(1/3) “Man fears time…”


I have wondered if Imhotep had some hidden meaning in the pyramid. Little is recorded about him, but he lived during the Old Kingdom of Egypt under Djoser. He seems to have been born a commoner, and become renown as a great architect, sage, and perhaps the first physician in the world. His monument to King Djoser, the Step Pyramid, is the archetype for all pyramids that followed and the oldest stone structure in the world.

Pyramids are uniquely stable structures. They have survived many thousands of years and all the storms and earthquakes that time could bring. The mass at the peak of the pyramid we may say is in a high energy state. It is supported by progressively larger masses that reside at lower points of the gravitational potential. This is the thermodynamic analogy I mean to draw, and I speculate:

That Imhotep, born a commoner and working at a time when there may have still been living memory of an Egypt much less advanced, and therefore much less hierarchical. He may have understood on some deep level the changes in social structure that were necessary to make the pyramid possible. Because pyramids are built by slaves, and laborers, and craftsmen of many kinds. Hunters and gatherers cannot build them, and pastoral nomads can’t either. Only a culture with advanced agriculture and the division of labor agriculture makes possible can build structures like this.

The great works of the ancient world were not possible without slavery, and systems of exploitation and power rise to reflect the skyward structures themselves. Then, at the earliest years of that civilization, Imhotep may have understood in some way that Egypt had passed into a new thermodynamic mode of existence. A mode in which energy is drawn up through the roots of plants, and into the people who plant and harvest them and other resources, to flow up and be concentrated into progressively more privileged classes, to terminate finally in the vested power, privilege, and abundance of the King.

There is a clear connection here to the flows of energy in ecosystems. Apex predators eat and scavenge whatever they can. A lion will steal a kill from a hyena. The grazing animals are fed ultimately by the sun. People deny this similarity because they don’t want to know they are eating each other.

In a way, modern civilization seems to be an extension of an ecological structure that humans used to be embedded in, or maybe civilization has superseded that ecology completely. We were prey once. Then we became apex predators. We have advanced our civilization by replacing most of the world’s fauna with our own biomass in both livestock and human chattel. And the more developed a society tries to become, the more material must be put underneath in the base. Egypt and other ancient civilizations could only advance so far, but the modern western imperium extends across the entire globe, purchasing its privileges with sweatshops and child miners.

There are observations to make and questions to ask. I won’t have  a proper response to all of these. Among the most important:

  • The poor don’t need the wealthy, but the wealthy do need the poor. The world is right-side up, not upside down as Ayn Rand would have it.
  • Scientific discoveries are typically made by the upper classes.  They benefit everyone, but not uniformly. Most of the benefit reaches the upper classes first, or exclusively.
  • People are interdependent, and though it’s not clear that the quality of life in post-agricultural civilization is better in absolute terms, most people today would not be alive without modern technology. Is it forbidden by the laws of physics to have this modernity without its gross inequality?
  • Are there scaling principles at work such that the thermodynamics of current societies could be used to predict an upper limit to any society’s development, assuming the total flux of energy on the surface of the Earth bounds its base?
  • There are limits on an empire’s geographic span which seem to determine how wide the base can become, and these limits are primarily technological, viz. communications technology may have played a dominant role in determining the size of social structures in each era of history. What effects are due to new technologies, not just in the size, but in the topology of society?
  • If preagricultural societies exist in a “first” thermodynamic mode, and post-agricultural societies are in a second mode, does a third mode exist?  If I have anything worthwhile on this question it will wait until part 3 of these posts.

It has always bothered me that Americans never seem to understand their relationship to the rest of the world. It is the nature of privilege never to recognize itself, but it is absurd to see them so oblivious to how they in fact depend on the poverty in the greater part of the developing world and the working class in their own country.

I can’t go to the grocery store without being reminded of this. My hands aren’t the first to touch the onion and the tomatoes in the produce section. You see, it is apparently very hard to build a machine that can cut the stem of an onion and leave the bulb intact. It’s necessary to have people, sometimes children, do this by hand. They crawl through the field on their hands and knees under the summer sun and cut the stems with a knife. In the western United States of course, these people are mostly immigrants from Central and South America and their children.

The pyramid of Djoser is a reification of the Egyptian social structure in power and exploitation that was necessary to construct it. And like the pyramid, it may be that social structure is just as long lived, and reflects some underlying thermodynamic stability. There is an irony then in the old Arab Proverb,

Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.

Do we really know how to build pyramids, or was that knowledge buried with Imhotep and hidden with his tomb? Have we learned the secrets hidden in our own societies? Do we know what is necessary for a long-lived, sustainable, self-sufficient society?

Does it bear repeating that the Step Pyramid is a tomb? And how long will it last, compared to the sand dunes that flow across the eons of the desert?

Some of these things I have understood, if dimly, since I was a 12 year old crawling through an onion field with a rusty knife in my hand. I don’t know if I’ve made much progress in my understanding. I was actually working on a post about Elon Musk’s Mars Colony, when I realized I hadn’t written this yet.

You are a sociopath.

Why is war the kind of event that can put two brothers on opposite sides of a conflict?



It did seem ironic to me that President Obama would decry the attitude that Americans have adopted toward events like this. Just two days after the Umpqua Community College shooting, a US Airforce C-130 gunship attacked a Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan run by Doctors without Borders, killing 22 (1). Obama in this case had little to offer but a weak apology and no public comment. It seems the killing of foreigners is routine, and Americans’ response to the killing of foreigners is routine.

Why do foreign lives matter so little to Americans? Americans are not special of course, people of every country value the lives of their own over others. Why do black lives matter so little to most whites in the United States, and violence on the part of the police against black youth so readily justified or excused in the minds of the majority?

We like to flatter ourselves with the notion that we are very social and empathetic creatures, but there are important caveats(2). Quite simply, empathizing with others requires us to know them. We know our family members best, our friends and coworkers second.

Imagine that everyone resides in a social network, with ties that extend like concentric circles out to neighbors or friends, then out to friends of friends, etc. until the world population is reached (3). People close-in are typically in the “in-group,” and benefit the most from our prosocial tendencies.

What is the problem with this? It is very subtle and I’m not sure there is a solution. The increasing globalization of the world seems to have made this effect worse:

The consequences of your actions can reach many more people than your empathy can. For the vast majority of the people in the world in whose lives you have some influence, you are a sociopath.

We work in concert to create the systems that individuals live in. Our actions are individual, but the system is collective. Above I think I have only put into personal terms what people usually call institutional or systemic effects. What most of you don’t seem to understand is that you are a part of a system. It is not something you can externalize; it’s easy to say something is the fault of governments, leaders, or corporations, but that lets us cop out of our personal integration with these constructions and our role in legitimating the actions of leaders.

But how much responsibility can we each hold for this? I’ve written here before about the subtle ways individual behavior is integrated, and emerges into macroscopic behavior that is not predictable from, and is even sometimes directly opposed to individual intention (4). There is something incredibly important in what we don’t understand about how a corporation is capable of mass depraved indifference murder(5), and how citizens’ taxes can pay for drone strikes. And there is something we are not understanding about how wars occur.

Most people are not murderers. Most people don’t want to start wars, but often believe when the fighting starts that it must occur. Even most soldiers do not want to kill anyone. But the social system’s behavior feeds back down to the personal scale, putting human beings onto battlefields, and into conflicts they have no inherent desire for. At least, not until they form a connection to their fellow soldiers.

Yet the world has entered new regime of interconnection. The capacity of people to move about the globe, and to interact across arbitrary distances has implications for the consequences of an individual’s actions (6). There is a kind of “nonlocality” in our actions that was not possible before. It allows us to have a more direct impact on the lives of people far away geographically, but also perhaps to empathize where we could not previously. I’m not sure we can know where this will lead.


    1. Kunduz articles at the Guardian , New York Times.
    2. A prior post on Race and Human Groups.
    3. Social networks have a well documented small-world property. It’s never more than 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon. For a”social distance” metric defined in this way it seems the capacity for empathy drops as quickly as the number of people reached expands.
    4. Prior posts: The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence., The multiplicity of agency.
    5. The 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka is just the one example that came immediately to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22476774. You may be reminded of the 2003 doc The Corporation.

There is an aspect of this I will try to post about later: there are segments of the population that are not well integrated in this globalized social network. They are disproportionately older and are being left behind in a way.

The span of life.

A few years ago, I wrote here about the second law of thermodynamics and the lifespan of things. I still can’t muster a rigorous argument for what I’ve said below. I’m not sure I want to.

Everything that lives must eventually die. Entropy must increase. Equivalently, energy must flow from points of higher temperature to points of lower temperature. In the course of these flows of energy, dissipative structures may appear, drawing off these flows as an engine does the explosion of gasoline.

The Sun is dying for us: for the sake of the second law, it surrenders its radiation to the cold of the cosmos. It is this energy we draw upon to sustain ourselves. How long might we live?

A sand castle is easily destroyed by the motion of one hand. The resulting pile is more robust. There are so many more ways for the sand to just be a pile; that state is more permanent.

A fly lives for only a few weeks. One of our species might live for a hundred years.Living things, drawing on the flows of energy, are driven far from the state of the equilibrium of their parts.

So it is that the growth of entropy creates both order and disorder, it giveth and it taketh, each to a proper time and space, and according to a probability. The states far flung in the distribution, the rare and the low in entropy, are ever so briefly lived. They return to the dust and the ash of stars.

Some tribes in the Amazon rain forest have lived sustainably for thousands of years, while the cities of Mesopotamia rose and fell, and while the empires of Medieval Europe crumbled and were replaced. How long might we live?

Sometimes I think we ought not take our problems into the solar system. The problems of poverty and war, the problems that have followed our civilizations since the beginning, are they really an inescapable consequence of these same non-equilibrium thermodynamics? Yet they cannot remain with us if we want to survive and we’re left to hope they are not inevitable.

The signs from changing climate and the exhaustion of the planet suggest we are approaching a terminus. What will come after I don’t know, but the challenges that are coming will be the most difficult any human generation has ever faced. If we want to see what lies on the other side, we must try to find a way to live.

This is a terrible burden to be placed on the young. They are to suffer the cost of every shortsighted decision made by generations previous, and to somehow find a better way.

If these children can survive what’s coming, they will be marked forever as the greatest of all generations. We have little hope other than they might be more clever, more wise, more kind and generous than any that came before and muster the strength to live through.

Everyone is living a stolen life.

The history of the human species is defined by millennia after millennia of genocides, and displacements of people.

This country, that Americans are so thankful for, is a stolen one. It was stolen for them by their great-grandparents. The labor that built it was also stolen. Somehow this doesn’t really dull the taste, though. People are perfectly happy to inherit stolen goods, a stolen country, and a stolen life. And I’m not sure it’s reasonable to demand anything else.

I think it is too much to ask, really. Can you expect an entire people to honestly grapple with any suggestion they they should not exist? That’s an absurd thing to expect. You should not expect a child born of rape to be sorry for being alive – it would be cruel to expect this, yet everyone living today, not just in the United States but in the whole world, is the inheritor of the legacy of human history itself. It is largely a legacy of murder, and rape, thievery, and genocide.

Neanderthals were murdered, or otherwise driven away so that Europe could be settled. Other waves of migration and displacement followed. The people who painted the caves of Lascaux are not the same as the present day French, but were some ancients extirpated long before written history. I can’t recall ever hearing of a people whose origin story begins with a genocide of other people, but this must have been a common origin for cultures that appeared after the first waves out of Africa.

The pilgrims, too, of course, preferred to delude themselves with the idea that god had made a “new world” for them. And of course the people who were there already were a non-entity. God had seen to it that diseases would destroy them and make way for their Manifest Destiny. The history was written by the people left alive, and the crimes were made righteous.

It leaves us here, living naively on the graves of dead cultures and people. To give thanks and be grateful for the lives that were stolen for us, because some truths about our condition are just too terrible.

A narrative of human evolution.

Scientists acknowledge, both male and female, that there is a serious problem of gender disparity in most of their fields. But there is an obstacle in getting the science community to truly understand the gravity of their gender problem, and I think even now in our “enlightened” age, many scientists still do not take the problem seriously. Men in science should be taking it personally, but they are not, and they therefore do not pursue solutions with the appropriate level of sincerity.

What most scientists do not understand – here I mean all genders – is that the science itself is suffering for the lack of women. In truth from a lack of diversity in general, but I want to use a specific example here which will highlight the gender problem.

It does seem to be a common perception, among those outside the community, as well as among many inside, that science is progressing in a largely unbiased way. The fact that we are necessarily approaching our questions from an anthropocentric worldview, though, seems perfectly clear. More important for the narrative here is that most scientists – in particular Darwin himself – are men. I am going to suggest that the prevailing narrative of human evolution is an male centered one, and this bias misses what might actually be the more important female half of the story:

The hair on most men’s arms is coarser and darker than that of boys, and it is not as fine as the hair most women retain into adulthood – this is called vellus hair. Vellus hair, then, is juvenile trait retained into adulthood, and it is more common for women to retain this trait than men. You will also note that this pattern does not occur among bonobos and common chimps. The evolutionary trend of retaining juvenile traits is known in biology as neoteny, and it has occurred for other species as well, and it seems to be associated with a pattern of domestication: dogs, cows, pigs, and cats have all undergone neotenous changes over the course of the last several thousand years. Vellus hair is a physical trait, like the diversity of fur colors which have appeared for dogs and cats, but it is not primarily the physical trait that is being selected for. Actually, it is a set of behavioral changes that are being selected – the physical traits are correlated with changes in behavior due to hormones.

It has been argued by some anthropologists that humans are self-domesticated apes(1). The implication of the changes described above being more pronounced in women is that the selective process has acted to a greater degree on them than men. This means the male-centeric idea of early hominids who stood up to use tools out on the savannah, and communicate amongst each other to better hunt prey is failing to account for half of the species obviously, but less obviously that the other half of the story may be the more important part!

Archeological finds within the last few years have shown it likely that humans were upright walkers prior to leaving the forests (2). This suggests the particular changes in brain development for humans are not solely associated with the opportunities of having the hands free, and ingenious new tool use. This was, and for many still is part of the standard Darwinian narrative. But if not tool use, what are the particular behavioral changes of domestication, assuming humans underwent these to reach their present state?

A scene from one of the best NOVA episodes:

Humans are more trusting of one another. Humans also have greater empathy and more sophisticated theories of mind than apes. There is also less aggression, at least towards the in-group if not conspecifics generally. I don’t think I will be accused of gender bias if I suggest that females are less aggressive than males. There is enough data to support this, and it is well associated with measurable hormone differences.

I remember once hearing of a study, which I cannot find right now, that reported upwards of 60% of the words spoken by people are not for communicating useful information at all, but are mostly gossip. If you believe that women talk more than men do (3) and that 60% should apply to them as well, this suggests that gossip and other kinds of social communication may actually be the primary purpose of language. Taken together with the ape study I have this hypothesis:

Nature has selected for less aggressiveness, and greater levels of sociality within the in-group. Especially for children, it became important to learn from mothers and other members of the tribe or community. This required that children be receptive and trusting, and that receptiveness came along with a certain gullibility. I am suggesting this is the origin of the “disposition A” I discussed in a prior post. Also, to the extent that these evolutionary changes are more pronounced in women it also suggests that they have been subject to a greater selective pressure in this direction. Humans had to evolve a system-wide substrate for the preservation of cultural mimetic information, and a perhaps unavoidable consequence of that was also a propensity for superstition and ritual.

There is unfortunately the sexist implication that women are better at learning from others at the expense of a capacity to explore new knowledge on their own, which I think legitimates the kind of sentiments expressed by Larry Summers(4). I won’t try to defend this – I don’t think there exists and there may never exist experimental data to back up an assertion that goes that far. This returns us to where the post started: without women participating equitably in the scientific process, their stories and their perspectives will go largely unexplored, or explored by men who would rather proliferate theories of females laying on their backs, waiting for males to come home with food (4).


  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/346/6208/405.full
  2. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/ardipithecus-ramidus
  3. This is by no means a settled question in the literature despite my personal experience http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/do-women-talk-more-than-men/ .
  4. http://bulletin.swarthmore.edu/bulletin-issue-archive/index.html%3Fp=145.html. The suggestion that males have a greater variance in scientific ability than females is one my hypothesis would be sympathetic too. Autism is more common among males, and this helps push them towards the far upper and lower ends of the bell curve. These are impossible things to quantify, though.
  5. Owen Lovejoy: http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/other-shows/videos/i-ardipithecus-i-males-become-providers/, Rebecca Solnit: http://harpers.org/archive/2015/06/shooting-down-man-the-hunter/1/

Selection and “Intelligence”.

The human mind is not an instrument for discerning the truth. It is an instrument of survival. You may be assuming that evolving for these two purposes would produce equivalent minds, or minds with equivalent functionality, but that is not the case. There are subtle and important differences between the truth that is believed by a mind that is designed to survive and the truth believed by a mind that is designed to understand the truth as such. In particular, if understanding certain types of concepts would produce behaviors detrimental to the survival of the individual, I expect that evolved minds will fail to support that understanding.

The human brain is not an especially logical instrument. I’m not sure what modern philosophical scholarship on this subject says, but I know this is a popular misconception, and for certain that idea was presupposed and even enshrined by most ancient and enlightenment era philosophers. We should be able to dispense with the notion readily by observing that natural selection’s principles operate on the human brain – if the brain is not a divine construction, and it is purely the result of natural selection, then clearly it is first and foremost an adaptive instrument, and any ability to access facts or ascertain truth is enthralled to the primary purpose of survival; we have no reason to assume that those aims coincide in every case.

Now, why does a significant majority of the human population believe in the existence of a deity? Why do any religions exist? If we choose to set aside for the moment any value judgement about religions we would feel safe in assuming that – for whatever reason – it’s most likely adaptive to be religious – or at the very least to possess a mind that is receptive to religion and superstitions. Natural selection(or in this case cultural or mimetic selection) apparently must have some preference for this. And I’m also going to suggest that this is not a retained archaic trait (that at some time in the past it was necessary, but is now unnecessary and vestigial, and that people who were raised without religious belief or have left it behind are somehow more “evolved”). That would speak to a lack of understanding of the process, because evolution does not produce superiors from inferiors – it produces adaptations and improvements to adaptations, always in response to some constraint and environmental demand. Adaptations have a value only measurable in the terms of specific environments.

With those two points established, I move on to the third:

Selective pressure does not necessarily act homogeneously across the population. It may be nature’s preference to have some distribution of traits.

The above is a consequence of a more basic idea, namely that natural selection is scale-free, which would be better explored in another post. For now, I’m satisfied with asserting that selection acts on integrated systems of living organisms while simultaneously acting on those organisms individually, producing system-wide adaptations. This is closely associated with “group selection.” Group selection is well explored in biology, but in that literature it seems to be common to discuss it as a mechanism for the evolution of altruism and prosocial behaviors. Here I am suggesting not just that group dynamics generate selective preference for individual behaviors, but that selective preference exists for behaviors of the group concurrently.

With those two facts and the above (unqualified) assertion, I arrive at the central point:

Acting on entire systems of human communities, selective pressure has worked to produce a variety of intellectual styles that constitute an adaptation of the system as a whole.

The system is the unit of selection. Just as the organs in the bodies of vertebrates have differentiated and component-ized to act in concert as part of the whole, so I suggest here that natural selection has worked on communities to produce a diversity of intelligences, the interaction and relation of which produce adaptive community scale behavior.

In this hypothesis, I identify only two general types of “intelligences.” Alternatively, I may call them “epistemological approaches”, or “intellectual dispositions”. The distinction is made entirely by what someone identifies as valid sources and justifications for their knowledge.

In type A, which constitutes the majority of people, knowledge is developed primarily through a social praxis. If knowledge is justified true belief, group A finds ideas and facts from books and other communication media, and sufficient justification through authority and prevailing social norms.

In type B, which is kept at a minority, appeals to authority are immediately discarded. New knowledge is gained overwhelmingly in a more empirical way, outside of the social praxis – the popular views are irrelevant for this disposition. These people are the experimenters – not exclusively in the scientific context, but with all types of ideas. For this reason, it is these people who generally produce new knowledge.

Let me take a moment to get away from the assumption that people should be categorizable as ‘A’ or ‘B.’ I only want to suggest that in a particular context a person will either adopt an A or B disposition, or that one type of approach may be a person’s habit(1).

Is it apparent why it should be preferred that type A be the more common? Because the B disposition is less receptive to beliefs that come in through social channels, it is actually less likely to facilitate the propagation and preservation of culture. The continued development of the scientific enterprise, and even the continued growth of other forms of mimetic innovation require that humans communicate culture amongst each other and through generations with limited resistance. The B disposition is a source of attenuation.

The interplay of the two styles then becomes clear: one sector of the community, operating at the boundaries of human knowledge, acts with the style that is best for generating new understanding. That new knowledge or innovation must then be passed into the larger corpus for preservation. Knowledge will not be well maintained in a system of interacting people unless enough of them operate under disposition A. One part of the community must learn, the other part must remember(2).

Extravagantly, I claim that these dynamics have generated the observed distribution of “intelligences”: The greater bulk of the population accepts the knowledge that is given by the dominant culture around them(3). Some minority exists, and persists(by selection acting at scale)  to facilitate changes to that dominant culture, and as generations pass, innovations are passed from the fringe back into the greater community where memory is better held. The entire group of people thereby adapts to ever harsher and more diverse environments, and as will be seen…better competes with other groups.



1. And it should be noted that in whatever sphere a person does not exercise group B thinking, they are defaulting to group A. For example, there may be a mathematician, very esteemed in her field, who is at all times habitually ‘B’ thinking when working on problems in mathematics or reading journal articles, but this same person is not likely an expert in, for example, biology. If there is some commonly accepted belief appearing in textbooks on the subject, it may not be her habit to question that knowledge, as it lies outside the scope of her own ‘B’ habits – and therefore in most spheres outside mathematics she is in group A. I am not sure what it implies about my hypothesis if even all ‘B’ thinkers are group ‘A’ thinking in most situations. There may not be a viable mechanism for biological selection in that case.

2. To avoid a going off on a tangent here I pretend like I didn’t just describe human communities’ behavior as being itself brain-like. That is, again, another post altogether, and I’m sure there are many better written and more credible sources for interesting material in this vein than this blog.

3. I don’t just mean religious people as I indicated above. There are a number of people, for example, who say they believe in evolution, but only have a very superficial understanding of the process or the evidence by which it is known to occur. Although it may be a true belief, they have not justified it independently, and therefore in that case operate under the ‘A’ disposition. Over time, it is expected that a popular belief in evolution will eventually overtake the popular belief in creationism(in the U.S.), though people’s habits of thinking will remain as unscientific as before.