Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Great Filter – Idiocracy

The new word in the title, idiocracy, is an old word with several meanings. One is idiosyncrasy, something peculiar to an individual. Another is a government based on abstract theory. Mike Judge, the actor, writer, producer and director, appears to have added a third meaning, a nation of idiots, and used it as the title for a comedy from 2006. The details of who is in the film, its success, the plot or its release are not relevant to this post. Neither are its reviews, its symbolism, its meaning, its implications or anything else relating to the film’s interaction with its viewers. What is relevant is the concept embodied in the new definition for this word – a civilization which cannot accomplish something because it does not have the mental abilities, in a population-wide sense.

Lack of widespread intelligence is not the same thing as the lacking of geniuses. A previous post discussed how another potential Great Filter could be the occurrence of someone like Sir Francis Bacon, the inventor of the scientific method and the founder of the Royal Academy of Science. Bacon changed the way the world through about knowledge and about how to get it and about how to validate it, and without the insights of such a person, a civilization might forever stay unaware of most technology advances, even most of the ones we have on Earth today. They would not reach Asymptotic Technology and would not achieve space-faring. One question about the importance of this potential Great Filter remains: would a different person have been able to achieve this revolution in thought if Bacon had died as a child.

From what does genius arise? It comes from a combination of the genetic basis of the individual and his upbringing, tutoring, teaching, education and so on – the inside the cell part and the outside the person part. It might be that there is some peculiar combination of many genes that have to be present in order for a genius to be ready for the external part of his formation. One could calculate probabilities and learn absolutely nothing, as the information we have on the two sides of the genius question, genetic and educational, is deficient on both sides. Bacon happened on Earth once, and may not have happened anywhere else in the galaxy.

The other aspect of the intelligence factor for Great Filter theory is the general intelligence of the population. This has to be sufficient to seed the geniuses, as the genes that make up a genius’ genome do not all mutate just for him; they need to be present in the population. If there are too few, there are too few pretty smart people for some events to happen. Alternatively, if the training of almost everybody has some feature in it that does not allow an individual to make use of his potential intelligence, we could again find that the alien civilization has too few pretty smart people. Without lots of them, there is not enough momentum built up in scientific progress, and the appreciation of it may dissipate. Alternatively, the application of what science is available just does not get put into engineering inventions, so productivity is not enhanced very far. Ideas are not transmitted and are lost. Devices which might change the society are scorned as they lack early adopters or adherents. Society as a collective does not encourage those who can make changes, via inventions or other means, to do so.

Because of the lack of the second tier of bright people, and the lack of the third tier of people who are bright enough to appreciate what the brighter people do, particular transitions are not passed. The road to Asymptotic Technology is not followed far, and the society stays at a much, much lower level. One aspect of the lack of progress down this road is that genetics never gets close to asymptotic genetics, where the genome is understood and genetic selection or adaptation can be used to improve the intelligence of the civilization’s members, generation by generation. Another aspect is that the civilization never gets to asymptotic artificial intelligence, and thinking machines able to solve ever more difficult scientific and engineering problems are not created. Stasis in technology occurs, and the lack of intelligence in the general population prevents any solution to this from being reached.

We on Earth are far from asymptotic genetics, and do not even understand the genetic code in much detail. Progress is occurring, but at this time no one here can comment on the type of genes that contribute to intelligence, how they link up on the different chromosomes, what the distributions of them are, how they interact in positive or negative ways. We are even further behind in the trip to asymptotic education, as the basic viewpoint for understanding it is still lacking, owing to the complexity of the brain and the difficulty of studying it. Thus it is hard to estimate how likely it is that idiocracy, in Mike Judge’s use of the word, might occur on distant planets. What we can do now is to appreciate that a kind of stable plateau might arise when the mutations in genes or customs do not lead to a high level of intelligence in the general population.

There is also a possibility that other things, specific events, might occur on an alien planet which would make idiocracy a Great Filter. If intelligence became a negatively selected trait, because of some social interactions, those genes and habits which lead to intelligence might gradually disappear. One way might be if a victorious warring tribe executed all the intelligent people in the conquered tribe. Another way might be if sexual selection was based solely on physical traits rather than mental ones, and there was a negative correlation between the two. Of course there must be others.

This type of phenomena means that the alien genome could have started with the same distribution of genes for intelligence as we did, but there was a transient time when these became down-selected, and the numbers dropped. They would not have to fall to zero, because a society, in order to maintain momentum toward asymptotic technology, needs a critical mass of contributors in the various fields of science and technology. Having one bright guy on the planet, which was the theme of the movie (sorry for the spoiler), won’t make much difference. A screen-writer can come up with a plot where one bright guy saves the idiocracy, but film plots for comedies are not meant to have much sense of reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment