their gender.

In a properly balanced society, male and female personalities complement each other, contributing to the group’s long-term survival.

Women are not accidents of nature; they are as they are because their personalities succeeded where women with different personalities did not. Women have a strong urge to be compassionate and nurturing toward others, maintain social relations, and care for those in need of help. These instincts have, for thousands of years, helped keep their families alive.

When the masculine element becomes too strong, society becomes too aggressive. Crime goes up; unwinable wars are waged; people are left to die. When the feminine element becomes too strong, society becomes too passive; invasions go unresisted; welfare spending becomes unsustainable. Society can’t solve this problem by continuing to give both sides everything they want, (this is likely to be economically disastrous,) but must actually find a way to direct them and curb their excesses.

I remember an article on the now-defunct neuropolitics (now that I think of it, the Wayback Machine probably has it somewhere,) on an experiment where groups with varying numbers of ‘liberals” and “conservatives” had to work together to accomplish tasks. The “conservatives” tended to solve their problems by creating hierarchies that organized their labor, with the leader/s giving everyone specific tasks. The “liberals” solved their problems by incorporating new members until they had enough people to solve specific tasks. The groups that performed best, overall, were those that had a mix of ideologies, allowing them to both make hierarchical structures to organize their labor and incorporate new members when needed. I don’t remember much else of the article, nor did I read the original study, so I don’t know what exactly the tasks were, or how reliable this study really was, but the basic idea of it is appealing: organize when necessary; form alliances when necessary. A good leader recognizes the skills of different people in their group and uses their authority to direct the best use of these skills.

Our current society greatly lacks in this kind of coherent, organizing direction. Most communities have very little in the way of leadership–moral, spiritual, philosophical, or material–and our society seems constantly intent on attacking and tearing down any kind of hierarchies, even those based on pure skill and competence. Likewise, much of what passes for “leadership” is people demanding that you do what they say, not demonstrating any kind of competence. But when we do find competent leaders, we would do well to let them lead.

Back to part one.

The Homeostasis theory of disease, personality, and life

Disease is the enemy of civilization. Wherever civilization arises, so does disease; many of our greatest triumphs have been the defeat of disease.

Homeostasis is the idea that certain systems are designed to self-correct when things go wrong–for example, when you get hot, you sweat; when you get cold, you shiver. Both actions represent your body’s natural, automatic process for keeping your body temperature within a proper range.

All living things are homeostatic systems, otherwise they could not control the effects of entropy and would fall apart. (When this happens, we call it death):

from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen
from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen

Non-living things, like robots and corporations, can also be homeostatic–by hiring new employees when old ones leave, or correcting themselves when they start to fall:

Like organisms, organizations that are not homeostatic will tend to fall apart.

For this post, we will consider four important forms of homeostasis:

  1. Normal homeostasis: the normal feedback loops that keep the body (or organization) in its normal state under normal conditions.
  2. Defensive homeostasis: feedback loops that are activated to defend the body against severe harm, such as disease, and reassert normal homeostasis.
  3. Inadequate homeostasis: a body that cannot maintain or reassert normal homeostasis.
  4. Over-aggressive homeostasis: an excessive defensive response that harms the self.

Normal Homeostasis

Normal homeostasis creates (and depends on) moderate, temperate behavior. Mundanely, when you have not eaten in a while, you grow hungry and so eat; when you have had enough, you feel satiated and so cease. When you have not slept in a long while, you grow tired and head to bed; when you have slept enough, you wake.

Obesity and starvation are both symptoms of normal homeostasis not operating as it should. They can be caused by environmental disorder (eg, crop failures,)  or internal disorders, (pituitary tumors can cause weight gain,) or even just the individual’s psyche (stress renders some people unable to eat, while others cope with chocolate.)

If your body is forced out of its normal homeostatic rhythms, things begin to degenerate. After too long without sleep, (perhaps due to too many final exams, an all-night TV binge, or too many 5-hour energy drinks,) your body loses its ability to thermo-regulate; the hungry, cold, and malnourished lose their ability to fend off disease and succumb to pneumonia. Even something as obviously beneficial as hygiene can go too far–too much washing deprives the skin of its natural, protective layer of oils and beneficial microbes, leaving it open to invasion and colonization by other, less friendly microbes, like skin-eating fungi. Most of this seems obvious, but it took people a rather long time to figure out things like, “eating a 100% corn diet is bad for you.”

A body that is not in tune quickly degrades and becomes easy prey to sickness and disease; thus moderation is upheld as a great virtue and excesses as vice. A body that is properly in tune–balanced in diet, temperate in consumption, given enough exercise and rest, and nourished socially and morally–is a body that is strong, healthy, and able to deal with most of life’s vicissitudes.

(Gut bacteria are an interesting case of normal homeostasis in action. Antibiotics, while obviously beneficial in many cases, also kill much of the body’s natural gut bacteria, leading to a variety of unpleasant side effects [mostly diarrhea,] showing that too little gut bacteria is problematic. But the idea that our gut bacteria are entirely harmless is probably an over-simplification; while being effectively “along for the ride” means that their interests align roughly with ours, that is no guarantee that they will always be well-behaved. Too much gut bacteria may also be a problem. One theory I have read on why people need to sleep–and why we feel cruddy when we haven’t slept–is that our gut bacteria tend to be active during the day, which produces waste, and the buildup of bacterial waste in your bloodstream makes you feel bad. While you sleep, your body temperature drops, slowing down the bacteria and giving you a chance to clean out your systems.)

The homeostasis theory of disease–the idea that an unbalanced body loses its ability to fend off diseases and so becomes ill–should not be seen as competing with the Germ Theory of Disease, but complementing it. Intellectually, HTD has been around for a long time, informing the Greek medical treatises on the “four humours,” traditional Chinese medical ideas of the effects of “hot” and “cold” food, the general principle of Yin and Yang, many primitive notions of magic, and modern notions about probiotics. HTD has led to some obviously (in retrospect) bad ideas, like bleeding patients or eating things that aren’t particularly non-toxic. But it has also led to plenty of decent ideas, like that you should eat a “balanced” diet, enjoy life’s pleasures in moderation, or that cholera sufferers should be given lots of water.

Defensive Homeostasis

Defensive homeostasis is an extreme version of normal homeostasis. Your body is always defending itself against pathogens and injuries, but some assaults are more noticeable than others.

One of the most miserable sicknesses I have endured happened after eating raw vegetables while on vacation; I had washed them, but obviously not enough. Not only my stomach hurt, but every part of me; even my skin hurt. My body, reasoning that something was deeply wrong, did its very mighty best to eliminate any ingested toxins by every route available, profuse sweat and tears included.

Luckily, it was all over by morning, and I was left with a deep gratitude toward my body for the steps it had taken–however extreme–to make me well again.

it is important to distinguish between the effects of sickness and the effects of the homeostatic system attempting to cure itself. This is a crucial mistake people make all the time. In my case, the sickness made me feel ill by flooding my body with pathogens and their resultant toxins. The vomiting felt awful, but the vomiting was not the sickness; vomiting was my body’s attempt to rid itself of  the pathogens. Taking steps to prevent the vomiting, say, by taking an anti-nausea medication, would have let the pathogens remain inside of me, doing more harm.

(Of course, it is crucial to make sure that a vomiting person does not become dehydrated.)

To use a more general example, fevers are your body’s way of killing viruses and slowing their reproduction–just as we kill microbes by cooking our food. Fevers feel unpleasant, but they are not diseases. Using medication to lower mild fevers may actually increase [PDF] mortality by interfering with the body’s ability to kill the disease. Quoting from the PDF:

“…children with chickenpox who are treated with acetaminophen have been shown to have a longer time to total crusting of lesions than do placebo-treated control subjects [15]. In addition, adults with rhinovirus infections exhibit a longer duration of viral shedding and increased nasal signs and symptoms when treated with antipyretic medications [16].”

Additionally, artificially depressing how sick you feel increases the likelihood of getting out of bed and moving around, which in turn increases the likelihood of spreading your sickness to other people.

Fevers of 105 degrees F or above are excessive and do have the potential to harm you, and should be treated. But a fever of 102 should be allowed to do its work.

Likewise, in the case of cholera, the most effective treatment is to keep the sufferer hydrated (or re-hydrate them) until their body can wipe out the disease. (Cholera basically makes you lose all of your bodily fluids and die of dehydration.) It is easy to underestimate just how much water the sufferer has lost; according to Wikipedia, “Ten percent of a person’s body weight in fluid may need to be given in the first two to four hours.[12]” Keep in mind the need to replenish potassium levels while you re-hydrate; if you don’t have any special re-hydration drinks, you can just boil 1 liter of water  and add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 6 teaspoons of sugar, and 1 mashed banana; in a pinch, probably any clean beverage is better than nothing. Untreated, 50-90% of cholera victims die; with rehydration, the death rate amazingly drops below 1%:

“In untreated cases the death rate is high, averaging 50%, and as high as 90% in epidemics, but with effective treatment the death rate is less than 1%. The intravenous and oral replacement of body fluids and essential electrolytes and the restoration of kidney function are more important in therapy than the administration of antibacterial drugs.”

This is super important, so I’m going to repeat it: Don’t confuse the effects of sickness and the effects of the homeostatic system attempting to cure itself. This goes for organizations and societies, too.

Unfortunately, much of our economic theory is not based on the idea that societies–or the Earth–trend toward homeostasis, but on the assumption of infinite growth. The economic proponents of open borders, for example, basically seem to think that there are no theoretical limits to the number of people who can move to Europe and the US and take up a Western lifestyle.

Pension plans (and Social Security) were also designed with infinite growth in mind. Now that TFRs have dropped below replacement across the developed world, many countries are faced with the horrifying prospect that old people may not be able to depend on the incomes of children they didn’t create for their retirement. I suppose the solution to such a problem is that you only let people with 3+ children have pensions, or design a pension system that doesn’t require a never-ending process of population expansion, because the planet cannot hold infinite numbers of people.

Declining TFR is not a disease, it is a symptom, most likely of countries where ordinary people struggle to afford children. The fertility rate will pick back up once the population has shrunk enough that there are enough resources per person–including space–to make having children an attractive option.

But to those obsessively focused on their unsustainable pensions, low TFR is a disease, and it has to be fixed by bringing in more people, preferably people who will have lots of children.

They actually hire people to shove passengers into the trains to make them fit.
“Japan must import more people!” the NY Times constantly screams. “They don’t have enough to fill the pensions!”

Just as treating a fever inhibits your body’s ability to fight the real disease, so importing people to combat a low TFR inhibits your country’s ability to return to a proper ratio of resource to people, making the problem much, much worse.

Remember these graphs?

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001    chart-01       Picture 20   Picture 21

Mass immigration => bigger labor market => lower wages => lower TFR => underfunded pensions => demands for more immigrants.

Inadequate Homeostasis

Inadequate and over-active homeostastic systems are pathologic conditions rendering the self unable to respond appropriately to changing conditions in order to reassert normal homeostasis. For example, people with a certain mutation in the ITPR2 gene cannot sweat, increasing their chances of dangerously overheating. People with AIDS, of course, have deficient immune systems, because the virus specifically attacks immune cells.

Inability to maintain or reassert homeostasis in biological systems is most likely a result of damage due to mutation or infection. In a non-organism, it is more likely a result of the organization or entity just having been created with inadequate homeostatic systems.

A mundane example is a city that has expanded and so can no longer handle the amount of traffic, trash, and rainwater run-off it produces. The original systems, such as sewers, roads, and trash collection, could handle the city’s normal variations back when they were designed, but no longer. Traffic jams, flooding, and giant piles of trash ensue.

At this point, a city has two choices: increase systemic complexity (ie, upgrade the infrastructure,) or decrease the amount of waste it produces by people dying/moving away.

Here’s a graph of the historical population of Rome:


Rome had obviously been in decline since around 100 AD, probably due to the Antonin Plague–most plagues are, of course, homeostasis violently reasserting itself as a result of human societies becoming too big for their hygiene systems. In the 400s, the Roman empire collapsed, leading to sieges, famines, and violent barbarian invasions and an end to tax revenues and supply networks that had formerly supported the city.

By 752, Rome had dropped from 1.65 million people to 40,000 people, but the city reached its true nadir in 1347, when plague reduced the population to 17,000, which is even lower than the estimates for 800 BC. Rome would not return to its previous high until 1850, though if I know anything about near-vertical lines on graphs, it’s that they don’t go up forever. When the collapse begins again, I wonder if the city will return to its 1000s population, or stabilize at some new level.

I’ve spoken before of La Griffe du Lion‘s Smart Fraction Theory, which posits that a country’s GDP correlates with the percent of its population with (verbal) IQs over 120. These are the people who can plan and maintain complex systems. This suggests that, unless IQs increase over time, counties may have a natural limit complexity limit they can’t pass, (but many countries may not be operating at their complexity limits.)

A different kind of inadequate homeostasis is Mission creep, when organizations start seeing it as their job to do more and more things not within their original mandate, as when the Sierra Club starts championing SJW causes; in these cases, the organization lacks proper feedback mechanisms to keep itself on-task. Eventually, like MTV, the organization loses sight entirely of its original purpose (though to be fair, MTV still exists, so it’s strategy hasn’t been unsuccessful.)

Over-Active Homeostasis

Allergies and auto-immune disorders are classic examples of over-active homeostatic systems. Allergies happen when the body responds to normal stimuli like pollen or food as though they were pathogens; auto-immune disorders involve the immune system accidentally attacking the body’s own cells instead of pathogens.

At a higher level, some people respond with violent aggression to minor annoyances; some countries start disastrous wars against countries they can’t conquer, others attack their own citizens and destroy their own homeostatic systems.

Millions of years of evolution have equipped our bodies with self-correcting systems to keep us functioning, so that human pathologies are relatively easy to identify. Organizations, however, have endured far fewer years of evolutionary pressure, so their homeostatic systems are much cruder and more likely to fail. We can understand biological pathologies fairly well, but often fail to identify organizational pathologies entirely; even when we do have some sense* that things are definitely wrong, it’s hard to say exactly what, much less identify a coherent plan to fix it and then convince other people to actually do it.

*or perhaps in your case, dear reader, a definite sense

For organizations to continue working, they need adequate homeostatic systems to keep them on track and prevent both under and over reactions. The US Constitution, for example, establishes a system of “checks and balances” and “separate powers”  mandated to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, not to mention federal, state, and individual levels (via voting and citizen juries.) For all its flaws, this system has managed to basically keep going for over 200 years, making it one of the oldest systems of continuous governance in the world, (most of the world’s governments were established following the breakup of colonial empires and the Soviet Union), but these system probably needs revision over time to keep it functioning. (We can further discuss a variety of ways to keep systems functional elsewhere, but Slate Star Codex’s post on Why don’t Whales get Cancer? [basically, the theory is that whales are so big that their cancers get cancer and kill themselves before they kill the whale] seems relevant.)

All human civilization depends on homeostatic systems to keep everyone in them alive. We may think of civilization as order, but it is not perfect order. Perfect order is a crystal; perfect order is absolute zero. It is not alive; it does not change, move, or adapt. Life is a braid in spacetime; civilization is homeostatic.


Part two: homeostasis and personality.