Monday, March 21, 2016

Copying complex adaptations

This is the followup post that I promised to write when I did my review of The Secret of Our Success.  Sorry it took so long.

Well, something that occurred to me when I was reading that book was that the rate at which mutations crop up governs how fast you can change.  There's no way to develop a tolerance for lactose unless that mutation happens to occur in someone.  But the rate of mutation must also govern how complex an organism or simple society can get.  There's only so much selective pressure out there and each new mutation that isn't doing you any good requires, on average, on excess death to remove it from the gene pool.  And since each gene is an opportunity for something to go wrong in reproduction a higher rate of mutations must mean a smaller genome if your typical organism has the same number of offspring.

The same with cultural knowledge.  If you're living in a band without economic specialization and people discover things by trial and error then the sophistication of the skills people develop is going to be governed by how accurately they can copy each other.  And as The Secret of Our Success did a good job of demonstrating humans are really good at copying each other compared to monkeys, unlike common monkey stereotypes.  The knowledge around manioc consumption I discuss in the review isn't anything a single individual will be able to discover in their lifetime but it's something that groups of humans can learn over time.  Essentially nobody in a culture has any idea why they're soaking the manioc so long but they do it that way because that's how it's been handed down to them.

In the modern world we've managed to assemble a large amount of cultural information but we've got two advantages.  The first is specialization.  Well, really pretty much every culture has had some level of specialization in terms of gender roles and many had more than that but the modern world has a bewildering array of butchers, bakers, candle stick makers, etc.  The second is that we're lucky enough that a lot of the reasons we do things are known to us.  You can show a chess  board to an expert in the game and they'll probably be able to remember the positions of the pieces accurately but if you do the same with someone who doesn't know the rules of chess then they won't.  That's because the piece positions stem from an underlying order that is simpler than what's on the board and which the expert can recognize.  Western civilization is probably lucky that the steps required to turn wheat into flour have obvious purposes in a way the preparation of manioc doesn't.

Sometimes this can go wrong.  Here is an excellent blog post on how western civilization forgot how to prevent scurvy for various reasons but mostly because they thought then understood the why of the cure but they really didn't.  I had no idea before I read that that preparing limes in copper vessels might make the juice ineffective as a scurvy cure but apparently it does.  And so we come back to the need to copy inventions closely and only make changes when we can test to see if they work.

The modern world we live in is an awesome but also very fragile thing.  Even the creation of a pencil requires more knowledge than any single person has.  We're all embedded in this economic system that allows specialization but despite what you might think that system isn't natural but is also the product of long evolution.  If you ever read Debt: The First 5000 Years you'll see that even arbitrary barter isn't something that people just come up with.  Most societies don't really have trade and most which do only trade particular items for other particular items.  It requires a lot of social and legal evolution before you can have something like money which you can trade for meat, bread, candlestick, or pencils.  The author of Debt thinks that we ought to go back to past systems but I'm not willing to give up my pencils.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Outgroups and colonialism

I'm currently reading The Birth of the Modern and the sections on colonialism in South East Asia.  It had always puzzled me just how that worked.  It's one thing for the Spanish to just come into the Caribbean and be able to dominate the inhabitants by main force.  But when expanding into state societies Europeans were usually outgunned until the mid 19th century, at least on land.  There's no way that Cortez could have conquered Mexico without local allies.  And you could say that same for European colonies through Asia.  The Pilgrims, in fact, wouldn't have survived with the explicit generosity of the Native Americans.

I think the best explanation from this is probably a thing Scott Alexander mentions in I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup:

 Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.
And of course when you see people around the world allying with Europeans because they hate or fear their neighbors.  Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag through that the Pilgrims would be a useful buffer state between them and the Narraganset who had been causing them trouble and that's why he was willing to assist the Pilgrims.  For 50 years that worked out fairly well.  For the inhabitants of Mexico it went bad much more quickly.

Often in science fiction you'll see the world uniting in the face of alien invasion.  Reading about these episodes in history makes me very skeptical about that.  I don't think the US would invite aliens in right now just because the US is in such a secure position but I could easily imagine the US in during the Cold War trading large stretches in the South West for protection in the case of Soviet missile attack.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

AlphaGo's Confidence

I'm sure those of you who follow this sort of thing know that Google's Go playing AI named AlphaGo beat the highest ranked human player last night.  There are still another four games between the two of them but I came across something in an article that I thought was particularly interesting.

For me, the key moment came when I saw Hassabis passing his iPhone to other Google executives in our VIP room, some three hours into the game. From their smiles, you knew straight away that they were pretty sure they were winning – although the experts providing live public commentary on the match weren’t clear on the matter, and remained confused up to the end of the game just before Lee resigned.
Either AlphaGo has a badly calibrated sense of confidence or it's a lot better at evaluating boards than the people watching are.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the other games turn out and whether AlphaGo's sense of how it's doing turns out to be accurate.

Also, I'm going to try to blog more in smaller chunks.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...