Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Culture fit for dodos

In yesterday's post, "Paul Kincaid on Iain M. Banks", we discussed Paul Kincaid's take on the Culture, Iain Banks's attempt to define a utopian civilisation. Kincaid argued that this attempt was a failure, that the covert unpleasantness of the Culture expressed contradictions within Iain Banks's own high-minded liberalism.

Paul Kincaid was absolutely right. Social liberalism, the celebration of Enlightenment values, is an edifice founded upon ungrounded abstractions: 'individualism', 'freedom from oppression', 'human rights'. While such slogans are and were undoubtedly intoxicating in the struggle against authoritarian (and in particular pre-capitalist) formations, in content they are dramatically disconnected both from the historical specificities of the capitalism they served to inaugurate and from the evolutionary-ecology of the human animal itself.

Can we do better?

Consider an ecosystem of multiple species, many in a predator-prey relationship. Let's be specific and consider the pigeon. Here's a species whose evolutionary-physicality exactly captures its ecological constraints. Its senses are acute because it needs to forage, to avoid predators and to mate. It enjoys tasty food and is disgusted by poisons because any inferior affect would lead to loss of fitness - it might die before reproducing and those suboptimal genes would fail to propagate.

The pigeon tells us that what it really wants is unbounded food, plenty of mating opportunities, a safe nest and no predators. Should we listen to it?

The end of utopia

Occasionally animals find themselves on islands with no natural predators and plenty of resources: a truly benign environment. No doubt they would consider that they had found utopia. Yet a Malthusian-powered evolutionary descent soon follows. Their descendants lose sensual acuity, mobility and intelligence - all energy-wasters in utopia. The end result (starting out as a pigeon) is the dodo.

At the level of the individual creature's wish-list, utopia does not end well.

If the species could speak to us collectively (!) then it would tell us a different story. It would ask for a testing, but not too-testing environment. One where there were problems that the truly competent animal could overcome, thereby proving themselves and securing fame, fortune and mates. There would, sadly, be unfortunate creatures with greater than average genetic load, creatures which would be culled by natural selection. But the species, in its descendant cohort, would maintain itself in pristine condition.

You see the problem. All of this applies to humans too at every level: genetic, phenotypic and psychological. No-one even wants the all-mod-cons beach holiday their whole life. But by our very smartness, our technological competence, our innovative economies, we're on track to remove all those threats which make life a challenge. We'll start by being bored .. and then devolve into complacent human dodos.

I don't think Iain Banks wanted that conclusion, but he didn't know how to avoid it either. And evasion is the enemy of great literature.


You say we'll correct mutational load by genetic engineering. But we end up with an 'enhanced' species-genotype uncorrelated with its undemanding ecology. Hard to see how such a mismatch leads to psychological tranquility: bored in paradise.

The dodo was never bored: it positively evolved to become complacent and easily-pleased.

It's worth reminding ourselves that all of our much-prized human attributes are an evolutionary response to the challenges of our previous environments. We value high intelligence, for example, because it enables us to manage our complex societies (the abstractions underlying science, technology, politics, processes, finance, ...) while human language was the key to adaptive social coordination and cohesion on those dangerous savannas.

If we simplify our interaction with our environment by off-loading complexities (as the Culture does with its AIs, its Minds) then there is no very good reason for us being more cognitively or physically capable than a mollusc.

Again I ask the shade of Iain Banks: what ecological problems in the desired-future are humans to be bioengineered to cope with?

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