Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ishmael (Part 2)

p. 139: “‘Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska’s surpluses—and if they weren’t, Nebraska’s farmers would stop producing those surpluses, pronto.’ ‘True,’ I said,…’Are you suggesting that First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion?’ ‘Ultimately,’ he said, ‘Who else is there to fuel it?’”
        Okay, first off, this doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. Is Quinn honestly trying to tell us that there is some sort of worldwide psychic cooperation between First and Third world peoples, so that the Third World peoples send messages to the First: “Don’t worry about reproducing to match your food supply; we’ll handle that for you, thereby not violating the Law”? Why in the world would this Law apply to entire populaces only, and not to geographical subsets? Can you find a single example in the wild in which this is true? No, of course you can’t, because it’s a law of individual behavior, not some psychic collective force.
        But secondly, Ishmael [Quinn] here betrays his profound ignorance of American farm economics. First: It is assuredly not true that Nebraska farmers would stop producing surpluses if no one consumed them. They would produce regardless, because the government purchases the surplus. The government might then (and has) simply destroy it. Or they might send it—for free—to those starving third world countries, whose people might not be able to afford Nebraska corn on the open market. This has several effects. First, free food does increase population among poor peoples—if there is food enough for six kids this year, perhaps two of them will survive next year, when famine returns, whereas if I only had two children, both would likely die. If I have to pay to feed my children, the calculus is entirely different. Second, free imported food drives the price for locally-grown food to zero, driving local farmers out of business and increasing the certainty that famine will continue, increasing their reliance on free Nebraska food, which tends to increase their population still more. And why does the U.S. government do this? To prop up Nebraska food prices! Why? Because food can be produced so cheaply, and there is so much food relative to the paying world population, that only large corporate farms can compete in a free market. To keep smaller farms afloat, government props up prices. There is plenty of food. There is no need for starvation. To end world hunger, only one step need be taken: convert every country in which there are starving people to market capitalism (and stop giving them free food). Modern, wealthy, post-industrial nations have a stable or declining population. Problem solved. Check out The Disaster of International Foreign Aid Programs for a fascinating overview of the problem.

[Go back to pp. 141–2. I feel that there should be something to say here.]

p. 143–4:
        What extinction? I don’t see a case having been made of a path that will lead to human extinction. Is this just assumed?

p. 147–8:
        Yes, the Leavers have a great life (and Quinn quotes Sahlins! Cool). They’re wonderfully happy, and rich with food (although I still say that they are benefiting, food-wise, by our decimation of their brethren). We are miserable by comparison. But that is the price we pay for our increased population, strength, and resilience to disaster and famine. I hope to help remedy the mental diseases (crime, addiction, loneliness, all the things he mentions) created by this situation.

p. 165-66: I’ll have to check my Bible, but IIRC, Man wasn’t made to rule the world, not in a Taker way at least. It was only after he was cast out of the Garden that he got that job. See Asimov & Rand on the subject. The Garden of Eden story is an allegory, from a Taker point of view, of the move from Leaver life to Taker life. The fruit of the tree of Knowledge is an allegory for man’s loss of innocence and his new necessity of rules—of Good and Evil (nothing’s evil to a Leaver—nothing anybody would ever want to do anyway. Emotions are in line with right action. Not so with Takers). See Asimov’s Guide to the Bible for more details. It’s a racial memory thing. Early agriculturists weren’t so sanguine about the change, and looked back to “the good old days.”

p. 166: “The world is at the point of death.”
        How so? Is this just assumed? Who says? You?

p. 167:
        I don’t see that Takers deliberately forced neighbors into agriculture. Back this up.

p. 169:
        Leavers would not have come up with the allegory of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because the knowledge it gave is that, according to Quinn, the way of life of the Leavers is evil.

p. 173–4:
        He’s likely right about Cain & Abel though. Cf. Asimov again. But this is a separate story from the Eden story. Because the Eden story is about “us,” not “them.” Therefore told by agriculturists. Or something.

p. 204–5:
        The Takers didn’t forget how to live; they discovered that the old rules didn’t work anymore, so they came up with new ones, and then forgot the old ones. The story didn’t play out the way he says.

• Okay, any new rules the Leavers come up with are inventions too. You’re making a false distinction. It’s just that conditions change very slowly among Leavers, and new rules/ideas have a long time to settle out and fly or fail. Not so among Takers; by the time we’ve adjusted to one rule and started to be able to see its long-term consequences, conditions change and new rules are needed.

p. 214: Unrelated note: “I don’t think you can start wanting something until you know it exists.” Or know it’s useful, or know a specific use for it, or hear how it can benefit you. Yes. But note how this concept applies to the idea of marketers creating demand by popularizing such things as underarm deodorant. No, people didn’t complain about not having it until it was available. But the change did not occur because of marketing brainwashing, it came because people discovered they wanted something they had only just discovered existed.

p. 217:
        What’s this about the Plains Indians being agriculturists? Look this up.
        P.S. I’d love to be a Leaver. It sounds like a fantastic life. But I can do more good here. Plus: books.

p. 218–9:
        Crucial point: The reason almost nobody rebels against our Taker life is that they realize that they’d almost assuredly die were we to revert to primitivism.

p. 220–1:
        Okay—the day-to-day life may have been as good as you say—sometimes. But the hard times could be brutally hard—deadly. Twenty good years cannot make up for one bad year (people expand to fit their food supply, right?) for people who cannot store food. The tribe can be killed or mortally wounded by one bad year. This is why agriculture is so attractive. Otherwise—why become agriculturists at all?
        P.S. We’re not first on the menu of any remaining predators. Hmm.

p. 238:
        Stop. Takers aren’t subject to evolutionary forces? Bullshit. All life is. True, we’ve tried to make ourselves rich enough that we’re no longer as susceptible to the mass death that goes along with much evolution (Leaver life is just a bowl of cherries, right? Riiiiight), but we’re not exempt.
        No, I can’t leave this like that. Leavers are subject to evolution, he says, right? They’re part of the community of life. They’re subject to the will of the gods. Well, what do the gods of evolution say? They say, “You, and you, and you, and you, and all of you over there, must die so that my approved remnant may thrive.” And that remnant may include humans—and it may not. The gods could kill all humans as surely as they killed all dinosaurs. And even on an ordinary level, they may kill all but one out of twenty in a tribe, or one out of twenty tribes. Are you sure you wish to live subject to the gods’ will? Hello? Wake up! Evolution is harsh. Evolution’s a bitch. The gods of evolution care not one whit whether your family, your tribe, or your entire species lives or dies. Mother Culture—does. This is the most crucial issue of all, and yet Quinn glosses it over while talking out of both sides of his mouth about it. In Leaver life, things are great—until the Grim Reaper comes calling and wipes out your entire genetic line in a blink.

        By the way, on the note of lamenting as unspeakable, unjustifiable evil the destruction (by assimilation, competition, or murder) of Homo sapiens leavers by Homo sapiens takers, where are the Homo erectus? Hm? Oh? The Leavers killed them? How interesting. So we’re not so unique after all.

p. 242:
        Oho! Ohoho! So we should go back to hunter-gatherer/agrarian life to wait—and leave room—for the next intelligent creature, who, if we wait long enough, will kill and enslave us?? Thank you, no. Go to Hell.

• Oh, that’s precious. “Man? Oh, yes, man! What a wonderful creature he was! He owned the world—and then gave it up so we could arise.”
        “Whatever happened to him?”
        “Eh? Oh, we killed him, of course. Couldn’t have him around—he might have taken it into his head to try and reclaim his throne and deprive us of our destiny. Couldn’t have that. No, he had to die. Noble creature, though. There might be a few left in zoos and preserves.”
        I’m with Heinlein. We have to be the biggest, meanest, roughest, nastiest kid around—so that when somebody else big and mean shows up and wants to take our lunch money (and dinner money, and breakfast money, and every meal forever after), we’ll have a chance to fight him off. This is also why I believe that we should never completely get rid of war.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


p. 56–7:
        I’ve had bits to quibble about before this—such as the idea that the idea of German racial purity and superiority is “nonsense”—it’s not nonsense, not on this level; it’s a major driving force in human history (no, not the Germans, race) from time before writing—but nothing to write about ‘til now. And this isn’t really a disagreement, just a comment (the author is obviously a genius, by the way):
        Yes. If evolution is seen as teleological, it is of course a myth. And admittedly, that myth is prevalent throughout our worldwide culture. But it’s merely anthropocentric vanity, which I (and most biologists and other people informed in evolution) am free of.
        But anthropocentrism is not inherently wrong. It’s only wrong to be teleologically anthropocentric. The jellyfish was right to end his story with the creation of jellyfish, and man is right to end his with the advent of Man. That does not imply that Man is the end of creation, merely that Man is our primary—sole—interest, so this is where we focus the story. Further, it is not wrong to think the world is there for the taking, any more than a coyote is wrong for thinking a rabbit is there for the eating. It is. It is only an error if the coyote believes that rabbits were made to be eaten by the coyotes, instead of that coyotes were made to eat rabbits, which is true. So the error comes only if man believes that the world was made to be exploited by man, rather than that man was made to exploit the world. The former point of view engenders an erroneous attitude. If coyotes were made to eat rabbits, that says nothing about the sustainability of the rabbit population—in fact, what it says about individual rabbits is that they will be eaten and die! Coyotes could easily eat all the rabbits, and then where would the coyotes, who were made to eat rabbits, be? Dead! Starved!
        But—if rabbits were made to be eaten, then it’s not the coyotes’ responsibility to worry about the rabbit population, is it? It is the responsibility of whoever or whatever made the rabbits. Tuck in! Have at it! They exist to be used, so use them! However, since rabbits weren’t made to be eaten, but instead to be rabbits and eat greens, this sort of attitude will ensure the destruction of rabbitdom and the death of the coyotes. It’s an error in teleology.

p. 84: “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.”
        You’re speaking of natural law. But what kind of natural law is being discussed here?

p. 85–6: “Millions have been willing to back their choice of prophet with their very lives. What makes them so important?”
        Card (in Xenocide, I believe) answers this. In short: Prophets are civilizers.

• “If [drug legalization] ever becomes a serious possibility, people…will…begin combing scriptures to see what their prophets have to say on the subject.”
        No. They will comb scriptures to find justification for what they already believe. This is a serious point that’s being ignored.

p. 87: “You know how to split atoms…but you don’t know how people ought to live.”
        Yes. This is my life’s work. We don’t know how to live in this world we’ve created. Why? Because we weren’t made for this world, nor it for us! We were made for the world of the Leavers, the primitives. I’ve known this—forever, I guess. The goal is to understand ourselves well enough to figure out how to live well in a post-agricultural/post-industrial world. Sociobiology is a path to this understanding.
        But it’s not the only path; there are others. Molecular psychology and genetics are two other possible ones. And another which blindsided me—Economics. Economics can largely shortcut the process, starting with common-sense assumptions about human nature, and reach startlingly broad conclusions about human conduct. It’s thrown me off my path, for what I expected to take decades or lifetimes with sociobiology has taken mere years with economics. Economics can solve or address vast swaths of what I wanted to accomplish with sociobiology.
        So I’m left at something of a loss. Now what? Where do I go? What problems do I solve? I never set out to solve purely philosophical problems. Philosophy has always been a means to an end for me: a way of honing my ideas, but especially of developing a rigorous method of explaining my ideas, so I could convince some others of my rightness (this bleeds into rhetoric, of course, but that’s later) so they would help me with this sociobiology project. When the prevailing wisdom makes the truth you have make no sense to almost everyone, you must come up with a counter-wisdom, and a way of explicating it that makes clear its truth.
        This was my project; this was my plan. But it hit a snag. Sociobiology should still work, up to a point—it will at least let you figure out what sorts of ideas will likely fail—but Economics will get you there much faster, and, presuming sociobiology gives any real answers at all, they will likely read: Economics is the place to look! At least in part. In fact I can dimly see that even now.
        So why bother with sociobiology at all? Well, sociobiology can still be valuable. The story of “Why are we the way we are, and how did we come to be that way?” is an incredibly valuable one, worth pursuing. And also, Economics only really answers the question, “How should we structure society?” Not, “How can we, individually, be happy?” a question of tantamount importance, that I am keenly interested in. Sociobiology can certainly help answer this question. But I am also fascinated by another, perhaps bigger question: “How can we figure out the best way to live?” Which combines all of the above, plus a cogent theory of science to help us figure out how best to figure out how to do things better. These are my work.
        Thank you, Mike, for reminding me.

Epistemology—What is it to know?
Metaphysics—What kind of world do we live in?
Theory of Evidence—How can we tell what is true?
Natural Philosophy—How does the world work? How do we work?
Moral Philosophy—Given answers to all of the above, what is the best way to live in the world, both societally and individually?

p. 89: “[The Taker philosophy is that] no knowledge about [how to live] is obtainable.”
        Every natural law theorist ever, down to and including Rothbard and his followers, disagrees with this. Where did you get this idea? (to p. 91) And I, most vehemently, disagree. I have been striving all my adult life to find the Laws of Humanics (Laws of Aerodynamics do not tell you how to build an aeroplane. They only tell you what sort of designs may work and what may not).

p. 127:
        Civilized people—“Takers”—exterminate their competition, whereas “Leavers” and other animals do not. He says that this is an invariable rule—a law—of the wild. Why? “If competitors hunted each other down just to make them dead, then there would be no competitors. There would simply be one species at each level of competition: The strongest.”
        This is a powerful argument. It threw me for a loop. It is also wrong (worth noting because little has been actually wrong so far).
        Let’s see why:
        First, civilized humans (“Takers”) do not always exterminate their competitors. They don’t even usually exterminate their competitors. Do we have any record of one race or nation utterly exterminating another? It’s possible, surely, and it’s been tried, but I don’t know if it’s ever been accomplished. In the instances I know of that come closest, the losers were decimated to the point that they were no longer a viable threat, then left alone. Competing races, countries, nations, etc. can live next to each other with only occasional squabbles, if both of them are of nearly equivalent power levels.
        And that’s the key: similar power levels. When one competitor has an obvious power advantage over another, the game changes. The actual outcome depends on the degree of discrepancy between the groups. If the difference is small, some ground may be gained. If the disparity is large, conquering or extermination may take place. This is what happens with, say, humans (Takers) vs. wolves, or bears, or cougars. Even one cougar can be a serious threat, so if there’s enough of an advantage to be assured of success, going after cougars is not a hard choice. Primitive humans simply do not have enough advantage for that kind of war to be worth trying. As for the rest—you’re only observing the natural world after it has reached a stable equilibrium. You have no idea how baboons, for instance (or for that matter “leavers”), would behave if you introduced a significantly weaker, but still threatening competitor or predator into their environment. My strong suspicion is that they would try to eliminate or neutralize it.
        I imagine this has happened many times throughout prehistory. My point is that this discrepancy between ‘takers’ and ‘leavers’ is more one of power levels than attitude (look what happened when Indians got horses and rifles, and note that there is strong evidence that primitive peoples drove the sabertooth tiger and wooly mammoth to extinction), and that competitors of similar power levels can coexist alongside each other effectively indefinitely.
        Or to put in economic terms: real competition keeps everybody honest.

p. 132:
        Okay, this species diversity thing may have some merit, but we need to remember that things aren’t a bad as they seem—culturally, I mean. I mean that it is only very recently, in terms of human history, that we have gained the power to actually gain the upper hand over our environment. Call it a couple of centuries. And we have not really had that power in spades until—say 1945. Sixty years. Fifty when this book was written. Only since then have we had the ability to rapidly and drastically change our environment. Only in the last 200 or so years have we had the tools to deliberately exterminate other species. So don’t be so harsh. We struggled against long odds against the Earth for a long time. Now, yes, we’ve won—and don’t know what to do with our newfound power. And quickly, we’re trying to adapt. CFC’s, smog, parks, endangered species lists, etc. We’re stumbling forward. But not for 10,000 years—just for 2–300.
        Also, if what you’re worried about is the world, rather than humankind, you can stop. The world has survived several catastrophes of the magnitude of anything like what humans are likely to do to it. Mass extinctions are far from uncommon, geologically. So get straight what you’re worried about, over what timeframe. Don’t fall into the trap of considering Nature as one eternal, unchanging status quo that we’re meddling with.
        However, the diversity issue (that we’re systematically reducing species diversity in order to eliminate competition for ourselves and our food) is a serious one. I don’t see it solving itself; that is, if population increases indefinitely, this trend could continue to worsen unless we recognize it as a problem. However, if we do, a properly-functioning capitalism should solve it to the limits of our knowledge and ability. That or we get nailed by experience and learn the hard way. I just have a hard time believing that we as a culture are that powerful, that important, that unique. “There’s nothing new under the Sun.”

p. 133: “Any species in the wild will invariably expand to the extent that its food supply expands. But, as you know, Mother Culture teaches that such laws do not apply to man.”
        That’s right; they don’t. Man is unique in this respect: He can plan. He can, in a limited sense but far better than any other species, foretell the future. And it is this foretelling that exempts him from this law. He is not forced to act on the information about what food supplies are now, but can act on what he believes food supply will be like in the future. This actually happens. Man is exempt from this law. (There are analogous laws, adapted for man, that he is not exempt from.)
        (10/4/07) I am, in fact, a case in point that man is not subject to this law. Because of the ZPG and overpopulation scare in the ’70s, my parents decided to have exactly one child—me. Later, they wanted another—and decided to adopt. Was our food in short supply? Hardly! My father ran a corporate ranch! We could easily have afforded food enough for five kids.

p. 134: Oho! At last we begin to see the underbelly of the beast. Quinn reveals his socialist leanings. “The biological community is an economy, isn’t it? I mean, if you start taking more for yourself, then there’s got to be less for someone else…”
        So for Quinn, economics is a zero-sum game. We’re almost done here.

p. 136: “Increasing food production to feed an increased population results in yet another increase in population.”
        Wrong! Then why is Russia paying people to have babies? Food production in industrialized nations is outpacing population growth.
        Hey, Malthus: give me a food price graph for Britain for the last 300 years, will you?

p. 138: You’ve opened a huge can of worms here and don’t know it. “‘…all the same, it’s hard to just sit by and let them starve.’ ‘This is precisely how someone speaks who imagines that he is the world’s divinely appointed ruler. ‘I will not let them starve. I will not let the drought come. I will not let the river flood.’ It is the gods who let these things, not you.’”
        True, a ruler may speak this way. But so may a brother, a son, a friend, a neighbor. If you see that a fellow resident of your city is about to be hit by a falling limb, will you take action, or will you let him be hit and perhaps killed? By saying that we do not let people starve, you are saying that we are not part of a global community; that they are not our brothers; that we have no concern, nor should we, about what happens to them. Do you wish to say this? Choose your words carefully. [P.S. He’s still right about the effects of giving free food to a starving populace.]