Natural Selection

I have been having one those highly interesting and evolving conversation online with Steve Welch, of Complex Systems Research, Inc. Steve works for Phil Zimmermann (inventor of Pretty Good Privacy). Steve has been very helpful regarding some questions I had.

Steve’s real boss (in his own words), is Dr. Penelope Boston. She’s a microbiologist at New Mexico Tech, whom Steve assists with Mars-related research.

Steve got a chance to view the blog / bulletin board and our conversation briefly covered a few of the topics. What I really hope to share with this blog post is Steve’s final comments, but I suggest you read the whole thing, since Steve is one of the very bright people in the world and it’s a pleasure to listen.

In My Not So Humble Opinion, your Board Introduction monologue doesn’t seem to be reflected in the board postings that I saw. You talk about being different from the survivalist BB’s, and I guess you are, but the basic premise you espouse seems to be that the end of civilization is coming. Soon. Period.

That is, you are not saying that “the end of civilization is probably coming, and here’s what we have to do to stop it from coming”. I guess there is some of: “The end of civilization is coming and here’s what we have to do to survive and rebuild”, but this contradicts your Board Introduction, doesn’t it?).

Your comments on the bulletin board are appreciated. The focus seems to get lost in the domain name and the board’s intention. The introduction was an attempt to get people thinking on the bigger picture (as I recall, haven’t looked at it in a while) [Note: I’ve since taken a close look at the board intro and it’s actually right on target imo, but I am intimately familiar with the board and perhaps this is not so evident to someone else]. Like anything, the personalities involved tend to create “migration”. I actively discourage “survival” talk by the way, plenty of other places to do that.

No, we’re not survivalists in the classic sense, although I am quite versed in this. I loathe the lifestyle to be honest, it’s hopeless, depressing and ugly.

But what do you do when you’re civilization is collapsing? You adapt… or you die.

The Good Doctor Boston and I have been dealing with even further out comments since the late seventies when she and I were two of the co- founders of The Case for Mars.

I am not familiar with this. Is this Terra-forming or human habitation? I suppose we could always go wreck something else. 🙂

We (Case for Mars) got started because we were interested in Terra-forming as a scientific problem, and the Viking findings gave us hope. That is, it turns out that Mars might be a possible candidate for Terra-forming. Once we started looking at that problem in the fresh light of the Viking Lander findings, we diverted most of our efforts into manned scientific exploration/habitation, since as you say, if we are going to wreck someplace else, we better study it before we do. We put on five or six international conferences in the eighties and early nineties (not bad for a bunch of rabble rousing graduate students, if I don’t say so myself), and I think we were largely responsible for getting NASA to turn its eye back toward human space exploration beyond low earth orbit. Not to dismiss your snide remark there–all our conferences had ethics tracks and we always tried to involve people who had well reasoned arguments against Terra-forming and even those who were against manned planetary exploration on the grounds of planetary quarantine issues.

You will have gathered that I’m not a big fan of our present civilization. Oh, I enjoy the toys like anyone, but civilization is very destructive (on all counts). I truly enjoyed my college course in astronomy (hey, I got an “A”) and like science, but there seems to be a very big gap between the application of science and technological advancements and how we treat each other and the planet that we live on.

No argument here from me. As you will see, I’m pretty ambivalent about the human race, myself…

Anyway, this all seems pretty negative and depressing to me, in spite of your Board Introduction protests to the contrary that you want to be an antidote or a relief from the negative and depressing survivalist web sites you have seen. You doth protest too much?

It is indeed hard to discover that mankind has pretty much screwed the pooch and not be negative about it. A dose of reality is difficult to digest.

I have tried to just “forget about it” all, but it doesn’t work. You have to go back to pretending it isn’t happening, which is what most people are doing, but that’s their choice. For me, it’s hypocritical to do that.

Well, I certainly don’t deny I am a hypocrite. Sometimes that’s the only way I can handle reality.

It’s also “hopeless” when you know the end of the “state of denial” that is ever-present in the world. I’m persuaded that the future isn’t what everyone thinks it is, hopes it is and pretends it is – and only by acceptance and acknowledgment of that “fact”, can we hope to have any input in how it all turns out.

I simply refuse to be a bump on a log in the flotsam of life, drifting downstream without my active participation. But I limit (indeed) what I’m willing to participate in. Not all things are edifying, worthwhile and truly productive. Most things aren’t. Nor are they sustainable. They require the exploiting of humans, resources and all things in-between.

For myself, in recent years, I’ve become an incredible Pollyanna when it comes to the end of civilization. Or maybe in my less lucid moments, “Candide” about this subject (“Candide: or Optimism”, a play by the French philosopher Voltaire in the mid seventeen hundreds. Maybe a bit obscure reference, but Leonard Burnstein made a musical Broadway show of this in the sixties that I just love.) As Professor Pangloss said, “it is simply the best of all possible worlds!”. After all, this is a world where the cold war and the Mutual Assured Madness, err Destruction inevitable end of civilization was prevented by a moron former actor who ramped up the arms race to such an extent that it bankrupted and destroyed the Soviet Union and ultimately eliminated it as an enemy. Saved by a side effect of a bad idea, that is.

I’m not saying that the end of civilization won’t come, mind you, I’m just saying that we’ve *accidentally* overcome much more dangerous threats than running out of oil, seems to me. Rather than accept the inevitability of collapse, Phil Zimmermann and a lot of people like him have chosen to fight against it and speak out. I chose to help Phil, myself, as an “amplifier” of my effort. It seems like the best use of my effort. Or at least the best I can come up with.

This is true. But humankind never had to deal with the massive population overshoot we have today, and the loss of cheap energy, and the changing climate, and the interconnectedness of a modern “dependent” society, and the collapsing ecosystem, and the changing thermohaline, and the species destruction, and the global pollution and on and on.

Again, no argument here. However, in human history, we have locally exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet, and have maintained our exponential growth by expanding our territory. I have a vague and poorly thought out hope (can’t claim it is a theory or even a thought…) that once we start expanding out into space, that expansion urge will be somehow satisfied, and the inhabitants of this planet will come to a peaceful compromise and start living within this planet’s capacity to sustain.

Needless to say, “we’ve never been here before” (thankfully) and hopefully, it won’t happen again. But we just might not survive it like we think. It’s a house of dominoes, or better put, a house of cards, a stiff breeze will blow it all down rather easily. And we keep building it higher and higher, refusing to acknowledge some very simple facts. Man is a product of his environment, the one that man keeps destroying as fast as he can. When his environment fails, what happens to man?

I am not familiar with what Phil or others are saying regarding speaking out, so cannot even comment.

We’ll come back to this in a future conversation.

I’m not a fan of our present civilization, not because I’m a Luddite (I’m not) or because I simply hate “x” (take your pick), but because it’s fundamentally flawed at it’s very core. Living like a virus, consuming all available resources is just plain stupid. Humans overwhelm everything in their path and then move on. For how long? We’re fast finding out.

Being involved in the space program, I can only imagine how the scientist and researchers envision our techno-future. I’m a fan of sci-fi by the way and have read a great many of the better ones (Heinlein, Assimov, Bear, etc.). I do not know if it is man’s destiny to reach the stars, but I seriously doubt he is conscientious enough to do so. He’s pretty much mucked up the planet he lives on now and he’ll take that voracious appetite with him into space. What’s the point then?

Well, I have this theory on what the point is. It involves the evolution of the human race, and again is the topic for a future conversation.

Of course, I am a bit schizophrenic or at least hypocritical about my vision of the future–there is a dark side to my Pollyanna personality. During the dark, bad moods, I truly despair for the future of Humanity as the local (planetary) vanguard of sentient life.

I can emphasize with this. Wine sometimes helps… (I drink rarely, but on these moments… I do the “smart” thing and consume a depressant.)

Sadly, my only drug is caffeine…

Like many Americans, 9/11 was a wake-up moment for me. Before 9/11, I had been developing this depressing idea that love and compassion for humanity and truth and knowledge was a perversion in a really profound sense.

I pretty much knew it was all over when I saw the towers come crashing down.

After all, we are the crowning achievement of 3.5 billion years of evolution.

Some “achievement”. I mean really. What have we done that is better, then say a dolphin? He lives in his natural environment, taking only what he needs, returning his life energy back into the very environment that sustains him. He doesn’t overpopulate, pollute or attempt to “horde” anything. It’s probably a great life.

The last billion years or so of this evolution (or however long it’s been since the development of sexual reproduction) has been driven by natural selection, the primary drivers there are “kill or be killed”, and “fuck or die out”. So, what we are is the ultimate killing and fucking organisms. These brains we evolved and this incredible cognitive consciousness with which we as humans possess are just what we evolved to survive and compete. So, we are in a very real sense “designed” for violence and jealousy.

I would hazard an uneducated guess that a virus or a bacteria is the ultimate killing and fucking organism – but I understand your point. Humans don’t “fit” in this natural order of things, not worth a tinkers damn. Something is fundamentally wrong with us, it’s pretty damned evident. Evolutionary selection (or whatever) seeded us with “greed”, (avarice?) which created violence and jealousy. Terrible stuff. But did this happen as a result of our environment? I don’t know, but I doubt it, only because I am not aware of these faults in any other species.

So the development of cognitive consciousness has some pretty serious side affects. Doesn’t say much for us as a species, does it? We have singularly failed to address this issue despite all of our so-called “advancement” and have instead, only made it worse and more efficient with our technology and our ability to practice violence and death and jealousy on a global scale. Oh, what fun we are!

As I said, love and compassion for anyone other than an individual human’s immediate family (or, more precisely, since we are social animals, one’s community or clan), is, if anything a betrayal or perversion of our “purpose”. That’s a pretty big bug in a 3.5 billion year product development cycle, I’d say. 😉

A fundamental flaw indeed.

A depressing enough idea, you think? Well, after 9/11, it got even worse for me. In the days and weeks after 9/11 I came to the realization that I was really a pacifist. I could not participate in or support any violent retribution or revenge or vengeance or punishment–whatever you want to call it. I just had to opt out of the hatred and violence track completely.

Do you get mad then? At least get mad at those who did this. Because they betrayed you, me, everyone.

Well, yes and no, because to get angry at them is to get angry at ourselves. The betrayal was in all of us. This attitude of refusing to blame others for 9/11 (or rather for insisting on sharing the blame) is infuriating to many of my close friends, I know. Sorry if it angers you, too–as I said, I just had to opt out of the hatred thing–it’s the only way I could handle it. (It might have been different if I had been there in NYC or if I had lost someone close at the hands of the terrorists, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.)

With that realization came the even more depressing realization that this opts me and my tendencies toward peace love and understanding out of the evolution picture or even survival picture, too. At least in theory, I refuse to use violence to defend myself, even against a violent attack (maybe there are no pacifists in the foxhole, as it were, but if I am given an opportunity to think, I will hesitate, and try to think of a way out without violence–this is a non-survival trait, I’m afraid. Sigh…

This is a great observation. You are indeed “obsolete” and out of the natural order of things. Even the natural world reveals this of course. Pacifism is permitted to exist only when there is an abundance (time of peace).

Yes, and I am struggling to imagine and promote and perhaps help create a world in which that is not the case. That is, a world where pacifism is “permitted to exist” as you say. Actually, I want more than that–I dream of a world where pacifism is the “natural” way…

In fact, the killers and haters will ultimately prevail always over the loving and compassionate. That is natural evolution in the very real sense. Anything else is a perversion of the natural order–the way the universe works. As such, I am a pervert, and in this case, the penalty for perversion is death.

A depressing thought, indeed… So, I can’t accept a picture of the future that involves the collapse of civilization, because that future cannot include me. If it does happen, I’ll try to live on my considerable wits as long as possible, but I don’t see that as being very long. In my mind, only an expanding civilization can support the perversions that I believe in: Love and Compassion for our fellow sentient beings and what I feel is the only alternative to natural selection, a replacement of the survival urge with the urge to understand and explore the universe–curiosity.

I would only disagree that expansion is necessary, we’ve “gone forth and multiplied’ plenty. But you bring up a good point – what humans are allegedly trying to do is counter-act the natural order of things. This might not be possible. Billions of years of evolutionary development isn’t so easily overcome – and you still have the natural order to contend with. How can it be any other way?

I’m not smart enough to think of a way to get there from here, unfortunately, although I have a germ of an idea…

Steve brings up a very valid point. The natural order of things isn’t changeable like we presume. Like everything else mankind does, mankind presumes far too much in a feeble and misguided attempt to control everything, even his own basic makeup. While I personally loathe violence, I do recognize the point Steve made – “survival of the fittest” is and always has been a “natural truth”, even in men.

Can the “survival urge” be replaced? We’re going to soon find out – but it’s already evident that no, we’re not ready for this, not yet, maybe not ever. We’ve been thoroughly domesticated (see domesticated man article Part I and Part II) but we’re still natural human beings that will instantly turn to the survival urge the moment we are endangered. In fact, I would say that the survival urge is what breeds our curiosity. Mankind’s quest to change his environment is a survival instinct, the end result which is what we have today.

I feel that some of us can rise above that. I have a different definition of curiosity than you do, I suspect. You seem to equate or associate changing our environment with understanding the universe. For me, curiosity is the quest to understand the universe. The urge to *change* our environment is something completely different, and related (as you say) to Natural Selection. Unfortunately, the understanding I promote enables the more evolutionarily fit among us to more effectively manipulate the environment, aka, mucking up the planet.

And now we are paying the price of that instinct. Somewhere along the line, we forgot some very basic truth, or maybe we never really learned them. You don’t muck up the nest you live in. Maybe ancient man really didn’t think about it like I presume. There was always a world of grand abundance available a little farther down the road. But now that we have reached the end of that highway of destruction, it’s high time we acknowledged some things, finally, and forever before we take it to the stars.

Yes, agreed, but more than that “simple” and pure lesson (Don’t muck up your nest!), we need to subvert the subvert 3.5 billion years of Natural Selection (kill or be killed, fuck or die out). I think we as a species now have the capability to subvert that “natural” order. This will be the subject of the continuation of this dialog.

Or, as we say…

…to be continued…

I for one, am looking forward to Steve’s comments, particularly his theory regarding subverting the natural order and the evolution of mankind. Hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did.


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3 thoughts on “Natural Selection

  • December 19, 2005 at 8:54 pm

    i recently discovered your site and find it spooky how many of your recent posts were things i’ve researched/rationed out for surviving the future and trying to bring a semblance of order with me.

    i personally believe the key to the future of mankind is realizing and remembering that the future is what we make it.

    its a huge topic but what i really mean is in the coming turmoil and beyond, try to make the future the best that you dream it can be. “if you do what you have always done, you get what you have always gotten”. we know this system doesn’t work in many diferent ways, so we need to create a new way of living – from the ground up.

  • December 21, 2005 at 9:53 am

    Human habitation on Mars raises some interesting questions. I wonder if we’re ready for such a giant step? Will natural selection also apply to any life forms we find there? I wonder.

    Since I’m not a scientist, I’m curious how many scientist feel the same way Steve does regarding the future of humans. I think he’s right by the way, I’m pretty pessimistic myself. Not a lot of intelligent thought going on down here.

    What is being done about planet earth? Anything? Nothing of significance as far as I can tell, it all seems so half-assed. The US is the worst offender. And if peak oil hits like it’s beginning to look like, where will the energy needs come from to launch mankind into space exploration?

    This brings up an interesting thought – has NASA fully examined this issue? Their energy needs are directly dependent upon something like petroleum (and it being affordable). Talk about “basic requirements”! Natural selection might even do away with the space agency! Then what? Is mankind destined to stay here, or is there some other plan in the works?

  • December 21, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    I’m also concerned about human habitation in space. Will we simply export our bad behavior elsewhere?

    I support space exploration, since it can potentially offer so much, but there is a issue on whether mankind is mature enough to keep his bad behaviour home.

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