Stay Calm and Multiply

We will survive by the skin of our teeth; but we may need more teeth

By now, pretty much everyone on the planet knows we have a population crisis; there are too many of us, and as the West’s standard of living comes to all, we will unquestionably outstrip our planet’s resources.  Unquestionably.

So, of course, I’ll question that.


Consider the long, growing list of threats to our civilization – threats beyond any particular Orangutan, that is.  The chaotic growth of threats is increasing; every new answer creates new problems as it effects other parts of the system and heightens the complexity of our culture as it continues to add new technologies at an ever-increasing rate.  There’s no way we can keep up with this constantly growing tsunami of unintended consequences.

Except there is a way.  Just as chaotically, individuals keep coming up with answers that gravitate out from them to the greater culture, if their contribution is allowed.

But these solutions arise anywhere and everywhere, just as likely to occur to a well-financed think tank as to someone very peripheral to the mainstream culture – actually more likely to arise among those not working directly on a problem, as researchers’ view becomes ever more narrow as they are trapped by their own certainty that the answer must lie upon the expected path of where they’ve been looking.  That means that every new group that is included and accepted brings with it new possibilities that exceed in their contribution the problems their inclusion might create.  The increasing willingness of our culture to expand out to include the previously marginalized is the most vital thing we are doing – the thing that boosts the problem-solving ability of our culture to a rate equal to that increase of problems we face as we continue to progress technologically.

Because of this powerful, chaotic, complexity-driven increase in the ability of the individual to contribute his or her talents, we look to a future where, within the next generation, we end hunger and curb disease, rebuild the damaged planet, and create a global culture that includes – because complexity says it has to – everyone.

But there is a problem.

Human intelligence, even in its most powerful manifestations, is just not that impressive.  Sorry.  Human beans didn’t develop intelligence to build spaceships.  We developed advanced thought so we could find things to eat and ways to not be eaten (though I will later present a paper suggesting our intelligence is a side effect of our need to explain ourselves to ourselves.)  With thought and culture, we could learn environmental signals that appear only over time and take advantage of them. This lead to our unlikely survival; from discoveries of ancient human remains among the waste-piles of predators, apparently lions find us dee-licious.

Even Einstein was a dope about many things; other people, family, children.  He never really was able to accept the quantum world that came after him, that his amazing insights led to.  Likewise, those original quantum physicists could never accept the discoveries that complexity led to.  And so it goes; each generation making new strides and then resisting those of the next.  Since it is that way, and seems always to have been so, I suggest we accept that it must be that way.

I think it’s just too easy for human brains to get stuck in logical dead-ends.  Chess masters, in studying their game and sharpening their checkmating chops, develop minds that are far more powerful than ours at that specific task, full of many more neural connections than a normal brain – and tend to become hopeless at other tasks, as the British found out in the late ’30’s.  They had a monstrous task to undertake, the breaking of the massively complex Enigma code, a task so huge it forced the birth of the electronic brain.  So they did the logical thing, and roped in all those international chess masters.

And got nowhere fast.  Their massive neural networks were perfected for one thing – chess – and weren’t much use at larger analysis.  They dumped the chess master for clerks, librarians and crossword-puzzle fans.  Gobs of them.

It’s a lack of understanding about what ‘intelligence’ is; we’re far too ready to see it as a thing that chess masters, as well as college professors and Nobel winners, have and display in their convoluted, magical multi-syllabic speech.  Far too often, these are minds not necessarily any sharper than yours (though undoubtedly quicker than mine); the normal mindset of such illustrious thinkers displays an amazing grasp of an area of human thought so advanced and pushed to such an extreme that it’s greatest effect is to absolutely guarantee an inability to see anything one centimeter off the well-trod path they’ve taken.

As for example; we’ve been ‘a few years away’ from curing cancer and cold fusion for several decades now.  And levitating trains.  And full-color photovoltaics.  And the compostable plastic bag.  And flying cars.  And . . .

Consider this very common scene; you have made much progress in your search for The Answer in your pet field, and are so close to a solution.  That’s the problem.  You are certain you are on the right path; but if the next, revealing step were in some logical, determinative progression, wouldn’t you have found it?  Your progress guarantees you will not see the true solution; you will look on the path where it can’t possibly be, like the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp, because that’s where the light is.  The truth for which you seek is so weird, so anti-intuitive, so tangential to your closely-held assumptions that your dedication and focus on the path you took to get where you are guarantees there is no significant chance you will see it, or recognize it if you do.  You are, as Einstein, Planck, Fermi, Hawking, so many great minds were, limited by your history   – you’re trapped by what you know, held to the path you’ve taken and unable to credit anything off that path.

Solution?  More paths.  More travelers.  Less direction.

And such is what we see when we look at the changes that have happened to the Nobel and other science prizes over the last century.  A hundred years ago, breakthroughs were made by single researchers working in small labs; by fifty years ago, it was more likely to be several scientists in a few big labs making a set of serial discoveries that coalesce into a whole; now there are, almost always, teams of thousands, even tens of thousands, all making their own important contributions requiring mention.  When the Large Hadron Collider makes Nobel-worthy discoveries, the lists of significant contributers would fill several books, and will force the Committee to rewrite its rules.

I have made the point in other texts herein that we need a global population of free beings in which every population, no matter how defined, must be able to contribute and participate if our solution-creation mechanism is to be robust enough to ensure our survival.  It’s also true, for the same reason, that we need more people.

How many?

Well, here your faithful corespondent has to confess uncertainty.  I suppose there is some way of working this out.  We’re expected to top out at perhaps ten billion beings, after which the population slowly decreases.  How many do we need to keep up with the task of invention?  I think it has to be more than that; my guess is, at least twice that number.

Why?  Complexity.

Because centralized, controlling organization destroys creativity and order, we will avoid those, instead working toward a culture in which individuals make their own choices about what interests to pursue, what talents to develop.  In the top-down model, individuals are assigned tasks that may not interest them or in which they have no talents, based not on the reality of their abilities but from what the Center thinks its problems are; they will be wrong often enough that such a culture would collapse.

But in the world that works, a very large number of individuals with self-authority to decide their own interests guarantees that people will seek the opportunities that arise.  This process automatically draws them toward areas of stress in the culture.  Problems, in that system, themselves attract workers.  It’s a more natural system; it’s the way evolution works.

That’s the challenge – evolution is a lazy slob that works not by perfecting new approaches but by inventing solutions that are just good enough to give some advantage.  This takes numbers.  Big numbers.  Millions of individuals over millions of years makes for a small, uncertain, sloppy, stumbling change – or not.  The dice get rolled over and over, each individual a throw of the dice when the genes get together followed by constant rolls of the dice every day from that instant until death.

So now we are an advanced and advancing civilization – at least, in the absence of any comparisons, we seem to be.  This man-made progression is more chaotic than we are comfortable knowing.  We want to think that this is a creation of our civilization, our laws, our culture; but it’s very much more based on emotional connections and individuals influencing each other, closer to those of a herd of elk or moose.  This is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, and it has much more to do with the shape of our society than any law ever will.

That’s the reason I think we need to at least double our projected maximum population.  A planet full of individuals able to make their own decisions on what to invest their energies in is a requirement to avoiding collapse.  But the very same culture will be so empowered individually that having such a world of choice means fewer individuals pursuing any one path.  Science will have to compete with a universe of possibilities; without those choices we can’t have a powerful solution-creation mechanism, but at the same time, that very wealth of possibilities will make it less likely that enough individuals pursue any particular path.  Nor will governments be able to effect this lack without at the same time limiting other choices, which is deadly.

So to have sufficient numbers of scientists – or police, or lawyers, or doctors – that arise from a culture sufficiently empowering of individuals to allow solution creation to keep pace with challenges, we need numbers.  I think we need twenty billions.  Just at a guess.


See?  Crazy.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.