revenge of the Morlocks

Well, now, this is interesting:

And herein lies the seeds of speciation: a difference in a trait that genes influence – intelligence – affecting reproduction patterns. Coupled with policies of exclusion – building a wall, breaking up families to deport undocumented immigrants, targeting specific religious groups unified by their ancestry – the population sorting that may begin over the next four years could, with time and if sustained, alter the segregation of gene variants in a way that sets us on a path toward an unstoppable divergence.

I hope that as a nation we can accept, heal, reach out, and “be on the same team” as President Obama eeked out yesterday. But right now, the gash seems too deep to mend anytime soon, especially if the aforementioned actions of exclusion and discrimination actually emerge from the current state of shock and division. Here is the best description I’ve read of the sad basis of the Trump campaign and soon-to-be administration.

So much things to say, to quote Bob Marley, but I’ll try to restrain myself. And before I go further I will note, just for the record, that Trump really is scientifically illiterate and I fear that his advisors will be as well, and that that will surely lead to problems, though perhaps not the worst ones we will face from a Trump administration. Onward:

Ricki Lewis thinks that we may be headed towards “unstoppable genetic divergence,” that Donald Trump will be the chief progenitor of this separation, and that the primary criterion by which this separation will be effected is intelligence. All the smart people will be on one side of the Great Wall of Trump, and all the stupid people on the other side.

And yet all this will be accomplished by the will of the Stupids. Which suggests, on Lewis’s own account of things, that beyond a certain point — let’s call it the Trump Threshold — intelligence may not be adaptive. Indeed it may be maladaptive, as suggested in Idiocracy. So if you want to belong to the species that will succeed in the long run, you should probably start trying to get dumber now.

Lewis takes the title of her post, “Donald Trump and the New Morlock Nation,” from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, a book she hasn’t read. (But she saw the movie. And looked up the book’s Wikipedia page.) I, however, have read the book, and when I read Lewis’s post, one passage from it came to mind:

The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship. The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylit surface intolerable. And the Morlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs, perhaps through the survival of an old habit of service. They did it as a standing horse paws with his foot, or as a man enjoys killing animals in sport: because ancient and departed necessities had impressed it on the organism. But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.

Progress or Infinite Change?

H.G. Wells

I have recently been spending a fair amount of my time during my sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow reading and thinking about H.G. Wells, in preparation for an upcoming Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good conference. Wells was tremendously influential in the first half of the twentieth century and, as it seems to me anyway, he was crucial in popularizing “progress” as a kind of moral imperative, an idea whose strengths and weaknesses are still with us today.

Wells, along with Winwood Reade (whom I discuss in my new book Eclipse of Man), was a pioneer of trying to tell the human story in connection with “deep history.” But so far as I know he never argued, nor would he have been so foolish as to argue, that there was any kind of steady, incremental progress in human affairs that could be traced all the way back to prehistory. While as a progressive he may have been second to none, his view was far more careful and nuanced.

First of all, he knew at some level, along with his friend G.K. Chesterton, that any talk of progress requires a goal, and he wrote in The Outline of History that the foundations for the human project that would become progress were only laid in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. As Wells put it,

The rest of history for three and twenty centuries is threaded with the spreading out and development and interaction and the clearer and more effective statement of these main leading ideas. Slowly more and more men apprehend the reality of human brotherhood, the needlessness of wars and cruelties and oppression, the possibilities of a common purpose for the whole of our kind.

Yet even at that, our power to actually achieve such goals is, in Wells’s account, severely limited until Renaissance thinkers open the door to the scientific and technical revolutions that, by the nineteenth century, have given humankind unprecedented power over nature, with far more promised to come in the future.

Indeed, real progress for Wells was something that was still to come. That is because it would not have occurred to him to think that at any given moment the positive changes in human affairs necessarily outweighed the negative. Each generation may not even be better off than the one that came before:

Blunder follows blunder; promising beginnings end in grotesque disappointments; streams of living water are poisoned by the cup that conveys them to the thirsty lips of mankind. But the hope of men rises again at last after every disaster…. [Ellipses in original]

Progress was not a sure thing, an obvious fact of history, but the hope that a golden thread running into the relatively recent past would not be broken. Such a hope may or may not be realistic, but it is refreshing to see Wells identify it for what it is, rather than trying to adduce some sort of necessary laws of historical development or to find all the silver linings in very cloudy weather.

Now, Wells gets himself into trouble when he tries to reconcile this view of progress as the achievement of old goals with an evolutionary, competitive imperative that forbids him to imagine the future as any kind of stable end state. While in numerous books, at often tedious length, he lays out various relatively near-term futures that represent his view of how human brotherhood and peaceableness could be realized by an elite’s proper deployment of science and technology, they often include a certain amount of hand-waving about these utopias just paving the way for even more extraordinary possibilities as yet unenvisioned because perhaps unenvisionable by us, with our narrow views. In principle, at least, this means that in the end Wells can defend change, but not, past a certain point, progress.

This difficulty reconciling progress with mere change is still alive in our own day. Our tech industry sometimes tells us the ways that it will make our lives better, but sometimes adopts more neutral terminology — we routinely hear of “change agents” and “disruptors” — no longer even promising progress except understood as change itself. “The Singularity,” strictly speaking, is just the extreme expression of the same idea. But it is not really “progress” any more if perpetual competition means that all that is solid perpetually melts into thin air. The changes that come along may be wonderful or not, each in its own way. They may aggregate into circumstances that are better or worse, each in its own way. Our non-prescriptive, libertarian postmodern transhumanists are in the same position; to call “anything is permitted” progress is only possible if progress is defined as “anything is permitted.”

When the way we understand future history thus dissolves into particularity, it is hard to see how the future — let alone the bloody and oppressive past — could be a positive sum game, as we expect that one generation will have only a severely limited common measure of “positive” with the next. We see signs already. Is the present generation a little better off than the previous one, because they are being raised with cellphones in hand? Surely the passing generations, with their old-fashioned ideas of friendship and social interaction, are entitled to doubt it, while the generations yet to come will wonder at the bulky and clumsy interface that their progenitors had to contend with. How did they walk along and look down at the screen at the same time? What a toll it must have taken! Perhaps people just had to be much tougher back then, poor saps….

the World Brain

Quotes and links at least I can do.

The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And what is also of very great importance in this uncertain world where destruction becomes continually more frequent and unpredictable, is this, that photography affords now every facility for multiplying duplicates of this – which we may call? – this new all-human cerebrum. It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
This is no remote dream, no fantasy. It is a plain statement of a contemporary state of affairs. It is on the level of practicable fact. It is a matter of such manifest importance and desirability for science, for the practical needs of mankind, for general education and the like, that it is difficult not to believe that in quite the near future, this Permanent World Encyclopaedia, so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence, will not come into existence.
. . . And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopaedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopaedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity.
This concisely is the sober, practical but essentially colossal objective of those who are seeking to synthesize human mentality today, through this natural and reasonable development of encyclopaedism into a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.