(2/3) The eugenics of a Mars Colony.

(1/3) “Man fears time…”

(2/3) The eugenics of a Mars Colony.

It hurt me to write this. And I promise it will hurt to read this. I’ve been putting this off for several months, and I’m not sure I should have written it. Please consider this carefully before you continue.

The plan, the engineering and the form of the problem.

Elon Musk is planning on establishing a colony on the planet Mars (announcement video). He will attempt to send 1 million people.

There are many problems that have to be solved to make this possible. Many of them are technical: Access to clean water, power generation, and growing food. As difficult as they are, these problems are well-defined and well scoped.

In effect, he seems to be claiming that he and SpaceX will be able to construct an entirely new civilization from nothing but fine red dust. Even this, as absurd as it sounds, I would be willing to grant. Not just because of his track record, but because if the laws of physics don’t forbid it, we should assume that it can be engineered. Musk himself has talked about how some limits result from a lack of imagination about what’s possible. The trouble is knowing what limits are actually implied by physical principles.

There are other problems though, that aren’t as well defined. Who’s labor will make all of this possible? Elon hasn’t been able to shield the workers in his own factories from the weight of his ambitions. The value and the labor must come from somewhere, and the problems of power and exploitation have never been solved by anyone, anywhere, at any time in human history since agriculture.

So who will go to do the work of building this civilization out of the dust? It will fail without the presence of an underclass, like many of the first colonies in America before they began importing slaves like Baldwin’s nigger[1].

You don’t have to watch the entire video if you’re already familiar with Baldwin. It will help to understand my perspective here.

The socioeconomic pyramid, and its thermodynamic mode.

I need an aside here to clarify something. In the writing that follows I will treat phenomena at the city, country, and international scale interchangeably. This is deliberate, and I think order for this to make sense I have to assume the global economic system has a special property. Notice if we think of it as a kind of ecological energy pyramid, we can zoom in on parts of it and still have a pyramid – essential properties hold at any scale. For me to freely swap observations about behavior at different scales, though, I don’t think it’s strictly required to be a pyramid. It may only be required that the global economic system have scale invariance. This is part of why I think some methods from statistical physics that rely on that symmetry may be useful in understanding it, but that’s another subject. And there’s another thing which is very important: collective behaviors are not necessarily the linear sum, or average of individual behaviors. Normal human intuition totally fails at this. A community may have some kind emergent ‘intent’ all its own that grows out of individual behaviors in subtle and unpredictable ways.

I don’t think Musk being entirely open about his motivations for going to Mars. He says he worries about asteroids, and other “eventual” extinction events, but his main concern is clearly human originated scenarios. Those other more astronomical events belong to some longer timescale that wouldn’t put his attempt to leave on such a short timetable.

Make careful note of the omissions:

Musk 1/21/2014: I think demographics is a real issue where people are not having kids in a lot of countries. Very often they say well we’ll solve it with immigration. Well immigration from where? If many parts of Europe have an average of 50 or 60% of what’s needed for replacement – or China for that matter – they’re at half replacement rate. Where exactly are we going to find 6 million people to replace the ones that were never born? I think people are gong to have to regard, to some degree, the notion of having kids as almost a social duty – within reason. If you can, if you’re so inclined, you should. Otherwise civilization will just die, literally.

The birthrate is inversely correlated to wealth, inversely correlated to education, and correlated to religion. So the more religious you are, the less educated, and the poorer you are the more kids you will have. And this is true between countries and within countries. In the U.S. the highest birthrate is in Utah, with the Mormons.

I think if you say what are the threats to civilization, the lack of people is obviously a threat to civilization. We are going to face in the mid part of this century – and particularly the latter part of the century – a demographic implosion the likes of which we haven’t seen including the Black plague. The math is obvious. When did China ever experience a 50% reduction in its population? Never. Basically pre-writing, because no one’s ever written of such a thing. Even the Black Plague – I think they might have [lost?] like a quarter, but never a half, yet Spain – birthrate of 50%. It’s as if someone went through and killed half of the population – or at least of the future population. There’s something better happen to turn this around. Otherwise, you have an inverted demographic pyramid and it’s going to – [gestures falling over] at this rate the only thing that will be left will be robots.

For a while I thought Musk intended to run away from the planet, like he ran away from South Africa. That he planned on leaving all of the human dross behind and remaking a world with what he believes are more worthy people. But his actual sentiments must be more complicated than that, and I can’t pretend to be able to read his mind.

When white Americans and Europeans make prognostications about the future, it is their habit not to take into account the agency of Africans, and other people of the global south. Their predictions usually reveal an implicit assumption that non-whites are some kind of mud people with no capacity for conscious thought or planning of their own [2]. Often these countries are forgotten completely. But Elon Musk was born and raised under apartheid South Africa, a rapacious reader and fully aware of the world around him. He shouldn’t have this problem. This is why I think the omission was deliberate.

From the U.N. a few years ago (link):

The current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report launched today, which points out that growth will be mainly in developing countries, with more than half in Africa.

Musk omitted mention of Africa, and the years between now and this projected peak near 2050 because these years are the most dangerous. Before we have to deal with underpopulation, we will have to ask if the planet can support 10 billion people. I do not believe overpopulation itself is a problem – the problem has always been over-consumption. Birthrates are greater, as he says, for countries low in social development. But no country has ever advanced itself without a growth in externalities. For example in Brazil, the first among the emerging economies, deforestation of the Amazon burdens indigenous people with the costs of development, and overuse of water resources by industry and agriculture have created a dangerous situation for city-dwellers. Brazil’s birthrate has plummeted as it developed, and the education of women improved. But this was attended by a increase in externalities, which may actually be a form of dissipation, required by the second law of thermodynamics, that richer communities and countries are privileged to be able to shove off onto poorer ones [3].

Eventually this process must end or transition to another regime – and not because the planet has an absolute carrying capacity. That is, not due to the population alone, but the product of population and per capita energy and resource consumption. The latter grows at a rate larger than the decay of the former as a country develops, so that what is gained by a drop in fertility is more than lost through modernization. The most developed countries are therefore the greatest burden, and their externalities eventually consume the whole globe. The people at the lowest tiers of the pyramid, assuming this notion of dissipation is correct, do not have a “heat sink.” At the bottom there isn’t anything unload costs on except the planet itself. Ruin, mainly through climate change follows.

And now in a bid to reach a higher position, people in many developing countries are immigrating to the wealthier countries that exploit their home lands. This effect, combined with the radical shift in the world population due to the wild incongruence in birthrates result in the present global racial tension, as racism is at the center of the process people use to create a moral pretense for systems of plunder. It is how privileged classes can maintain the absurd ideology that the poor owe the rich and not the other way around.

It is my view that the racism and nationalism of human beings virtually guarantees that they cannot withstand a such a rapid shift in the racial make-up of their countries without violence on a large scale. When you ask an American about over population, they are prone to say something that implies they think there are too many Chinese people alive, or that Hispanics have too many kids (offering no such concerns about Mormons). If I were to ask an Indian, I assume they’re liable to make some reference to people of lower caste, or Muslims. People who believe all human lives are of equal worth should recognize they are in the minority, or more likely be honest with themselves about what they are.

The people who voted for Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen know what they are, and they know what they don’t like. What they don’t like is this feeling that their countries are being taken over by people with colored skin. The basic process that is occurring now I have been anticipating for the last fifteen years, though my reasoning back then drew on personal biases from my own experience with people. I can’t express how heartbreaking it has been to realize the person I was ten years ago would have better anticipated the choice whites made in electing Trump, and I have felt myself a fool for having grown out of the slightest amount of cynicism. I used to joke about how easy it would be to Nazify the United States, and that when World War 3 began the U.S. would be the aggressor and its motivations would make the conflict indistinguishable from a race war [4]. Americans have no armor against this, and repeating “this is not normal” won’t help: before the election Americans lived in a country with 20% of the world’s prison population, disproportionately black and brown (The New Jim Crow, Last Days of Solitary) and they were living with that like it was normal. It is a part of human adaptability to become accustomed (or willfully blind) to things that are horrifying.

Hans Rosling [5] suggested nothing short of a nuclear war would stop this population growth among the poorest billion, and we may yet have that. Even if apocalyptic maniacs like Steven Bannon and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are removed from power, the forces that put them in place are so much greater. But I am still a fool, and it makes me happy to be wrong about these things.

The eugenics of a Mars Colony.

Now, what does Musk really believe about the future, given that he’s not saying everything? He isn’t hiding any white supremacist style racism. Musk is either

unaware of how profound a problem racism and nationalism are in the futures he’s talking about,

trying very hard to ignore and feign ignorance of them. Or

believes these problems are more easily solved than those he is working on.

He seems to be like a Trekkie in that he believes the magic of science fiction should be able to solve this problem, without the intervention of any actual science. I find it hard to believe that he could be as daft as the rest of his class; all of the evidence he’s left indicate he’s accepted the privilege of not having to deal with the issue. I believe most whites genuinely don’t understand it, but I believe he does understand it and has chosen silence.

Now it is a feature of systemic racism and class structure, being dependent global properties, that their effects are robust to many kinds of individual behavior. By that I mean the system’s organization alone reproduces a proximate cause, and that there’s some large class of individual motivations that all correspond to the same macroscopic behavior. It may be our curse to participate in systems whose emergent malice lies beyond the reach of our intentions. Though this is not to excuse the feedback loops that appear between leaders and constituents (The Color of Law, still need to read this one).

And this is how the escape to Mars will reproduce a kind of eugenics, which selects on the correlates of socioeconomic status. And I dare to say Musk has already made this observation. He knows that like Tesla’s cars, access to Mars will have to be rich people first. His claim of making it so everybody can go means everybody in the developed world who is not poor, especially white Americans (who have on average 16 times the wealth of black Americans). He may believe it is unavoidable that if we want to go to Mars at all, it will have to be done like this.

There is a dread implication here I hope you’ll be spared noticing. It may be the worst thought that has ever stained my mind. It is nearly unspeakable. I will not reference this implication further.

If he believes the wealthiest people can just leave Earth behind he is wrong. His actions seem to indicate that he does believe that. This is why it was necessary to write the pyramid post first. Because it directly attacks the core vanity that causes Americans to misapprehend their relationship to the rest of the world, and wealthy people of all countries to the working class(Coates). Their success is not independent of class stratification, it requires it. No society has yet been able to function in any other way, and without an alternative the colony will fail like our civilization here is failing.

Again, the Mars colony has as much chance of success as American colonies did before they started importing slaves. For the Mars colony to function, they would have to bring not just people who can afford to go, but also enough labor as is made necessary by the exploitative thermodynamic mode of our societies.

We don’t get to run away from our problems. We face them and fix them, or else carry them with us wherever we go. Something fundamental about how humans live and relate to each other, our relationships as defined by flows of energy and resources have to be altered. And no one will escape without finally answering James Baldwin’s question, “Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place?” That the ruling class is terrified of this question and evaded it is the reason we are in this situation.

Most of us will remain on Earth, to deal with these problems and evolve as a species, if the laws of physics even allow it. To transcend the conditions of our lives or die. We are hurtling toward a singularity and flailing desperately for some guarantee of survival. This is humanity, in extremis.

(3/3) In Extremis. (soon)

  1. I was considering posting a review of I Am Not Your Negro, but it seems unnecessary (Dagmawi Woubshet, Cassie da CostaHolly Genovese). I notice the movie has been called prescient and even ‘prophetic’, but those folks misunderstand. Baldwin was talking about his world and his time. It only sounds like prophesy because so little has changed. And really black folks have very little to learn from it, as beautifully as it elucidates and corroborates their testimony. White folks are having their worldview shaken (A.O. Scott) only because they’re so profoundly ignorant.(return)

  2. Or to take Steven Bannon and his favorite book as an example, these assumptions are just as often explicit and openly racist.(return)

  3. This may be easier to understand with an example at the city scale. It is necessary (to externalize costs) to have power plants and factories spew pollution into the air. Will the rich neighborhood tolerate this? Of course not – put the black folks downwind and let their children pay the price. This sort of thing happens in nearly every city in America. In this case, because some chemical process is occurring that brings matter from an organized state to a more disorganized one, namely that pollutants diffuse, it is clear that the avoided cost is a kind of dissipation. It is a separate claim, and harder to justify, that many of the social problems in poor communities(The Poisoned Generation) are also a kind of system state that takes in entropy produced by wealthier communities. I cannot justify the claim that this “dissipation” may be required by thermodynamics, and I don’t know how to predict a theoretical limit on it if it is required.(return)

  4. It doesn’t seem to be required that most Americans become racist for this to happen. There is a violent ethnonationalist core in the Republican party, and it is only required that they be allowed to act freely. These people are prepared to use violence to get what they want, but white moderates are not prepared to withstand violence on their own bodies to stop them. The lives of people of color just don’t matter enough. So white nationalists may escalate without response. The reaction to Black Lives Matter made it clear from whom most Americans will tolerate violence.(return)

  5. Has Rosling gave an incredibly simple breakdown of things seven years ago, if you need that. It is critical to remember the caveats he had to offer in that talk, which many cornucopians prefer to ignore. He said population might hold at 9 billion; the most recent projections are closer to 10 billion. We will never reach this number. Because consumption (in this ‘mode’) grows exponentially, and I find it hard to imagine an energy source that can grow at that rate.(return)

  6. I’m not going to entertain the suggestion that the plan may be to use AI and construct robots for labor and resource extraction. Although I consider it plausible Musk intends this, it’s better saved for a later post.
  7. There is going to be a major sex ratio problem that Musk doesn’t seem to have anticipated at all. And it seems his companies may have a sexism problem that the American media is trying to keep quiet about (the Gaurdian isn’t). Sometime soon one of the geniuses at SpaceX is likely to have an “Astonishingly good idea.”

American Terrorism is making a comeback.

I think there is a reason we haven’t had a major act of anti-government extremist, or white nationalist terrorism since the Oklahoma City bombing(1). It seems like some people have forgotten there even was such a thing. I believe the reason has something to do with the vigilance of the FBI and other federal authorities over the last 20 years.

If you look over this list Southern Poverty Law Center has gathered, here, you might notice these patterns:

  1. Most of the completed attacks were carried out by lone wolves, and typically required little planning.
  2. The attacks that involved a group of people, or were complex enough to require long-term planning and communication with a number of people for coordination and material were prevented.

The lone wolves are more difficult to catch, of course, but their capabilities working solo are limited. Any significant amount of cooperation or a group that spends a lot of time in planning is much more likely to be detected by authorities in the networks these groups operate in.

So it seems to me the FBI has been keeping a lid on American terrorist attacks for about 20 years now. Some observers have commented that racist and extremist groups are always infighting, and I think FBI involvement is one cause of that – most of these groups have been infiltrated by informants or actual agents. These organizations can be sabotaged easily with simple antics, like accusing the leadership of being Jewish. I have been lurking Stormfront for a long time, and the hand of federal authorities seems evident to me in a lot of the internal conflicts in the white nationalist sphere.

But now, WN’s have a reason to celebrate with Jeff Sessions running the Justice Department and the administration making clear that they intend to ignore white nationalist terrorism. The election has triggered a surge in recruiting in white nationalist and affiliated groups, and the formation of new groups, which will operate outside the attention of federal authorities.

Most of this post is probably not news to you; my purpose here is to make the simple point: It’s not some stroke of luck that we have gone this long without an attack on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing – it is the result of diligence on the part of law enforcement. Without that diligent suppression in a few short years we should expect a return to abortion clinic bombings, and attacks on mosques and the offices of civil rights groups. And new for the 21st century, white terrorist groups that have been allowed to grow in complexity and metastasize will attempt progressively more sophisticated and larger scale attacks: we have the risk of dirty bombs, chemical/biological weapons, and cyber attacks from them as well.

  1. Most of this post formed while I was watching the recent pbs doc about the OKC bombing in 1995.

(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.

Obama’s invisible moderation

As was pointed out in the news media, a short time before Obama actually nominated Merrick Garland, Orrin Hatch was quoted thus:

[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man. He probably won’t do that because this appointment is about the election. So I’m pretty sure he’ll name someone the [liberal Democratic base] wants.

This man has had eight years to get to know this president. Why did the nomination surprise him? He really doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, and cannot perceive that Obama is a moderate. Obama was not trolling and this was not really a political maneuver. He is not a radical ultra-leftist Black Panther (unfortunately), yet this escapes nearly everyone on both sides of the political aisle. The daftness of Hatch, and the republican obstructionism on the nomination is just the most recent example of a more general pattern.

The nation should be humiliated: Obama has always been judged by the color of his skin, and not by the content of his character, or his policies. He could have been twice as liberal as he has been, and he would have encountered the same level of enmity from  republicans, and the same level of suspicion, and birtherism. He has not been much more progressive than a typical Democrat of the recent era, yet enjoys near unconditional support from the black community.

These issues were discussed at length by Ta-Nehisi Coates, here. Here I only want to add a few things I’ve noticed that were not addressed there that reflect my own perspective. And we are entering a time where we can begin to look with a clearer hindsight.

It seems to me that he is in an impossible situation. No one can unilaterally alter the world they are interacting with, not completely. People take cues on how to behave towards us from how we behave towards them, but this tendency has its limits and he has proven a master at pressing to those limits. Yet as president he has had to try to improve a country which simply does not want to cooperate with him and is always suspicious of him. I think history will record him as a much lesser president than he could have been if he were not in charge of country with deeply rooted assumptions of white supremacy. The nation has suffered many lost opportunities over the course of his two terms for its mistrust.

This last point brings me to an often overlooked aspect of racism. People don’t seem to understand how the oppressor is also harmed. There are always opportunity costs – it is easy to see all the ways that whites have benefited from practices of exploitation and dispossession, but all the ways that whites have suffered for this are invisible. The costs suffered by everyone only become visible when you seriously consider the alternative.

The alternative course would have generated many more black doctors. Criminals have been created where instead there should be scientists, engineers, and teachers. This gross wastage is invisible because even now most people, including liberal whites and most black folks, do not adequately reckon with just how profound the lost potential is. The world in which that potential was realized is so radical and foreign from ours seeing it requires more imagination than most people can muster (1,2).

How much better a president could we have had? How much more progress would have been made? I hope this keeps you up at night. We haven’t got a lot of time left. This summer is going to be incredibly hot and global civilization has little time to be bothered with lingering, petty tribalism.

  1. This brings to mind a thought experiment, which I might write about in depth later: What would you, yourself think about slavery if you happened to be born into the American south in 1830 as the child of a plantation owner? How far beyond the bounds created by that culture would you be able to reach? What would you have to grab hold of as a lemma? Would you be able to grapple with the gravity and the depth of the evil of the thing? We are prompted to ask, what are the things that we do today that history will record as grievous crimes?
  2. It is understood I could say the same about women and oppressed classes throughout history. And again as I’ve posted earlier, I can’t exclude the possibility that structures of dominance and power are unavoidable.

The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence.

There are a few concepts I think it would help to take care of: The first is in the companion post here.

The other is described below; it just happens Dr. Neil Tyson tweeted about this yesterday:

It has often been repeated, and my experience bears this out, that the real trouble doesn’t come from what we know we don’t understand, but from what we think we understand but really don’t(3). If we had the right questions, the answers would soon follow.

There are so many people who study the subjects of human behavior: psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. How many of them would pretend to understand something of quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is just linear algebra, some complex variables, and the very general physical concepts of uncertainty and wave interference that require those mathematics. But waves interfere linearly: that is, they just stack. And the operators that appear in the equations of (non relativistic) quantum mechanics are just stand-ins for acts of measurement or transformation on the information of the state, and as required by the Schrödinger equation(4) act linearly.

But the behavior of the vast majority of the systems of the world, which do not submit to the simplifications and contrivances of a well designed physics experiment, is not linear. In living systems, the interactions between, and really it seems the integration of components result in a nonlinear relationship between small scale and large scale behavior.

The consequences of that nonlinearity are profound and confounding. Pen and paper analysis becomes useless for many questions, when no equation can be written down. The growth of systems implies its regime – the very rules it obeys – can change radically as its configuration traverses a complex and unknown topology, making computations and simulations necessary, though not sufficient to understand. These systems are very hard, yet the people who study these fields today do pretend to understand!

And now we must be honest: we, as humans, do not understand ourselves. The softer sciences have made progress, but it has been slow and groping, stymied by their being bound to the use of inferior, insufficiently rigorous tools. What knowledge they have gained is washed out by an ocean of biases, assumptions, and plain ignorance in the greater public, as a drive toward self-serving beliefs come into play particularly in human affairs.


And now to the proper subject of this post, and the reason I tagged it “Black History Month.” (I’d hoped to make more general comments, but this post is already too long and a specific example serves as well.) A few days ago this article appeared on the Atlantic from Dr. Adia Wingfield(1)(emphasis mine):

Progress has undoubtedly been made since the days of explicit segregation, and most white people no longer openly advocate for segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and offices. When speaking to researchers, many even argue that integration is important and necessary. … Despite laws prohibiting segregation…it persists on several fronts today.

Some of the most striking studies done on present-day segregation have to do with how it’s connected to the ways families share money and other resources among themselves. The sociologist Thomas Shapiro, for instance, argues that the greater wealth that white parents are likely to have allows them to help out their children with down payments, college tuition, and other significant expenses that would otherwise create debt. As a result, white families often use these “transformative assets” to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, based on the belief that sending their children to mostly white schools in these areas will offer them a competitive advantage. (These schools are usually evaluated in racial and economic terms, not by class size, teacher quality, or other measures shown to have an impact on student success.) Shapiro’s research shows that while whites no longer explicitly say that they will not live around blacks, existing wealth disparities enable them to make well-meaning decisions that, unfortunately, still serve to reproduce racial segregation in residential and educational settings.

Local decisions and actions have global consequences, not always the linear sum of the local, or even foreseeable from the local. This is the deeply nonintuitive part, the part people will fail to understand because it violates some vague assumption I might call ‘linearity of intent’, and because they really can’t anticipate that something bad could come from most people meaning well:

It is not actually necessary for people to be racist to reproduce a systemically racist society. (5)

This carries more general implications about the morality of actions, carried out locally, which have global consequences not directly foreseeable, but I will stick to this example specifically. There is a kind of transmutation that occurs through the nonlinear aggregation of people’s behavior, so that decisions which appear acceptable at the one scale grow to have dire consequences in the larger.

In this case it means that people doing their best by their children, by the fact of acting in a world in which whites enjoy disproportionate privilege, perpetuate segregation and the systemic oppression follows (6, 7). Hiring managers, acting without any racial intent of their own, reinforce the topology of social networks by selecting from a pool of applicants which comes to them with such bias already built-in (8).

It follows that we can’t assume our actions will not remain unaltered by their integration with the actions of others, and that the globally/systemically reproduced intent of the macroscopic system will be the same as the majority’s. Even worse: there are cases where emergence creates a system that behaves in ways that are directly opposed to the intent of individuals.

Without a better understanding of nonlinearity and emergence – and with a rigor that deprives us of safety in our preconceptions – I don’t imagine a solution to these problems can be found.



  1. Two Atlantic articles about segregation and poverty. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-ending-segregation-the-key-to-ending-poverty/385002/?utm_source=SFFB, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/segregation-tomorrow/459942/
  2. WaPo article about whether more intelligent people are less racist. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/27/are-smarter-people-actually-less-racist/?tid=sm_fb
  3. I can’t find a proper attribution. It wasn’t Twain.
  4. And some basic “common sense” type assumptions…when all possible events are accounted for, their total probability is 1.0. That the position from which distances are measured should imply nothing about the prediction, and such.
  5. In 2014, I realized to my surprise how much sociologists had been able to learn; that this was not a foreign or outlandish concept to them, but some had already made this observation, ex.: Bonilla-Silva.
  6. Another very related example comes immediately to mind: it is not necessary that most police in a black community be malicious to do harm. It is only necessary that they be afraid, indifferent, ignorant, or any mix thereof.
  7. If many of our problems really do take on this form, can they even have a solution? I have heard that busing in an earlier era was actually closing the black/white achievement gap and undoing the evil of segregation before American’s more inveterate nature reasserted itself during the 1980’s. This American Life, 562.
  8. This was also discussed in the Wingfield article.

The multiplicity of agency.

The multiplicity, Ω, is the number of ways a system might be configured given some observable macroscopic state (macrostate). If I flip a coin and catch it in my hand, and I do not look at it, its multiplicity is two(1). A body with no extension (a particle with no length, width, or depth can’t twist, bend, rotate, etc.), contained in some box can occupy some position in that box and have some velocity, and only these two variables contribute to its multiplicity.

If I take a large handful of coins, and toss them up in the air, there is an expectation that “about” half of them will come up heads, correct? What may be less apparent, but can still be intuited, is this: As the number of coins being tossed increases, the percent by which they deviate from a 50/50 split will decrease. This is sometimes called the Weak Law of large numbers, and it is the simplest kind of emergence I can think of; it is a macroscopic, qualitative property that arises from increasing a quantity in the system. It is a statistical impossibility that a large number of fair coin tosses will not reveal the underlying probability of a single toss.

Viewed another way: there exists a set of all possible outcomes for every coin flip. Because they are all equally probable, and there are so many more outcomes with the coins split about 50/50, those outcomes are much more likely. The states that split the coins evenly have a much greater multiplicity.

There are many different kinds of statistical convergence, and I suspect they can all be associated with a type of emergent observable property. If the multiplicity as it appears in formal statistical mechanics, is sufficiently explained, I may give the multiplicity of agency. 


Let there exist some macroscopic behavior of a community. This behavior is associated with an effective, or apparent agency which emerges from aggregation of individuals, or the local behavior of components. The multiplicity of this agency is the number of local behaviors which all contribute to reproducing the same macroscopic behavior.


  •  People shopping for clothes will operate under a number of motivations, and may weigh a number of different things when making purchasing decisions. Different people also go with very different fashion choices, or will prefer certain stores, etc. To the extent that all of these variations in local behavior typically contain a common thread of preferring lower priced goods, the market will generate a downward pressure on costs of production which is robust to all of this variation. This pressure has contributed to the creation of sweatshops. Because people make decisions at a local level and act at that scale, the apparent macroscopic agency, or systemic behavior is indifferent to this.

What I am trying to get at is a way of understanding systemic societal problems in rigorous terms that show the qualitative differences between global scale and local scale behavior.

  • This seems closely associated with problems of nonlinearity, and a violation of the basic assumptions people habitually make(2) when trying to understand these systems. It’s just not enough that ‘most people’ would not want some particular system behavior.
  • How do wars occur, anyway? It would be too simplistic to attribute this completely to leaders. It would be safe to say that most people do not wish for these events, but we seem to habitually behave in ways that contribute to tensions and conflict; that the greater multiplicity belongs to the emergent agency which creates and maintains hostile divisions between people.

Maybe as a species we are just feckless? After all of our advances in technology and science, why do we still not understand ourselves well enough to solve fundamental problems like poverty and violence? I would hope we are not still holding on to the notion that our individual free will has relevance and power to affect our behavior as a society(3), as the recurrence of civil wars, the tendency of markets to produce dangerous bubbles, and many other phenomena demonstrate that the aggregation of behavior can create systems acting in direct opposition to local intentions.

The companion post is here.


  1. There is some subtle interpretational issues here with what probability means, but I will gloss over these because they are largely philosophical, and to the extent they relate to underlying issues in classical and quantum probability, etc. I think I can get away with ignoring them for the purposes of this post.
  2. The prior post about linearity.
  3. Econophysics, for example, can get pretty far, and reproduce some surprising results assuming individuals’ behavior is entirely random. It hardly seems to matter that people operate under coherent local rules at all, at least for certain properties.

Ta-Nehisi Quotes

And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.

Between the World and Me, p.92

“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing–that a four-year-old child should be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed.”

ibid, p. 97

“And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”


“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practice of jabbing out one’s eyes, and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”


I had a story due for an editor…and I kept asking for extensions. And he said to me the last time I asked him, he said ‘no.’ He said if you don’t turn this in tomorrow, I will go to  [editor in chief] and tell him that I have no confidence in your ability to deliver this piece. And I said ‘Oh my God, that cannot happen. That can never be said about me.’ And I churned it out in a day, and the piece ran in the magazine like four months later. And what I got was that I was afraid. That in fact what I was doing – that I did not need more time, that I did not need to think things over, that I had not figured it out, that I was just afraid. That I was literally afraid that it was going to be terrible, that I couldn’t do it. That actually was a big growth piece for me, because then I could see the whole process. So I do get afraid now, but I recognize it as part of the process, and I just write right through it. It’s actually one of the things I try to impart to students when I’m teaching. That it’s natural to sit there and be afraid but you gotta  do it in spite of it.

Malcolm was basically Jesus in my house.



“It could be me” is a fine starting place for confronting the evils of the world, but a really poor conclusion. If no broader theory of sympathy and humanism emerges beyond one’s mean particularism, then all we really are left with are tribalism and power.


Sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible. One of the great functions of radical candidates is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.



The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.


I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.



On Race and Human Groups

This post should be read first.

Do you want to know what would happen if White Nationalists in the United States actually got what they wanted? If all of the Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and other non-whites were all removed from the country?

It would be found, very soon after, that religious divisions among “whites” would become much more salient. People would also begin to segregate themselves, or build a social hierarchy with dependencies on hair and eye color, and height. Much like what was going on in Germany during the Nazi era. Modern white nationalists for the most part don’t like to draw distinctions between different types of white people, but even in the absence of government policies in this regard these types of divisions would appear on their own.

I know this because the “races” that are in the bedrock of modern American society themselves appeared somewhat spontaneously, and of course have absolutely no root in biological fact.

This entire interview should be watched, but Coates has a question at 9:55 that I am going to try to respond to.


“I can understand what the end of white supremacy would look like. But I’m going to tell you what deeply scares me.  Do you need someone underneath? Do you need someone to play that role?…[referring to a 14th century Europe HIstorian] She said if the Jews were not there, they would have invented them. That you need somebody to play that role….we invent social systems, and we invent  technology, and we invent different things all the time, right? There’s no reason why…just because it hasn’t existed that it can’t.”

Human beings are social creatures. But this eusociality is not without restrictions and equivocations. Their altruism extends overwhelmingly to one’s own clan, tribe, clade, or gang. The “war of all against all” alluded to by Hobbes has never actually occurred. It does not even seem to be possible. Overwhelmingly, what happens is that groups are formed by people dividing themselves along whatever salient characteristics are close at hand, and conflict arises along those lines so formed.

  • How are these groups formed, exactly?

I don’t have the kind of theory that allow me to say I have the answer to this.

  • Is it necessary for the groups to be antagonistic?

No, not in all cases. I don’t have quantitative details on how dependent the conflict is on these variables, but I expect when the population density increases, competition for resources will become more intense. This is one of the primary drivers of inter-group conflict. I think it will be found that when the economy is going very badly, groups become more antagonistic. This has implications for the capacity of global society to deal with waves of immigration from the Global South into the North as the consequences of climate change and the energy crisis, visited disproportionately on developing nations, drive them from their homes (2).

  • On what scale do groups appear?

There seem to be multiple overlays of different categorizations in play: there are religious divides, nationalistic ones, lines by party, etc. though race seems to have a unique power. What has been of interest to me is the restriction that technology seems to place on the size of groups that may form. Before horses and the printing press, and during the time of city-states, I think it was most common for people to divide along familial or tribal lines (1). Larger states dominated by divisions along ethnic and religious lines may have required both. I wonder if the Civil Rights movement would have been possible without television and radio, and the role they played in creating both national scale black and white identities which could supersede more parochial ones. The advent of the internet suggests we have entered a new regime, with new possibilities.

  • Is there anything special about “race”?

I have come to suspect that the reason for the power of skin color, and other more obvious phenotypic traits is simply that they can be determined at a glance, and at a great distance. You would have to communicate with someone to determine their national origin, or to hear their accent. Ordinarily you would have to know someone fairly well to determine in detail their political leanings. A style of dress can be changed readily. The singular, overwhelming power of race is that membership can be determined for total strangers, and prior to any communication. It is nature’s own team jersey. Once the symmetry is broken along this line, though it is subtle, the non-linearity of the system takes hold and dictates the growth and dominance of the schema.

  • There is something sickeningly Darwinian about this.

Yes (3). And I have neglected invoking terms of thermodynamics to describe what is going on when groups form and engage in conflict. I don’t imagine it would sit well with anyone if I suggested the following: That segregation and group formation is a kind of phase separation like oil and water, and driven by entropy. And because it is driven by entropy, asking a society not to do it is like asking a machine to engage in perpetual motion. That they might both be forbidden by the same laws of physics. I’m not sure of this last part. As far as entropy goes, is creating a more equitable society like building a bridge, or more like trying to get a snowflake to last all summer? Only a quantitative theory could answer this.


  1. There will probably be more on this subject later.
  2. No matter how bad it hurts, at some point I have to write down what I actually think is about to happen. The worst effects of climate change won’t be that it’s too hot in July, or that there is a very strong El Niño. They will be fed through such a complex system we won’t even know we did it to ourselves.
  3. Sometimes I think the idiots who believe in creationism have actually better anticipated the implications of Darwinian theory, even while they fail to understand Darwin, and refuse to accept the incredibly stark evidence of evolution. Because the creationists refuse to believe the thing when its consequence is so terrible, and evolutionists are just ignoring the consequence. Sometimes I hear stupid shit even from biologists that we are above the kind of competition animals engage in, and that we are somehow above the core principles of evolution. Nothing could be more wrong – the competition humans engage in must only be of a different kind or at some other, non-individual scale and not so easily recognized when it is seen in the mirror.