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    Life Isn't Aways Wonderful - Humanity's Third Biggest Problem
    By Gerhard Adam | December 13th 2010 04:54 PM | 38 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The three problems of humanity were outlined in a talk by Nick Bostrom (of Oxford University, UK) at TED in April 2009.

    In this piece I will continue to examine the "big" problems identified in the TEDTalk.  It is this third point that begins to illustrate what the underlying objective of all the other pieces truly is.  

    Problem #3:  Life Isn't Usually as Wonderful as it Could Be is a BIG problem

    In this final section, we begin to considering the basic notion that why can't life be wonderful all the time.  Certain points are made regarding how we might feel at particular times, and then asking the question of why it can't be like this always.  It is interesting that it is never questioned whether this is a reasonable question to ask, it is simply assumed that it is a desirable objective.

    The point is made that we can readily identify those things that we find unpleasant or painful in our lives, so if we assume that these can all be "fixed", the question is raised as to whether we still couldn't do better than this.

    A list is provided that indicates:

    1.  Much longer, healthier lives
    2.  Greater subjective well-being
    3.  Enhanced cognitive capacities, more knowledge and understanding
    4.  Unlimited opportunity for personal growth beyond our current biological limits
    5.  Better relationships
    6.  Unbounded potential for spirtual/moral/intellectual development

    At the very least, this was indicated as being Nick Bostrom's list, but it is intended to be a beginning.

    What is disturbing about this list, is that while we can all relate to it in our personal lives, there isn't a single objective definition that could be applied to the lot.  Even more so, item number 5 regarding "better relationships", depends on other people's behaviors, to the degree that one wonders how this could be improved.

    The means by which these improvements can be achieved, while not detailed, is a bit disturbing.  What is being advocated is nothing short of total mind control, albeit voluntarily induced, although there doesn't seem to be any prohibition nor protection against having an external agency establish what is programmed.

    "Ability to choose one's emotions.  e.g. preserve your romantic attachment to your partner undiminished through time."
    Nick Bostrom - TEDTalk

    In other words, apparently its OK to brainwash yourself.  It doesn't  have to be a genuine emotion, or desire.  Virtual is apparently fine, and if we can artificially induce "love", then TECHNOLOGY RULES!!!

    Of course, this ability to control one's emotions will also create the probability that someone else can control those same emotions.  So this power will be more addictive that crack cocaine and you can bet that whatever lifespan increases may have been achieved, they will be rapidly decimated in the mad power struggle to control this ability.

    Incredibly, he actually says that this control probably isn't that difficult and perhaps involves a simple hormone.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    A common theme throughout this lecture is that anything to do with biology is arbitrarily wrong and only human technology can fix it so that we are no longer "prisoners" of this process.  Despite a long history of humans demonstrating how truly "wrong" they can be, it seems that there is an unabashed faith in human beings and their technology that defies all reasonable explanations.  So the only conclusion that I can arrive at is that this is little more than the traditional "Peter Pan" fantasy, where one never has to grow up and grow old, and where one never has to take responsibility for themselves.  Unfortunately, it also speaks to a more sinister element, since it is clear that the speaker doesn't even trust himself and looks for external technology to provide better control for his moods and emotions.  

    Transhumanism is simply eugenics dressed up in 21st century garb.  This isn't simply "name-calling" to disparage transhumanism, but instead it is recognizing that all the premises of eugenics are explicitly being used as the pillars on which the transhumanist philosophy are being built.

    Eugenics is based on improving the human gene pool to promote a positive direction to human development.  There are certainly many ways in which it could be approached from a heavy-handed governmental policy process or through voluntary participation by individuals that believe the same way.  The end is supposed to result in producing superior human beings through positive artificial selection.

    In the past, such programs are littered with the atrocities of the Nazi's and others that attempted to force such efforts, and consequently eugenics was discredited.  It isn't that people don't ultimately believe in the premise, but rather in the manner in which it was pursued, it has left most feeling that it is an unreasonable strategy to pursue.

    Transhumanists have solved many of the PR problems that eugenics has.  In the first, place it is advocated as being voluntary and is invariably presented as a positive force to improve one's life.  However, it is equally clear that those that choose not to participate will eventually become some sort of second-class citizen and be left behind.  This is made abundantly clear by some of the statements made by transhumanist "visionaries".

    This is justified by the fact that it is not coercive, so therefore people have voluntarily left themselves behind.  In this way, instead of rationalizing the killing of such individuals as practiced by eugenics programs, we can now justify that whatever happens to such people is of their own doing.  The following quotes from Kevin Warwick sum up these thoughts rather well.

    "The humanists that want to stay human, the Terrans, maybe as Hugo would call them.  I can't see them ultimately having much power, because at the end of the day, their intellectual capabilities will be so inferior to the cyborgs, those that have implants and upgrades, that the cyborgs will be able to out-think the subspecies that is still human."
    Kevin Warwick (Professor - Cybernetics, Reading University) 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7hh4jYvSKg&NR=1

    "So the future for an everyday ordinary human, I guess they'll be some sort of subspecies. Just like we have cows now, so we'll have humans in the future."

    "...and as a cyborg, if a human came to see me and it starts making silly noises a bit like a cow does now.  If a cow comes to me and says 'Moo, moo, moo', I'm not going to say, 'Yeah, that's a great idea, I'm going to do what you tell me', so it will be with a human.  They'll come in and start making these silly noises we call speech and human language and so on.  And with these trivial noises, I'm not going to do those silly things.  Why should I?  This creature's absolutely stupid in comparison to me."
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WesVCmadBkQ&feature=related

    In addition, it is easy to voice platitudes about how such technology should be available to all humans, but surely no one is naive enough to believe that such tremendous technological advancements would be the subject of a worldwide effort to ensure everyone had access without regard for their financial ability to pay.  In this case, again the transhumanists simply argue that it isn't their fault if some humans or their societies are corrupt and restrict such technological implementation.

    However, the biggest difficulty also occurs when considering human nature.  Our propensity to take advantage, or lie/cheat, or even commit crimes. Basically there is no human social model that can assure that humans will behave decently, regardless of incentives.  Therefore, the biggest point that in transhumanism that is glossed over, is the need to absolutely be able to control human behavior through external means.  This would involve controlling thoughts as well as emotions.  In effect, truly making humans into machines without any ability to respond according to their own instincts or beliefs.

    The obvious problem is that it requires some external group of humans to be responsible for managing the technology itself (unless this is to be turned over to machines), at which point it is clear that the end result of transhumanism is the ability to fully exploit an entire species of humans, and make them enjoy the prospect of being ruled by someone proclaiming themselves their superior.  It's the ultimate ant farm.

    In the end, the only difference between transhumanism and eugenics is that the former uses technology instead of genetics to rationalize the basis for improvement.  The end of such a path still ends in the same place with the subjugation of all other people to such power.

    So I have to conclude that there is simply no argument to be made for a person that is so willing to give up his freedoms and himself in such a question.  He is truly advocating that the Matrix is a good idea.  He's obviously swallowed the blue pill.

    Comments

    vongehr
    "that the end result of transhumanism is the ability to fully exploit an entire species of humans ...  It's the ultimate ant farm."

    Yes, but it is not the fault of transhumanism, it is the usual and inevitable progress of evolution, of which the transhumanists are just a tiny part. If you stop blaming them and instead just take the analogy of the ants seriously, especially the fact that ant farms are mostly natural ant colonies and that there was absolutely nothing whatsoever that pre-ants could have done to avoid the evolution of ant colonies, what is your own position? Are you representing a position of philosophical pessimism and like to get it of your chest that transhumanists are naive optimists or are you a modern machine stormer who thinks that the system called human is so special that there is a slight chance to change evolution from what it was before (e.g. change the evolved balance of well-being to suffering that may be stable no matter what - which would make you almost as optimistic as the transhumanists)?
    Gerhard Adam
    ...especially the fact that ant farms are mostly natural ant colonies and that there was absolutely nothing whatsoever that pre-ants could have done to avoid the evolution of ant colonies,...
    I think that I am being a philosophical pessimist, but to your point, the pre-ants didn't need to do anything to avoid evolution, since they were never going to be part of the final result.  It isn't as if such changes are presented as choices.  That is what disturbs me about the transhumanist position, because it isn't a matter of letting evolution take its course, so that if we eventually become like an ant colony, it will be because that's how human development as occurred, instead it is something that is being specifically engineered as a desired outcome.  Since I don't believe that such a result is arbitrarily beneficial, I'm taking the more pessimistic approach.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    "the pre-ants didn't need to do anything to avoid evolution, since they were never going to be part of the final result."
    Neither will there be anything left of humans except perhaps for the one or the other legacy system.
    "it isn't a matter of letting evolution take its course ... because that's how human development as occurred, instead it is something that is being specifically engineered"
    Evolution has absolutely no clue about the difference humans make between humans/natural and technology. It just lets dominate whatever combination dominates. "take its course" and "specifically engineered" is indistinguishable as far as algebraic evolution is concerned.

    Gerhard Adam
    ... "take its course" and "specifically engineered" is indistinguishable as far as algebraic evolution is concerned.
    No it's not, at least not in this case.  Evolution, does not occur with the current generation, but is something that future generations will develop into.  Therefore there is an absolute requirement that generations (in any species) are replaced with newer, possibly different, members of the same species that result in what we see as an "evolved" result.

    With transhumanist engineering, there is an explicit point that it is the current generation that is intentionally "evolving" itself, with the additional requirement that any other form of evolution must be halted, so that there is only a single source of change.  That's why there's a controversy.

    In evolution "running its course", it is pointless to speculate or argue about what happens to future generations, since we are merely the predecessors, but we do not and can not make decisions regarding those outcomes.  In transhumanist engineering, we are expected to be active participants in the process, so it is not the same.

    From the vantage point of several thousand years in the future, you might argue that the results would be indistinguishable, but the path is most definitely not.  You could make the same argument regarding artificial selection, so it isn't a matter of technology alone.  It's the implicit philosophy of eugenics that is at work.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    "Evolution, does not occur with the current generation, but is something that future generations will develop into.  Therefore there is an absolute requirement that generations (in any species) are replaced with newer, possibly different, members of the same species"
    You are talking about biological evolution. That is not the fastest developing evolutionary substrate, which is cyberspace and nanotechnology. If I talk evolution, I mean algebraic evolution. Your "several thousand years in the future" indicates that you are somewhat stuck with a too biological view. Evolution goes exponential - there are no thousand years anymore for this dinosaur to go extinct. We are finished already.
    "With transhumanist engineering, there is an explicit point that it is the current generation that is intentionally "evolving" itself, with the additional requirement that any other form of evolution must be halted,"
    In a sense, this is the only way to stop the android ant colony (where humans are like the "happy" cells of a body, be that body a murderer or whatever) or other to average humans undesirable outcomes (e.g. total abandonment of individual consciousness in cyberspace, gray nano soup, whatever). If you cannot kill the machines, storm them anyways but try jump on and steer. The problem with transhumanism is: naive optimism accelerates the inevitable instead of slowing it down. It is the old problem with humans and not a bit trans-human. They never stop and first think enough, always "sounds good, lets do it", so that everything back fires and brings on what they tried to avoid and worse. Transhumansists need to start thinking about the great dangers of their overenthusiastic plans - that we certainly agree on.
    Steve Davis
    "...we begin to considering the basic notion that why can't life be wonderful all the time." This is one of the oldest of philosophical questions Gerhard. It's a matter of opposites. We can't have good without evil. We can't have rest without activity. We can't have wonderful periods in our lives without periods of monotony or anguish or pain. An excellent series, great work. After inactivity, of course!
    Gerhard Adam
    Thanks, Steve.  You're quite right and it's a bit disconcerting to think that a "philosopher" has no better sense of this relationship between opposites.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    "So the future for an everyday ordinary human, I guess they'll be some sort of subspecies. Just like we have cows now, so we'll have humans in the future."

    "...and as a cyborg, if a human came to see me and it starts making silly noises a bit like a cow does now.  If a cow comes to me and says 'Moo, moo, moo', I'm not going to say, 'Yeah, that's a great idea, I'm going to do what you tell me', so it will be with a human.
    Then all we can hope is that cyborgs are better listeners than humans. Mooooo!



    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    HedgehogFive
    Since evolution is involved, this particular topic is almost completely in the domain of unbelievers.  The Devil has made great use of "Creation Science" (ضرطة كبيرة عليه)* to keep believers away from it.

    *(An Arabic imprecation meaning "great flatulence be upon it", as used by the Ayatollah Juje-Tighi'i when he pronounces a FASWA - Arabic for "fart" - against something.)
    Gerhard Adam
    Since evolution is involved, this particular topic is almost completely in the domain of unbelievers.
    That's certainly not true.  Even "creation science" accepts the idea of micro-evolution which would involve biological changes within a species for adaptation.  However, this topic is minimally involved with evolution, because it involves human modification through technology.  Therefore this is a completely intentional effort, if it were to occur.

    I specifically avoided addressing any religious considerations, because those issues should be apparent to anyone inclined to such beliefs.
    Mundus vult decipi
    HedgehogFive
    Point taken.  It was the comments section which brought evolution into it.

    Your set of three articles is, anyway, much appreciated.
    socrates
    The history of life teaches us that evolution proceeds in the direction of greater and greater differentiation and thus diversity accompanied by more and more interdependence and thus integration. Projecting this trend forward for humans suggests that we will indeed become more and more like cells living in a multicellular organism. I refer to that organism as "the beast" (borrowed from Robert Pirsig's Lila). Others call it a megaorganism (as distinct from microorganisms such as bacteria and organisms such as ourselves).

    I believe this to be true and it used disturb me. As I became more and more aware of the multitude of microorganisms living in our bodies, I saw that there is plenty of opportunities to remain a "free agent" inside a complex and highly regulated organization. (There are more microorganisms living in us than there are human cells!) Even among human cells, some are more free than others. I would not want to be a liver cell or a pancreatic cell, but an adult stem cell might have some possibilities. Besides, relative to the time scale of individuals, the evolution of megaorganisms is slow, so I doubt that I need to worry about what role I am to play in the greater scheme of things. The best I can do is to be true to my own nature, whatever that is (and that individual nature/role is evolving on my time scale).
    Citizen Philosopher / Science Tutor
    Gerhard Adam
    Besides, relative to the time scale of individuals, the evolution of megaorganisms is slow, so I doubt that I need to worry about what role I am to play in the greater scheme of things.
    I would certainly agree, but my point is that such a circumstance never occurs in nature.  Individuals don't worry about their role, they simply behave as is their normal state, and evolution will act by gradual changes in future generations.  So it is never necessary to make an "evolutionary" decision regarding how one is to act.

    All creatures simply behave as they do with natural selection (or artificial selection) being the determining factor in who lives/reproduces and influences future generations.  In this entire discussion regarding "transhumanism", the objective is to proactively make such choices and affect, not just future generations, but the current one as well. 

    As a result, this is such a hopelessly optimistic perspective, since it requires absolutely control over all the parameters (and future outcomes) against which any particular adaptation (regardless of how it originates) occurs. 

    I agree completely with the comments made that suggest that humans are "evolving" in the direction of a super-organism, and in many cases, it is clear that this is a process that is already well under way.  However, I am still disturbed by the notion of engineering a solution, since it isn't simply a matter of changing humans, but also of changing/controlling all the events to which humans may be subjected.  It is clear that what "evolutionary" choices we make for ourselves can only be effective if we control the environment we envision ourselves living in.  It is this aspect of it that strikes me as being the most naive (neglecting whether the other aspects are desirable or not).
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    "relative to the time scale of individuals, the evolution of megaorganisms is slow"

    Virus compared to human - yes (if you like to compare yourself with such free, but low level systems)

    However, if we talk complex high level systems (say a cortex neuron in human or a human in society), you are precisely wrong! Humans did not evolve much for gazillions of years while society obviously changed like crazy. The evolution of higher level systems happens because adaption speeds up through the higher stratum (changes in environment can be survived etc.) while the lower level components' evolution is slowed down (they become legacy systems, or qwerty's (see your keyboard - it evolves very slowly!)).

    Take these things properly into account, and what you just wrote turns from hopeful into the exact opposite.

    Moreover: We are already in the megasystem you describe: society. We know already how f'ed up that one is. The interesting today is the emergence of a new evolutionary substrate (think e.g. mineral/ pre-bio to biology), namely cyberspace, which now becomes orders of magnitude faster than anything before. Of course, if people are stuck thinking about mere sociology or even biology (e.g. "this topic is minimally involved with evolution, because it involves human modification through technology"), this cannot be grasped (sorry Gerhard). The discussion today is either about that or it is beside the point.
    But there are so many stupid ant-people in the world. They NEED someone to rule and subjugate them.

    Dantalion

    Gerhard Adam
    There are many people that feel that way.  Unfortunately it usually doesn't work out very well unless you're also the one in charge.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I feel that this is a logical point many will be asking as the creep of technology expands ever more so into our lives. I wouldn't call my self a transhumanist, but I tend to be more on the accepting side of new technologies, and personally wouldn't mind having an extended life span if that technology were to ever be developed in my lifetime.
    However, what I see with your post and many others like you is attributing a sort "special" quality to humans and our nature. I feel that too many people believe that us humans have some special, innate qualities to ourselves that separate ourselves from the natural and artificial world. What I feel some forget is that we are made of the same basic elements as the world around us, the animals in the world, and the machines we run. What took nature billions of years to accomplish, we might achieve in thousands.
    But in the end I too see the problems that many transhumanist tend to gloss over, e.g. the potential for a new sort eugenics movement. But alas, technology is somewhat unstoppable in this age, because if you decide not to advance, someone will take your place. A sort of survival of fittest, unfortunately. So, if technology will be slowly marching on, what is your solution to making sure that the rest of the world isn't trampled over?

    Gerhard Adam
    I think there is a big difference in dealing with the technology we possess and any problems we have to address, versus setting an agenda that creates a new belief system wherein technology is going to be our savior.

    If we were on the verge of the technologies being discussed then it would be hard to imagine anything being a higher priority for consideration;  philosophically, politically, socially, etc.  However, since we aren't on the verge, then we have to consider what the basis is for all the discussion. 
    What took nature billions of years to accomplish, we might achieve in thousands.
    Once again, I think this is a totally unqualified optimism that has little or no scientific backing.  We've managed to exploit some aspects of nature with a high degree of success, but we've hardly made a dent in controlling the natural world.  In fact, a strong argument can be made that we've managed to become exponentially more destructive and have gained little knowledge that actually helps us live better.  Even the "improvements" in our lives are often overshadowed by the reality that few people enjoy the lifestyle we have in the industrialized nations, so from a "human" perspective we have a pretty poor track record. 

    When this is coupled with a sentiment that many people feel (including the transhumanists) that humanity itself is at risk to even survive the 21st century, one can't help but wonder how we managed to squander our opportunities in such poorly thought-out ways.
    So, if technology will be slowly marching on, what is your solution to making sure that the rest of the world isn't trampled over?
    You raise a good point here, and I don't have a solution.  In fact, it is precisely this point that is evidenced all around us that I find irritating because the world being envisioned by the transhumanist "dream" is going to be even worse than what we have perpetrated on the majority of the people on this planet already.  This is exacerbated by the comments made by some of the true believers when they envision themselves as being so vastly superior over humans that ordinary people will be little more than cows to them.  This suggests that not only are the problems being ignored, but that the world hasn't even begun to be trampled over if this viewpoint gains influence.  The only thing stopping humanity from an even greater Holocaust is that the technology isn't even remotely plausible at this time.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    The Indigenous people of Australia lived for thousands of years in harmony with the land in the closest example of a Marxist society this World has seen. They had no technology but a lot of rules that had been passed down to each successive generation in the form of the Dreamtime stories. They lived in separate clans, a bit like the Scottish but without a King and kingdom, a complicated societal system that ensured respect for every animal and plant that they depended upon for their survival. Huge gatherings at certain times of the year that allowed them to interbreed and celebrate life together. Message sticks that allowed people to cross eachothers land, plants that they used for contraception and medicines and much more. Unfortunately their society was more or less wiped out by the European invaders but I think we could learn a great deal from how they lived in harmony for so long, without damaging their land and environment and with no technology.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    ...I think we could learn a great deal from how they lived in harmony for so long, without damaging their land and environment and with no technology.
    I understand the sentiment but I disagree.  We already know what we need to know and there is nothing to learn.  Our problem is that we think we can have our cake and eat it too.  The people you're referring to (as well as many others in the world) understood the fundamental limitations of the world in which they lived and they lived accordingly.  We keep insisting that the rules don't apply to us and every time we encounter a situation that proves us wrong, we put our heads down and try to come up with a way to maintain the exception.

    We are so destructive because we are growing out of control.  It is clear that we already possess the technology we need to live like kings if we simply had our population under control.  However, left unchecked there is no end to the stream of problems that we always have to "solve" because we don't want to adhere to the "rules".

    Unfortunately, most people already have a sense that there will be a reckoning at some point and we will come to discover that we know very little about how to control things.  What is unfortunate about it, is that we still won't learn from those mistakes, but instead will likely fall back into a "Dark Ages" of superstition and folklore. 

    Technology can do many wonderful things, and many people will argue that there is nothing "good" or 'bad" about it, so it should be pursued with abandon.  However, there is nothing that can be developed that doesn't carry a price tag with it, and for all of our achievements, there is a strong argument that it isn't all that grand.  Some of us live exceptionally well, but compared to the majority of people on this planet, our technological evolution is hopelessly inept and flawed.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I understand the sentiment but I disagree.  We already know what we need to know and there is nothing to learn. Our problem is that we think we can have our cake and eat it too. 

    We are so destructive because we are growing out of control.  It is clear that we already possess the technology we need to live like kings if we simply had our population under control.  However, left unchecked there is no end to the stream of problems that we always have to "solve" because we don't want to adhere to the "rules".

    Gerhard, I'm afraid I don't agree that we already know what we need to know and that there is nothing to learn. There is so much that is not known about those civilizations and how they worked so well because we took their cakes and ate them and often left them no means of survival, usually committing genocide. I also don't agree that we already possess the technology we need to live like kings, if we simply had our population under control. Both of these statements seem very simplistic and extreme to me and where is the evidence to support them?

    Is there some ideal number of humans that this planet can accommodate and what makes that number so ideal?  Is there also an ideal number of plants and animals that the planet can support? Surely in an ideal world the numbers of all plants, animals and humans would keep increasing and evolving as they lived in harmony together. Not possible of course if humans continue to have no respect for and ignore the fundamental laws of nature, ie don't chop down the forests, don't block and pollute the rivers and the atmosphere, don't over fish the seas, don't grow crops that destroy native ecosystems and the soil, don't transport everyday goods and crops from one side of the world to another with the incumbent, ridiculous carbon footprint overheads, don't exploit other people and countries by paying them slave wages and so on.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Helen, the reason I disagree is because (as you've pointed out), we already know all the things we are doing wrong and that they are detrimental.  The problem is that we don't want to accept that, as humans, we are subject to limits just like any other species.  We clearly recognize the effects of over-population in every species except our own. 

    Primitive people didn't live with a different set of rules.  They lived without the technology and population sizes that give rise to what we now consider to be abusive of the environment.  It's no different than your own articles on the locusts.  It isn't that locusts are fundamentally bad, but when they reach such a huge population size to swarm, they become an environmental problem for others.  Similarly if a beaver builds a dam, it is modifying its environment, but millions of beavers doing so would be catastrophic in a particular location.

    Every creature that exceeds its population boundaries has detrimental effects on the environment and humans are no different.  Is there an optimum human population size?  Certainly, although what that specific number is would depend on the particular geographic location.  There is no question that our human-based social inventions have also created problems (i.e. economics).

    Every one of the problems you've outlined are a direct result of too many people living on a planet with finite resources.  What does it mean to over fish?  What are the causes of pollution?  Why do we destroy native habitats?  In each instance, it is too many people that need room to expand and want to do everything that everyone else is doing.  Certainly cars produce pollution, but it would be hard to argue that the problem wouldn't be significantly less with a million cars versus a hundred million cars.

    More primitive groups didn't have the technological means and growth to be as detrimental to the environment.  It isn't that they would've behaved differently given the means.

    As a result, my point is that there is nothing to learn from them, because we don't want to hear the lesson, which is one of living within limits.  This is precisely why government budgets and growth are out of control, as is everything else humans engage in.  We don't want to accept these limits and think that we should be exempt from them. 
    I also don't agree that we already possess the technology we need to live like kings, if we simply had our population under control. Both of these statements seem very simplistic and extreme to me and where is the evidence to support them?
    Perhaps, but consider what the basis for worrying about future energy needs is based on?  Why are we concerned about having to produce more food?  Why are we concerned about intruding on native habitats?  Without suggesting an optimal number, think about these problems if we only had half the current population to deal with.  What would be different about them?  How many problems might simply go away? 

    Mundus vult decipi
    socrates
    Gerhard, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that the problem is not one of lack of knowledge, but a rather a cultural problem. I am not sure Helen actually disagrees with you in that sense and that is why she raises the example of an entirely different culture. I certainly see the problem of culture to be our greatest challenge, more so than any other technical challenge. Whether or not this, or that, aboriginal culture is the best model to follow, or if an entirely new model is needed, is all legitimately debatable. More crucial to my thinking are the questions, where does culture come from? Can it be controlled? Can it be directed? Should it be? What happens when left to its own devices? Is there a "natural" culture that is best, a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau? What is the ideal culture, if there is one? Can such a culture be created? How is it to be maintained?

    The "knowledge" we are missing, it seems to me, is not knowledge of conventional technology, as you rightly point out, but rather knowledge of the technology of culture. Susan Blackmore has written an interesting book called The Meme Machine, in which she refers to this new science as memetics. I would like to see more serious science devoted to this field to both protect us from destructive cultural manipulation and to promote culture that is conducive to a just and equitable society.
    Citizen Philosopher / Science Tutor
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, it is a cultural problem, but my point (which I'm not making very well), is that these cultures all represent a part of our history.  We came from those cultures.  We derived our current beliefs  and cultural values with those as our backdrop.

    Modern society and culture didn't materialize as something unique.  It evolved specifically from those same origins.  Therefore when I hear about primitive tribes being studied, I always find myself thinking that we've already been there and we made decisions specifically to NOT live that way.

    Certainly this isn't based on just individual choices or decisions, but it is clear that at some point in our past, there was a major departure in how humans lived that began the transition from tribal societies to the city-states.  Perhaps I'm being overly simplistic, but it seems that it could be largely characterized by the early uses of technology as a means of structuring the "social organism".  Division of labor increased, agriculture developed, etc., which ultimately gave rise to a social structure which began to actively compete against these other cultures and decimated them.

    The reason I say there is nothing there to learn, is that we chose a path to specifically destroy those choices and regardless of what we find out, we aren't prepared to go back to them.

    Today's societies function because of a unique division of labor that has completely decentralized our ability to use and exploit technology, such that no individual can survive on their own.  Perhaps that is another way to characterize such primitive cultures, is that most of their "technology" was personal and attainable by individuals or small groups, whereas our modern society absolutely depends on controlling its members and avoiding the need for such personal knowledge/control.

    Also, it should be clear that our societies are big on controlling its people, and it is effectively a coercive force we've come to accept and take for granted.  Food and resources are not something you can obtain for yourself, but must obtain through the social group's systems and structures.  In other words, you must cooperate to live.  You must be prepared to commit your life to a particular choice in occupations or knowledge, so that you can fulfill your piece of the division of labor the social group requires. 

    These are such diametrically opposed viewpoints to more primitive tribal societies, that we literally have nothing in common with them any more.  Our problems are of our own creation and have little or nothing to do with how older cultures lived and survived.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    We came from those cultures. We derived our current beliefs and cultural values with those as our backdrop. Modern society and culture didn't materialize as something unique. It evolved specifically from those same origins. Therefore when I hear about primitive tribes being studied, I always find myself thinking that we've already been there and we made decisions specifically to NOT live that way.
    Gerhard, what do you know about australian indigenous society's culture? The cultures that I came from and which have in the past colonised much of the world, including of course Australia and America, were English and Scottish, or in combination British.

    The English culture chopped down their forests, caused mass extinctions of native flora and fauna wherever they went. They partitioned, owned and cultivated the land for many centuries living in feudal societies that exploited the poor, who often lived wretched lives at the beck and mercy of their feudal lords, who were constantly either battling amongst themselves, for their King and Queen or going on crusades to the Holy land to fight the 'Infidels'. I can trace my family tree back to the Doomsday Book and there is a book about my mother's family 'The Tempests' in which each chapter represents a generation and each generation exploited their serfs and usually fought endless battles and crusades.

    My father's Scottish culture  I feel was slightly better, though they lived in a harsher climate on less fertile land, for centuries they basically hunted, fought, raped and pillaged just about everyone and everything that they came across who didn't belong to their clans and/or who tried to do the same to them. Neither of these societies or cultures are very fine examples of how people can live in harmony amongst themselves and with the land and the environment.

    The Indigenous people of Australia thrived and lived in harmony with each other and the land without a monarchy, in the best example of Marxism that has ever existed on this planet, for over 30,000 years. I think that there is still so much that we could learn from studying the sociological, anthropological and psychological factors behind this Indigenous society's customs and culture. They were wiped out by the common cold, deliberately introduces diseases and poisons, rape and pillage and their land was stolen from them after being described as 'Terra Nullus' or belonging to noone because they had no fences and were nomadic not because there was anything wrong or inferior about their culture, quite the opposite.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Helen, when you're talking about Scots or kings and queens you're already well after the tribal phase of Europe.

    In fact, except for Tacitus' work "Germania" there is little known about the tribal societies that existed in Europe.  Interestingly enough, Tacitus paints exactly the same kind of picture you're referring to regarding the Germanic tribes when compared to Roman society.

    This leads me to believe that prior to the existence of the city-state, there is no reason to suspect that tribal societies throughout the world lived in any significantly different manner beyond that dictated by their geography.

    The point you're making about the Australian Aborigines could also be made about many of the North American Indian tribes with their own particular variations.  However, even within such societies there were also various city-states that arose (Aztec, Inca, Mayan) and invariably they behaved in almost the same way as the Europeans and others did later.

    Once again, this leads me to conclude that it isn't anything about the Europeans versus aboriginal people, but rather it is the shift from tribal to city-state that is the defining element that changes the behavior.  There are obviously many other historical forces that come into play that would change how different geographic regions coped or dealt with these changes, but in the end the basics remain the same.  The advent of the "city-state" supplanted tribal societies wherever it encountered them and for good or ill, is the path that was most successful in expanding the influence of the people that followed that formula.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Once again, this leads me to conclude that it isn't anything about the Europeans versus aboriginal people, but rather it is the shift from tribal to city-state that is the defining element that changes the behavior.  There are obviously many other historical forces that come into play that would change how different geographic regions coped or dealt with these changes, but in the end the basics remain the same.
    Yes Gerhard, and its these basics that need to be changed! The only way that humanity can live in harmony with the environment is to somehow supersede this exploitative, destructive behavior with more harmonious, symbiotic behaviors and I believe that we can still learn from these Indigenous cultures which often relied upon these basics about how this can still be achieved in a modern city-state.

    The bulk of the population could still live in cities if necessary but those who remained in the countryside or chose to live there, could follow more sustainable agricultural practices which in turn could support the city folk. For example, here in Australia, we have recently sold our lychee and mango farm because it was impossible for us to make a living from the beautiful, organic fruit that we have produced for 8 years.

    This was not because the fruit was bad or that we were bad at growing, picking, packaging and marketing the fruit. It was because of several factors beyond our control. One being that the large supermarkets are monopolies that like to buy cheap, imported, bulk fruit from countries like China and Vietnam. The second being that because of these cheap imports which were often of poor quality, not organic, irradiated and past their use by date, we were unable to get a price for our fruit in the city markets that would pay the costs of employing local people to pick and package and then transport the fruit. Lychee farmers are being paid less now fro their fruit than 10 years ago.

    The person who bought the farm decided that farming was too hard and he has subsequently chopped down thousands of beautiful, 25 year old lychee trees that could have lived for hundreds of years. It was only ever cost effective for us to pick 75% of the best fruit, so now the local fauna such as some very endangered fruit bats, the last colony in the world, who relied heavily upon this food are now probably facing extinction. A society that had learnt and adopted Indigenous basics which respect the value of local fresh, organic trees, labor, fruit and fauna would never have allowed this to happen.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Helen, I agree with your sentiment, but I don't believe it can be done.  The Australian Aborigines didn't "decide" to live a particular way.  They lived in the way that made sense for their own survival.  The mistake made today is that we want to assign some philosophical basis to these lifestyles as if they can be learned.

    People lived in whatever "harmony" they did, because their survival depended on it, and they lacked the technology to exploit.  Certainly there are differences in attitude just as there are between those that live in rural areas versus cities.  However, with the overwhelming majority of people inhabiting cities, it is impossible to bridge the gap such a transition as your suggesting entails.  Too many people think that "nature" is something they have to scrape off their feet when they get home, so I don't see that changing anytime soon and few people would willingly give up their luxuries.

    The problem is only made worse when those same people have to encounter the local flora and fauna.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Gerhard I don't agree with you. I believe that the global, human society is still capable of eventually adopting an ecologically sustainable and satisfying way of life but unfortunately we still have a lot to learn regarding how to bring this about. I still believe that one good way to learn about this is to study Indigenous cultures as they were our ancestors and the experts without whom we would not exist, unlike us they were not stupid slaves to industrial, capitalistic, exploitative, high tech, self-destructive modern societies.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm glad you're optimistic, but in my view that ship has sailed.  For good or ill, we've chosen our social evolutionary path, and we can't turn back the clock.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    If we don't turn back the clock then a natural hazard probably will one day regardless.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Agreed!
    Mundus vult decipi
    Not to take sides in this very interesting debate, but wanting to contribute an outside reference relating to some questions and points raised.
    In 1980, in Elbert Co., Georgia, a granite monument, known as the Georgia Guidestones, was raised. Engraved thereon are ten guidelines. They can be viewed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Guidestones.

    "Is there some ideal number of humans that this planet can accommodate and what makes that number so ideal?"

    The guidelines suggest less than 500,000,000 and always in harmony with nature. Other lines seem to suggest a eugenics practice being involved. I have no idea how their target population figure is to be arrived at. Apparently some think they have thought all these questions through very well, have all the answers and we shouldn't worry.

    Gerhard Adam
    I wouldn't venture to suggest an ideal number, but it should be clear that when there isn't enough food or resources, that it's a number less than what we have.

    Now it could certainly be argued that there are technological solutions as well as political processes that could improve things, but I think that misses the larger picture.  After all, life on earth isn't only about human life, so when we begin to see questionable encroachment into areas that aren't particularly suitable for humans you have to begin wondering if we aren't taking the technology a bit too seriously in terms of advancing human occupation on this planet.

    My father used to always raise the question of how we keep developing technology to reduce the amount of human labor needed while our population keeps growing.  One would think that this presents an economic and social problem that everyone seems content to ignore.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually I would argue that we're more adept at disrupting the mind and we can certainly use it in a destructive sense, but mind control is still little better than using a 2x4.  Mind reading is even less controllable, because it is also a brute force effort which invariably misses.

    The problem with all of these technologies is that we assume that if we can learn to do one thing, it extrapolates into a general type of control, which isn't the case.  It's a classic reductionist error.  This is precisely why despite having decoded the human genome, we still don't know what most of it does (and certainly we know little about how to control any of it).

    Most of this is scientific optimism which is largely unwarranted given how little real knowledge we have regarding these things.  While I can agree that we will continue to learn a great deal, this type of optimism is characteristic of having a little knowledge, and presuming that it only takes a little more before the picture becomes complete. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    "However, the biggest difficulty also occurs when considering human nature. Our propensity to take advantage, or lie/cheat, or even commit crimes. Basically there is no human social model that can assure that humans will behave decently, regardless of incentives. Therefore, the biggest point that in transhumanism that is glossed over, is the need to absolutely be able to control human behavior through external means. This would involve controlling thoughts as well as emotions. In effect, truly making humans into machines without any ability to respond according to their own instincts or beliefs."

    However, this would then suggest that all the other problems that you seem to consider as _real_ real problems, would also not be truly solvable.

    The problem here is that it seems there is a huge black/white here: either we have a giant totalitarian micro-control system turning all humans into "robots" -- OR, these kinds of technologies can _NEVER_ be used or deployed in anything remotely fair or just.

    But if you don't give up the "freedoms" while having this kind of technology, then the potential abuse would make things WORSE than if you did give them up?!

    Gerhard Adam
    We can't actually control our evolutionary path, but we can certainly prevent ourselves from rushing headlong into an engineering nightmare.  Personally, I'm not worried because the technology isn't even remotely on the horizon at this point, so the transhumanist agenda can be discussed all they like, because it isn't even a slight possibility at this point.
    Mundus vult decipi