Thursday, March 10, 2016

Malthus and Bacon in Alien Civilizations

Everyone in the Western Civilization here on Earth seems to know who Malthus was. Thomas Malthus is sometimes termed the first economist. He lived in England around the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and his ideas can be crystallized in a very compact way. He figured out that people have children when they can, and as many as they can. This means that when living standards rise and things get better for the average person, they have, on the average, more children, and then this cuts down the living standards to the minimum required to maintain the family. This happens on the average, and the sum for the whole population means that population rises to drive down living standards.

In a previous post, we have talked about the choices an alien civilization might make when scarcity looms on the horizon. They can cut living standards or cut population. It is the product of these two that determines the usage rate of resources, and when resources get short, something has to give. Malthus did not use the term living standard, but instead subsistence, by which he meant food. Famine has happened in many cultures at many times, and all living around Malthus' time were familiar with it in their own history. So Malthus' most remembered insight is that when food is plentiful, people have larger families, and this reduces the per capita amount of food. When famine hits, the population drops down to match the available food, so the population an subsistence balancing works both ways.

Since we would expect alien civilizations to emerge from the animal kingdom, still possessing the same survival and reproduction instincts, we would also expect to find that the early eras of any alien civilization would have a Malthusian population, which is one limited by available resources. But what about the grand transitions?

In another previous post, the technology changes that are necessary for an alien civilization were listed, and the earliest ones, the agricultural and the industrial one, happened when the population was still Malthusian. By that time, nothing had happened to enable or to motivate a departure from these circumstances. The agricultural transition allows a larger amount of food to be grown, meaning more subsistence in Malthus' terms, and according to his insight, this would mean population would increase to match the level of food production. It did on Earth, and the mechanisms have to be in place for it to happen in alien civilizations as well. The early portion of the industrial transition does the same thing. More subsistence generated per capita, meaning a higher reproduction rate, meaning back to living at the marginal levels, where population lived at the minimum level necessary to maintain the population.

The seeds of Malthus' insights becoming no longer valid has already been sown by his time. A century before, Francis Bacon, often termed the father of the scientific method, had already written about how to expedite invention and technology development, along with the progress of science. There is a timing that was going on during the earlier eras, in that changes of technology, as in the agricultural revolution, took much longer to come into effect than the generation time of humans, which was about twenty-five years. Information flowed slowly, and was often not accepted without delay or even the dying off of the generation that used the old technology. There was little communication even within a country, much less between them. All these slowdowns meant that Malthus could see that population could change faster than technology, and conclude that for millennia, populations had stayed at a living standard just able to maintain the population, or saying it a different way, population would grow to match the growth of technology. Bacon's invention changed these time scales, but it took over a century for it to happen. The same slow transmission of information meant that his scientific method would not be accepted in enough places fast enough so that Malthus would see the difference and modify his insight.

Bacon's scientific method has a strong feedback loop, however. As inventions increased, so did knowledge of how to produce them. As scientific knowledge increased, so did knowledge of how to obtain more. Technology affected communication and the recording of technology, another speed-up of the changes.

Now on Earth, technology is changing faster than ever before. Furthermore, technology has already changed society that population growth doesn't track technology growth. Here there are still Malthusian populations in some regions, as knowledge penetrates slowly into non-receptive populations, but once it seeps in, it brings with it the feedback loops that increase the penetration. A century or so is all that is necessary.

So, where is the relevance to alien civilizations? Here: Does a Bacon arise in every civilization and beat their Malthus? It is not a personal contest between different genii, but a question of whether the scientific method is a necessary result of the agricultural era having progressed. Is it possible that there would be no Francis Bacon equivalent in an alien civilization? This would condemn the alien planet to being what we have labeled a plateau planet, with perhaps the highest level plateau. Other plateaus might be with only sea life or only chemotrophs or no mitochondria or no something else along the evolutionary track from microbe to intelligent and technologically-proficient aliens. These plateaus are certainly conceivable, as we do not yet have the understanding of evolution necessary to eliminate them. The one where Malthus prevents the alien civilization from getting through the industrial grand transition is the last one, as once the alien civilization does finish it, then it will move into the genetic grand transition, from which no return is possible.

There was only one Bacon here on Earth. For the millennia before 1621, no one arose to proclaim the scientific method. If Bacon himself had not been accused of bribery, he would have stayed in the king's service, and not had years of disbarment during which he could think of science and write about its methodology. By favor of the king, he was not imprisoned, which, considering the conditions in prisons of the day, would have likely ended his life early and likely prevented him from writing his tomes on the scientific method. Thus, it is by no means clear than an alien civilization would have a Bacon to help them escape the clutches of the Malthusian predicament.

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