Interesting post–for what it obscures..

By way of Andrew Sullivan, I came across this post….

Initially, I can say that when I read the two alternatives:

A Time-civilization where, “A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct”


A Space-civilization where, “A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct”

I also initially thought that I would prefer the Time civilization over the Space one..

Then I thought about it, however, and realized that this was a biased portrayal.  The bias–somewhat obviously–came from the use of the word “sustainably” which not only definitely has a positive spin on it, but which is not balanced with anything on the other side.

This is unfair–or rather–it’s like stacking the deck.

Interestingly, however, this view of “sustainability,” whereby it is predicated on an entirely stable population is not necessarily so positive if you dig a bit deeper and focus on the “stability” aspect of this population.  Specifically, there are two things to think about:

A) How does one keep a population at a permanently fixed number.  Nowhere in nature–or in any civilization that we have ever known–is it true that people or animals remain in perfect harmony with their environment in anything like the way that is assumed in this thought experiment.  Rather, populations grow and fall in a rather noisy fashion and–given the chance–it will always attempt to expand.  Knowing this, the Time-civilization sounds a lot more like some magical-story folk–maybe like Tolkien’s elves–than anything realistic… and that might indeed explain some of its initial appeal.

B) On the other hand, there have been some instances of “sustainable” populations that have maintained fixed populations over long periods of time on earth, but the methods by which they did this were not, in any fashion, all that idyllic or even all that pleasant.  The most obvious example I know of can be found in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, and it involves the tiny island nation of Tikopia.  This isolated and extremely small island in the pacific maintained a constant population around 1300 people for over 500 years, I believe, and being cut off from the rest of the world, it fit the definition of “sustainable” and stable to a T…

However, this did not mean that once a person died, someone was allowed to be born or anything like that.  Rather, people were just born–even if they were spaced out a bit in a conscious fashion–and if there were too many mouths to feed, then the island practiced infanticide.   In addition, as Diamond notes, it seems clear that when the aforementioned practice didn’t work, and an “excess” population of adults existed, these groups were then often told to “go take a hike,” because there was no land to support them, so they were sent off in boats into the pacific in some direction to hopefully find some other island… (and almost certainly dying in the process…).

Taking these two things into account–the Time-civilization seems a lot less fun than it initially did.  Indeed, it seems rather authoritarian and fascistic in a rather unpleasant way.

Finally, one might note that the Time-civilization doesn’t actually fit the model for evolution of species in any way.  Populations don’t just remain stable and unchanging for a billion generations–which as one commenter on the original site noted was technically longer than the age of the universe (~20 billion years..)–but rather that all creatures we know of try to spread and as the populations diverge over geographic space, they change into other populations and species.  Thus, this comparison seems even weirder and more stilted, because the chance of some 100k population remaining in one place and not being accidently wiped out within 20 billion years (our sun won’t last that long) is totally unrealistic.. In other words, the Time-civilization in reality would almost certainly go extinct by its very nature long before the Space-civilization did, because while the scenario/thought experiment says that all of the trillion people over many planets just up and die, what would be more likely to happen is that something would kill most of them, or the different people on different planets would start diverging into different species…

Anyway–while this was quite an interesting thought provoker–the scenario and results in the original post needed some more thinking and processing…


About Prof. Woland

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2 Responses to Interesting post–for what it obscures..

  1. Keith Graves says:

    I agree, it is a silly premise.

    1. What is the meaning of sustainable? Is it just existing without destroying the things we require to exist?
    2. The time scale is at least 2000 years and most 100 billion years. These are nearly equally fleeting moments on the cosmological scale.
    3. 100,000 people on one planet or a trillion people on one thousand planets ( that’s 1 billion per planet ) are still within the bounds of what we’ve seen here. The human population has ranged from @ 10,000 to @ 6.8 billion.
    4. Extinction is always inevitable and we are insignificant.
    5. The choice assumes that one alternative must be superior when neither version matters.

    To me, this seems quite like a person with severe OCD debating whether it is preferable to eat a whole bag of M&Ms at once or eat only one each day.

    • tricstmr says:

      I like your last comparison a lot.

      I do think I understand what they were getting at–how many people might perceive the first situation to be superior–but I think that they stacked the deck and that the constraints they put on it were poorly thought out.

      In a sense–it showed a very poor intuitive understanding of the role of quantification in our world for the folllowing reasons:
      a) People don’t understand big numbers. What is “a trillion” people actually like (a million million??? I’m doing 1,000,000 push-ups, and that process makes it pretty clear how big a million is.. it’ll take me 16 years to do it… but a trillion push -ups–that would take me 16 million years.. )? Or.. what is it like to have humans on 1000 planets? We cannot even really grok what the dynamics are of human society on just 1..
      b) I also think the numbers they start off with are really odd.. the “lower limit” is not equivalent… 100 generations is shorter than we’ve had written records.. so that seems historically very small… whereas most people think 100,000 people is a lot (even if I don’t..)

      I wonder what it would have been like if they had picked 1000 people for 100 billion generations or 100 people for a trillion generations and compared it to 10 billion people for 10,000 generations… Would that make a difference? I think that it would…

      c) The whole premise that “a life”=”a life” in simple quantifiable terms is one of those silly “I’m going to impose some kind of ‘objectivity’ (here,quantification) on a situation and gloss over qualitative issues to see if I can find something clever..” but, in reality, what they actually care about are the qualitative aspects. If the lives of the 100k people for a billion generations are-say-ruled by a computer system like in Logan’s run (which would prolly be necessary to achieve that)–is that cool or not? Also–how much diversity would you encounter in a 1000 planet civilization vs one 100k city? How would that change cultural and social development? I think the differences would be profound–and that cannot really be gleaned at first glance from the numbers equivalency–but must be teased out of it.. (something that really wasn’t done in the first article…)

      In the end–I think the idea as a thought experiment is not bad–but it should be a lot more flexible than they made it–with less attention and adherence to clearly unrealistic boundary conditions and more to what imposing such conditions says about the cultural constructions that people already hold in their heads..

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