Life, the Universe, and Everything

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.


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.


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.

MIRI has produced a potentially important result (called Garrabrant induction) for dealing with uncertainty about logical facts.

The paper is somewhat hard for non-mathematicians to read. This video provides an easier overview, and more context.

It uses prediction markets! “It’s a financial solution to the computer science problem of metamathematics”.

It shows that we can evade disturbing conclusions such as Godel incompleteness and the paradox of the liar, by expecting to only be very confident about logically deducible facts (as opposed to being mathematically certain). That’s similar to the difference between treating beliefs about empirical facts as probabilities, as opposed to boolean values.

I’m somewhat skeptical that it will have an important effect on AI safety, but my intuition says it will produce enough benefits somewhere that it will become at least as famous as Pearl’s work on causality.

I started writing morning pages a few months ago. That means writing three pages, on paper, before doing anything else [1].

I’ve only been doing this on weekends and holidays, because on weekdays I feel a need to do some stock market work close to when the market opens.

It typically takes me one hour to write three pages. At first, it felt like I needed 75 minutes but wanted to finish faster. After a few weeks, it felt like I could finish in about 50 minutes when I was in a hurry, but often preferred to take more than an hour.

That suggests I’m doing much less stream-of-consciousness writing than is typical for morning pages. It’s unclear whether that matters.

It feels like devoting an hour per day to morning pages ought to be costly. Yet I never observed it crowding out anything I valued (except maybe once or twice when I woke up before getting an optimal amount of sleep in order to get to a hike on time – that was due to scheduling problems, not due to morning pages reducing the available of time per day).
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My first year of eating no factory farmed vertebrates went fairly well.

When eating at home, it took no extra cost or effort to stick to the diet.

I’ve become less comfortable eating at restaurants, because I find few acceptable choices at most restaurants, and because poor labeling has caused me to mistakenly get food that wasn’t on my diet.

The constraints were strict enough that I lost about 4 pounds during 8 days away from home over the holidays. That may have been healthier than the weight gain I succumbed to during similar travels in prior years, but that weight loss is close to the limit of what I find comfortable.

In theory, I should have gotten enough flexibility from my rule to allow 120 calories per month of unethical animal products for me to be mostly comfortable with restaurant food. In practice, I found it psychologically easier to adopt an identity of someone who doesn’t eat any factory farmed vertebrates than it would have been to feel comfortable using up the 120 calorie quota. That made me reluctant to use any flexibility.

The quota may have been valuable for avoiding a feeling of failure when I made mistakes.

Berkeley is a relatively easy place to adopt this diet, thanks to Marin Sun Farms and Mission Heirloom. Pasture-raised eggs are fairly easy to find in the bay area (Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, etc).

I still have some unresolved doubts about how much to trust labels. Pasture-raised eggs are available in Colorado in winter, but chicken meat is reportedly unavailable due to weather-related limits on keeping chickens outdoors. Why doesn’t that reasoning also apply to eggs?

I’m still looking for a good substitute for Questbars. These come closest:

For most people, it would be hard enough to follow my diet strictly that I recommend starting with an easier version. One option would be to avoid factory farmed chicken/eggs (i.e. focus on the avoiding the cruelest choices). And please discriminate against restaurants that don’t label their food informatively.

I plan to continue my diet essentially unchanged, with maybe slightly less worry about what I eat when traveling or at parties.

My alternate day calorie restriction diet is going well. My body and/or habits are adapting. But the visible benefits are still small.

  • I normally do three restricted days per week (very rarely only two). I eat 800-1000 calories on those days (or 1200-1400 when I burn more than 1000 calories by hiking). On unrestricted days, I try to eat a little more than feels natural.
  • I have an improved ability to bring my weight to a particular target, but the range of weights that feel good is much narrower than I expected. My weight has stabilized to a range of 142-145 pounds, compared to 145-148 last year and an erratic 138-148 in the first few weeks of my new diet. If I reduce my weight below 142, I feel irritable in the afternoon or evening of a restricted day. At 145, I’m on the verge of that too-full feeling that was common in prior years.
  • My resting heart rate has declined from about 70 to about 65.
  • For many years I’ve been waking in the middle of the night feeling too warm, with little apparent pattern. A byproduct of my new diet is that I’ve noticed it’s connected to having eaten protein.
  • I’m using less willpower now than in prior years to eat the right amount. My understanding of the willpower effect is influenced by CFAR’s attitude, which is that occasionally using willpower to fight the goals of one of my mind’s sub-agents is reasonable, but the longer I continue it, the more power and thought that sub-agent will devote to accomplishing its goals. My sub-agent in charge of getting me to eat lots to prepare for a famine can now rely on me, if I’m resisting it today, to encourage it tomorrow; whereas in prior years I was continually pressuring it to do less than it wanted. That makes it more cooperative.

The only drawbacks are the increased attention I need to pay to what I eat on restricted days, and the difficulties of eating out on restricted days (due to my need to control portion sizes and to time my main meals near the middle of the day). I find it fairly easy to schedule my restricted days so that I’m almost always eating at home, but I expect many people to find that hard.

Mission: Heirloom is a cafe in Berkeley which is serious about paleo food. Their meat and eggs meet my ethical standards (no factory farmed animal products).

Their burgers are unusually tasty, and have a better texture than any other grass-fed beef I’ve tried.

They have a nice outdoor area in back – I recommend going there when it is warm outside.

The main drawback is limited variety in their entrees.

I wish there were more cafes like this.