Life, the Universe, and Everything

Experts have been debating the causes of the industrial revolution for a long time, with few signs of agreement. I suggest that’s due to a human-centric bias which assumes that no other species could have caused human progress.

I became curious after reading that, while dogs were domesticated, cats intermixed with humans while showing few signs of domestication. Cats have cooperated with humans for long enough that I’d expect at least a little bit of co-evolution. If it wasn’t the humans selecting for the most docile or friendly cats, then maybe it was the cats selecting for the most docile or friendly humans.

One interesting hint is that various human cultures tell different stories about how many lives a cat has. As far as I can tell, the cultures that were most advanced in the 18th century (Britain, China) say cats have 9 lives, the more southern parts of Europe say 7, and Arab cultures say 6. That’s a fairly striking correlation between how highly cultures think of cats and how prospurrous they were near the start of the industrial revolution.[1]

People feed me, shelter me and love me ... I must be God

The hardest aspect of explaining the industrial revolution is explaining why the China’s level of development around 1800 didn’t enable it to lead the world. Why did Europe do better than China? Britain seems to have stopped eating cats sometime in the 18th century, while cat-eating has only started to become controversial in southern China this century. I’m less sure what the story is for northern China, where cat-eating apparently doesn’t happen today, but I haven’t found evidence about when cat-eating became unpopular there. Southern China is the region that’s generally said to have been advanced enough that it could have experienced an industrial revolution around 1800. Maybe northern China was backwards then for reasons unrelated to cats, maybe they were held back by their cat-eating southern compatriots, or maybe they adopted a cat-safe culture quite recently – could that have been the change that triggered China’s impressive growth over the past 40 years? Can anyone point me to better evidence on this topic?

Another possible reason for China’s lag is that a completely different species of cat (the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis) acted as “pets” in China about 5000 years ago. Felis catus may have pawsed their human domestication plans in China due to distractions from their struggles with the leopard cat.

I can imagine many strategies that the cats could have used to purr-suade humans to change:

  • Cats probably have some influence over who the spread diseases to.
  • They could influence human mating choices, by causing distractions when “bad” humans court each other, versus purring peacefully when “good” humans court.[2]
  • Cat “ownership” can show trustworthiness, once cats establish conditions under which humans recognize cats as high status and/or recognize that cat-friendliness implies a person is less prone to pointless conflict. Cats exert some influence on who they associate with, and they can use that to increase the status of “good” humans, and/or increase the mating opportunities of “good” humans.
  • They could influence which areas have more or less rodents, thereby causing “bad” villages to have more food eaten by rodents than was he case with “good” villages.
  • Eating rodents protected nearby humans from diseases spread by rodents. This was especially important during the black plague.

What benefits would the cats have been selecting for?

I presume an important part of their plan would have been selecting for a wider moral circle, since that would make humans safer for cats to live near.

A wider moral circle is correlated with higher trust, and lower violence. These are likely important for cooperation among groups that are much larger than the Dunbar number. See Fukuyama for more on why that mattered.

So, regardless of whether cats planned to advance human civilization, or were merely protecting themselves, their interests in domesticating humans helped generate conditions that were conducive to an industrial revolution.

[1] – A more exotic version of this story is that we’re living in a simulation, and cats are the avatars of the beings who run the simulation. They’re arrogant enough to taunt us by reusing the same avatar just enough for humans to suspect something, but they stop before leaving enough evidence for anything to be proven.

[2] – I don’t want to express any opinion here about the nature-nurture debate, since there are many ways in which cats could have changed human behavior, and I have little hope of tracking down enough evidence to show which strategies the cats actually used. Feline influence on mating could achieve its results via genetic selection – that would require unusual patience, but produce the most stable results. Or the cats could have focused on making the good humans higher status, and the bad humans lower status – that could potentially produce faster results, but is more likely to depend on continuing feline manipulations of human culture.

See also the book A Farewell to Alms for a more detailed argument that British society has long been subjected to selection pressure which made it ripe for the industrial revolution. Alas, it neglects cats.

Book review: The Elephant in the Brain, by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.

This book is a well-written analysis of human self-deception.

Only small parts of this book will seem new to long-time readers of Overcoming Bias. It’s written more to bring those ideas to a wider audience.

Large parts of the book will seem obvious to cynics, but few cynics have attempted to explain the breadth of patterns that this book does. Most cynics focus on complaints about some group of people having worse motives than the rest of us. This book sends a message that’s much closer to “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The authors claim to be neutrally describing how the world works (“We aren’t trying to put our species down or rub people’s noses in their own shortcomings.”; “… we need this book to be a judgment-free zone”). It’s less judgmental than the average book that I read, but it’s hardly neutral. The authors are criticizing, in the sense that they’re rubbing our noses in evidence that humans are less virtuous than many people claim humans are. Darwin unavoidably put our species down in the sense of discrediting beliefs that we were made in God’s image. This book continues in a similar vein.

This suggests the authors haven’t quite resolved the conflict between their dreams of upholding the highest ideals of science (pursuit of pure knowledge for its own sake) and their desire to solve real-world problems.

The book needs to be (and mostly is) non-judgmental about our actual motives, in order to maximize our comfort with acknowledging those motives. The book is appropriately judgmental about people who pretend to have more noble motives than they actually have.

The authors do a moderately good job of admitting to their own elephants, but I get the sense that they’re still pretty hesitant about doing so.

Impact

Most people will underestimate the effects which the book describes.
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I got interested in trying ashwagandha due to The End of Alzheimer’s. That book also caused me to wonder whether I should optimize my thyroid hormone levels. And one of the many features of ashwagandha is that it improves thyroid levels, at least in hypothyroid people – I found conflicting reports about what it does to hyperthyroid people.

I had plenty of evidence that my thyroid levels were lower than optimal, e.g. TSH levels measured at 2.58 in 2012, 4.69 in 2013, and 4.09 this fall [1]. And since starting alternate day calorie restriction, I saw increasing hypothyroid symptoms: on calorie restriction days my feet felt much colder around bedtime, my pulse probably slowed a bit, my body burned fewer calories, and I got vague impressions of having less energy. Presumably my body was lowering my thyroid levels to keep my weight from dropping.

I researched the standard treatments for hypothyroidism, but was discouraged by the extent of disagreement among doctors about the wisdom of treating hypothyroidism when it’s as mild as mine was. It seems like mainstream medical opinion says the risks slightly outweigh the rewards, and a sizable minority of doctors, relying on more subjective evidence, say the rewards are large, and don’t say much about the risks. Plus, the evidence for optimal thyroid levels protecting against Alzheimer’s seems to come mainly from correlations that are seen only in women.

Also, the standard treatments for hypothyroidism require a prescription (probably for somewhat good reasons), which may have deterred me by more than a rational amount.

So I decided to procrastinate any attempt to optimize my thyroid hormones, and since I planned to try ashwagandha and DHEA for other reasons, I hoped to get some evidence from the small increases to thyroid hormones that I expected from those two supplements.

I decided to try ashwagandha first, due mainly to the large number of problems it may improve – anxiety, inflammation, stress, telomeres, cholesterol, etc.
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Book review: The End of Alzheimer’s, by Dale E. Bredesen.

Alzheimer’s can be at least postponed for years in most people, and maybe fully cured.

The main catches: It only works if started early enough (and Bredesen only has crude guesses about what’s early enough), the evidence is less rigorous than I’d like, and it’s not a medical treatment, it’s a quantified self approach on steroids ketones.

My guess is that the book is roughly 70% correct. If so, that’s an enormous advance.
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Book review: Seasteading, by Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman.

Seasteading is an interesting idea. Alas, Quirk’s approach is not quirky enough to do justice to the unusual advantages of seasteading.

The book’s style is too much like a newspaper. Rather than focus on the main advantages of seasteading, it focuses on the concerns of the average person, and on how seasteading might affect them. It quotes interesting people extensively, while being vague about whether the authors are just reporting that those people have ideas, or whether the authors have checked that the ideas are correct. Many of the ideas seem rather fishy.

I suspect that seasteading’s biggest need now is businessmen and/or VCs who can start cruise-ship-sized projects. Yet the book seems aimed more at creating broad, shallow support among ordinary readers than it is at inspiring competent entrepreneurs.
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Or, why I don’t fear the p-zombie apocalypse.

This post analyzes concerns about how evolution, in the absence of a powerful singleton, might, in the distant future, produce what Nick Bostrom calls a “Disneyland without children”. I.e. a future with many agents, whose existence we don’t value because they are missing some important human-like quality.

The most serious description of this concern is in Bostrom’s The Future of Human Evolution. Bostrom is cautious enough that it’s hard to disagree with anything he says.

Age of Em has prompted a batch of similar concerns. Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has one of the better discussions (see section IV of his review of Age of Em).

People sometimes sound like they want to use this worry as an excuse to oppose the age of em scenario, but it applies to just about any scenario with human-in-a-broad-sense actors. If uploading never happens, biological evolution could produce slower paths to the same problem(s) [1]. Even in the case of a singleton AI, the singleton will need to solve the tension between evolution and our desire to preserve our values, although in that scenario it’s more important to focus on how the singleton is designed.

These concerns often assume something like the age of em lasts forever. The scenario which Age of Em analyzes seems unstable, in that it’s likely to be altered by stranger-than-human intelligence. But concerns about evolution only depend on control being sufficiently decentralized that there’s doubt about whether a central government can strongly enforce rules. That situation seems sufficiently stable to be worth analyzing.

I’ll refer to this thing we care about as X (qualia? consciousness? fun?), but I expect people will disagree on what matters for quite some time. Some people will worry that X is lost in uploading, others will worry that some later optimization process will remove X from some future generation of ems.

I’ll first analyze scenarios in which X is a single feature (in the sense that it would be lost in a single step). Later, I’ll try to analyze the other extreme, where X is something that could be lost in millions of tiny steps. Neither extreme seems likely, but I expect that analyzing the extremes will illustrate the important principles.

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Book review: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

This book describes some interesting mysteries, but provides little help at solving them.

It provides some pieces of a long-term perspective on the evolution of intelligence.

Cephalopods’ most recent common ancestor with vertebrates lived way back before the Cambrian explosion. Nervous systems back then were primitive enough that minds didn’t need to react to other minds, and predation was a rare accident, not something animals prepared carefully to cause and avoid.

So cephalopod intelligence evolved rather independently from most of the minds we observe. We could learn something about alien minds by understanding them.

Intelligence may even have evolved more than once in cephalopods – nobody seems to know whether octopuses evolved intelligence separately from squids/cuttlefish.

An octopus has a much less centralized mind than vertebrates do. Does an octopus have a concept of self? The book presents evidence that octopuses sometimes seem to think of their arms as parts of their self, yet hints that their concept of self is a good deal weaker than in humans, and maybe the octopus treats its arms as semi-autonomous entities.

2.

Does an octopus have color vision? Not via its photoreceptors the way many vertebrates do. Simple tests of octopuses’ ability to discriminate color also say no.

Yet octopuses clearly change color to camouflage themselves. They also change color in ways that suggest they’re communicating via a visual language. But to whom?

One speculative guess is that the color-producing parts act as color filters, with monochrome photoreceptors in the skin evaluating the color of the incoming light by how much the light is attenuated by the filters. So they “see” color with their skin, but not their eyes.

That would still leave plenty of mystery about what they’re communicating.

3.

The author’s understanding of aging implies that few organisms die of aging in the wild. He sees evidence in Octopuses that conflicts with this prediction, yet that doesn’t alert him to the growing evidence of problems with the standard theories of aging.

He says octopuses are subject to much predation. Why doesn’t this cause them to be scared of humans? He has surprising anecdotes of octopuses treating humans as friends, e.g. grabbing one and leading him on a ten-minute “tour”.

He mentions possible REM sleep in cuttlefish. That would almost certainly have evolved independently from vertebrate REM sleep, which must indicate something important.

I found the book moderately entertaining, but I was underwhelmed by the author’s expertise. The subtitle’s reference to “the Deep Origins of Consciousness” led me to expect more than I got.

Book review: Aging is a Group-Selected Adaptation: Theory, Evidence, and Medical Implications, by Joshua Mitteldorf.

This provocative book argues that our genes program us to age because aging provided important benefits.

I’ll refer here to antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) and programmed aging (PA) as the two serious contending hypotheses of aging. (Mutation accumulation used to be a leading hypothesis, but it seems discredited now, due to the number of age-related deaths seen in a typical species, and due to evidence that aging is promoted by some ancient genes).

Here’s a dumbed down version of the debate:
<theorist>: Hamilton proved that all conceivable organisms age due to AP and/or mutation accumulation.
<critic>: But the PA theories better predict how many die from aging, the effects of telomeres, calorie restriction, etc. Also, here’s some organisms with zero or negative aging …
<theorist>: A few anomalies aren’t enough to overturn a well-established theory. The well-known PA theories are obviously wrong because selfish genes would outbreed the PA genes.
<critic>: Here are some new versions which might explain how aging could enhance a species’ fitness …
<theorist>: I’ve read enough bad group-selection theories that I’m not going to waste my time with more of them.

That kind of reaction from theorists might make sense if AP was well established. But AP seems to have been well established only in the Darwinian sense of being firmly entrenched in scientists’ minds. It got entrenched mainly by being the least wrong of a flawed set of theories, combined with some poor communication between theorists and naturalists. Wikipedia has a surprisingly good[1] page on the evolution of aging that says:

Antagonistic pleiotropy is a prevailing theory today, but this is largely by default, and not because the theory has been well verified.

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I’ve substantially reduced my anxiety over the past 5-10 years.

Many of the important steps along that path look easy in hindsight, yet the overall goal looked sufficiently hard prospectively that I usually assumed it wasn’t possible. I only ended up making progress by focusing on related goals.

In this post, I’ll mainly focus on problems related to general social anxiety among introverted nerds. It will probably be much less useful to others.

In particular, I expect it doesn’t apply very well to ADHD-related problems, and I have little idea how well it applies to the results of specific PTSD-type trauma.

It should be slightly useful for anxiety over politicians who are making America grate again. But you’re probably fooling yourself if you blame many of your problems on distant strangers.

Trump: Make America Grate Again!

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Book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane.

This book describes a partial theory of how life initially evolved, followed by a more detailed theory of how eukaryotes evolved.

Lane claims the hardest step in evolving complex life was the development of complex eukaryotic cells. Many traits such as eyes and wings evolved multiple times. Yet eukaryotes have many traits which evolved exactly once (including mitochondria, sex, and nuclear membranes).

Eukaryotes apparently originated in a single act of an archaeon engulfing a bacterium. The result wasn’t very stable, and needed to quickly evolve (i.e. probably within a few million years) a sophisticated nucleus, plus sexual reproduction.

Only organisms that go through these steps will be able to evolve a more complex genome than bacteria do. This suggests that complex life is rare outside of earth, although simple life may be common.

The book talks a lot about mitochondrial DNA, and make some related claims about aging.

Cells have a threshold for apoptosis which responds to the effects of poor mitochondrial DNA, killing weak embryos before they can take up much parental resources. Lane sees evolution making important tradeoffs, with species that have intense energy demands (such as most birds) setting their thresholds high, and more ordinary species (e.g. rats) setting the threshold lower. This tradeoff causes less age-related damage in birds, at the cost of lower fertility.

Lane claims that the DNA needs to be close to the mitochondria in order to make quick decisions. I found this confusing until I checked Wikipedia and figured out it probably refers to the CoRR hypothesis. I’m still confused, but at least now I can attribute the confusion to the topic being hard. Aubrey de Grey’s criticism of CoRR suggests there’s a consensus that CoRR has problems, and the main confusion revolves around the credibility of competing hypotheses.

Lane is quite pessimistic about attempts to cure aging. Only a small part of that disagreement with Aubrey can be explained by the modest differences in their scientific hypotheses. Much of the difference seems to come from Lane’s focus on doing science, versus Aubrey’s focus on engineering. Lane keeps pointing out (correctly) that cells are really complex and finely tuned. Yet Lane is well aware that evolution makes many changes that affect aging in spite of the complexity. I suspect he’s too focused on the inadequacy of typical bioengineering to imagine really good engineering.

Some less relevant tidbits include:

  • why vibrant plumage in male birds may be due to females being heterogametic
  • why male mammals age faster than females

Many of Lane’s ideas are controversial, and only weakly supported by the evidence. But given the difficulty of getting good evidence on these topics, that still represents progress.

The book is pretty dense, and requires some knowledge of biochemistry. It has many ideas and evidence that were developed since I last looked into this subject. I expect to forget many of those ideas fairly quickly. The book is worth reading if you have enough free time, but understanding these topics does not feel vital.