Conspiracy Theory Theory

Our ancestors–probably long before they were even human–had to differentiate between living and non-living things. Living things can be eaten (and, importantly, can eat you back); non-living generally taste bad, can’t be eaten, and won’t try to eat you.

This is a task of such essential importance that I think it is basically an innate ability common to all thinking animals. Rabbits and fish need to distinguish between living things; both need to know whether the lump over there is a rock or a predator, after all. And we humans don’t have to explain to our children that cats and dogs are alive but tables aren’t. (Indeed, a defect in this ability that caused a person to regard tables as alive or other people as not is remarkable–and dangerous–when it happens.)

It is easy to divide most things into living and non-living. Living things move and grow; non-living things do not. Rabbits move. Rocks don’t. (Plants don’t move much, but they do grow. They’re also helpfully color-coded.)

But what about non-living things that nonetheless move and grow, like rivers or clouds? You can’t catch a cloud; you can’t eat it; but it still has a behavior that we can talk about, eg: “The clouds are building up on the horizon,” “The clouds moved in from the east,” “The clouds faded away.” Clouds and stars, sun and moon, rivers and tides all have their particular behaviors, unlike rocks, dirt, and fallen logs.

When it comes to mistakes along the living/non-living boundary, it is clearly better to mistakenly believe that something might be alive than to assume that it isn’t. If I mistake a rock for a lion, I will probably live until tomorrow, but if I mistake a lion for a rock, I very well may not. So we are probably inclined to treat anything that basically moves and behaves like a living thing as a living thing, at least until we have more information about it.

And thus our ancestors, who had no information about how or why the sun moved through the sky, were left to conclude that the sun was either a conscious being that moved because it wanted to, or was at least controlled by such a being. Same for the moon and the stars, the rivers and tides.

Moreover, these being were clearly more powerful than men, especially ancient men. We cannot catch the sun; we live at mercy of the wind and the rain. Rivers can sweep us away and sudden storms dash boats to pieces. We live or die according to their whims.

So ancient man believed these things were sentient, called them “gods” (or devils) and attempted to placate them through sacrifice and prayer.

Centuries of scientific research have gradually uncovered the secrets of the universe. We’ve figured out why the sun appears to move as it does, why clouds form, and that frogs aren’t actually generated by mud. We’ve also figured out that the “influence” (influenza, in Italian) of the stars doesn’t actually cause sickness, though the name persists.

We know better rationally, but the instinct to ascribe personhood to certain inanimate objects still persists: it’s why programs like Thomas the Tank Engine are so popular with children. Trains move, therefore trains are alive and must have feelings and personalities. It’s why I have to remind myself occasionally that Pluto is an icy space rock and doesn’t actually feel sad about being demoted from planet to planetoid.

If something acts like a conscious thing and talks like a conscious thing, we’re still liable to treat it like a conscious thing–even if we know it’s not.

Today, the vast implacable forces that rain down on people’s lives are less the weather and more often organizations like the IRS or the local grocery store. These organizations clearly “do” things on purpose, because they were set up with that intention. The grocery store sells groceries. The IRS audits your taxes. Wendy’s posts on Twitter. The US invades other countries.

If organizations act like conscious entities, then it is natural for people to think of them as conscious entities, even though we know they are actually made of hundreds or thousands of individual people (many of whom don’t even like their jobs) executing to various degrees of accuracy the instructions and procedures laid down for them by their bosses and predecessors for how to get things done. The bag boy at the grocery store does not think about lofty matters like “how to get food from the farm to the table,” he merely puts the groceries in the bags, with an eye toward not breaking the eggs and not using too many bags.

Human institutions often become so big that no one has effective control over them anymore. One side has no idea how the other side is operating. An organization may forget its original purpose entirely, eg, MTV’s transition away from music videos and The Learning’ Channel’s away from anything educational.

When this happens, their behavior begins to look erratic. Why would an organization do anything counter to its stated purpose? The answer that it’s because no one is actually running the show, the entire organization is just a lose network of people all following the instructions of their little part without any oversight or ability to affect the overall whole and the entire machinery has gone completely out of kilter is dissatisfying to people; since the organization looks like a conscious thing, then it must be a conscious thing, and they must therefore have reasons for their behavior.

Trying to explain organizations’ behaviors in terms of conscious intent gets us quickly into the realm of conspiracy theories. For example, I am sure you have all heard the claim that, “Cheap cancer cures exist, but doctors don’t want you to know about them because they want to keep you sick for longer so they can sell you more expensive medicines.” Well, this is kind of half-true. The true part is that the medical system is biased toward more expensive medications, but not because doctors make more from them. (If you could prove that you can cure cancer with, say, a mega-dose of Vitamin C, the vitamin companies would be absolutely thrilled to bring “Cancer Bustin’ Vit C” to market.) The not-true part is the idea that this is all being done intentionally.

Doctors can only prescribe medications that have official FDA approval. This keeps patients safe from quackery and keeps doctors safe(er) from the possibility of getting sued if their treatments don’t work or have unexpected side effects.

FDA approval is difficult to get. The process requires long and rigorous medical trials to ensure that medications are safe and effective. Long, rigorous medical trials are expensive.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies only want to spend millions of dollars on medical trials for drugs that they think they have the potential to make millions of dollars. Any drug company that tried spending millions of dollars on cheap treatments that they can’t sell for millions of dollars would quickly go out of business.

To sum:

  1. Doctors can only prescribe FDA-approved treatments
  2. The FDA requires long, rigorous trials to make sure treatments are safe
  3. Long trials are expensive
  4. Drug companies therefore prefer to do expensive trials only on expensive drugs they can actually make money on.

None designed this system with the intention of keeping cheap medical treatments off the market because no one designed the system in the first place. It was assembled bit by bit over the course of a hundred years by different people from different organizations with different interests. It is the sum total of thousands (maybe millions) of people’s decisions, most of which made sense at the time.

That said, the system actually does make it harder for patients to get cheap medical treatments. The fact that this consequence is unintended does not make it any less real (or important).

There are, unfortunately, plenty of people who only focus on each particular step in the process, decide that each step is justified, and conclude that the net results must therefore also be justified without ever looking at those results. This is kind of the opposite of over-ascribing intention to organizations, a failure to acknowledge that unintended, emergent behavior of organizations exist and have real consequences. These sorts of people will generally harp on the justification for particular rules and insist that these justifications are so important that they override any greater concern. For example, they will insist that it is vital that drug trials cost millions of dollars in order to protect patients from potential medical side effects, while ignoring patients who died because drug companies couldn’t afford to develop treatments for their disorder.

But back to conspiracy theories: when organizations act like conscious creatures, it is very natural to think that they actually are conscious or at least are controlled by by conscious, intentional beings. It’s much more satisfying, frankly, than just assuming that they are made up of random people who actually have no idea what they’re doing.

Now that I think about it, this is all very fundamental to the principle ideas underlying this blog: organizations act like conscious creatures and are subject to many of the same biological rules as conscious creatures, but do not possess true consciousness.

Businesses, for example, must make enough money to cover their operating expenses, just as animals must eat enough calories to power their bodies. If one restaurant produces tasty food more efficiently than its competitor, thus making more money, then it will tend to outcompete and replace that competitor. Restaurants that cannot make enough money go out of business quickly.

Similarly, countries must procure enough food/energy to feed their people, or mass starvation will occur. They must also be strong enough to defend themselves against other countries, just as animals have to make sure other animals don’t eat them.

Since these organizations act like conscious creatures, it is a convenient shorthand to talk about them as though they were conscious. We say things like, “The US invaded Vietnam,” even though the US as a whole never decided that it would be a good idea to invade Vietnam and then went and did so. (The president has a major role in US foreign policy, but he doesn’t act alone.)

Most systems/organizations don’t have anyone that’s truly in charge. We can talk about “the American medical system,” but there is no one who runs the American medical system. We can talk about “the media,” but there is no one in charge of the media; no one decided one day that we were switching from paper newspapers to online click-bait. We talk about “society,” but no one is in charge of society.

This is not to say that organizations never have anyone in charge: tons of them do. Small businesses and departments in particular tend to have someone running them and goals they are trying to accomplish. I’m also not saying that conspiracies never happen: of course they do. These are just general observations about the general behavior of organized human groups: they can act like living creatures and are subject to many of the same rules as living creatures, which makes us inclined to think of them as conscious even when they aren’t.

Micro solar panels for Detroit?

We Americans like to think we live in a first world country, but there are plenty of areas–like inner cities or far rural regions–where the complex supply chains people take for granted in the suburbs (“Of course I can buy raspberries in January. Why wouldn’t I?”) don’t work or don’t exist.

For example, relatives of mine who live in a rural part of the country and therefore are not hooked up to a city water pipe are dependent on well water. But a recent drought dried up their wells, and they ended up with no running water for several years. Thankfully the drought ended and they now have water, but droughts recur; I would not be surprised if they ended up without water again sometime within the next couple of decades.

Likewise, there are people in Detroit who lack running water, though for very different reasons (my relatives were amply willing to pay for water if anyone would pipe it over to them.)

I was reading the other day about the difficulties surrounding gentrification. Basically, you start with an urban neighborhood that’s run down or perhaps has always been kind of shitty, and eventually someone clever realizes that there’s no sensible reason why one piece of urban real estate should command higher prices than another piece of urban real estate and starts trying to fix things. So they buy up decrepit old buildings, clean them up, get new businesses to move into the area, and generally try to turn a profit–house flipping on the neighborhood scale. Of course, as soon as the neighborhood starts looking nicer and stops scaring people away, the rents go up and the original residents are forced out.

Which is a big win if you’re a developer, because those original residents were a large part of the reason why the neighborhood you’re trying to flip was so shitty in the first place, but kind of sucks if you are one of those people who can no longer afford rent. Which means, among other things, that you’ll often get  local kick-back against your gentrification schemes: (h/t Steve Sailer)

Hardline tactics succeed in keeping outsiders away from Boyle Heights, the Latino community that is the last holdout to Los Angeles gentrification.

A realtor who invited clients to tour the neighbourhood for bargain properties and enjoy “artisanal treats” felt the backlash within hours.

“I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. “Stay outta my f****** hood,” said another.

Fearing violence, the realtor cancelled the event.

So you end up with a lot of articles about people who want to gentrify neighborhoods but swear up and down that they don’t want to drive out the local residents or destroy their lives, and some of these folks might actually be honest. But these goals are often incompatible: gentrification raises rents, which drives out the lowest classes of society.

As I see it, economically depressed areas, be they urban or rural, have one thing in common: low complexity. Rural areas have low complexity because that’s just a side effect of being far away from other people; urban areas end up with low complexity either because of shifts in economic production (eg, the death of American manufacturing leading to abandoned factories and unemployed people across the “rust belt,”) or because the folks in them can’t handle complexity.

Human society is complicated (and American society, doubly so.) Businesses don’t just get opened and people employed because someone wants to; there’s a whole lot of paperwork involved before anything gets done.

I am reminded here of a passage in Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling crack in el Barrio, where a Harlem drug dealer who wanted to go straight and get a legal job attempted to open a small food store, but got shut down because his bathroom was not wheelchair accessible. So the guy went back to selling crack.

On a similar note, when my relatives ran out of water, there existed an obvious technical fix: deepen the well. But drilling wells is neither cheap nor easy, if you lack the right tools, and beyond the average individual’s abilities. How lucky, I thought, that there exist many charities devoted to drilling wells for people! How unlucky, I discovered, that these charities only drill wells in the third world. I made some inquiries and received a disheartening response: the charities did not have the necessary paperwork filled out and permits granted to drill wells here in the US.

Much regulation exists not because it benefits anyone (trust me, a wheelchair-bound person is better off with non-ADA compliant food store in their neighborhood than a crack house,) but to shut down smaller businesses that cannot handle the cost of compliance.

In simple terms: More regulation => more suffering poor people.

Everyone has a maximum level of complexity they can personally handle; collectively, so do groups of people. Hunter-gatherer groups have very low levels of complexity; Tokyo has a very high level of complexity. When complexity falls in a neighborhood (say, because the local industries move out and rents fall and businesses close,) the residents with the most resources (internal and external) tend to move out, leaving the area to the least competent–greatly increasing the percentage of criminals, druggies, prostitutes, homeless, and other transients among folks just trying to survive.

Attempting to raise the level of complexity in such an area beyond what the local people can manage (or beyond what the environment itself can handle) just doesn’t work. Sure, from the developers’ POV, it’s no big deal if people leave, but from the national perspective, we’re just shifting problems around.

Obviously, if you care about poor people and want to do something to help them, step number one is to decrease regulations/paperwork. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope of this short of a total societal breakdown and reset, so in the meanwhile, l got to thinking about these small-scale development projects people are trying in the third world, like micro-solar panels, composting toilets, or extremely cheap water pumps. Now, I agree that most of these articles are pie-in-the-sky, “This time we’re totally going to solve poverty for realsies, not like all of those other times!” claptrap. The problem with most of these projects is, of course, complexity. You install a water pump in some remote village, a part breaks, and now the villagers have no idea how to get a new part to fix it.

If you’ve read 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, then you’ve probably noticed how much of the infrastructure in parts of the third world was built by the colonizers, and has degenerated since then do to lack of maintenance. These systems are too complex for the people using them, so they de-complexify until they aren’t.

So for third-world development schemes to work, they can’t be too complex. You can’t expect people to spend three weeks trekking through the bush to order parts in the nearest cities or to read thick manuals, and they certainly don’t have a lot of money to invest.

So when these projects are successful, we know they have managed to deal adequately with the complexity problem.

Micro solar panels, for example, might provide enough power to charge a cell phone or run an electric light for a few hours, and can be easily “installed” by clipping them onto the outside of a high-rise tenement window, where they are relatively safe from random thieves. For people who can’t afford electricity, or who have to chose between things like paying rent and having hot showers, such panels could make a difference.

In rural areas with unreliable water supplies, cheap pumps could run water from local streams to toilets or filtration systems; composting toilets and the like provide low-water options.

Such projects need not be run as charities–in fact, they probably shouldn’t be; if a project increases peoples’ economic well-being, then they should be able to pay for it. If they can’t, then the project probably isn’t working. But they might require some kind of financing, as cost now, savings later is not a model most poor people can afford.

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.