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The Great Filter

Milky Way

Nick Land recently pointed to Robin Hanson’s 1998 essay, The Great Filter, which looks at possible explanations to Fermi’s Paradox, by looking at critical steps necessary to galactic colonization and asking where the greatest barrier to further progression is.  Land sees this implying that many civilizations are exterminated   Shortly thereafter, Jim posted a response that the Great Filter lies not before us, but behind us.

While Jim might be right that intelligent life of similar caliber to humans is rare in the galaxy, he starts his post off with an assumption that seems to me to be unwarranted:

There seem to be no great obstacles to intelligent life devouring the galaxy.

In fact, obstacles are legion in a project of interstellar colonization. The first of these is the sheer distance between stars. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is over 2,000 times further away than the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which, launched in 1977, is the furthest manmade object from Earth.  To send a living crew that distance, the spacecraft would require speeds at least hundreds of times that of the voyager probes, and the amount of energy required rises with the square of the speed, so hundreds of times the speed requires myriads of times the energy

Second, not all stars are going to have habitable way stations for a prospectively interstellar civilizations to colonize and develop before sending out more colonists to the next waypoint.  Proxima Centauri is again a good example.  As a red dwarf flare star whose stellar flares make any potentially habitable planets that might orbit it less accommodating and possibly entirely useless for the purpose of installing a colonial civilization capable of sending future generations of colonists to worlds further out.  This challenge both effectively increases both the necessary distance traveled per voyage between stars and the cost of the measures put in place to allow colonists to settle an alien world.

Earth has countless amenities that we don’t even notice by virtue of our having evolved in response to Earth’s environment.  The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere closely matches what is ideal for us because we are sculpted around such parameters, not vice versa.  As such, the likelihood of finding a planet with the right oxygen levels to support human life outside of a sealed environment with the gas balance controlled by humans is minimal and the probability only goes down when other parameters like temperature or surface pressure are added.  This adds an additional challenge, because it limits the possible development of any potential daughter civilization, as it will likely be confined to an environment sealed off from the original atmosphere of the planet it inhabits.  Since such civilizations serve as launching pads for a second wave of colonization to stars further on in any scenario by which a civilization successfully conquers an entire galaxy, this also introduces a barrier beyond the initial wave of colonization.

The third and most important problem is motivation.  Humans have done a remarkable job of proliferating around the planet and we have the ability to venture into space, though we haven’t yet sent ourselves out of Earth’s gravity well.  However, contrary to Robin Hanson’s suggestions, our ability to colonize and proliferate on Earth combined with our ability to reach beyond the Earth’s atmosphere does not imply that we will actively pursue a voyage to the stars.  We have a fundamental difference in the magnitude of the challenges that face humans colonizing Earth versus colonizing a planet around another star, and ultimately, because it requires a capital investment that dwarfs that of any human project past or present with little to no hope of a return on investment for those who stay on Earth.

While it is true as Robin Hanson suggests, that natural selection rewards those who break with the established strategy in ways that exploit previously untapped resources, the means by which it does so tend not to involve an actual conscious desire to proliferate.  Instead, strategies developed through natural selection involve the confluence of many instincts.  Instincts, which have if anything, proven themselves to be thwarted by the mix of technology an intelligence, as the use of contraception shows.  Yes, it’s possible that a select few individuals could muster the necessary resources to back a project to send Earthly life to a planet orbiting another star, but the chance of success combined with the cost and sheer difficulty of such a mission makes it unlikely that such individuals will arise.

Ultimately, the barriers to interstellar travel do represent a great filter preventing the colonization of the galaxy by an intelligent civilization.  Whether they are the Great Factor is difficult to judge.  However, it should be noted that as exterminators go, the lack of will to send colonists to other stars is one of the slowest-acting civilization killers in existence, and probably less consequential than more proximate causes.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve silently admired the emergence of a community of blogs influenced by the writings of Mencius Moldbug who call themselves neoreactionaries.  It’s generally been one of the more creative parts of the dissident Right blogosphere, using many of the concepts pioneered by Moldbug and using them in new ways to look at today’s society.  However, one of the pitfalls of creativity is that it generates bad ideas just as adeptly as it generates good ones.

One of the ideas that has emerged is a cladistic look at ideologies, with a focus on American progressivism in particular, as exemplified in this post by Nick Land and this more recent one from Foseti in which progressivism is treated as a highly modified branch of English Puritanism.  In biology, cladisitics is an approach to categorization of organisms based upon the time since the most recent common ancestor.  I like this approach since the categories it generates reflect the actual relatedness of their constituent species.  For instance, take this example of primate classification from Wikipedia:

CladogramAs can be seen, the old categorical divisions within the order of primates did not reflect the actual relatedness of its species, as tarsiers, classified as prosimians are more closely related to all simian species than they are to the lemurs and lorises that complete the category of prosimians, making “prosimians” paraphyletic.  Another example of paraphyly can be seen further up the tree, as there are two branches labeled as “monkeys”, but old world monkeys are actually more closely related to humans and apes than they are to new world monkeys.  Similarly, this approach shows that grouping together tarsiers and lorises, two big-eyed nocturnal primates, results in pulling two groups from different branches in a single category, not unlike grouping sharks and whales together despite their very different ancestries.

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Night Lights

Last year, NASA posted a new high resolution map of the lights present across the world at night using the Suomi NPP satellite, which was launched in 2009.

While the overall appearance of the map is similar to those provided by older satellites, with a well-lit developed world and a global south shrouded in darkness, the higher level of detail allows a closer look at some of the smaller features around the globe

A River Of Fire

Along the shores of the southwestern Mediterranean lie the heirs of two ancient civilizations, whose modern cities are arranged in distinctly different patterns.

Along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, we can see a web of Levantine cities in Lebanon and Israel starting from the coast and expanding back toward their eastern borders. The countries to their east, Syria and Jordan, have their urban networks concentrated around the capital cities of Damascus and Amman respectively.

Of course, one of the most striking features of any nighttime satellite imagery of the Earth is the glowing strip of lights along the Egyptian Nile, starting with the triangular delta and stretching upstream until it comes to an abrupt end at the Aswan Dam, built at the site of the first cataract, the historic separation point between Egyptian civilization and the Nubians of what is now southern Egypt. While there are some scattered lights in Egypt outside of the Nile Valley, those can only be found in the oases of the Sahara, whose desiccated expanse otherwise impedes the growth of sedentary society, serving instead as the domain of a small number of nomads migrating across its vast waves of dunes.

The utter darkness of Nubia is a reflection both of the population displacement caused by the formation of Lake Nasser with the building of the the Aswan Dam and the extent to which the Nile cataracts impeded the extension of Egyptian civilization southward to a meaningful extent.

Further upstream, there is little in the way of lights until reaching the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which serves as an island of urbanization in an otherwise dark Sudanese countryside. With six cataracts between its capital and the glowing thread of the Egyptian Nile Valley, Sudan’s darkness outside of its capital is representative of the African continent south of the Sahara.
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The OneZoom Tree Of Life

Recently, the OneZoom website, run by James Rosindell and Luke Harmon at Imperial College London, released an illustration of the ancestral tree of all tetrapods–that is, all birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. Previously, the group had produced trees for birds, mammals, and amphibians alone, but now all three have been combined with the various groups of reptiles filled in as well. In the immediate future, the group is planning on adding fish and plants with the ultimate goal being an illustration of the ancestral relationships of all extant life on Earth.

Here’s the launch video the group released at the same time that the mammalian tree became available:

If you spend some time playing around with it, you can find out quite a few surprising relationships. For instance, as the tree above shows, crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to turtles or lizards.
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Just as I stopped blogging with a discussion of how fertility and proselytism shape the ideological landscape with a Bloggingheads discussion as its centerpiece, I’m returning with another Bloggingheads discussion, this time between two liberals, Allison Yarrow and Harry Siegel, the latter of whom co-wrote a Newsweek article concerning the future of fertility for the United States:

Unfortunately, the discussion is somewhat one-sided in terms of common sense.  Allison Yarrow repeats the widespread myth that women do not receive equal pay for equal work and seems to think that continued work by the elderly necessitated by economic conditions will fuel innovation in our economy.  However, the discussion is an interesting illustration of how liberals approach the issue of fertility.

Siegel expresses what is probably the largest liberal concern when it comes to matters of fertility and that is how age demographics will affect the stability of the welfare state. Like many liberals, he also sees immigration as a possible way of softening the blow to state coffers that will come with the wave of Baby Boomer retirements.

As for an explanation for the declining fertility rate, the conversation is a bit murky. Siegel proffers the notion that as more and more women are educated, many of them decide to strive for careers and decide that childbearing is unappealing while also discussing pessimistic economic prospects for couples in recent decades. While to some extent this may be true, I think that a shift in cultural values is playing a more important role. This comes out in a statistic from Siegel than among young people who do not think marriage is obsolete (those that do are 44% of the population), only 41% think that children are important for marriage, down from 65% in 1990.

I don’t think that materialist factors should be discounted entirely. For instance, Yarrow mentions that Obama’s Affordable Care Act doesn’t include many pro-fertility provisions: that employers must provide women a place to breastfeed their children is the only one she could think of, while it does require that all healthcare plans include funding for birth control. However, it seems like the arrow of causation may be moving more from the a culture that devalues having children while promoting careerism and consumerism to lawmakers’ favoring of policies that benefit the childless than those that benefit those with children rather than the other way around. If public policy were the driving factor, then pronatalist policies in various European countries from Sweden to Russia would yield replacement level fertility, a feat they have yet to achieve.

An interesting aside is what the two of them consider to be “normal”. At one point, Siegel, while arguing that the children of high fertility groups are more “normal than their parents, brings up a woman whose mother was an unspecified famous country singer who is now a childless anarchist tattoo artist. While I understand that famous country singers are not an everyday occurrence, anarchist tattoo artist hardly seem to be more normal to me, but then again, I’m not a writer for The Daily Beast.

The context for this was the discussion of high fertility subcultures such as Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, who Yarrow had proposed as a solution for the effect of declining fertility on the public purse. Siegel found this unpromising, in part because particularly high fertility groups often abuse the welfare system to fund their families, but more importantly because of what he saw as negative views on homosexuality and women. The irony is that while Siegel wants higher fertility, the last thing he is willing to consider is a cultural outlook conducive to that end.

Ideological Competition

At the end of May this year, hosted an hour-long discussion between Amanda Marcotte, an atheistic feminist, and Michael Brendan Dougherty, a traditionalist Catholic, which covered a range of topics including a report on the Catholic sex abuse scandal and the sexual behavior of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which were occupying a great deal of the news coverage at the time. However, the parts that I found most interesting were their discussions about fundamental questions of social organization and this came out most in their discussion of marriage toward the end of the diavlog.

In the first few minutes of their dialog, Amanda Marcotte summarizes some prescriptions she made for the Catholic Church in an article she wrote for The Revealer a few days before talking to Dougherty:

…the Catholic Church has failed in a way that a lot of Protestant denomiations have not in order to retain its reputation and keep existing believers from going out the door, especially in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, and the way I put was, they have no feminism, no love of feminism. The way I see it is, I’m a feminist atheist; I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “feminist religion” really, but that’s personal for me. I do think that feminist critiques have been incorporated into many religious faiths and it’s been to their benefit.

I said that I feel like if the Catholic Church just gave a little on any single issue that perplexes their believers right now they would get so much credit and everyone would act so releaved and grateful. I suggested that they could let women be priests, they could revoke the celibacy requirement for priests. The biggest thing they could do, in my opinion, is get rid of the injuction against contraception. Any one of those, I think, would go a long way to getting back a lot of people that have left the faith because they just feel it doesn’t speak to them any more.

While as an outside observer, I am none too fond of the celibacy requirement or the Church’s injuction against contraception and I don’t particularly care whether the clergy is all of one sex or the other or a mix, I think that all three of Marcotte’s suggestions on that front would be a poor strategic choices if enacted by the Church. To illustrate why, I want to look at their discussion of the culture surrounding marriage:

If you have time to watch the 25 minute clip, it is an interesting exchange, but for the sake of this post, let me distill the messages of the two interlocutors. First, Amanda Marcotte takes a very laissez-faire attitude toward how couples form and maintain their relationships, seeing marriage as an option that people take when it makes sense for them. Michael Brendan Dougherty, on the other hand, accepts the freedom of communities to set their norms in this regard, but would prefer to see a much more robust standard of expectations for couples and wishes to see this grounded in tradition. To reduce these positions into quotes, here is something that Marcotte says 14:27 into the clip above (56:00 into the original video):

When you give people choices, they are surprisingly good at making the correct ones. They might not follow tradition, but to my mind that says that maybe traditions were wrong.

A minute and a half later, Dougherty says this before being cut off by Marcotte:

It’s funny you say that you can’t have all that information, but that’s precisely what’s hidden in in traditional wedding vows. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…

These attitudes match up very well with the overall strategies of perpetuation employed by the ideologies espoused by these two interlocutors: feminism and Roman Catholicism respectively.
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Recently, Matt Parrot wrote a couple of articles at Counter-Currents on two of the Republican candidates for President of the United States and I would highly recommend the latter of those two articles, which concerns Mitt Romney.  It covers, in a way that won’t be seen in a mainstream outlet, Romney’s Mormon roots and gives speculation as to how those roots affect Romney’s demeanor and sense of purpose.  I cannot say that I fully endorse the article as my knowledge of Mormonism is incomplete and the article is a bit speculative.

Mr. Parrot’s earlier article about Herman Cain is also worth a look.  It’s a bit more polemic in nature and I disagree with the fundamental assessment that Herman Cain has a significant chance of winning the Republican nomination for the Presidency, which he then translates into an argument against the functioning of American democracy.  I do think that there are flaws with our political system, but it would take an actual Herman Cain nomination for me to see as dire a situation as appears to Mr. Parrot.

That said, I do find myself more in agreement with Mr. Parrot than I am with John Derbyshire concerning the seriousness of Herman Cain’s candidacy.  While Mr. Derbyshire seems quite a bit overoptimistic about Herman Cain’s chances in a general election against President Barack Obama, he does offer some interesting speculation concerning the aptitude of black politicians, pivoting off of the admittedly limited sample of the executives in the levels of government over Harvard University at the time of the media furor over the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates.

All three articles go beyond the bounds of what is considered polite or acceptable in modern American political discussion and all three articles leave the reader with material to think over as the first contests leading to the Republican nomination get underway this coming January.

We Are All Laurasians

Until the discovery of Neanderthal admixture in all non-African populations by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the most publicly popular narrative of human evolution and settlement around the globe was the Out of Africa model, which posited that all humans descended from a single population of humans originating in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago who proceeded to settle the globe in the subsequent years, completely replacing whatever archaic hominids may have been occupying the lands that they settled.  The model received a further blow after the sequencing of DNA from a fossil finger bone found in Denisova revealed that Melanesian populations had further admixture with the population to which the individual whose finger was found belonged.

The notion that all humans were completely descended from a single population living in Africa 200,000 years ago appealed to the ideological framework of some on the secular left who saw it both as a rebuke to the Creationist narratives that were held by scriptural literalists as well as a possible means of arguing that race itself was a meaningless concept.  Ironically, just as this worldview was disintegrating, Richard Dawkins placed this T-shirt for sale at his site’s store:

But Dawkin’s design is certainly not the only “We are all Africans” T-shirt design.  Here’s one that is cataloged with a set of “Atheist Designs” at Spreadshirt:

Here is one version from Squidoo that actually directly incorporates the Out of Africa model:

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The Galton Inequality

One of the popular signifiers of Christianity has been the ΙΧΘΥΣ symbol, which has been standardized for use on the rear bumpers of devoutly Christian drivers everywhere, sometimes with the Greek written on the belly as can be seen below on the left.  In response, some secularists produced the image on the right showing a fish with legs and DARWIN written on its body as can be seen below on the right.  Since then there have been an explosion of competing bumper logos symbolizing the ideological combat of Darwinians and Christian Creationists made on both sides.

In a similar vein, Glaivester (hat tip: Eugenicist) has made a parody of the equal sign:

While I like the concept, I think that the execution needs some improvement in two areas. The first is that in the inequality sign (≠), the slash runs in the opposite direction. The second is that, though Glaivester’s version seems to be a parody on the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, the formost LGBT* lobbying organization in the United States, it is quite a bit more elongated than the original logo. As such, using the original logo as a template (the blue background version, on the left), I’ve made my own version of the Galton Inequality, as shown on the left.

I’ve also created a Logos page where I have some variations on the graphic for those who would prefer a different color combination.  Feel free to use and distribute these logos as you see fit.

*Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender, for those uninitiated in gender politics

It’s been over half a year since I created this blog, but looking back, I’ve noticed that I have not yet given a a satisfactory explanation of my pseudonym, which is important, since taking it at face value could give a mistaken impression.

Apostasy is typically refers to rejection of one’s religious origins and has mostly been used in conjunction with Islam because of that particular religion’s attitude toward apostasy.  On that front, I would qualify as an apostate from Christianity, but when I created the blog, the apostasy I had in mind was political:

It is a bit more difficult to describe my political views.  They are easiest to define in the negative: I, unlike most of my friends and family, am not a conventional American liberal or progressive.

I choose to use the word “apostate” to refer to my turning away from American liberalism because in many ways, that ideology has a quasi-religious structure such that morality is partially tied to politics.  In particular, the concept of equality plays a strong normative role in the worldview of the Left and it is one of the main tenets that I reject, which by the definition set forth by Paul Gottfried, makes me a Man of the Right.

I choose to refer to myself as a reluctant apostate because I understand the difficulty of apostasy as a viable route to a worldview and that is that an apostate is defined by what he is not and in opposition to his past worldview.  An apostate is giving up a system of beliefs without necessarily adopting a complete replacement.  While as an apostate, I reject the structures of thought that predominate the Left, I recognize the dangers that this entails.  Just as a religious apostate can fill the newfound void with an even more pernicious worldview, such as Marxist communism, one who rejects the doctrines of the Left must be aware that some of the alternatives lead down a far more destructive path.

I’d also like to add my reluctance as an apostate as has some personal roots.  Most of my family and the people who I’ve associated with through most of my life would identify as liberal or progressive.  The fact that I am writing under a pseudonym is an indicator of the extent to which I am willing to air my heretical views publicly.


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