Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Malthusian Idiocracy – Is it Avoidable?

This particular crisis of an alien civilization en route to asymptotic technology occurs between two grand transitions, one, the industrial one, where the scientific method becomes popular and the rate of technology progress ramps up tremendously, and two, the genetic one, where the civilization transitions from something controlled by its evolutionary legacy to something controlled by reason. These great changes in the civilization would obviously have a lot of friction to them, and if the civilization takes certain paths instead of others, it does not reach asymptotic technology, winding up in civilizational collapse in a form known as malthusian idiocracy, where the average intelligence level descends too much to keep the civilization functioning.

There are forces which arise from heterogeneity within the civilization, either on a resource access basis, meaning some have more resources available to them than others, or on a location basis, meaning that some parts of the home world are more advanced than other parts. Either of these has certain additional effects, but before examining them, consider a situation where the alien civilization is rather homogeneous. This period of time in their history, between the two grand transitions, finds them still in the state that evolution left them in, so there is likely great variation individual to individual. Other than these legacy evolutionary distributions, things in this example are rather the same everywhere and for everyone.

Eliminating these two inhomogeneities allows the central question to be asked without complication. As an alien civilization becomes more and more technological, more and more in control of the planet's resources, with more access to energy, and with all the other accoutrements of technological progress, can it avoid idiocracy? The threat is that with all the resources being made available, with the amounts increasing rapidly over short time intervals, all the evolutionary pressure to develop intelligence disappears, and the fraction of the population that has a predilection for breeding goes into overdrive.

As time passes and the civilization passes through this interval, more and more of the effort needed to maintain the civilization and even to advance it becomes mechanized and then automated. This means that a smaller and smaller fraction of the population would be required to keep everything running, but their capabilities would have to increase, as the complexity of mechanization and automation increases with the degree of it. The progress of idiocracy does not mean that the intelligence of all alien members of the civilization immediately start going down, but rather that successive generations have less and less members who can achieve upper levels of technological capability. So then, in order to get through this potential chokepoint for the civilization, the progress of idiocracy has to be slower in some sense that the increase in technology. Said a better way, if idiocracy extends to too large a fraction of the population, it will start to slip downwards.

In this period, reproduction is still done in the same way that evolution provided, with two (or three or whatever) different sexes sharing genes. This particular trick of evolution speeds up mutation, so it is likely that it would be found in an alien civilization. If like largely reproduces with like, then intelligence might continue in a subset of the population, and the machinery of the civilization can keep on running and technology can keep on advancing. If mating is more random that this, there would soon be no such subset. So the question of whether an alien civilization can survive the growth of idiocracy long enough for them to cross the threshold of universal high intelligence becoming available translates into a question of the mating patterns of the aliens.

So far we have only covered on effect of idiocracy on the progress of the civilization, specifically, the reduction in the numbers of alien citizens smart enough to maintain and advance the technology. There are other effects. Another one is the control that the population exerts on progress. It may well be in a particular alien civilization that governance has little to do with the passing wishes or the desired policy of the average alien. In this case, idiocracy would not be able to reject technological advances. In the alternative case, where there is a strong effect on what happens in society exerted by the average citizen, then progress itself may lose favor and be halted, such as by being cut off in funding or personnel. Thus, both mating customs and popular governance are variables which might allow the civilization to progress or to halt it and reverse its trajectory.

There is a third effect. This relates to the spread of technology. Techological advances can be made, but if they are not implemented throughout most of the population, it is as if they had never been discovered or invented. Depending on how the populace communicates among itself, there might develop some antagonism toward some or even all technology advances, and they could be rejected in application. In other words, bright things would keep flowing out of the laboratories or wherever aliens do their research and make their inventions, but they would not flow anywhere, just into the graveyard of new ideas. Old ideas and old ways of doing things and old technology would stay in vogue, except perhaps in some sector of the population which was involved in developing the new technology. This is not a lack of enthusiasm for novelty, but instead a fear of new things, perhaps generated by the expected lack of the requisite intelligence to utilize them. Nobody wants to try or use new things.

There is even a fourth effect. This arises from the malthusian part of the idiocracy. As affluence rises and makes a higher population possible and, temporarily, sustainable, the population responds over some generations to take advantage of it. Those who can make do with less and prefer to have more new members of the civilization will eventually push the limits of the planet. Then, as scarcity hits, population might not be controllable, but instead, resources would be diverted away from everything, such as research, into sustaining the population.

To summarize, idiocracy could be the social effect which derails an alien civilization's progress to star travel capability and this would happen with some unfortunate luck in four areas: mating practices, governance style, popular individual communication modes, and whether scarcity hits before the genetic grand transition is passed. If the alien civilization is unlucky in any of these four areas, they may not be able to visit us.

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