Do Sufficiently Large Organizations Start Acting Like Malevolent AIs? (pt 1)

(and Society is an Extremely Large Organization)

What do I mean by malevolent AI?

AI typically refers to any kind of intelligence or ability to learn possessed by machines. Malevolent AI occurs when a machine pursues its programmed objectives in a way that humans find horrifying or immoral. For example, a machine programmed to make paperclips might decide that the easiest way to maximize paperclip production is to enslave humans to make paperclips for it. Superintelligent AI is AI that has figured out how to make itself smarter and thus keeps getting smarter and smarter. (Should we develop malevolent superintelligent AI, then we’ll really have something to worry about.)

Note: people who actually study AI probably have better definitions than I do.

While we like to think of ourselves (humans) as unique, thinking individuals, it’s clear that many of our ideas come from other people. Chances are good you didn’t think up washing your hands or brushing your teeth by yourself, but learned about them from your parents. Society puts quite a bit of effort, collectively speaking, into teaching children all of the things people have learned over the centuries–from heliocentrism to the fact that bleeding patients generally makes diseases worse, not better.

Just as we cannot understand the behavior of ants or bees simply by examining the anatomy of a single ant or single bee, but must look at the collective life of the entire colony/hive, so we cannot understand human behavior by merely examining a single human, but must look at the collective nature of human societies. “Man is a political animal,” whereby Aristotle did not mean that we are inherently inclined to fight over transgender bathrooms, but instinctively social:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere sound is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. –Aristotle, Politics

With very rare exceptions, humans–all humans, in all parts of the world–live in groups. Tribes. Families. Cities. Nations. Our nearest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, also live in groups. Primates are social, and their behavior can only be understood in the context of their groups.

Groups of humans are able to operate in ways that individual humans cannot, drawing on the collective memories, skills, and knowledge of their members to create effects much greater than what could be achieved by each person acting alone. For example, one lone hunter might be able to kill a deer–or if he is extremely skilled, hardworking, and lucky, a dozen deer–but ten hunters working together can drive an entire herd of deer over a cliff, killing hundreds or even thousands. (You may balk at the idea, but many traditional hunting societies were dependent on only a few major hunts of migrating animals to provide the majority of their food for the entire year–meaning that those few hunts had to involve very high numbers of kills or else the entire tribe would starve while waiting for the animals to return.)

Chimps have never, to my knowledge, driven megafauna to extinction–but humans have a habit of doing so wherever they go. Humans are great at what we do, even if we aren’t always great at extrapolating long-term trends.

But the beneficial effects of human cooperation don’t necessarily continue to increase as groups grow larger–China’s 1.3 billion people don’t appear to have better lives than Iceland’s 332,000 people. Indeed, there probably is some optimal size–depending on activity and available communications technology–beyond which the group struggles to coordinate effectively and begins to degenerate.

CBS advises us to make groups of 7:

As it turns out, seven is a great number for not only forming an effective fictional fighting force, but also for task groups that use spreadsheets instead of swords to do their work.

That’s according to the new book Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (Harvard Business Press).

Once you’ve got 7 people in a group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%, say the authors, Marcia W. Blenko, Michael C. Mankins, and Paul Rogers.

Unsurprisingly, a group of 17 or more rarely makes a decision other than when to take a lunch break.

Princeton blog reports:

The trope that the likelihood of an accurate group decision increases with the abundance of brains involved might not hold up when a collective faces a variety of factors — as often happens in life and nature. Instead, Princeton University researchers report that smaller groups actually tend to make more accurate decisions, while larger assemblies may become excessively focused on only certain pieces of information. …

collective decision-making has rarely been tested under complex, “realistic” circumstances where information comes from multiple sources, the Princeton researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In these scenarios, crowd wisdom peaks early then becomes less accurate as more individuals become involved, explained senior author Iain Couzin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. …

The researchers found that the communal ability to pool both pieces of information into a correct, or accurate, decision was highest in a band of five to 20. After that, the accurate decision increasingly eluded the expanding group.

Couzin found that in small groups, people with specialized knowledge could effectively communicate that to the rest of the group, whereas in larger groups, they simply couldn’t convey their knowledge to enough people and group decision-making became dominated by the things everyone knew.

If you could travel back in time and propose the idea of democracy to the inhabitants of 13th century England, they’d respond with incredulity: how could peasants in far-flung corners of the kingdom find out who was running for office? Who would count the votes? How many months would it take to tally up the results, determine who won, and get the news back to the outlying provinces? If you have a printing press, news–and speeches–can quickly and accurately spread across large distances and to large numbers of people, but prior to the press, large-scale democracy simply wasn’t practical.

Likewise, the communism of 1917 probably couldn’t have been enacted in 1776, simply because society at that time didn’t have the technology yet to gather all of the necessary data on crop production, factory output, etc. (As it was, neither did Russia of 1917, but they were closer.)

Today, the amount of information we can gather and share on a daily basis is astounding. I have at my fingertips the world’s greatest collection of human knowledge, an overwhelming torrent of data.

All of our these information networks have linked society together into an increasingly efficient meta-brain–unfortunately, it’s not a very smart meta-brain. Like the participants in Couzin’s experiments, we are limited to what “everyone knows,” stymied in our efforts to impart more specialized knowledge. (I don’t know about you, but I find being shouted down by a legion of angry people who know less about a subject than I do one of the particularly annoying features of the internet.)

For example, there’s been a lot of debate lately about immigration, but how much do any of us really know about immigrants or immigrant communities? How much of this debate is informed by actual knowledge of the people involved, and how much is just people trying to extend vague moral principles to cover novel situations? I recently had a conversation with a progressive acquaintance who justified mass-immigration on the grounds that she has friendly conversations with the cabbies in her city. Heavens protect us–I hope to get along with people as friends and neighbors, not just when I am paying them!

One gets the impression in conversation with Progressives that they regard Christian Conservatives as a real threat, because that group that can throw its weight around in elections or generally enforce cultural norms that liberals don’t like, but are completely oblivious to the immigrants’ beliefs. Most of our immigrants hail from countries that are rather more conservative than the US and definitely more conservative than our liberals.

Any sufficiently intelligent democracy ought to be able to think critically about the political opinions of the new voters it is awarding citizenship to, but we struggle with this. My Progressive acquaintance seems think that we can import an immense, conservative, third-world underclass and it will stay servile indefinitely, not vote its own interests or have any effects on social norms. (Or its interests will be, coincidentally, hers.)

This is largely an information problem–most Americans are familiar with our particular brand of Christian conservatives, but are unfamiliar with Mexican or Islamic ones.

How many Americans have intimate, detailed knowledge of any Islamic society? Very few of us who are not Muslim ourselves speak Arabic, and few Muslim countries are major tourist destinations. Aside from the immigrants themselves, soldiers, oil company employees, and a handful of others have spent time in Islamic countries, but that’s about it–and no one is making any particular effort to listen to their opinions. (It’s a bit sobering to realize that I know more about Islamic culture than 90% of Americans and I still don’t really know anything.)

So instead of making immigration policy based on actual knowledge of the groups involved, people try to extend the moral rules–heuristics–they already have. So people who believe that “religious tolerance is good,” because this rule has generally been useful in preventing conflict between American religious groups, think this rule should include Muslim immigrants. People who believe, “I like being around Christians,” also want to apply their rule. (And some people believe, “Groups are more oppressive when they’re the majority, so I want to re-structure society so we don’t have a majority,” and use that rule to welcome new immigrants.)

And we are really bad at testing whether or not our rules are continuing to be useful in these new situations.

 

Ironically, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down.

The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations.

But it’s getting late, so let’s continue this discussion in the next post.

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Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco pt 1

So we’re sitting there having a few drinks and talking about this and that, when it occurs to me to ask Lefty what I think s a pretty good question.

“Hey, Lefty? What’s the advantage for me in being a wiseguy?”

Lefty looks at me like I’m the world’s biggest moron. He gets excited and jumps out of his chair and starts yelling and waving his arms. “What are you, fucking crazy?” he says. “Are you fucking nuts?” When you’re a wiseguy, you can steal, you can cheat, you can lie, you can kill people–and it’s all legitimate.”

Pistone’s The Way of the Wiseguy was exactly what I was looking for: an ethnography of organized crime. Oh, sure, Pistone isn’t actually a trained anthropologist–he’s just an FBI agent who managed to learn enough about Mafia culture to infiltrate the mob without getting killed.

Reading this back-to-back with Jay Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels, several differences between the organizations stand out. First, while the point of the Hells Angels is unclear (are they a criminal organization, as the FBI believes, or just an association of people who like riding motorcycles together, as they assert?) the Mafia’s point is obvious: making money. Second, while the Hells Angels exist on the edge of society with few normal, functional familial relationships, mobsters appear to be socially normal: they love their moms, have wives and girlfriends (usually at the same time,) and provide for their kids. The Mafia and the Hells Angels have very different ideas about family responsibility and the general treatment of women. Third, ironically, the Hells Angels probably kill far fewer people and have more scruples about murder. And finally, while the Hells Angels enjoy each other’s company, the mobsters, it seems, don’t particularly like each other.

They also have things in common: both groups control territory, are obsessed with respect, and live outside normal laws and boundaries.

But let’s let Pistone talk: What makes a wiseguy?

“The wiseguy does not see himself as a criminal or even a bad person; he sees himself as a businessman, a shrewd hustler, one step ahead of ordinary suckers. … Wiseguys exist in a bizarre parallel universe, a world where avarice and violence and corruption are the norm, and where the routines that most ordinary people hold dear–working good jobs, being with family, living an honest life–are seen as the curse of the weak and the stupid. …

“And yet I was not naive enough then, nor am I now, to believe that we came anywhere near to destroying the mob and ending organized crime. … The mob and mobsters have been around for centuries, and they will almost certainly be around for many generations to come. As long as there is money to be made illicitly and with minimal investment, there will  be wiseguys ready and willing to make the score. The fact is that the Mafia in particular is one of the most enduring and successful organizations in the history of the world. … What’s more, the Mafia has never had a single year out of decades when it ran in the red. The Mafia always makes a profit. There is a strong incentive for wisegys to keep things running in the black: deficits mean death.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia, the Sicilian Mafia has only been around since the late 1800s, making it younger than Twinings Tea Company (1706) and probably younger than the Pinkerton Detective Agency (1850). (The list of the World’s Oldest Companies–including Kongo Gui, founded in 578–is fascinating in itself, “According to a report published by the Bank of Korea on May 14, 2008, investigating 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 are in Japan, 837 in Germany, 222 in the Netherlands, and 196 in France.”)

But I don’t expect Pistone to be an expert in the ages of Japanese corporations nor do I necessarily believe Wikipedia on the age of the Mafia, which is a rather secretive organization that doesn’t keep a lot of official records of its activities. (This is also in contrast to the Hells Angels, who are an Official Organization with copyrighted and trademarked logos and have actually sued people for violating said intellectual property.) The fact that the Mafia has persisted for as long as it has, despite the best efforts by people like Mussolini to stamp it out, despite the enormous technological and social changes that have swept Sicily during the past century and a half, despite many mafiosi moving to the US,  suggests that its roots may lie deeper than “social changes in the 1800s.”

(Wikipedia also notes that the Mafia doesn’t call itself the Mafia, which is just a Sicilian word for a “swagger,” meaning a bold or proud man. Rather, the Mafia tends to refer obliquely to itself as just “our thing,” “this thing of ours,” etc.–“Cosa Nostra” is just Italian for “our thing.”)

Regardless, Wikipedia claims that the Mafia began in Post-Feudal Sicily:

Modern scholars believe that the seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily’s transition out of feudalism beginning in 1812 and its later annexation by mainland Italy in 1860. Under feudalism, the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies. After 1812, the feudal barons steadily sold off or rented their lands to private citizens… After Italy annexed Sicily in 1860, it redistributed a large share of public and church land to private citizens. The result was a huge boom in landowners — from 2,000 in 1812 to 20,000 by 1861.[28] With this increase in property owners and commerce came more disputes that needed settling, contracts that needed enforcing, transactions that needed oversight, and properties that needed protecting. The barons were releasing their private armies to let the state take over the job of enforcing the law, but the new authorities were not up to the task, largely due to their inexperience with capitalism.[29] Lack of manpower was also a problem; there were often fewer than 350 active policemen for the entire island. … In the face of rising crime, booming commerce, and inefficient authorities, property owners turned to extralegal arbitrators and protectors. These extralegal protectors eventually organized themselves into the first Mafia clans.

Most of the world seems to have made the feudal transition without spawning mafia-like organizations, so what’s so special about Sicily?

HBD Chick’s map of First-Cousin Marriage Rates in Italy in 1961

HBD Chick is, of course, the go-to person for anything related to “families” or “clans,” and here’s an excellent map she made of First Cousin Marriage Rates in Italy in 1961:

below is a little chart i worked up of the percentages of first cousin marriages for all the regions for the first (1910-1914) and last (1960-64) of the time periods at which they looked. i included only the first cousin marriages since first-cousin-once-removed (1 1/2C) and second cousin (2C) marriages were not included for sicily and i wanted to be able to compare all the regions. note that the reason cavalli-sforza, et. al., didn’t include 1 1/2C and 2C marriages for sicily is that sicilians are exempt from having to get dispensations to marry those family members, so presumably the rates for those marriages are pretty high! …

HBD Chick has a chart that gives the exact numbers for each region in 1910-14 and 1960-64. Overall, first cousin marriage rates fell during this time, but in Sicily and Calabria in the 60s they were still very high–48.74% in Agrigento and 48.49% in Reggio Calabria.

and that’s just first cousin marriages! those rates are like the rates for saudi arabia and pakistan today!

Mafia presence in Italy at the municipal level, 2000-15. (Red is higher) H/T Francesco Calderoni Source (pdf)

Pistone has something interesting to say on the Mafia and genetics:

For the next several years, I did not exist except as a close associate of several members of the Bonanno crime family. … I will not deny that I became pretty close to a lot of these wiseguys, and that I felt a pang of remorse about doing things that I knew would get them killed. But it was only a pang. The truth is that I did not feel sorry for the wiseguys I helped put away. Had they discovered that I was an undercover FBI agent, they would have put two in my head and chopped me into ground beef. …

This one poor bastard, he did something to make wiseguys think he was a rat. So they stuck a meat hook up his ass and hung him from a warehouse wall. …

I tell you this to drive home the most important observation I ever made while working undercover: Wiseguys are not nice guys. … In fact, wiseguys are the meanest, cruelest, least caring people you’ll ever meet. They have zero regard for other people’s feelings, rights, and safety. …

Consider the poor bastard who ran afoul of some members of the Gambino crime family. They cut some holes in him, hung him over a bathtub, and drained all the blood out of his bodies. These are not rare occurrences or unusual crimes. Wiseguys routinely commit acts of nauseating grisliness. …

Wiseguys don’t throw up or even gag when they butcher people. They have had any decency and sense of revulsion bred right out of them.

Perhaps he did not mean this literally, in the way that I take it. But perhaps he did.

There is an ironic part in Frank Lucas’s biography, Original Gangster, in which a man who had literally tried to get a job killing people for money and had caused the deaths of thousands of people by selling them heroin opines that abortion is immoral, at least when it’s his kid being aborted (after he abandoned his wife to go have sex with other women for a week immediately after she told him she was pregnant.) Most people seem to have some kind of circle inside of which are people whom they love and do not really want to hurt, and outside of which are people who are not even human beings to them. Because the people outside this circle are not recognized as people, people deny that they are doing any violence at all to those other people. For example, Americans get quite upset when Muslims terrorists kill Americans, but we hardly pay attention when our country drops bombs on Muslims. Here’s a smattering of US military operations that haven’t gotten much press:

  • 2000: Nigeria: Special Forces troops are sent to Nigeria to lead a training mission in the country.[10]
  • 2002: Philippines: OEF-Philippines, As of January, U.S. “combat-equipped and combat support forces” have been deployed to the Philippines to train with, assist and advise the Philippines’ Armed Forces in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”[RL30172]
  • 2003: Georgia and Djibouti: “US combat equipped and support forces” had been deployed to Georgia and Djibouti to help in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”[12]
  • 2004–present: The U.S deploys drone strikes to aid in the War in North-West Pakistan
  • 2010–present: al-Qaeda insurgency in Yemen: The U.S has been launching a series of drone strikes on suspected al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIS positions in Yemen.
  • 2011: 2011 military intervention in Libya: Operation Odyssey Dawn, United States and coalition enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 with bombings of Libyan forces.
  • 2011–present: Uganda: U.S. Combat troops sent in as advisers to Uganda.[20]
  • 2015–present: In early October 2015, the US military deployed 300 troops to Cameroon, with the approval of the Cameroonian government, their primary mission was to provide intelligence support to local forces as well as conducting reconnaissance flights.

It’s nigh impossible to love everybody equally (nor do I think you should) and the vast majority of people love their own families and children far more than everyone else. How much you preference your own family over everyone else, however, varies a lot from person to person and culture to culture, and may have a lot to do with things like whether people in your culture traditionally marry people from within their own families, creating a system where you have very little contact with people on the outside or if they seek brides from neighboring villages, creating a system where people have far more contact outside their own families.

Anthropology Friday: No Angel by Jay Dobyns, pt 3/3

Welcome to our final post on Jay Dobyns and Nils Johnson-Shelton‘s No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. (The subtitle is a bit of an overstatement–while Dobyns does meet Sonny Barger, he’s never part of Sonny’s circle. The authors may not have had any control over the book’s title, though.) This has been an interesting, often intense book. I’ve not quoted as much as I usually do because the book is new, under copyright, and obviously the authors would like for you to buy a copy and read it yourself.

One of the themes running through the book is the intersection of crime, drugs, poverty, and innocents (children) caught in the middle. It’s a part of America where meth is rampant and lives are broken.

And how do the Hells Angels (and other motorcycle clubs) fit into this? Are they spontaneous order or disorder? For people who grew up neglected, abused, or merely on the outside of society, does the “brotherhood” of bikers provide an essential, tribal sense of belonging?

Indeed, one of the mysteries the book touches on repeatedly is that this “criminal” organization receives nigh unwavering support from the general public. When they go to clubs, they’re given an introduction over the loudspeaker (“Everyone, the Hells Angels are partying with us tonight!”) Women are thrown at them. (Dobyns, who is married, has to get another undercover police officer to fake being his girlfriend to explain why he isn’t having sex with any of the women throwing themselves at him.) All of the motorcycle clubs in the area, even the totally mundane ones, respect the HAs; there are HA “support” clubs scattered around the nation.

(In any area where the HA aren’t dominant and some other club is, people look up to and respect that club.) People buy Hells Angels t-shirts and as Dobyns notes, even some police officers form their own motorcycle clubs, at least somewhat modeled on the Outlaw clubs.

By contrast, while people do look out for and respect their local Mafia bosses and drug dealers, they don’t form gang fan clubs or wear Mafia-themed t-shirts.

Meanwhile, job demands were wearing on Dobyns (as usual, I’m using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):

“I was running ragged. The life of an undercover cop is not one of leisure. I was up every morning at seven, going over notes from the night before or transcribing audio from one of my recorders. the notes couldn’t be half-assed or glossed over, they had to be dead-nuts on. Then I’d do my expenditures, and those had to be to the penny… Then I’d contact the suspects–some of whom were occasionally crashed out in the living room while I did reports behind my bedroom’s locked door–and set up meetings and deals for the day or week. Then I’d call Slats and go over everything with him. Then I’d meet a task force agent to exchange notes and evidence. Then I’d start making my runs, seeing the boys, hitting the spots–just being seen is a job in itself. Then I’d make my scheduled meetings, do the buys I’d set up, Hit the club houses, and have conversations.

“Some days I’d ride from Phoenix to Bullhead and back … The sun would set, the heat would dissipate, and the nights would begin. I’d go out and, despite drinking, would try to stay lucid enough to be able to defend myself, JJ, Timmy, or Pop if any of us got made. The stress of being in near-constant mortal danger is what we were trained to endure, but undertaking it day after day is enough to fry anyone. I’d get home, cross myself, smoke cigarettes, down coffee, jot down notes and reminders, and then try to get a few hours sleep before doing t all over again the next day.”

EvX: According to Donnie Brasco, (The Way of the Wiseguy,) he didn’t set foot in an FBI office for the whole 6 years of his undercover operation. Obviously his phone and house were bugged, but it sounds like he didn’t have to check in with his supervisors or get most of his moves approved by anyone. Of course, that was in the 70s (and New York.) The FBI’s standard procedures have likely changed a bit since then (from the sounds of it, toward “more bureaucratic control and less liability” but ironically, “more likely to die from exhaustion while trying to ride a motorcycle at night.”)

Assassination of Sonny’s Successor?

“Daniel “Hoover” Seybert had been shot through the forehead on March 22. He’d been killed in the parking lot of Bridgette’s Last Laugh, a Phoenix bar, surrounded by his brothers, who conveniently–and ludicrously–didn’t see a thing. According to the Hells Angels witnesses, Hoover had just started his bike when he suddenly slumped over the bars. there was no exit wound. they didn’t hear a discharge. Some claimed that until they saw the wound in his forehead they thought he’d had a heart attack. … they were all convinced the shooter must have been a Mongol.

“We weren’t so sure. The medical examiner concluded that the wound was from a small-caliber, close-range shot. … Hoover was revered and respected nationally and internationally by friend and foes–he’d been groomed as Sonny’s replacement… His death devastated the club and drove their paranoia to new heights. …

“There was plenty of internal tension among the Angels in those days, centering on which way the club was headed, what they’d symbolize as they continued their wild ride through American cultural history. … Generally, younger members felt as though they’d joined the Hells Angels to raise hell, to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and not be told otherwise. Older members–members, it should be said, who’d lived this freer, hell0-raising lifestyle in decades past,–preferred to rest on their laurels, doing whatever they could not to attract attention from the law. These Angels were content with being old-time kings of the hill and selling T-shirts at motorcycle rallies.

EvX: Again, this gets back to the question of what the organization is. The HAs got their reputation by being violent, but once you’ve got that reputation, why not sit back and enjoy it? Crime is dangerous and can lead to getting arrested; partying is fun. But the younger members have different ideas of fun. They don’t want to avoid trouble; they want to go out and raise hell.

Back to Dobyns:

“Time passed in a blur. Back in Phoenix, on the eight, I worked out with Dan… the crazy musclehead Angel I’d met when our Solo Angeles crew came to town back in January. He pumped his iron, vein in his neck bulging, and waxed hopeful about the end of his parole… JJ and I went with Bobby on the ninth to set up a T-shirt booth at a run. He intimidated the guy in charge into giving us free passes and the best booth location. Bobby said he was going to run the Americans Motorcycle Club out of there if he saw them. He and Teddy bitched about how they hadn’t been giving the Angels their due respect and that they were going to force the Americans out of the area, maybe even the state…

[They get news of a possible conflict with another club and get called in:]

“He addressed us. ‘Expect to kill tonight. Expect to shoot. Expect to die, go to jail, or skip country.’ …

“Teddy and Bobby looked on as Joby loaded the Jeep with the shotgun a box of shells, a sap, an ax handle and three or four knives. Teddy looked distraught. …

“He spoke, contemplating the ground. ‘I”m not happy about this, but this is what we do. I’m proud of ya and I’m proud of the Hells Angels. Ya be there for them, and they’ll be there for ya. Do what ya gotta do, but I want y’all to come back alive.’ He gave each of us a big hug.

WWII Soldiers on Harley Davidsons

“Bobby hugged us too. As he finished with me he grabbed my shoulders and said, ‘Remember, Bird–a Hells Angel may not always be right, but he is always you bother.’

“Teddy spoke again. ‘Half of what’s mine is yours. Don’t forget that either.’

“Their words made sense. Even though I’d sworn an oath to fight guy like these, I’d bought into some of their credo. I knew that any of these guys, and more than a few others across the state, wold gladly take a bullet for me. In that instant I believed in some of what the Hell Angels stood for. I was genuinely touched.”

EvX: Luckily, based on Dobyns’ and the other undercover cops’ information, the police intercept the guys they were going to potentially fight and no violence occurs.

The Wild Pigs:

“The Williams run was easy. … I wandered around with Bobby, acting as his bodyguard.

“We came across a group of bikers who called themselves the Wild Pigs. One of their guys walked up to us, his hand extended to Bobby. He wore a big shit-eating smile. He said, ‘Hey, pleasure to meet you.’

“Bobby raised his sunglasses and looked at him intently. He did not offer his hand in return. ‘Get fucked.’ …

“The Wild Pigs were cops, guys with badges who paraded around on weekends like a One Percenter club. In my mind, as in Bobby’s, they were a fucking abomination.”

EvX: Dobyns is running into a problem. He has documented plenty of illegal gun and drug sales, but nothing really new or incriminating for the organization as a whole. He’s still on the outside, a member of the “Solo Angeles” club that just rides a lot with the Hells Angels. He wants to become a full member, but prospecting for a club takes time. There are rules, they’re strict, and they don’t let a lot of people in. Meanwhile, his bosses are getting tired of the operation; it’s a lot of expense, hassle, and stress to pay him to go drinking and riding motorcycles if he’s not getting any information they don’t already have.

So Dobyns tries to expedite the prospecting process by proposing a hit job. He’ll show his devotion to the HAs by going down to Mexico and killing one of the Mongols, the HA’s rivals. He is essentially given the club’s blessings to do this, but I note that it was Dobyns‘s idea, not the club’s.

So, if you’re ever in a club that the FBI might be infiltrating, and some guy is proposing something violent or illegal, it’s best to say no.

The Hit:

“He handed me the pistol, I checked the safety and stuck it in my back pocket. I said I had to go, that I’d be in touch, and that I’d be back in a few days.

“He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close, hugging me tight, slapping my back hard. He pushed me back, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘I want you to come home. All of you.’

“Don’t worry, bro, we will. We will.”

[Obviously, Dobyns does not actually kill anyone. They stage a photograph to make it look like they killed the dude.]

“But I was no Angel. The Mongol murder was not as simple as it appeared. …

“The fire at Joby’s camp had smelled like lamb chops for a good reason. The blood, skin, and brain that spattered out of the Mongol’s clothes had belonged to a lamb, not a man.”

It almost works, but the Hells Angels, they’ve got rules:

“On the thirtieth, Timmy, JJ, and I went to Skull Valley to talk things over. … We were told that we weren’t going to get patched [that is, receive their Hells Angels patches], even though the local shot-callers had sided with us. The problem went back to Laughlin… when some Angels had been fast-patched after the riot. This pissed off the European Angels. Those guys were over there fighting their rivals with RPGs, blowing up entire clubhouses, and none them got patched early. We were told that Europe simply outnumbered the United States and none of our guys wanted to step on their European counterparts’ toes.”

EvX: Two interesting things here. One, people did get fast-patched after the Laughlin (River Run) Riot. So violence on behalf of the club is definitely rewarded. The other interesting thing is that the European Angels sound like they are getting into a lot more violence than the American ones.

But this leaves Dobyns in the lurch. With no fast patch, the FBI decides to stop the operation. Dobyns has come far–he’s apparently considered a member of his local club even if the HA international says he needs more time–but not far enough. He’s pulled out and essentially disappears.

The case’s search warrants get executed on July 8:

“Staci, Bobby’s girlfriend, called after we started knocking the Angels down and left a frantic message, saying, ‘Bird [Dobyns’s alias], it’s Staci. I don’t know where you are, but wherever it is, stay there. They’re coming for the guys. It looks like they’re coming for all the guys. I don’t know what the fuck is going on Hopefully I’ll see you soon…’

“She wouldn’t.

“What was going on was predawn SRT and SWAT raids, conducted in Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington, and Colorado. The total haul was impressive. More than 1,600 pieces of evidence were collected: over 650 guns, eight of which were machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other prohibited weapons; dozens of silencers; explosives, including pipe-bombs, napalm, blasting caps, dynamite, and grenades; and over 30,000 rounds of live ammunition. …

“Owing to lack of evidence, Ralph “Sonny” Barger was left untouched. …

“By the summer of 2004 the Hells Angels had issued two death threats against my family and me. Over the following years they would issue three more. …

“ATF didn’t take the threats seriously. … My paranoia grew, and was only made worse by ATF’s refusal to recognize what I knew was a mortal situation. They belittled my concerns and downplayed my accomplishments… It was a dreary business, but heart-breaking and eye-opening. I’d expected to be betrayed by the Hells Angels, but not by the people I’d worked so incredibly hard for.”

EvX: Obviously we’re reading this through Dobyns’ POV. Maybe his superiors have a completely different version of things.

But there’s a lot of betrayal here. Dobyns betrayed men he’d called “brother” and had called him “brother.” Yes, many of these men were criminals, but they also would have taken a bullet for him. Even after Dobyns completely disappeared without warning or goodbye, people in the midst of life-destroying SWAT raids (raids Dobyns caused) tried to warn and protect him.

And in the meanwhile, the organization that was supposed to have Dobyns’s back and protect him didn’t.

Operation Black Biscuit [the codename for the case] ultimately failed:

“Sadly, disputes over evidence and tensions between ATF and the U.S. attorneys killed our case. Most of the serious charges were dismissed in early 2006, and as a result, hardly any of the guys who were charged with RICO violations saw the inside of a courtroom. …

“Those were dark days. The press and the defense attorneys, not privy to the turf battles fought between the case agents and the prosecutors, hung the blame on the undercover operation. We were called rogue actors, reckless and impulsive, and the Hells Angels’ legal representation publicly yoked us, confident the case would never go before a jury…

“In the beginning I thought of the Black Biscuit case as a classic Good-versus-Evil struggle. I knew the brutality and intimidation brought by the Hells Angels was real. Violence was their way of life. … Our team of elite investigators was an ideal adversary to the Hells Angels, and everyone on the task force was proud to throw themselves into taking down such an evil organization.

“But as we’ve seen, things aren’t always so cut-and-dried. I went in deep and realized that the Hells Angels weren’t all bad–and I wasn’t all good.”

“When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.” — HA motto

Anthropology Friday: Melanesia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re visiting Melanesia., but first I’d like to direct your attention to a new study by Westaway et al, “An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago“:

Here we reinvestigate Lida Ajer [a fossil site] to identify the teeth confidently and establish a robust chronology using an integrated dating approach. Using enamel–dentine junction morphology, enamel thickness and comparative morphology, we show that the teeth are unequivocally AMH. Luminescence and uranium-series techniques applied to bone-bearing sediments and speleothems, and coupled uranium-series and electron spin resonance dating of mammalian teeth, place modern humans in Sumatra between 73 and 63 ka. This age is consistent with biostratigraphic estimations7, palaeoclimate and sea-level reconstructions, and genetic evidence for a pre-60 ka arrival of AMH into ISEA2. Lida Ajer represents, to our knowledge, the earliest evidence of rainforest occupation by AMH, and underscores the importance of reassessing the timing and environmental context of the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa.

Back to Melanesia:

Polynesians–who settled Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and Madagascar–are considerably more famous than their cousins over in Melanesia–chiefly Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. (The Australian Aborigines are closely related to Melanesians.)

“Polynesia” means “many islands.” “Micronesia” means “tiny islands.” But “Melanesia” means dark islands, not because they are actually dark, but because the locals have dark, high-melanin skin.

Dr. Henry B. Guppy was a British surgeon and naturalist stationed in the Solomon Islands. Confusingly, there is a species of gecko named after Dr. Guppy–the Lepidodactylus guppyi, endemic to the Solomon Islands.

Dr. Guppy also wrote a book, the aptly titled “The Solomon Islands,”:

Amongst the Solomon Islands the student of nature may be compared to a man who, having found a mine of great wealth, is only allowed to carry away just so much of the precious ore as he can bear about his person. For there can be no region of the world where he experiences more tantalisation. Day after day he skirts the shores of islands of which science has no “ken.” Month after month, he may scan, as I have done, lofty mountain-masses never yet explored, whose peaks rise through the clouds to heights of from 7,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea. He may discern on the mountain-slopes the columns of blue smoke which mark the abodes of men who have never beheld the white man. But he cannot land except accompanied by a strong party; and he has therefore to be content usually with viewing such scenes from the deck of his vessel. …

A Melanesian is always careful to turn his toes in as he walks, and the narrowness of the bush track causes him no inconvenience, but the white man is not so careful how he plants his feet and is constantly striking the numerous objects which lie by the side of the track or on its surface. Moreover, a native person keeps his hands by his side as he walks, whereas the white man does not know the necessity for care in the matter and he frequently hits the numerous obstacles with his hands, and some of the leaves on the edge of the track are studded with sharp thorns! Every Melanesian carries a “scrub” knife, and with it he cuts away the limbs that fall over the path, but he cuts them at his own height and in an immediate line with the path; this suits him well, but proves awkward for any person who is taller or less careful about his method of progression.

Naural blond hair
Two Melanesian girls from Vanatu

There is a great deal of interest in Dr. Guppy’s account, but for now we are going to leave him and turn to the Dictionary and Grammar of the Language of Sa’a and Ulawa, Solomon Islands, by Walter G. Ivens, 1918:

Several external characteristics of the Melanesian peoples serve to distinguish them from the Polynesians: (1) Shortness of stature, the average height of the males being possibly 5 feet 4 inches and of the females 4 feet 10_ inches; (2) a chocolate-colored skin; (3) bushy hair, frizzled and tangled and standing erect, owing probably to the incessant teasing of it by the native combs.

The languages spoken in Melanesia vary considerably among themselves, but on examination they are shown to possess common features and to have a very large underlying sameness. The external resemblances, however, between the Melanesian languages are much less than those between the languages of Polynesia; e. g., the external resemblances between Maori and Samoan are far greater than those between Mota and Florida.

Two languages have been separated for a long time will have become more different from each other than two languages that have been separated for only a while. For example, all of the Romance languages are quite similar to each other, and have only been developing since the age of the Roman Empire–about 2,000 years or less. By contrast, English and Russian, while both Indo-European languages that therefore share many characteristics, have far fewer similarities than the Romance languages, because they have been separated for far less time.

If the Melanesian languages have more differences than the Polynesian, then they have likely been separated for longer–and indeed, this appears to be true. Melanesians appear to be descended from one of the first population waves to reach the area (along with their neighbors, the Australian Aborigines,) whereas Polynesians arrived in the area from Taiwan much more recently. (In fact, the Polynesian Maori people only arrived in New Zealand around 1250-1300 AD.)

Dr. Codrington has shown in “Melanesian Anthropology” that there is a large general resemblance in the religious beliefs and practices, the customs and ways of life, which prevail in Melanesia proper, and further research on the lines indicated by him will probably reveal the presence of similar beliefs and conditions of life among the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea and the neighbouring islands.

A distinguishing social condition of Melanesia is the complete absence of tribes, if the word tribe is to be applied as it is to the Maori people of New Zealand, or as used in Fiji. Descent in nearly every part of Melanesia is counted through the mother and the people are everywhere divided into two classes which are exogamous. This division of the people is the foundation on which the fabric of native society is built up. …

Animal food is but rarely partaken of by Melanesians. Pigs they all have, but they keep them for great events, for death feasts or for wedding banquets. Opossums (cuscus) and the large fruit-eating bats and wood pigeons and the monitor lizard are often eaten as relishes with vegetable food. The coast people get large quantities of shellfish at the low spring tides, and on an island like Ulawa a great deal of fishing is done both from the rocks and also out of canoes. The people make all their own fishing-lines out of home-made string or out of strong creepers found in the forest, and in old days their hooks were cut out of tortoise shell or out of black pearl-shell. Even to-day the hooks for the bonito fishing are of native manufacture and the tiny hooks for whiffing sardines are exquisitely made.

Fishing with nets is followed extensively by the Lau-speaking peoples who live on the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita. These peoples and the people of the Reef Islands at Santa Cruz live almost entirely on a fish diet. The flesh of the porpoise is much prized by the peoples of Malaita and regular drives of porpoises are much held, the animals being surrounded and forced ashore into muddy creeks, where they are captured. The main value of the porpoise lies in the teeth, which form one of the native currencies. …

Tambu-House on the Island of Santa Anna, Solomon Islands

The men and boys in the Solomons have club-houses, both in the villages and also down at the beach. In the club-house at the beach the canoes for bonito fishing are kept. Strangers are entertained in these club houses; the relics of the dead are kept in them and religious rites are performed in them. Women are excluded from the club houses. …

Bark cloth (tapa) is made in Melanesia, but it never figured as an article of clothing and its main use was to form a kind of shawl in which the baby was slung when carried from the shoulder. Before the coming of the white man clothing of any sort was very little worn by Melanesians. The people of Santa Cruz, both men and women, were indeed clad sufficiently to satisfy our European notions of decency, and in the southern New Hebrides and in Florida and Ysabel the women wore petticoats made of mats or of grass, but in very many of the islands the women’s dress was of the scantiest, and the men wore nothing but a section of a leaf of a large pandanus. In the southeast Solomons the men commonly were quite naked and the women wore but a scanty fringe, while on Big Malaita not even the traditional fig leaf was worn.

In Santa Cruz, where all women and girls are swathed in mats and are kept in strict seclusion, there is more immorality, and that of a gross and shocking sort, than in the Lau-speaking districts of Malaita, where the women wear no clothing of any sort whatever. Once the mind gets over the shock experienced at the idea of the unclothed body, it will be obvious to the unprejudiced person that the absence of clothing does not necessarily imply immodesty either of thought or action. A Heathen woman on Malaita knows no shame at the fact that her body is unclothed.

Fijian mountain warrior

Another point as to which incorrect ideas exist is the question of cannibalism. Doubtless cases of anthropophagy occurred in many of the Melanesian islands, but it was never characteristic of the people as a whole, and the man-eating propensities of the Fijian people could never be predicated of the whole people of any single group in the sphere of the Mission. So local and confined is the practice that, while portions of one island regularly follow it, other portions of the same island hold it in abhorrence, as in the case of Malaita.

Joseph Wate, of Sa’a, a reliable witness, assured me that the Tolo peoples of Malaita were cannibals, but his own peoples were not, nor were the shore peoples of Big Malaita. The latter were fish-eaters, and those who lived on a fish diet did not practice as a regular thing the eating of human flesh. Cannibalism is the regular practice on San Cristoval, but is held in abhorrence on Ulawa. Yet the belief in cannibalism is so firmly fixed that one reads in the reports and books of the Mission that the two Reef Islanders who were held captive at Port Adam in Bishop Selwyn’s time were being fattened up and kept for eating, whereas in all probability they were regarded as “live heads” (lalamoa mori) and kept for killing, should any necessity arise when a victim would be demanded, as, e. g., at the death of any important person in the place, or they might be sold to anyone looking for a person to kill. The bodies after death would be buried. …

Great care is expended in bathing small children and shielding them from the rays of the sun. A young mother is excused from all work and she has the best time in all her life when her first baby is born. Her whole time is given up to the child, and it is seldom out of her arms. Owing to the lack of nourishing foods children are suckled till they are quite large. The Melanesian baby seems to have no natural liking for water and one often hears the shrill cries of small children being bathed in the streams or being washed in the houses. In the latter case water is poured from a bamboo into one of the wooden bowls and the child is then washed by hand.

The children at a very early stage of their existence are freed from the authority of their parents. They have no household duties to perform; there is no set time for meals; in the morning they may be given something cold left over from the night before, or the mother may roast a yam on the fire, but as a rule there is no cooking done till the late afternoon, when the women return from their gardens. During the day, if the children are hungry they can get a coconut or a breadfruit, or shell-fish, or they can roast a yam or a taro, and a fire can be made anywhere. The boys can get themselves an opossum or an iguana and in the hill districts they even find grasshoppers to eat. One and all they use large quantities of areca nut and pepper leaf and lime. These seem to be as necessary to the Melanesians of the northern islands as is a pipe to a confirmed smoker.

One would expect that children freed thus early from any dependence on their elders would run riot and learn licentious ways and habits, but such does not seem to be the case. There is but little individuality in Melanesians, and they are not “inventors of evil things.” They are bound by traditional customs, by the laws of the elders, by those social restrictions that the people have evolved for themselves as a safeguard against the breaking up of their society, and free agents though the children may be, and lacking parental control from our point of view, yet there is no such thing among them as the organized following of doing evil, and the ruling moral ideas of the people are found as the guide also of their children. …

they have no means of preserving the welfare of themselves as a whole. They have no tribes, no kingdoms, no laws beyond the unwritten social laws relating to marriage, etc.; life is insecure, accusations of witchcraft are easily made, and death follows as a matter of course; infanticide is a common practice, big families are almost unknown, polygamy is a recognized thing. So Christianity comes to them as a means of insuring both individual and social vigor and only in so far as they become Christian will they be saved from extinction. …

There can, however, be no question of leaving them alone now, whatever may have been the case in past years; civilization, i. e., trade, is coming in fast and the inevitable consequence will be that the white man’s view of life will alter the old style of things. Experience has taught us that wherever a people without a settled state and a kingdom and the external power of law is invaded by any of our western peoples, with their vigor and personality, the less-developed people lose all their pristine distinctiveness, all bonds are loosed, and inevitable decay sets in; in other words, the white man destroys the black….

There is very little that goes on in a native village that is not known to most of the people, and things are very well discussed before any action is taken, and generally the whole village knows the doings and the intentions of every inhabitant. If the teacher did know beforehand the chances are that he could not prevent the wrong. Individual action is rare among Melanesians. …

The isolation of the peoples in most of the Melanesian islands has in all probability been largely responsible for the lack of concerted action thitherto among the Christians. Social life as such was not known in Melanesia before the advent of Christianity. In their pre-Christian days these natives do not live in villages or hamlets, but in isolated groups with two or three houses or huts in a group. With the exception of certain places in Florida and also of the artificial islets off the northeast coast of Malaita, where hundreds of people live on tiny rookeries of stone just raised above the level of the tide, there was nothing that was worthy of the name of a village in the whole of the Mission’s area in the Solomons. …

Each subdistrict had its own petty chief with a following of half a dozen men in some cases. Every man knew who his own chief was and would support him when called upon. Each main district had also its head chief and to him tribute was paid whensoever he demanded it. Even these head chiefs had no state or surroundings. Thus at Roasi, on Little Malaita, Horohanue was the alaha paine, the main chief, but he had no immediate retinue and lived alone with his two wives, the guardian of his ancestral spirits, ‘akalo, and with the skulls of his dead in the house along with him. …

The Melanesian attitude with regards to presents is peculiar. A number of women would come with yams in baskets for sale; one special basket would be reported as “not for sale,” its contents (often inferior yams) were a gift–but it would have been the height of foolishness to accept such a gift without making a corresponding return. On being discharged from hospital a man would ask for a present in that he had been cured! Where there is no sense of debt there can be no showing of gratitude, gratitude being a spiritual and not a natural gift, a sense of the need to try to make a return for favors rendered. A Melanesian knows nothing of social duties; his life is lived apart from that of his fellows; he has no social sense, no dependence on his fellows, no common bonds of union such as spring up in community life; he asks nothing from his fellows nor they anything from him; he owes them nothing, and in consequence his circumstances have never been such as would be likely to encourage the growth of gratitude. …

The average Melanesian is a person of few worldy possessions; his house furniture consists of a few wooden bowls, a mortar for pounding yams or taro, a supply of vegetables smaller or larger according to his energy, an axe or a cane-knife; also a little stock of native money and perhaps a canoe. Of clothes he has practically none and the missionary’s simple wardrobe seems to him to be lavish in the extreme; he therefore has no compunction in asking of what he knows the white man to possess. If a person has practically never owned anything at all and if all his fellows are in the same condition too it is almost impossible to get him to understand that he should feel gratitude towards those who give him anything, since from his point of view they have so much in that they have anything at all.

EvX: That is one man’s view, of course. I am not in a position to judge the validity of Ivens’s observations, so I offer them with little comment.

Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 1)

340px-dna_structurekeylabelled-pn_nobb

(This is Part 1. Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

All living things are basically just homeostatic entropy reduction machines. The most basic cell, floating in the ocean, uses energy from sunlight to order its individual molecules, creating, repairing, and building copies of itself, which continue the cycle. As Jeremy England of MIT demonstrates:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England … has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. …

This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. …

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating.

usenergy2009Energy isn’t just important to plants, animals, and mitochondria. Everything from molecules to sand dunes, cities and even countries absorb and dissipate energy. And like living things, cities and countries use energy to grow, construct buildings, roads, water systems, and even sewers to dispose of waste. Just as finding food and not being eaten are an animal’s first priority, so are energy policy and not being conquered are vital to a nation’s well-being.

Hunter-gatherer societies are, in most environments, the most energy-efficient–hunter gatherers expend relatively little energy to obtain food and build almost no infrastructure, resulting in a fair amount of time left over for leisure activities like singing, dancing, and visiting with friends.

But as the number of people in a group increases, hunter-gathering cannot scale. Putting in more hours hunting or gathering can only increase the food supply so much before you simply run out.

energyvsorganizationHorticulture and animal herding require more energy inputs–hoeing the soil, planting, harvesting, building fences, managing large animals–but create enough food output to support more people per square mile than hunter-gathering.

Agriculture requires still more energy, and modern industrial agriculture more energy still, but support billions of people. Agricultural societies produced history’s first cities–civilizations–and (as far as I know) its first major collapses. Where the land is over-fished, over-farmed, or otherwise over-extracted, it stops producing and complex systems dependent on that production collapse.

Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C
Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C

I’ve made a graph to illustrate the relationship between energy input (work put into food production) and energy output (food, which of course translates into more people.) Note how changes in energy sources have driven our major “revolutions”–the first, not in the graph, was the taming and use of fire to cook our food, releasing more nutrients than mere chewing ever could. Switching from jaw power to fire power unlocked the calories necessary to fund the jump in brain size that differentiates humans from our primate cousins, chimps and gorillas.

That said, hunter gatherers (and horticulturalists) still rely primarily on their own power–foot power–to obtain their food.

Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.
Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism. Note the use of falling water to perform the work, rather than human muscles.

The Agricultural Revolution harnessed the power of animals–mainly horses and oxen–to drag plows and grind grain. The Industrial Revolution created engines and machines that released the power of falling water, wind, steam, coal, and oil, replacing draft animals with grist mills, tractors, combines, and trains.

Modern industrial societies have achieved their amazing energy outputs–allowing us to put a man on the moon and light up highways at night–via a massive infusion of energy, principally fossil fuels, vital to the production of synthetic fertilizers:

Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia (NH3), which is sometimes injected into the ground directly. The ammonia is produced by the Haber-Bosch process.[5] In this energy-intensive process, natural gas (CH4) supplies the hydrogen, and the nitrogen (N2) is derived from the air. …

Deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) (Chilean saltpeter) are also found in the Atacama desert in Chile and was one of the original (1830) nitrogen-rich fertilizers used.[12] It is still mined for fertilizer.[13]

Actual mountain of corn
Actual mountain of corn, because industrial agriculture is just that awesome

Other fertilizers are made of stone, mined from the earth, shipped, and spread on fields, all courtesy of modern industrial equipment, run on gasoline.

Without the constant application of fertilizer, we wouldn’t have these amazing crop yields:

In 2014, average yield in the United States was 171 bushels per acre. (And the world record is an astonishing 503 bushels, set by a farmer in Valdosta, Ga.) Each bushel weighs 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre. (Again, I’m talking about field corn, a.k.a. dent corn, which is dried before processing. Sweet corn and popcorn are different varieties, grown for much more limited uses, and have lower yields.)

per-capita-world-energy-by-sourceAs anyone who has grown corn will tell you, corn is a nutrient hog; all of those calories aren’t free. Corn must be heavily fertilized or the soil will run out and your farm will be worthless.

We currently have enough energy sources that the specific source–fossil fuels, hydroelectric, wind, solar, even animal–is not particularly important, at least for this discussion. Much more important is how society uses and distributes its resources. For, like all living things, a society that misuses its resources will collapse.

To be continued…Go on to Part 2 and Part 3.

 

Culture Comes from People

The habit of treating culture like some totally independent variable in considering human outcomes is the sort of thinking that makes me want to bang my head on the keyboard. Every time someone says, “[Person] isn’t really [negative trait], they just come from a [negative trait] background that made them act [negative trait],” I want to yell, “Where the hell do you think that background came from? The magical culture fairy?” You get [negative trait] cultures because they are full of people who have those traits. (And they might even think those are positive traits, btw.)

Hilariously, people from highly organized cultures seem compelled to create organizations wherever they go. The converse, unfortunately, is also true.

Of Course your Enemies are Organized

Organization is a spontaneous feature of all human societies. Heck, bees are organized.

There is a myth, routinely proposed by those who know no better, that other people are acting completely independently. Independent action, flowing spontaneously from one’s sense of morality or injustice, prompting sudden, wide-spread social change.

Then people discover that, contrary to this ignorant assumption, other humans actually put in a bunch of effort to organize, choosing carefully when and where they should act or at least helping each other out, and they are shocked, just shocked.

Somehow, spontaneous action is regarded as purely motivated, whereas organized action–the natural result of all human socializing–is impure, some kind of dastardly conspiracy.

Don’t be dumb. Of course your enemies are organized–whoever your enemies happen to be.

The Rosa Parks story comes immediately to mind, as analyzed by Herbert Kohl in Should we Burn Babar? Kohl, I should be clear, does not regard Mrs. Parks as an enemy–he wants her story to be told accurately. Kohl examines school textbook accounts of Mrs. Parks’s story, finding, IIRC, that most were inaccurate.

One of the most common inaccuracies Kohl found in the textbooks was the description of Mrs. Parks as a totally normal person, (just like you and me!) not involved in any political movements, who was just really tired one day and didn’t want to move.

This is wrong, of course. Rosa Parks was an active member of a civil rights organization. Her refusal to move was not the spontaneous result of being tired one day, but a planned protest against segregation. Mrs. Parks was not the first black person who refused to give up her seat on a bus, but civil rights leaders chose to publicize her case and not earlier cases because they thought the American public would find Mrs. Parks a more sympathetic character–you see, the other lady who did the exact same courageous act as Mrs. Parks but hasn’t received any credit for it was divorced.

If you find this surprising, please ask yourself Why? Do you really think the March on Washington or Montgomery Bus Boycott happened without organization? At the very least, people had to get to work.

Kohl offers unsatisfying explanations for the inaccuracies in textbook accounts of Mrs. Parks’s story, mostly because he doesn’t quite understand the writers’ motivations. Here’s what I think happened:

In Mrs. Parks’s time, liberals tended to be on the side of the Civil Rights movement, and conservatives tended to be against it. Both sides knew darn well that the Civil Rights movement was organized.

Today, even conservatives are generally in favor of Civil Rights–conservatives I know wax rhapsodically and frequently about how much they love Dr. King. I shit you not, I know white, southern conservatives who actually see themselves in solidarity with Blacks and Hispanics against evil white liberals.

But these rather conventional, mainstream conservatives do not believe in radical, organized protest against the state. That is a liberal thing. Mainstream conservatives like the status quo and generally seek to protect it (and supporting Civil Rights is now status quo, so they do,) but organized protest is anti-status quo, so they don’t like it.

To make Mrs. Parks an appropriate conservative hero, capable of appearing in children’s history texts without inspiring parental protest that the texts are teaching politics instead of history, Mrs. Parks’ associations with organized liberalism have been scrubbed. A conservative hero like Mrs. Parks couldn’t possibly do something so controversially liberal as join a social organization in favor of her own self-interest.

 

The recent riots in Baltimore and elsewhere are another example. People report, most conspiratorially, that these riots were organized. Of course they were organized! We call them campus organizations for a reason. Heck, I know people who can’t get together with their friends to play video games without setting up a treasury and by-laws, but people are surprised to learn that folks who’ve been in Social Justice organizations for years might donate money to help protesters with legal fees or organize transportation together.

It’s one thing for people to just spontaneously decide to protest. It’s a totally different matter to carpool.

 

Conservatives organize too, btw. Evangelical churches, talk radio, and various conservative think tanks have been organizing conservatives for decades. Conservatives are quite good at organizing, as they tend, even more than liberals, to like being part of an organized social hierarchy. These organizations have had a pretty big effect on the American political scene, because they are very effective at getting their members to vote in lock-step for whatever policies and politicians they support. Thus, four decades years after Roe V. Wade, conservatives still pose a real threat to legal abortion. (Evolutionist X believes abortion should be free and easily available.)

 

Whoever your enemies are, of course they are organized. Organization is a basic feature of all human societies. Stop acting surprised.

A Structural Proposal

I have read that people are capable of maintaining about 150 relationships with other humans. This therefore seems like a reasonable maximum size for human organizations — churches, businesses, towns, etc. For maximum trustiness, perhaps all humans should live in communities of 150, which could then reasonably organize for their own self-interest, well-being and happiness.

But humans seem to desire to live in slightly bigger communities, and to network between much larger groups of people. So how to manage it?

First, each community of 150 could appoint one person to go to a meta-council of 150 people from 150 other communities.

That would be kind of pressing our meta-council members, but they would probably be able to maintain close relationships with enough of their constituents and enough of their fellow meta-council members to effectively represent their areas and cooperate with each other for regional benefits. This allows for the governing of 22,500 people, or a small city. (For comparison, the island of Palau has about 21,000 people; a few other small island nations have similar population sizes.)

The meta-meta level seems difficult to achieve, as we’re already asking people to effectively have 300 contacts, and anyone appointed to a meta-meta council would really have their primary interests back in their 150 member community, and so would do a bad job of representing the interests of everyone else in their 22,500 meta-community. (This is precisely the problem of Congress.)

The meta-meta level might be doable on a basic referendum level–that is, if the meta-meta councilors simply represent the majority views of their meta-regions in a system that does not require them to interact with or convince each other. This would allow for the administration of about 3.4 million people–a large city or small country. (By comparison, Iceland has 330,000 people; Lithuania has 2.9 million, and New Zealand has 4.6 million.)

However, we might be able to organize a few more people into our system by taking advantage of some sort of network effects at the bottom level. Perhaps instead of including all 150 people in our community in a community council, we utilize 150 heads of households (each household can appoint whoever it wants to the council). If we estimate about 4 people per household, then the basic community has 600 people, the meta-community has 90,000, and the meta-meta community has 13.5 million. (Belgium has 11.2 million people.)

Effective, long-term organization beyond this size probably becomes very difficult (unless you are okay with dictatorship, and even that can fail miserably at organizing things).

Predictive value: If my train of thought is correct, communities of <14 million should generally be stable, high-trust, efficient, and effectively democratic in nature. Communities of >14 million should generally be low trust, unstable, inefficient, or undemocratic.

 

A quick glance at a list of countries by size indicates that there are a bunch of small, poorly-run countries, which may contradict the theory. Perhaps badly run countries break up into pieces until they find an organizational level they can function on.

Here is a list of countries by interpersonal trust. (Unfortunately, this dataset seems to lack many of the tiny countries. Anyone else got a better dataset?) The top scorers–countries where most people reported trusting most of their neighbors, were:

New Zealand: trust level 102.2, population 4.6 mill

Vietnam: trust level 104.1, population 91.5 mill, not democratic

Saudi Arabia: trust level 105.8, population 31.5 mill, not democratic

Switzerland: trust level 107.4, population 8.2 mill

Finland: trust level 117.5, population 5.5 mill

China: trust level 120.9, population 1.4 billion, not democratic

Denmark: trust level 131.9, population 5.7 mill

Sweden: trust level 134.5, population 9.8 mill

Norway: trust level 148, population 5.2 mill

So, it’s a small set of countries and the small ones generally aren’t in the dataset, but the democratic, high-trust countries are all between 4 and 10 million people. The larger high-trust countries are all not democracies.

The worst scorers (countries where fewer than 1 in 10 people said they thought most people were trustworthy):

Trinidad and Tobago: trust level 7.9, population 1.3 mill

Cape Verde: trust level 9, population 500 thousand

Rwanda: trust level 10.2, population 11 mill

Turkey: trust level 10.2, population 78 mill

Botswana: trust level 12.3, population 2 mill

Malawi: trust level 14.9, population 16 mill

Cambodia: trust level 15.6, population 15.4 mill

Indonesia: trust level 16.9, population 255 mill

Brazil: trust level 17.5, population 204.3 mill

Malaysia: trust level 17.7, population 30.6 mill

Looks like unpleasant countries can come in any size.

 

I’d love it if someone made a scaterplot of size vs. trust, with democracies in blue and non-democracies in red. :D