Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pathways to Idiocracy Part I

Idiocracy is a word used in a previous blog to indicate an alien civilization which did not have enough exceptionally smart people to be able to propel it to the next stage of technology development, or in the worst case, to even maintain the existing level of technology or the existing living standards. In that blog, the description of the situation was elaborated, in that it did not simply mean no geniuses, but it meant that the fraction of the population who were geniuses, or near genius, or just pretty smart, was too small to form the critical mass necessary to overcome the lack of smarts problem. Only one pathway was hypothesized there: if there arose a negative view of intelligence, so that it became a downselected trait, the intelligence level that had led to the civilization climbing to wherever it did would be lost, and the civilization would descend to an earlier level. Perhaps it would be permanent, or perhaps after some traumatic generations, high intelligence would again become rewarded, and the civilization would get a second chance to climb out of the morass of universal low intelligence.

There are other pathways to idiocracy, and if we are trying to find out if this is the actual Great Filter that stops most alien civilizations from coming to Earth, we need to explore them so it will be possible to see if one is inevitable, or at least so likely the number of alien civilizations with star travel is in the low single digits. If the numbers are that low, other obstacles, not Great Filters but just serious problems, could have hit each of them, and this would explain the lack of alien ships hovering over our cities.

To try and do a normative analysis of how an alien civilization could wind up in an idiocracy, it is useful to carefully define what one is. We are not describing a political situation, where there are bright people all over who could advance technology, but some warlord or other governing functionary is of the frame of mind to want stasis, preserving for himself and perhaps his descendants, what he/she/it regards as a fine set of circumstances, at least for himself and his closest minions. This is another type of Great Filter. We are not describing a situation where customs prevent the teaching of technology to young aliens, because of some unlucky choice of memes by those important citizens who have the influence to establish the memes and do so in such a way that technology is anathema. This is again a different type of Great Filter. We are not talking about a civilization where there are smart people, but they just do not understand how to do science and are constantly distracted by extraneous considerations, such as magical thinking; this is the Baconian Great Filter, which has been discussed and mentioned extensively in this post. Instead, we are talking about a situation where the genetics needed to produce smart-enough individuals is not there. However many genes there are in this particular alien genome for high intelligence, the civilization doesn’t have them in any significant numbers. Now we can ask, how could they get that way?

Smartness is evolutionarily selected, so in earlier eras of the alien civilization we are talking about, there were genes around in the gene pool for smartness, and since that conferred an advantage, in the earlier situation where fitness was still determining which genes were selected, they would have grown in numbers. Perhaps a society at that level of technology, almost nil, doesn’t need all smart people, and instead it needs lots of people to do what the few smart people tell them to do in order to build the infrastructure the civilization needs and to prepare for various possible events, such as battling tribes or bad weather. Nonetheless, smart people genes get selected to some degree, and do not disappear except by chance.

What could cause this to change? To phrase this another way, what could stop the process of evolution from doing its usual thing and provide better gene pools for each generation? The answer is obvious. When fitness ceases to be the selection criteria for reproduction rate, evolution turns off and anything can happen. What would cause fitness to cease being a measure? One answer is affluence. If there is a large change in society, caused by some technological innovation or discovery, so that reproduction rate was controlled by desire for reproduction, rather than fitness in a competitive environment, this could happen. In other words, the civilization produces enough bright people to invent their way into a wealthy society, measured by their past standards where fitness was culling the population, and then stays there for a while, perhaps the inventions come fast and furious, idiocracy can find its way in.

The numbers can work out in two ways. One is a relative sense. If bright people reproduce at their normal rate, and others reproduce not at the rate that existed formerly which was controlled by fitness or lack of it, nor at the average rate that bright people have, but at a significantly higher rate, the population distribution would tend toward lack of intelligence. The other way is an absolute sense. If bright people simply are affected by affluence so that their reproduction level drops below 1, their numbers will decline. This is ignoring the mixing effects that happen between bright and non-bright people, and instead just uses for illustration the idea of two separate populations reproducing separately. In other words, affluence could either boost the reproduction rate of the non-bright or diminish the reproduction rate of the bright, and idiocracy comes calling.
Affluence is used here to represent the change in the standard of living, but if there was any aspect of affluence or of the technological changes in general that promoted either of these two effects on reproduction rate, it would accomplish the same thing. These changes might be unnoticed for a while, but that is hard to imagine as lasting a long time, but alternatively, the civilization could have such short term vision that it did not substantially care about what was happening to future generations of aliens. Thus, besides affluence, there has to be a direction of attention toward the present or very near future, and less thinking, perhaps almost none, about the long term implications of changes in society.

As noted in the previous post on grand transitions, short term thinking is the starting situation for a primitive society, and there is a grand transition to long-term thinking that comes at some technology level. Obviously, idiocracy has to hit before this grand transition happens, because once the alien civilization starts worrying about its long term future, they would realize they were in a descent into idiocracy and do something about it. As noted there, it might be resisted for long enough to destroy the chances of the society for dealing with it, as once idiocracy sets in, it would take a long period of a return to fitness selection before genius genes would arise again. If the genes were essentially lost, we are talking about mutation times, not selection times. Mutation times might be ten or a hundred or even more times as long as the time needed for selection effects to produce a population change.

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