Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Did Disease Make Technology Development Possible?

Technology develops because there is some spare time available, at first, for work by otherwise employed people on technology. In an alien civilization in its period before the hunting grand transition, the age when plant and animal parts and stones provided the materials for technology, alien adults may have had time to develop stone and other tools. On Earth, this was a very long span of time, millions of years, and covered not just the development of stone and other natural tools, but also the feedback effect of these tools on the evolution of humans.

Evolution takes a long time, not the development of the technology. In order for the brain to increase in size and complexity, and for hands to develop for more careful use of objects, there first has to be random mutations of the right kind, which could take millions of years, and then many generations of life for these mutations to be selected out.

Labeling this period the Stone Age doesn’t really do justice to what was happening. Perhaps the “Brain Age” would be more appropriate.

After the Stone Age, an alien civilization has to embark on a long, slow process of developing technology, and adapting its social arrangements to that technology. Technology necessarily has to develop initially in directions that pay off by increasing the reproductive rate of the population developing it, so what might be called social evolution can take place, and the sum of genetics and technology can evolve toward the next higher plane. This means technology has to be developed to assist in satisfying basic needs, although there might be some special cases. Basic needs involve surviving the climate, so clothing and shelter are included, and food preparation is included meaning pottery, cutting implements and fire control, and weapons for both hunting and combat between clans.

At some point, the technology gets to be at a level that specialization of labor starts off; not everybody makes their own pots and knives and textiles and other things, but there is exchange within the clan. However that is implemented, what is happening is that castes are starting to be developed, as noted in another post. These would be inevitable in any alien civilization crawling up the first stages of the technology ladder. Who’s paying for this?

In a bit earlier times, a hunter might be providing food for four or five people, one family. When clans formed, this was possible through hunting large animals on Earth, and there is no reason to suspect it would not happen on exo-planets as well. But by the time the castes or at least specialization of labor gets going, the same hunter has to be supporting maybe ten others. Productivity has to increase in this field. At this point, there is absolutely no concept of the development of technology. The guys who are making the pots are not trying to figure out how to improve their clays. They are doing what they know how to do, and if something does happen to improve the technology in their area, it is by random chance and social evolution, rather than some primitive scientific method. So it goes slowly.

How did Malthus let this happen? How did specialization of labor get started? When the hunters productivity went up, and one hunter could feed more people than was required to maintain the population, why didn’t the population just jump right up to absorb all this productivity, and incidentally keep the castes from forming? That’s what Malthusian populations do. They increase to fill the available food and other essential sources.

Perhaps the answer is that the rate of population increase is not simply governed by the food supply, or the existence of shelter or some other basic need. Perhaps it is controlled by disease. If it is the situation that the population of young aliens is reduced by disease well below the otherwise possible growth rate, then an increase of productivity in hunting or any primitive technology wouldn’t make Malthus happy, but instead population would approximately stay constant.

Put in terms of a mathematical example, assuming there are two genders in an alien civilization, if an alien of the gender that bears offspring can only produce four on the average before dying from disease, then food and textiles and other things won’t have much direct influence on the population. Two of these would not survive, on the average, to adulthood, because of the effects of disease as well. This means that disease might be the means by which a civilization can develop, or come into existence. Without disease, castes wouldn’t be able to form to take advantage of the excess productivity of the hunting population. Without disease, technology would be at a dead end, because of Malthus. Malthus, in the simple form of his theory, did not consider that there could be constraints on reproduction rate that overwhelm productivity increases, rendering the growth rate of populations, in certain circumstances, close to zero.

There really doesn’t have to be an exact equality of reproduction, so populations stay constant, but it has to be low enough for excess productivity to go into social organization rather than population increase. Since technology increase is incredibly slow during the last bit of the Stone age and the next few centuries, this means it is approximately constant, but then as the rate of technology picks up, it might increase a bit. On Earth, population, as far as it can be estimated, did very slowly increase during these periods, although census-takers were remarkably few and far between.

This little bit of conceptualization may help to understand how an alien population of sort-of-intelligent creatures could get started on the road to becoming an alien civilization, which requires them to get through the long hunting grand transition and then into the agricultural grand transition, assuming they have the analogous resources to what humans on Earth had. Instead of early disease being looked at as a burden and a decelerator of technology, perhaps it should be looked at as the very thing which enables alien populations to develop a civilization and start to follow the pathway to asymptotic technology.

Disease is endemic on Earth, although not many surveys have been done to see its prevalence in wild animal populations. Immune systems rise to battle it, but evolution of disease goes on just as well. If we on Earth ever get done with figuring out human disease, as caused by micro-organisms and a few multi-cellular creatures such as tape-worms, we might turn our talents to figuring out the diseases that afflict the population of large wild animals. Pet populations have been examined quite a lot, and would provide a fine basis for studying this area. Then the hypothesis proposed in this post might be better understood and evaluated.

There could be a substitute for disease that limited early populations on Earth and which would do so on alien exo-planets, but it is hard to figure out just what it might be. Large predators? Climatic effects, such as terrible temperature changes? Doesn’t seem to be as likely as disease.

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