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Can the Chain Still Hold You?

105 Post author: lukeprog 13 January 2012 01:28AM

Robert Sapolsky:

Baboons... literally have been the textbook example of a highly aggressive, male-dominated, hierarchical society. Because these animals hunt, because they live in these aggressive troupes on the Savannah... they have a constant baseline level of aggression which inevitably spills over into their social lives.

Scientists have never observed a baboon troupe that wasn't highly aggressive, and they have compelling reasons to think this is simply baboon nature, written into their genes. Inescapable.

Or at least, that was true until the 1980s, when Kenya experienced a tourism boom.

Sapolsky was a grad student, studying his first baboon troupe. A new tourist lodge was built at the edge of the forest where his baboons lived. The owners of the lodge dug a hole behind the lodge and dumped their trash there every morning, after which the males of several baboon troupes — including Sapolsky's — would fight over this pungent bounty.

Before too long, someone noticed the baboons didn't look too good. It turned out they had eaten some infected meat and developed tuberculosis, which kills baboons in weeks. Their hands rotted away, so they hobbled around on their elbows. Half the males in Sapolsky's troupe died.

This had a surprising effect. There was now almost no violence in the troupe. Males often reciprocated when females groomed them, and males even groomed other males. To a baboonologist, this was like watching Mike Tyson suddenly stop swinging in a heavyweight fight to start nuzzling Evander Holyfield. It never happened.

This was interesting, but Sapolsky moved to the other side of the park and began studying other baboons. His first troupe was "scientifically ruined" by such a non-natural event. But really, he was just heartbroken. He never visited.

Six years later, Sapolsky wanted to show his girlfriend where he had studied his first troupe, and found that they were still there, and still surprisingly violence-free. This one troupe had apparently been so transformed by their unusual experience — and the continued availability of easy food — that they were now basically non-violent.

And then it hit him.

Only one of the males now in the troupe had been through the event. All the rest were new, and hadn't been raised in the tribe. The new males had come from the violent, dog-eat-dog world of normal baboon-land. But instead of coming into the new troupe and roughing everybody up as they always did, the new males had learned, "We don't do stuff like that here." They had unlearned their childhood culture and adapted to the new norms of the first baboon pacifists.

As it turned out, violence wasn't an unchanging part of baboon nature. In fact it changed rather quickly, when the right causal factor flipped, and — for this troupe and the new males coming in — it has stayed changed to this day.

Somehow, the violence had been largely circumstantial. It was just that the circumstances had always been the same.

Until they weren't.

We still don't know how much baboon violence to attribute to nature vs. nurture, or exactly how this change happened. But it's worth noting that changes like this can and do happen pretty often.

Slavery was ubiquitous for millennia. Until it was outlawed in every country on Earth.

Humans had never left the Earth. Until we achieved the first manned orbit and the first manned moon landing in a single decade.

Smallpox occasionally decimated human populations for thousands of years. Until it was eradicated.

The human species was always too weak to render itself extinct. Until we discovered the nuclear chain reaction and manufactured thousands of atomic bombs.

Religion had a grip on 99.5% or more of humanity until 1900, and then the rate of religious adherence plummeted to 85% by the end of the century. Whole nations became mostly atheistic, largely because for the first time the state provided people some basic stability and security. (Some nations became atheistic because of atheistic dictators, others because they provided security and stability to their citizens.)

I would never have imagined I could have the kinds of conversations I now regularly have at the Singularity Institute, where people change their degrees of belief several times in a single conversation as new evidence and argument is presented, where everyone at the table knows and applies a broad and deep scientific understanding, where people disagree strongly and say harsh-sounding things (due to Crocker's rules) but end up coming to agreement after 10 minutes of argument and carry on as if this is friendship and business as usual — because it is.

But then, never before has humanity had the combined benefits of an overwhelming case for one correct probability theory, a systematic understanding of human biases and how they work, free access to most scientific knowledge, and a large community of people dedicated to the daily practice of CogSci-informed rationality exercises and to helping each other improve.

This is part of what gives me a sense that more is possible. Compared to situational effects, we tend to overestimate the effects of lasting dispositions on people's behavior — the fundamental attribution error. But I, for one, was only taught to watch out for this error in explaining the behavior of individual humans, even though the bias also appears when explaining the behavior of humans as a species. I suspect this is partly due to the common misunderstanding that heritability measures the degree to which a trait is due to genetic factors. Another reason may be that for obvious reasons scientists rarely try very hard to measure the effects of exposing human subjects to radically different environments like an artificial prison or total human isolation.

When taming a baby elephant, its trainer will chain one of its legs to a post. When the elephant tries to run away, the chain and the post are strong enough to keep it in place. But when the elephant grows up, it is strong enough to break the chain or uproot the post. Yet the owner can still secure the elephant with the same chain and post, because the elephant has been conditioned to believe it cannot break free. It feels the tug of the chain and gives up — a kind of learned helplessness. The elephant acts as if it thinks the chain's limiting power is intrinsic to nature rather than dependent on a causal factor that held for years but holds no longer.

Much has changed in the past few decades, and much will change in the coming years. Sometimes it's good to check if the chain can still hold you. Do not be tamed by the tug of history. Maybe with a few new tools and techniques you can just get up and walk away — to a place you've never seen before.

Comments (354)

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 12 January 2012 11:09:31PM 8 points [-]

The productive friction between the OP and the comments makes me feel something I can only call hopefulness.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 January 2012 10:18:51PM *  3 points [-]

This is my specialty! Lots of upvotes, almost entirely negative comments. :)

Comment author: Kevin 14 January 2012 10:30:36PM 0 points [-]

Really? I find it quite annoying, but mostly because it's endemic of the problem on LW of many, many more people complaining about the useful content produced by others than actually producing useful content.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 15 January 2012 12:23:40AM *  7 points [-]

I think the comments are useful content. Belief updating is largely a product of dialogue. As long as LW's epistemic standards remain high, the comments will be just as much a stab in the direction of truth as the OP.

Comment author: Yvain 12 January 2012 08:54:00PM 39 points [-]

It's inspiring to know that we really can create a better and more peaceful society, just by pursuing some simple ideals like killing fifty percent of males.

(I didn't fully understand that part. So the males who ate the infected meat didn't spread the TB to females? And when the male/female ratio changed, that shifted the social dynamics and made everyone more peaceful because there was less reason for status competition? Or because the next generation had only nonviolent female role models and so learned less violence?)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 12 January 2012 09:13:59PM 19 points [-]

This is otherwise known as the Dexter Principle: if you're gonna kill 'em anyway, you may as well make the world better while you're at it.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 January 2012 01:43:51AM 5 points [-]

Faint memory-- I think the higher status males had more access to the tainted food.

Comment author: isaacschlueter 13 January 2012 01:59:28AM *  9 points [-]

As I've heard it explained, there was a lot of contention for the free food in the garbage pit. It was highly desirable, so the most agressive alpha males took it over, and jealously guarded it. So, the weaker males (and females and young) stayed behind.

Comment author: Wrongnesslessness 13 January 2012 05:37:20AM 12 points [-]

So the true lesson of this post is that we should get rid of all the aggressive alpha males in our society. I guess I always found the idea obvious, but now that it has been validated, can we please start devising some plan for implementing it?

Comment author: loup-vaillant 13 January 2012 02:51:58PM 3 points [-]

You might want to be extra-careful with your plan. Because, you know, power corrupts.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2012 06:10:26AM 7 points [-]

So the true lesson of this post is that we should get rid of all the aggressive alpha males in our society. I guess I always found the idea obvious, but now that it has been validated, can we please start devising some plan for implementing it?

Sod off! Overt aggression is a pleasant relief compared to the subtle, catty 'niceness' that the most competitive humans excel at. Only get rid of aggressive alpha males who act out violently (ie. those without sufficient restraint to abide by laws.)

Comment author: Gabriel 13 January 2012 09:57:59PM 4 points [-]

Or just use advanced technology to make it so that violence has no overly unpleasant or permanent consequences.

Comment author: Wrongnesslessness 13 January 2012 11:55:09AM 3 points [-]

Sod off! Overt aggression is a pleasant relief compared to the subtle, catty 'niceness' that the most competitive humans excel at.

Hmm... Doesn't this look like something an aggressive alpha male would say?..

Uh-oh!

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2012 04:18:56PM 3 points [-]

Hmm... Doesn't this look like something an aggressive alpha male would say?..

It's almost as though I responded to scheming to kill all people with the traits 'male' and 'aggressive' with benign aggression deliberately. For instance it could be that I would prefer to designate myself as part of the powerful group as opposed to the embittered group trying to scheme against them!

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 January 2012 02:20:42PM -1 points [-]

If we want to keep the aggressive alpha males who don't abide by the rules of subtle catty 'niceness,' why not also keep the aggressive alpha males who don't abide by 'laws'?

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2012 04:01:11PM *  5 points [-]

If we want to keep the aggressive alpha males who don't abide by the rules of subtle catty 'niceness,' why not also keep the aggressive alpha males who don't abide by 'laws'?

I don't understand the relevance here. Why on earth should keeping people who aren't bitchy Machiavellian moralizers mean you must also keep people who break the laws to do physical violence upon one another. That's a seriously bizarre reference class to try to enforce consistency within.

In general I don't put much stock in moral, ethical or values based arguments of the form "If X then why not also Y. I say X is similar to Y!". Usually the appropriate response is "because I want X and I don't want Y - the fact that you identify one common feature between the two is meaningless to me". In this case however the "if then you must" barely makes sense at all!

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 January 2012 04:27:53PM 0 points [-]

There are some things we collectively discourage one another from doing.

Some of those, we discourage via laws. Call that set A.
Some of those, we discourage via "the rules of subtle catty 'niceness'". Call that set B.

(Of course, A and B are not disjoint.)

For some of those discouraged things it turns out to be valuable, or at least desirable, to have some people around who do them anyway. Call that set C.

It seemed to me you were suggesting that the intersection of B and C is non-empty (and therefore we should keep the people who ignore "the rules of subtle catty 'niceness'") but that the intersection of B and A is empty (and therefore we should get rid of people "without sufficient restraint to abide by law").

I find it pretty implausible that we've defined our laws in such a way that that's true, especially given how much variation there is in law from place to place. So I find it implausible that getting rid of the A-averse B-doers in each municipality is the optimal approach.

I have no idea what the phrase "if then you must" is doing there.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2012 04:47:48PM 1 point [-]

It seemed to me you were suggesting that the intersection of B and C is non-empty

For what it is worth, I didn't. I didn't suggest anything about set B whatsoever. The closest relationship of that concept has is that the behavioral tendencies declared to be more undesirable than aggressive alphaness - the more sophisticated and hypocritical aggression - can sometimes superficially portray themselves as "set B enforcement".

I have no idea what the phrase "if then you must" is doing there.

It means I would probably have rejected the game of "Moral Reference Class Tennis" even if this one wasn't non-sequitur. I reject nearly all of them.

Comment author: tut 13 January 2012 02:29:07PM 15 points [-]

No. I have heard Sapolsky tell that story before, and unless I completely misunderstood it the point is not that killing males made them peaceful, but that the strongest and most aggressive males disappeared. Then the remaining baboons in the troop were females and submissive males, and any new arrivals were integrated in a baboon "society" that had been created by females and submissive males.

Comment author: prase 16 January 2012 02:25:16AM 4 points [-]

just by pursuing some simple ideals like killing fifty percent of males

It probably won't work with humans. It has been tried during the Paraguayan war and I don't know of any evidence that Paraguay is an extraordinarily peaceful society today.

Comment author: lukeprog 13 January 2012 02:20:40AM 3 points [-]

The relevant section of the Radiolab episode explains this in more detail.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 13 January 2012 10:14:58AM 4 points [-]

It's inspiring to know that we really can create a better and more peaceful society, just by pursuing some simple ideals like killing fifty percent of males.

I think some famous feminist recommended unspecified disappearing of 90% of males to make the world a better place, but right now I can't find the quote.

However, from scientific point of view, this situation could be an inspiration for some interesting experiments. If you remove dominant males from one generation, how long does it take until the next generation creates new ones? (I would expect one or two at most.)

Comment author: _ozymandias 13 January 2012 01:37:50PM 13 points [-]

It's Mary Daly, Catholic theologian and radical feminist: http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j16/daly.asp?pf=1

Comment author: Yvain 13 January 2012 06:13:21PM 12 points [-]

Well, there's some evidence that having a ratio skewed in favor of males in a society increases violence. I don't know if you could make the contrary claim that one skewed in favor of females would actually decrease violence.

You'd have to distinguish between the relatively uncontroversial claim that unmarried males (who'll be more common with a pro-male sex ratio) are the most likely group to commit violence, versus the very speculative claim that even if all males have sufficient opportunity to marry off, more female presence will make them less violent - either because "female values" dominate the society, or because the less competition for "sufficiently good" mates they expect, the less competitive they will act.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 January 2012 06:20:39PM 3 points [-]

If I'm understanding you right, you are assuming that a ratio not skewed to favor males or females would result in no more unmarried males than a ratio skewed to favor females.

Am I understanding you right?

If so... that seems unlikely to me. Can you say more about why you expect it?

Comment author: Yvain 13 January 2012 09:38:20PM 3 points [-]

You are of course right, although I stick to the general point that we have to distinguish an effect of fewer unmarried males from an effect that does not directly involve fewer unmarried males.

Comment author: Prismattic 14 January 2012 01:23:28AM 4 points [-]

I think some famous feminist recommended unspecified disappearing of 90% of males to make the world a better place, but right now I can't find the quote.

This is a really bizarre desire for a feminist to express -- not saying it didn't happen, just that whatever feminist said it didn't think too far ahead.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 14 January 2012 04:44:58PM 7 points [-]

I guess a feminist that imagines a perfect continent inhabited only by women, does not imagine it inhabited by heterosexual women.

All my information about this topic is second-hand, but it seems to me that a few feminists were promoting female homosexuality as a weapon against "patriarchy".

Comment author: MixedNuts 14 January 2012 05:00:42PM 2 points [-]

Some were, and some were promoting something they called "lesbianism" but that didn't involve any actual sex. More like an asexual society that encouraged sort-of-romantic relationships between women.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 02:07:33AM *  -2 points [-]

Some were, and some were promoting something they called "lesbianism" but that didn't involve any actual sex. More like an asexual society that encouraged sort-of-romantic relationships between women.

Ok but these are the radical minority, and an outdated radical minority at that. Feminism at its core is adopting a dialectic of gender/sex and becoming more aware of the power structures in both these social constructions. Feminists, at least any you would work under in a legitimate research program today, would never support ridiculous claims about getting rid of 90% of men or weaponizing lesbianism to combat patriarchy. Quite frankly these ideas are somewhat offensive to the field of feminism both as a humanistic pursuit and a branch of academia.

Comment author: MixedNuts 10 February 2012 11:42:35AM 3 points [-]

I support studying law even though trial by combat used to exist, I don't support claiming that "Some judges liked trials by combat" is offensive to modern judges.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 01:09:45PM 3 points [-]

You seem to think I am arguing to hold the past to the modern standard, I am not. I am arguing the necessity of distinction between antiquated and current practices. It is commonly understood that within the sphere of law death matches and blood sport in general are antiquated practices and do not represent the normative thoughts and actions of "law". On the other hand, from reading the comments on this essay it does not seem so clear that the practices and ideas that are discussed are antiquated forms of feminism that have been obsolete for several decades. All I did was point out that the ideas being represented as feminism in this discussion are a gross misrepresentation of it, and I don't see what is negative about that.

Comment author: TimS 10 February 2012 02:00:12PM *  0 points [-]

I thought the point of the gender/sex distinction was to separate the social-constructedness of being a woman or man from the biological facts. That men want to pee standing up is socially constructed, that it is easier for them to do so is just a fact about biology and physics.

Also, I agree with your persepctive and think it is sorely lacking here, but you are using a fair amount of technical jargon ("dialectic", "power structure"). Technical jargon inherently excludes, and I think your message would benefit from avoiding that dynamic. Additionally, it helps ensure that there is a meeting of the minds about the content of the disagreement. In other words, labels inhibit communication.

Anyway, welcome to LessWrong.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 03:27:50PM -3 points [-]

Fair enough,

Well, let me start by saying there are 3 waves of feminism. The first wave is vaguely classified as pre 1960s feminism, and is largely wrong. The ideas that were listed above all come from that era and even for that era are considered radical positions.

I thought the point of the gender/sex distinction was to separate the social-constructedness of being a woman or man from the biological facts.

This is the idea of 2nd-wave feminism. That gender is socially constructed, but sex is a biological fact. Presently this idea has been disproven. Among 3rd wave feminists (which is the most advanced form of the discipline) it is accepted that BOTH gender AND sex are socially constructed. How could that be you might be wondering? Well, biologically the human species is capable of producing 5 sexes: Male, Female, Hermaphrodite, Mermaphrodite, and Fermaphrodite. Hermaphrodites have both male and female genitalia that are capable of sexual reproduction. Fermaphrodites have functioning male genital, but the female genitalia are not capable of sexual reproduction. Mermaphrodite is the opposite. Each has of these sexes is anatomically different. You may be thinking "well how come I never hear about 5 sexes?" Well because for thousands of years in western, as well as many cultures, hermaphrodites, mermaphrodites, and fermaphrodites have been eugenically diminished. Up until the 1990s American and European doctors would tell parents their child was born with a deficiency and perform an "urgent surgery" to make them either more male or more female. These operations were potentially lethal; many places still perform such operations, only now instead saying they are mandatory, doctors socially pressure parents into opting for them. Using such methods as telling parents "think about the life your child would lead," don't you want them to be normal?" There is nothing biologically threatening about being born a hermaphrodites, merm, or ferm. The only dangerous thing about it is the social stigmas it burdens a person with. Anyway, the point is that a perception of what is normal (the male-female dichotomy) has resulted in the intentional out breeding of more sexes, thus making sex a social construction. If you would like to read more about this, or third wave feminism in general, I would suggest starting with Judith Butler. She is pretty much the matriarch of modern feminist thought. Her writing is highly influenced by Derrida. It has a post-modern air to it that at times is pretentious, but beneath that her ideas are really brilliant.

Comment author: MixedNuts 10 February 2012 03:52:30PM 3 points [-]

Sorry, but why are you telling us all this? Yeah, feminism is pretty interesting (at least it interests me) but why are you giving a lecture on it? It would seem that most people interested in a spontaneous intro to feminism have already received it, and are currently picking nits with the five-sex model of intersexed people or post-third-wave developments.

(...plus, c'm'on, second-wavers totally sucked at telling gender from sex. Just ask Bindel or Daly about trans women.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2012 07:42:07AM 3 points [-]

That may have been familiar to you, but some of it was new to me.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 04:05:54PM 1 point [-]

I apologize if I offended you. You stated something you believed to be true that I knew to not be true. I thought you would want to know that you were wrong since I assumed the goals of this cite is to become "less wrong." I did not mean to lecture; I just thought a more detailed explanation was what you wanted rather than just a jargon packed sentence or two. Jargon is used because it condenses a huge amount of ideas and intellectual data into a few words. I did not realize that it would be offensive to explain it in this way. Honestly I thought I was responding to you not the general body, and I was really excited to share this idea with you because I find it fascinating. Like you said I am new, I will try to adjust quickly to the norms here.

Comment author: TimS 10 February 2012 05:25:25PM 3 points [-]

That is a lot to respond to. Yes, I'm mostly second-wave feminist. But I don't think that commits me to ignoring things like how feminism is a different issue for blacks and whites, or accepting any idiocy from Mary Daly. Nor does it require me to support doctors who pressure parents into unnecessary "sex correction" surgery.

I accept that science is socially constructed. That doesn't commit me to believing that there are no physical facts. I suspect that the five categories you listed will turn out to be misleading simplifications, and the truth will turn out to be closer to a continuum (cf. Kinsey). More generally, I think it is useful to distinguish between social constructions that are strongly tied to the physical world (sex) and social constructions that have low or no ties to the physical facts (gender roles).

More broadly, I think that the suffering caused by the social constructions of gender are much greater than the suffering caused by social constructions of sex. Further, I think improving the construction of gender will have the effect of improving the experience of people who have problems from the social construction of sex. For example, once gender role construction is improved, I think that people who desire sex-change surgeries will have a better life, even if nothing about the social construction of sex changes.

Finally, I like post-modernism - to the extent it is grounded in fact. Foucault is interesting because he was an excellent historian. By contrast, I once read a feminist paper on mutually assured destruction that was profoundly misguided. It attacked speakers at a conference on MAD for failing to explicitly note that megadeathes were a bad thing (as if everyone there didn't know that and assume it implicitly in the conversation). Can't find it online, or I'd give the cite.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 06:52:27PM 0 points [-]

That is a lot to respond to. Yes, I'm mostly second-wave feminist. But I don't think that commits me to ignoring things like how feminism is a different issue for blacks and whites, or accepting any idiocy from Mary Daly. Nor does it require me to support doctors who pressure parents into unnecessary "sex correction" surgery.

Sure. Accepting feminism is a different issue for black women and white women is the major distinction between first and second wave feminists. I don't think there is anything wrong if you have a stronger affinity to 2nd wave rather than 3rd. I mean, personally, I do think 3rd wave feminism is a more sophisticated level of analysis, but just as quantum mechanics does not necessarily make classical mechanics obsolete , I don't think aligning yourself with the second wave is particularly detrimental. I do think aligning with the first-wave is detrimental, which is where a lot discussed above decreasing the population of men come from.

I don't know if I would agree that the suffering caused by social constructions of gender is more damaging than that caused by social constructions of sex, let me think about it. I tend to think gender originates only after a construction of sex is created. For example, the NuGuo people in china accept hermaphrodites. Since they except them the develop gender roles for hermaphrodites.

Foucault is interesting.

Comment author: MC_Escherichia 11 February 2012 04:08:06PM *  1 point [-]

intentional out breeding [elimination] of more sexes

A comparative analysis of Mammalia shows this to be extremely doubtful, unless you think that only humans have these extra sexes. In all mammals the vast bulk of individuals can be cleanly assigned to male or female without ambiguity, and no such intentional elimination was required. [Note "outbreeding" means something else.]

You have to look at quite distantly related species before hermaphrodites show up at interesting frequencies. Certainly some fish can be hermaphrodite.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 January 2012 12:32:20PM 2 points [-]

The baboon story implies that how males are treated has something to do with their behavior-- it's not innate.

I think the more interesting question is whether pacific baboons can co-exist with the more usual sort.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 13 January 2012 04:32:19PM 3 points [-]

The line between the nature and learning is often blurred. Simply said, if someone's genetic code contains an instruction "when X, do Y", should we say that the behavior Y was caused by the code (is innate) or by the presence of X (is learned)?

The story implies than in conditions X1 baboons behave violently, and in conditions X2 baboons behave peacefully. The word "conditions" here includes both their environment and their history, and it seems that X1 = "lack of food OR recent history of violence" and X2 = "enough food AND recent history of peace". When there is enough food, both X1 and X2 seem self-perpetuating, though the experience with X2 is very short yet.

My prediction is that adding violent baboons to the group would create an X1 situation. (A less certain prediction is that even without external baboons, sooner or later the group will generate a violent individual. Problem is, due to the "sooner or later" part, the second prediction is unfalsifiable.)

Comment author: smk 22 January 2012 12:27:13PM 4 points [-]

I thought there were violent baboons added to the group?

Only one of the males now in the troupe had been through the event. All the rest were new, and hadn't been raised in the tribe. The new males had come from the violent, dog-eat-dog world of normal baboon-land.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 January 2012 03:22:51PM 1 point [-]

How the hell did anyone reading this subthread (including me) miss that?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 February 2012 04:50:59PM 1 point [-]

Possibly because the concept of a violent male disrupting a peaceful group is a violent adult male, perhaps even a violent alpha, while the violent males actually coming in are relatively young.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 January 2012 08:10:02PM 3 points [-]

We can guess that abundant food is needed to stabilize peacefulness among baboons, but the hypothesis isn't tested, though it's plausible.

I don't think it's obvious that one violent baboon would be enough to get a peaceful troupe to return to the usual-- it sounds as though systematic mistreatment of new males is needed to get a standard troupe, and I don't think one violent male has enough time or attention for the job.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 14 January 2012 05:38:16PM 2 points [-]

This is one of the situations that would be better answered by experiment. I wouldn't mind being proven wrong, but I would like to know how exactly I am wrong. How exactly would a new violent baboon not disrupt the peace in the group?

Would he be like: "see, there is enough food, and no one is preventing me from eating as much as I want, so why don't I just relax and enjoy this piece of paradise"?

Or would he attack the other males, but when no one fights back, he would be like: "oh, this is so boring, and by the way there is enough food, so what don't I just relax..."?

Or would the other males fight him back, but despite their new first-hand experience with violence, they would keep the libertarian ethics that it is wrong to initiate violence, and it is only ok to defend oneself?

Or perhaps would the males in the group instinctively attack any other new male (even without him attacking first), but would maintain the peace among themselves?

There are many alternatives to return to global violence, but I would like to know which one of them will happen. Though, at this moment, the return to global violence seems the most probable option to me.

Comment author: Anubhav 13 January 2012 01:08:23PM 2 points [-]

There are no baboons in the Pacific, as far as I can tell.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Comment author: TimS 13 January 2012 05:23:46PM 2 points [-]

I think some famous feminist recommended unspecified disappearing of 90% of males to make the world a better place, but right now I can't find the quote.

Either my model is wrong or this story is false. Specifically, I doubt an famous feminist's considered opinion was that the world would be better if a substantial number of people "unspecified disappeared." Cocktail party quips do not count.

Comment author: MixedNuts 13 January 2012 05:55:14PM 32 points [-]

Read the reference Ozy gave.

WIE: Sally Miller Gearhart, in her article "The Future—If There Is One—Is Female" writes: "[...] The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race." What do you think about this statement?

MD: I think it's not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

Admittedly, this can be interpreted as sex selection of gametes and embryos, not disappearance of currently living people.

Your model of feminism is probably wrong. Feminists are varied and complicated. Some parts of feminism are completely rotten and people in them claim that all porn is rape, that rape of men doesn't matter, that no woman enjoys blowjobs. In particular, Mary Daly said some awful things about trans people, and refused male students in her classes.

Comment author: TimS 13 January 2012 06:31:56PM *  8 points [-]

Wowzers! Daly is so essentialist (i.e. thinks women all inherently have certain mental characteristics). I'm not surprised that someone held her positions so much as I am surprised that she's considered an (recent) influential feminist. I thought that all (contemporary?) feminism was just applied post-modernist (i.e. noticing that gender roles are historically contingent). But that's clearly inconsistent with Daly. Model updated.


That said, I suspect I'm a lot more sympathetic to many of the arguments than you are. I don't think I need to reject Andrea Dworkin in order to reject the essentialism of Daly. That said, I hope that Dworkin hasn't said that the gender of the rape victim matters, because it shouldn't matter. (She essentially agrees with your other examples, I think).

Comment author: Oligopsony 15 December 2012 12:07:20PM 2 points [-]

I thought that all (contemporary?) feminism was just applied post-modernist (i.e. noticing that gender roles are historically contingent).

(Academic) feminist theory has gotten much more postmodern (perhaps more specifically poststructural) over the past three decades, but constructionism isn't the major axis of differentiation. When difference feminists were important they tended to be a bit more post-y than the dominance theorist, who were very often as modernist as the day is long.

Comment author: TimS 15 December 2012 07:41:26PM 0 points [-]

Thanks. My recent experience is that my philosophical reach often exceeds my philosophy terminology grasp. I know what I think - and people have told me that it's a "deconstructivist" position.

But I definitely don't know the ins and outs of particular schools of thought - I had a discussion recently with a third-wave feminist who argued that rejecting intersectionality was an essential element of being second wave feminist. I don't doubt that many second-wavers implicitly (or explicitly) rejected intersectionality - and I think intersectionality is an important structure in the correct theoretical framework. But I'm not familiar enough with the schools of thought to know whether second-wave is inherently inconsistent with intersectionality.

In short, are there accessible references that lay out the central positions of the various schools of thought - at a more nuanced and detailed level than wikipedia? The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is at the right level, but doesn't seem to be directed at the topics I'm referring to here.

Comment author: Oligopsony 15 December 2012 08:03:06PM *  2 points [-]

As with most things, my experience is that specialist encyclopedias are your best bet for knowledge per effort. There's nothing as high-quality and legally accessible as the SEP, but the standard other places should have you covered. Depending on the level of detail you're looking for, Cambridge Companions, Oxford Handbooks, and Very Short Guides tend to be pretty accurate and accessible.

(As for intersectionality I have yet to see a definition which isn't either trivial or theoretically problematic. Which isn't to say that realizing and incorporating the trivial form is itself trivial, but I don't think either version would really hold up as a necessary or sufficient condition for differentiating waves. Waves are noticed based on broad shifts in theory and are thus necessarily fuzzy. But this is just IMO.)

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 06:47:35PM 2 points [-]

That said, I hope that Dworkin hasn't said that the gender of the rape victim matters.

I can't find a cite but I'm sure someone in that school of thought has made that claim explicitly ("Men can't be raped").

That said, Dworkin and others have indicated that all penetrative sex is rape, specifically of the sort that a male perpetrates upon a female, so that would suggest that it could not happen the other way 'round.

Comment author: TimS 13 January 2012 07:05:56PM *  5 points [-]

Yes, I agree that Dworkin equates coercive sex and penetrative sex. If Dworkin thinks that understanding rules out male rape victims (female tool use, to say nothing of homosexual rape), that would make me sad. After all, male tool use on females would be coercive according to her.

Edit: Forgot central point, which is that saying "men can't be raped" is very different from saying "male rape victims don't matter" The first is an argument about definition and perspective. The second blatantly contradicts the assertion that rape is wrong.


At a certain level, I think it is right to say sex is generally coercive, in much the same way that going to work is generally coercive. If you don't go to work for a long enough period of time, you will be the subject of violence. (e.g. eviction)

That understanding of coercion has the twin failings of (1) not being the ordinary usage of the word, and (2) not saying much that is interesting. Everything is Dworkin-coercive, just about.

Comment author: Konkvistador 14 January 2012 04:58:34PM *  3 points [-]

The second blatantly contradicts the assertion that rape is wrong.

"Its not wrong when it happens to the out-group" is standard human thinking. Also overall people do tend to care less about average male than average female suffering.

Comment author: Prismattic 14 January 2012 02:54:24AM 3 points [-]

At a certain level, I think it is right to say sex is generally coercive, in much the same way that going to work is generally coercive. If you don't go to work for a long enough period of time, you will be the subject of violence. (e.g. eviction)

I don't understand this analogy. It really is necessary to work. It's not necessary to be in any intimate relationships. Taking a vow of celibacy does not lead inevitably to getting raped. Within a relationship, there will be increasing pressure to have sex as time since last coitus increases, but there is typically the alternative of ending the relationship, at least in modern Western society.

Comment author: TimS 16 January 2012 08:17:07PM 1 point [-]

It's not necessary to be in a relationship. Nor is it necessary to engage in sexual relations within the relationship. But there is social pressure to be in a (hetero-normative) relationship and to perform sex acts. Dworkins' first point is that this pressure is gendered. The social norms function to make women feel worse for violating them than men. And the amount of pressure isn't close.

Dworkins' suggested response is to remake society to remove (and prohibit) this type of pressure. Whether she admits it or not, this conflicts with "freedom of speech." But so do most anti-discrimination and anti-group defamation laws (the latter have not been generally implemented in the United States). That doesn't meet we must implement Dworkins' vision to avoid hypocrisy. But I think it is valuable to notice the trade-off we are making. To use economic language, one might call the gendered norms an opportunity cost of arranging society the way we have.

And if the referenced norms seem wrong to you, then you ought not to think of Dworkin as an idiot. Feel free to continue thinking badly of Mary Daly (with my blessing and encouragement).

Comment author: [deleted] 16 January 2012 08:47:49PM 0 points [-]

if the referenced norms seem wrong to you, then you ought not to think of Dworkin as an idiot.

I don't follow. Dworkin criticises something stupid, that doesn't make ver not an idiot.

Comment author: Gabriel 13 January 2012 09:36:43PM 2 points [-]

Edit: Forgot central point, which is that saying "men can't be raped" is very different from saying "male rape victims don't matter" The first is an argument about definition and perspective. The second blatantly contradicts the assertion that rape is wrong.

They're not very different in how they are actually understood by listeners. The perceived differenced is based on a notion that humans consciously manipulate their mental categories by arbitrarily choosing explicit verbal definitions and that's not the case.

Comment author: MixedNuts 13 January 2012 07:18:01PM 3 points [-]

Meghan Murphy has written a blog post entitled "Can women rape men? I'm not sure I care.", though she later retracted it.

I don't think anyone has explicitly said "penetrative sex is rape"; they do use phrases like "inherently degrading and violent", but I've only ever heard opponents rephrase it as such.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 07:52:48PM 2 points [-]

Yes, I think the furthest Dworkin has gone is saying that a) penetrative sex is inherently violent, b) sex that is not initiated by "the woman" is never consensual, and c) men's pleasure is necessarily linked to victimizing, hurting, and exploiting.

Comment author: Bugmaster 14 January 2012 01:44:54AM 6 points [-]

sex that is not initiated by "the woman" is never consensual

Is this a generally accepted notion in feminism, or does it represent a fringe view ? The reason I ask is because this sounds exactly like something a Straw Feminist might say...

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 14 January 2012 05:09:37PM 8 points [-]

What algorithm do you use to tell the difference between a feminist and a straw feminist? According to this algorithm, are Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin straw feminists?

It seems to me that any feminist suddenly becomes a straw feminist when an offensive or clearly irrational quote made by them is presented in a discussion about feminism.

Comment author: thomblake 14 January 2012 05:32:55PM 1 point [-]

It fits well into the memeplex of radical feminism. While I haven't had my finger to the pulse of feminism for a few years, I've gotten the impression that radical feminism hasn't been mainstream since the 1990s.

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 December 2012 01:41:11PM 3 points [-]

That's ... pretty far. I mean, damn.

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 December 2012 01:45:36PM 0 points [-]

I don't think anyone has explicitly said "penetrative sex is rape"; they do use phrases like "inherently degrading and violent"

That distinction seems pretty fine; "degrading and violent sex" sounds a hell of a lot like rape (or perhaps some BSDM simulating rape, I guess.)

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 December 2012 02:27:50PM 5 points [-]

Rape is very often not violent, and there are many contexts where it wouldn't be thought degrading by the victim or by the culture, such as marital rape in a culture where it's considered normal.

Consensual degrading and violent sex is certainly kinky, but not necessarily a kind of kink that counts as BDSM and certainly not necessarily rape play. (I feel like I should be making innuendo here about developing your imagination or something.) The "cunnilingus and cuddles" feminist crowd probably don't think it can truly be consensual, but they're just obviously wrong; people might be brainwashed by the patriarchy to go along with something their partner wants, but not to seek it out secretly.

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 December 2012 05:48:23PM 0 points [-]

Rape is very often not violent, and there are many contexts where it wouldn't be thought degrading by the victim or by the culture, such as marital rape in a culture where it's considered normal.

Excellent points.

Consensual degrading and violent sex is certainly kinky, but not necessarily a kind of kink that counts as BDSM and certainly not necessarily rape play. (I feel like I should be making innuendo here about developing your imagination or something.)

Even if the word "rape" isn't being used, it seems to me - and this may be a failure of imagination - that it nonetheless simulates rape, or at least something close to it.

people might be brainwashed by the patriarchy to go along with something their partner wants, but not to seek it out secretly.

You sure about that?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 13 January 2012 06:51:10PM 1 point [-]

"Suggest" very loosely, in that we would have to ignore both cases where both the penetrator and the penetratee are male, and cases where artificial tools of various sorts are used to perpetrate penetration, in order to draw that conclusion.

Which is not to say that there aren't people who would argue precisely that.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 07:13:23PM 2 points [-]

I thought it would be sufficiently damning that it already rules out 'ordinary' female rape of males. If your definition of 'rape' includes consensual sex and does not include this, then we've stopped talking about rape.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2012 12:54:49PM 0 points [-]

That said, I hope that Dworkin hasn't said that the gender of the rape victim matters, because it shouldn't matter.

I've heard non-obviously-bogus arguments that it should, e.g. men cannot get pregnant as a result of rape.

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 December 2012 02:09:33PM *  1 point [-]

Some can. It's probably a very different experience though.

And many women can't. If it's unknown to the rapist, asserting power through a threat of forced pregnancy might still happen, but if she's like sixty-five that's not going to happen.

But gender does matter. A man raping a cis woman has a gender wars element to it, usually something like "Men want sex and women don't, so this man is taking it from this woman, scoring one for Team Men. She's a slut for letting it happen, unless she can prove she's a perfect victim and he's a complete monster, in which case she's a victim of female weakness and needs protected by a strong good man.". Conversely, a man raping a man hinges more on "A man weak enough to let someone rape him is not a real man, but gay-female-feminine. He is ridiculous and pathetic.". There are other gender-dependent examples with female perpetrators, with prison rape, with corrective rape, with rape as a weapon for cultural domination, with isolated communities, and so on.

Of course it doesn't matter in that some rapes count and some don't, and it shouldn't matter at all. Just saying, you should expect different support structures, not identical rape shelters which just happen to be 25% male-populated.

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 December 2012 01:23:59PM 1 point [-]

Unwanted pregnancy can be a result of rape, but rape seems like a separate Bad Thing that can happen to someone.

Comment author: TimS 16 December 2012 07:00:49PM 0 points [-]

In addition to what MixedNuts said, the question I was raising was whether this was a feminist position. To the extent that it is, I'd like to know whether it is from the methodologically incorrect branch (represented in this discussion by Mary Daly) or the methodologically more correct branch (represented by Andrea Dworkin).

It would surprise me to hear that Dworkin has asserted that men can't be raped - and if I heard it, I'd need to re-examine whether her arguments about the social effect of porn are valid (even if she's right, there are knock-on concerns that weigh against censorship).

More generally, conflating Daly and Dworkin is like conflating Stephen J. Gould and Stephen Pinker.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2012 08:40:15PM *  1 point [-]

I think I saw a comment subthread on The Good Men Project along the lines “What's it matter whether it's a man who has sex with a woman too drunk to consent [or something like that] or the other way round?” “The woman can get pregnant, etc., etc.” “Wow, that's some serious Dworkin you're channeling”, but I can't find it right now, so I might have dreamt it or something.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 05:38:17PM *  5 points [-]

Yup. Mysandry is a real thing, if rarer than the reverse. Hell, since stereotypes of men are much less likely to be challenged then those of women, it's arguably more common (on a far lower level than your examples, obviously.)

The mistake is to stereotype all "feminists" as spouting such nonsense, of course.

Comment author: MixedNuts 15 December 2012 06:20:16PM 3 points [-]

Hooray, I get to recommend No Seriously, What About Teh Menz? and other nifty things by Ozy Frantz.

...and zie's the only person I know of who writes about misandry without turning into a giant douche.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 06:54:36PM 0 points [-]

zie's the only person I know of who writes about misandry without turning into a giant douche.

... is that a stealth insult?

Comment author: MixedNuts 15 December 2012 07:34:04PM 1 point [-]

Do you mean to Ozy? It was supposed to be praise.

Or do you mean to you? If you write about misandry, I have yet to see your writings, so I'd be hard-pressed to insult you based on them.

Or do you mean something else?

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 07:59:32PM *  2 points [-]

Or do you mean to you? If you write about misandry, I have yet to see your writings, so I'd be hard-pressed to insult you based on them.

Well, I wrote a comment on it. Right there. You replied to it.

... I guess I was just imagining things, although your comment was slightly ... tangential. Such comments are rarer than those criticizing the parent. Hell, I even opened this comment by contradicting you.

... thanks for the recommendation.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2012 12:03:56PM 0 points [-]

...and zie's the only person I know of who writes about misandry without turning into a giant douche.

Plenty of posts on The Good Men Project in general are surprisingly sane given their subject matter, too. (The comments are less good though, especially recently with the allegations of rape apology.)

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 December 2012 01:33:34PM 0 points [-]

I haven't seen any good ones that were about misandry specifically, but yeah, there's lot of good stuff. The series on male depression's good.

Most of the articles are fluff along the lines of "Hats are cool", though. And right now I'm just a little bit reluctant to recommend the site that published the "I raped a few people, but partying is fun so I don't mind" article.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2012 05:24:54PM *  3 points [-]

And right now I'm just a little bit reluctant to recommend the site that published the "I raped a few people, but partying is fun so I don't mind" article.

I do see the point of publishing such articles; but unfortunately they (and I) overestimated the sanity (in the LW sense) of the readers -- see the third paragraph of “Belief as Attire”. Turns out that some of the readers are more like Alabama bar patrons than like nerds, and unfortunately there's no way of saying ‘X did Y because of Z’ to Alabama bar patrons that won't sound like ‘it was right for X to do Y’.

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 December 2012 05:46:50PM 1 point [-]

"Rapists justify themselves by claiming consent is complicated" goes over well all the time. "I'm a rapist, but consent is complicated so it's a risk I'm willing to take" is supposed not to go over well.

Knowing the justifications rapists use is not useless. But "I had an e-mail exchange with an anonymous rapist, and here are some quotes" would suffice, whereas "Here's an article by a person I disagree with" implies some degree of respect for the defended position.

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 December 2012 06:21:30PM *  0 points [-]

Most of the articles are fluff along the lines of "Hats are cool", though. And right now I'm just a little bit reluctant to recommend the site that published the "I raped a few people, but partying is fun so I don't mind" article.

Can't argue with you about the hats, but I'm not sure what people's problem is with publishing that article. It's not like he was defending himself, just giving useful information on how someone's life can lead them to rape despite consciously committing to the principle that Rape Is Bad. Are they worried that understanding the enemy better will force them to stop viewing people as Evil Mutants?

Comment author: Bugmaster 14 January 2012 01:56:22AM 2 points [-]

Admittedly, this can be interpreted as sex selection of gametes and embryos, not disappearance of currently living people.

It could be, but, after reading that interview, I get the feeling that MD wouldn't mind it at all if currently living people (male ones, that is) got disappeared, as well. That interview is actually quite fascinating.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 07:23:57PM 4 points [-]

"[...] The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race."

I imagine females will also be reduced to 10%. Gender is pointless. I know I'd like to be (sexually) female sometimes, futanari (is there an english word for this?) sometimes, and male sometimes, and the rest of the time something totally different. Probably with tentacles. I think I'd like to be totally sexless sometimes too.

When you spend enough time on certain places on the internet, radical feminists look like conservatives on gender issues.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 07:58:06PM 3 points [-]

When you spend enough time on certain places on the internet, radical feminists look like conservatives on gender issues.

Indeed. Reading about the details of sex between one "male" and one "female" partner as though it's the only kind of sex, really reads to me like trying to enforce a (outdated and sexist) traditional view of how humans are supposed to self-identify and relate to each other.

Comment author: MixedNuts 13 January 2012 07:37:02PM 0 points [-]

"No-op trans woman"?

Comment author: arborealhominid 15 December 2012 02:31:39PM 1 point [-]

Technically accurate, but not general enough. A futanari, as I understand, is a person who has a penis, but otherwise has the physical characteristics typically designated "female" (breasts, wide hips, etc.). A no-op trans woman would fit this description, but so would someone who started out with the typical "female" phenotype but had their genitals modified and kept the rest of their body the same. (As far as I know, this hasn't happened in real life, but it's theoretically possible.) Also, though I'm not aware of any such condition, I suppose there could be an intersex condition that produces a "futanari" phenotype. (If anyone is aware of one, I'd be curious to hear about it.)

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 05:17:28PM 0 points [-]

I dunno. The option would be nice, but I think I'd still spend easily 90% of my time as a "male" and I doubt that's unusual; the categories of "male" and "female" still have meaning if some women spend their holidays as dolphins.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 08:01:06PM 0 points [-]

futanari (is there an english word for this?)

Depending on what you mean by futanari, 'hermaphrodite' or 'shemale' are common, though the latter is almost surely slang (and checking what Google has to say on the subject is almost surely NSFW).

Comment author: MixedNuts 13 January 2012 09:07:37PM 3 points [-]

The latter is a slur.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 09:12:52PM 2 points [-]

Well, by that link, both "transvestite" and "hermaphrodite" (NTM "it") were on the list of slurs. I think it was just indicated as a slur for transsexual people, not inherently a slur.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 January 2012 01:12:36AM 1 point [-]

I'll just keep calling it futa. It's the only word for that mode of being that I have not seen used offensively.

Comment author: Raemon 14 January 2012 06:29:24PM 1 point [-]

Modern, generally accepted term in english is intersexed

Comment author: thomblake 14 January 2012 08:41:20PM 3 points [-]

I'm pretty sure "intersexed" is more general than the sense of "futanari", or at least the sense meant above.

Comment author: Konkvistador 14 January 2012 04:42:03PM *  8 points [-]

You are pretty unfamiliar with some of the more obscure aspects feminism. Even if the SCUM manifesto was really satire (which I don't think it was), there where plenty of calls for the elimination or even enslavement of men by academics and radicals.

As with all political and ideological movements some join them just because they seem the best available tool to harm a despised out-group.

Some feminists really do just hate men.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 December 2012 05:51:55PM *  1 point [-]

The SCUM Manifesto was written by someone with severe mental health issues and isn't taken seriously by the vast majority of feminists. It isn't representative in any useful way. Edit: That is not to say that there aren't some people out there with extreme views of this sort, they'll show up in any large movement. But that context is important.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2012 07:43:24AM 1 point [-]

I think Mary Daly did.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 07:07:26PM 1 point [-]

Either my model is wrong or this story is false. Specifically, I doubt an famous feminist's considered opinion was that the world would be better if a substantial number of people "unspecified disappeared."

It appears your model is false, then. Progress!

(Not that you should switch to a model with even poorer predictive history, i.e. the "feminists just hate men" one.)

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2012 05:04:54PM -3 points [-]

I think some famous feminist recommended unspecified disappearing of 90% of males to make the world a better place, but right now I can't find the quote.

I totally support the unspecified disappearing of 90% of (other) males!

Comment author: ChickPea 22 January 2012 04:11:59AM 0 points [-]

Are you perhaps thinking of Valerie Solanas, and the SCUM manifesto?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Solanas

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 07:27:04PM *  0 points [-]

(I'm pretty sure it was just an example of game-changing social upheaval; the actual reason it happened isn't described and may or may may not have been determined.)

Comment author: MBlume 12 January 2012 11:46:28PM 35 points [-]

When taming a baby elephant, its trainer will chain one of its legs to a post. When the elephant tries to run away, the chain and the post are strong enough to keep it in place. But when the elephant grows up, it is strong enough to break the chain or uproot the post. Yet the owner can still secure the elephant with the same chain and post, because the elephant has been conditioned to believe it cannot break free. It feels the tug of the chain and gives up — a kind of learned helplessness. The elephant acts as if it thinks the chain's limiting power is intrinsic to nature rather than dependent on a causal factor that held for years but holds no longer.

This is such an excellent allegory that I do need to ask whether there's a citation. I googled briefly and only found motivational texts and discussions of the morality of chaining elephants in circuses.

Comment author: ChristianKl 19 December 2012 01:22:41PM 3 points [-]

On Skeptics Stackexchange there a thread about it: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/7796/can-an-elephant-be-trained-to-be-lightly-leashed . Unfortunately as of the time of this writing it has no answers :(

Comment author: philh 13 January 2012 09:12:21AM 2 points [-]

I've heard that it's false, but can no longer find the reference.

Comment author: Grif 13 January 2012 01:34:30PM 5 points [-]

Roger Bannister allegedly broke the four-minute mile by applying a lesson in flea training. You train fleas by putting them in a lidded jar. As they jump and jump and jump, they hit their head on the lid and condition themselves to jump only so high--even after the lid is removed.

Bannister, according to inspirational coach Zig Ziglar, knew that for centuries it was judged "impossible" to break a four-minute mile, and all the negative input from trainers and doctors and coaches was erecting a mental barrier to what was possible. History speaks: within a month or two of him breaking the limit, over a dozen MORE runners broke the four-minute mile--something which had been biologically impossible since ancient Greece.

According to Zig, anyways.

Comment author: Mark_Eichenlaub 13 January 2012 09:18:48PM *  24 points [-]

This story is not true. Bannister broke 4:00 in May of 1954. The next person to do it was John Landy 46 days later. Bannister's training partner Chris Chataway did it the next year, as did another British runner. However, I think Bannister and Landy were the only two to do it in 1954. The first American to do it was Don Bowden in 1957.

I found a list for the US here Also a master list of many runners, but difficult to parse.

There were three runners close to the sub-four mile in the early 50's. The other two were Wes Santee and John Landy. They didn't race each other while trying to break 4:00 because Santee was American, Bannister British, Landy Australian.

According to Neil Bascomb's The Perfect Mile, the race to sub-4 was highly publicized, and most people believed that it could in fact be done. There are some quotes from Landy saying that 4:00 was an unbreakable wall, but I believe these were mostly comments from him in dejection after early failures to beat the mark.

Bannister also wrote a memoir about running sub-4. I do not remember the flea story from it. Google books doesn't return any hits in that book for the word "flea"

Wikipedia says:

The claim that a 4-minute mile was once thought to be impossible by informed observers was and is a widely propagated myth created by sportswriters and debunked by Bannister himself in his memoir, The Four Minute Mile (1955). The reason the myth took hold was that four minutes was a nice round number which was slightly better (1.4 seconds) than the world record for nine years, longer than it probably otherwise would have been because of the effect of World War II in interrupting athletic progress in the combatant countries. The Swedish runners Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson, in a series of head-to-head races in the period 1942-45, had already lowered the world mile record by 5 seconds to the pre-Bannister record. (See Mile run world record progression.) What is still impressive to knowledgeable track fans is that Bannister ran a four-minute mile on very low-mileage training by modern standards.

The stuff about centuries of buildup and ancient Greece is absurd. In ancient Greece they did not use the mile to measure, and measurements and timekeeping were not accurate enough for this anyway. Wikipedia lists mile records only back to 1855.

Comment author: Grif 14 January 2012 04:09:41AM 18 points [-]

I have learned today not to fluff my posts with phrases like "a dozen more runners" and "ancient Greece" unless it makes sense to do so. Upon further reflection it's also possible that Zig said "Roger Bannister was a flea trainer" in a metaphorical sense--though he most definitely used that kind of words.

The "impossible 4-minute mile" myth, also upon reflection, seems like a similar myth that I stopped believing in, that some boxers, fighters and martial artists were required by law to register their hands as lethal weapons. I heard it from an insanely powerful kung fu sifu my best friend trained under, so I figured that, as strange as it sounds, it was very relevant to a master of fighting, and probably reliable. Later I learned that professional boxers did this purely as a publicity stunt, and the ceremony had zero legal effects. I could use more strength as a rationalist.

Comment author: adamisom 13 January 2012 03:48:34AM 1 point [-]

Well, I've certainly heard the story several times. I think it's sometimes told in Indian context, so try including India in your research... I don't care enough to find that out personally

Comment author: Raemon 14 January 2012 06:22:24PM 3 points [-]

The most I could find were photographs of Indian elephants being held by (what looked to me, anyway) like rather small chains. But yeah, I see a lot of references to the nice allegorical story without a real citation.

My prior is still on it being true to some degree, not because it sounds nice but because I know training animals often works approximately the same way.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 January 2012 08:48:12PM *  5 points [-]

What's does the chain represent in this metaphor? Any limitation whatsoever, or some specific one? Some of your examples make it plain that some persistant features of ourselves and our communities shouldn't be destroyed, even if they can be: we've seen baboons turn pacifist, but I'll bet money that we can terrorize some typically pacifistic bonobos into violent monsters. So the fact that we can break a chain (if this refers to any habit or constraint to which we have become habituated) doesn't mean we should.

So "break your chains" seems like bad advice on its own. What else can we add to it to make it good advice?

Comment author: michaelcurzi 12 January 2012 11:03:45PM 2 points [-]

I think the right response is: if the chain isn't actually preventing you from taking a course of action, don't let the chain be the reason you reject that course of action. Or: shatter all chains, so that you can truly choose where you want to go. (You may not want to go where the chain was preventing you from going, but you can only really only ask that question once you are free).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 13 January 2012 10:22:07AM 0 points [-]

shatter all chains, so that you can truly choose where you want to go.

On which level is this "true choice" made: group level or individual level? The story describes a change in the group. It does not necessarily follow that all individuals in that group were happy with the new situation. Just as not all individuals were happy with the old situation.

A group dynamic can change... some individuals may feel better, some individuals may feel worse. Why should we call this a "true choice"? Whose choice precisely?

Comment author: satt 13 January 2012 01:25:16AM 11 points [-]

Religion had a grip on 99.5% or more of humanity until 1900,

Is this true? How could one know?

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 14 January 2012 03:40:51PM 4 points [-]

This is a question where fiction might give us more insight than fact. If you read realistic novels from the 19th century you will find right away that many of the characters are atheists or agnostics. The gold standard novel is War and Peace which contains only one overtly religious character (Maria Bolkonskaya) if I recall correctly. More than one of the characters is overtly atheist. Tolstoy could put this into fiction when his counterparts in the Physics department and the Philosophy department and the Political Science department would not dare to say it.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 05:57:56PM -1 points [-]

This is a question where fiction might give us more insight than fact.

Seems legit.

Comment author: Vaniver 13 January 2012 02:20:58AM 2 points [-]

If you're flexible with what you mean by "grip," simply having a state religion in the country you live in might have counted as enough. But even with a definition like that, it's not clear where the 1 in 200 figure is coming from.

Comment author: satt 13 January 2012 02:44:57AM 0 points [-]

Yeah. I thought lukeprog might be using "grip" in some more general sense like what you suggest. But if that were so I expect he'd have cited statistics on more general measures of religiosity, rather than estimates of the proportion of non-religious people.

Comment author: DavidAgain 13 January 2012 06:35:20PM 1 point [-]

If you follow the footnote, it goes to an article on his old website, which takes the figure from the World Christian Encyclopedia, 'a trusted source on religious demographics'. I would be incredibly sceptical about it: as you said, how would we know? People on all sides of religious demographics debates have an awful habit of comparing like with unlike, and those sort of encyclopedias often just get the 'best' figure for point X and point Y while ignoring how comparable they are.

In the original article the stat seems (and I'm cautious here, because my general view of blogs centred on atheism is far worse than the impression I get of Lukeprog from this site) to be used as a rather cheap initial aside: the article is actually about why religion has dropped in Scandanavia and similar, which isn't clearly linked to the worldwide 1900-2000 statistics given.

As an aside: 'state religion' is a dangerous one. It suggests for instance that the UK is 'in the grip of religion' in a way than Syria, India and for that matter the US.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 07:22:39PM *  1 point [-]

IIRC, typically statistics about the number of Christians actually count anyone who has been baptised and has not apostatised. As such, they include lots of people who aren't under the “grip” of the Church in any meaningful sense.

Comment author: kilobug 13 January 2012 07:33:57PM *  4 points [-]

Hum, I think it greatly depends of the country. In some countries (like Germany) you officially declare your religion because it affects your taxes. In some others like France, the state just doesn't care about your religion, but (both public and private) institute perform samplings in which they ask people if they have a religion and if what it is.

On the polls, results depend greatly on how the question is formulated (depending on the wording, people who identify themselves as culturally christian but don't believe in god will answer differently), but the latest detailed poll done, according to Wikipedia, gave something like (simplified and translated by myself) :

Sondage CSA 2006-2007

Catholics : 51 % among which :
Believing catholics : 27 %
Agnostics catholics : (don't know if God exists) : 15 %
Atheist catholics (don't think God exists, but identifying themselves as culturally catholics) : 9 % Atheist : 31 % Muslims : 4 %
Protestants : 3 %
Jew : 1 %
Other/not answering : 10 %

Which leads to a majority (55%) of atheists or agnostics. But if just asking '"are you christian ?" you'll get a majority of christians... the joy of polls and statistics.

Comment author: Multiheaded 13 January 2012 09:05:01PM 1 point [-]

1% of people worship a cheesy Hollywood movie about a giant shark?

Comment author: kilobug 14 January 2012 04:08:56PM 0 points [-]

It was "jew" not "jaw", sorry for the typo... fixed.

Comment author: Ezekiel 12 January 2012 08:20:06PM 9 points [-]

Uplifting and inspiring.

But with that said (not sarcastically), is there anything in particular you're talking about? Because "you should check for solutions before giving up on a problem" seems overly vague and applause-lighty to me.

Comment author: amcknight 13 January 2012 07:25:26PM 6 points [-]

I thought the whole point was to make it clear that Learned Helplessness is a real problem that anyone might actually have despite the first common first reaction that they "obviously" don't. Maybe that wasn't intended but that's what I got out of it.

Comment author: gwern 12 January 2012 10:46:45PM 14 points [-]

So you are hopeful because of a single disequilibrium (peaceful baboons) supported by outside inputs (humans killing meat for the baboons). This makes more sense if you carry through the analogy and replace baboons by humans and humans by AIs.

Comment author: endoself 13 January 2012 01:10:31AM 0 points [-]

I don't think that that would add anything beyond all the other posts about AI.

Comment author: chepin 15 January 2012 12:44:59AM 3 points [-]

The elephant acts as if it thinks the chain's limiting power is intrinsic to nature rather than dependent on a causal factor that held for years but holds no longer.

What the imaginary and true limiting powers for the lesswrong community? Maybe some list could be useful.

Comment author: cousin_it 12 January 2012 08:58:53PM *  34 points [-]

There was no interesting, non-emotional takeaway for me from this post. I bet I can find 10 anecdotes where nature prevailed over nurture...

Luke, your posts might become more interesting (to me at least) if you go and beat your head on a hard problem for awhile. I know that sounds like "go have an awful life so you have some interesting stories to tell us", but hey, that's how life works :-/ As far as I know, Eliezer's sequences were the aftermath of a sort of hero's journey, that's why they have so many new insights. Just copying the surface pathos won't get you there.

Comment author: lukeprog 13 January 2012 02:19:01AM *  16 points [-]

Now that I'm Executive Director I don't have much time to bang my head on hard (research) problems, though I did start doing that a while back.

This is a "merely" inspirational post, but I think there's room for that on LW. There isn't much new insight in A sense that more is possible, either, but I found it valuable.

Comment author: xv15 13 January 2012 03:21:27AM 23 points [-]

Luke, I thought this was a good post for the following reasons.

(1) Not everything needs to be an argument to persuade. Sometimes it's useful to invest your limited resources in better illuminating your position instead of illuminating how we ought to arrive at your position. Many LWers already respect your opinions, and it's sometimes useful to simply know what they are.

The charitable reading of this post is not that it's an attempted argument via cherry-picked examples that support your feeling of hopefulness. Instead I read it as an attempt to communicate your level of hopefulness accurately to people who you largely expect to be less hopeful. This is an imprecise business that necessarily involves some emotional language, but ultimately I think you are just saying: do not privilege induction with such confidence, we live in a time of change.

It might quell a whole class of complaints if you said something like that in the post. Perhaps you feel you've noticed a lot of things that made you question and revise your prior confidence about the unchangingness of the world...if so, why not tell us explicitly?

(2) I also see this post as a step in the direction of your stated goal to spend time writing well. It seems like something you spent time writing (at least relative to the amount of content it contains). Quite apart from the content it contains, it is a big step in the direction of eloquence. LWers are programmed to notice/become alarmed when eloquence is being used to build up a shallow argument, but it's the same sort of writing whether your argument is shallow or deep. This style of writing will do you a great service when it is attached to a much deeper argument. So at the least it's good practice, and evidence that you should stick with your goal.

Comment author: Technoguyrob 14 January 2012 06:13:31PM 5 points [-]

I agree so much I'm commenting.

Comment author: MixedNuts 14 January 2012 01:34:20AM 6 points [-]

Now that I'm Executive Director I don't have much time to bang my head on hard (research) problems

That strikes me as an extremely wrong way to allocate human resources. Good executive directors can't be rarer than good FAI researchers.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 January 2012 05:07:10AM 11 points [-]

I wouldn't say I'm a good FAI researcher. I'm just very quick at writing up the kind of "platform papers" that summarize the problem space, connect things to the existing literature, show other researchers what they can work on, explain the basic arguments. For example.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 January 2012 01:38:50AM 4 points [-]

Good executive directors can't be rarer than good FAI researchers.

I imagine it is easier to motivate people to be FAI researchers than executive directors.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 December 2012 09:35:28AM 2 points [-]

But wouldn't you prefer to have an executive director of foos with the technical expertise to be a foo himself, so he has a better understanding of the foos that he's executively directing?

Comment author: MixedNuts 15 December 2012 10:32:17AM 1 point [-]

Yes, but ceteris ain't paribus. If foo=software engineer, sure, make one of yours executive director, then throw a brick in the Bay Area and hire the one you knocked out.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 14 January 2012 12:33:33AM 3 points [-]
  • I think inspiration is important

  • Some of the sequence re-writes (I'm thinking specifically of the ones on facingsingularity web site) are better written than the originals, and there is some value in that.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 January 2012 04:47:42AM 4 points [-]

Some of the sequence re-writes (I'm thinking specifically of the ones on facingsingularity web site) are better written than the originals

Well, they're more compressed, anyway. But they only accomplish that by having the luxury of linking to dozens of Eliezer's original, more detailed and persuasive articles.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 17 January 2012 04:58:19PM *  2 points [-]

To add this, it may be that e.g. deep knowledge of the heuristics and biases literature helped Luke become a better thinker, but most people I know from SingInst became good thinkers either before or without reading much social psychology or decision science. Empirically it seems that microeconomics and Hofstadter are the biggest influences on good thinkers in this social sphere, but I wouldn't put too much weight on the importance of either. Bayesian probability theory is also a big theme, but note that Eliezer's devotion to it seems to have stemmed from a misconception about how fundamental it is, 'cuz at the time of his optimization enlightenment he doesn't seem to have known about key problems in decision theory that Bayes isn't obviously equipped for. In general it seems wise to be skeptical of claims that we know very much about why various people have had whatever success we think they've had; it's very easy to unknowingly fall into cargo cult "rationality".

Comment author: elinws 14 January 2012 09:45:30PM 1 point [-]

There is really very little separating nature and nurture.

An example from gibbon research - gibbons are the textbook example of monogamy amongst primates. They mate for life, eat a high quality diet (fruit and insects with some leaves and other greens). The pair sing together in the mornings and evenings to proclaim there territories. The female takes care of infants until they are weaned and then the male takes over rearing offspring. Before the infant is weaned they are the color of the mother then when their father takes over they become the color of their father. At puberty males stay black like their father and the females become golden like their mothers. Within the family females tend to be dominant and males tend to defend the family against outsiders but they aren't strongly hierarchical.

That said there is a group of gibbons that no longer have the same high quality diet their diet is primarily leaves and greens. Their social structure is one or two dominant males with a group of subordinate females. Thus their social structure resembles that of baboons rather than other gibbons.

So, does high quality diet lead to sexual equality and pacifism or are these just anecdotes?

Comment author: Vivi 15 January 2012 08:24:24PM 1 point [-]

This is rather misleading. You have not accounted for other variables that may have influenced gibbon behavior. Moreover, this anecdote does little to support your initial point, which seems to have been forgotten altogether at the conclusion. You neglected to elaborate on gibbon diet, which I assume is your main example. The information that you have given on their development seems unnecessary. Also, you misspelled several pronouns, and neglected to show possession. I still see no relevance in your comment.

Comment author: taw 12 January 2012 08:08:04PM 11 points [-]

The part about baboons was where the post should be cut.

Too many good stories are ruined this way on lesswrong.

Comment author: Ezekiel 12 January 2012 08:21:32PM 10 points [-]

Personally, I don't think I would have understood the point he was trying to make if it had ended there.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 12 January 2012 08:12:28PM 8 points [-]

Sure, just ending on "Until they weren't." would have killed.

But "ruined" is too much. The links are useful to people who don't already know them. And there's an elephant-chain story you might like at the bottom.

Comment author: taw 13 January 2012 07:53:05PM 9 points [-]

Many of his later points about slavery, smallpox, religion etc. were extremely dubious or forced at best. It was literally painful to read that part after awesome part about baboons. And Singularity Institute self-congratulations were even worse than that.

The elephant chain story on the other hand was good.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 08:10:55PM 9 points [-]

I like it exactly the way it is.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 13 January 2012 05:25:51AM 15 points [-]

This post seems too vague to be useful.

I just got done re-reading Stephen Pinker's book How the Mind Works and seeing the phrase "largely circumstantial" in this post reminded me of Pinker's discussion of the so-called "nature-nurture issue." He points out that it's absurd to think that because nature is important, nurture doesn't matter, but he compares the statement "nature and nurture are both important" to statements like, "The behavior of a computer comes from from a complex interaction between the processor and the input," which is "true but useless."

I feel the same way about statements like "more is possible." I understand the desire to be inspirational, but my brain is objecting too much. How much more is possible? Under what circumstances? etc.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 14 January 2012 12:25:30AM *  3 points [-]

I understand the desire to be inspirational

Inspiration would be wothless anyway if it was useless (other than making yourself feel good I guess)

How much more is possible? Under what circumstances? etc.

Try and find out!

The way I understood this is that people are overly pessimistic and do not attempt things within their reach. (I might have been a somewhat specific message to the "rationalist" crowd since we tend to overthink, be skeptical and highly risk averse).

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 13 January 2012 07:01:55PM 1 point [-]

I believe the point is that we do not know how much more is possible, or what circumstances make that so. As such, we must check, as often as we can, to make absolutely sure that we are still held by our chains.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 07:08:16PM 6 points [-]

This was incredibly inspiring, in particular because of the specific examples you cited. Thank you.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 12 January 2012 08:14:27PM 5 points [-]

So inspiring that, even though I trust Sapolsky on the quality of his "Zebras" book, I wonder if the telling isn't slanted a little. I love the idea of other species of animals than humans having extensive+powerful transmissible culture (even though we already knew this about tool use - cracking nuts w/ stones, etc.).

Comment author: Vaniver 13 January 2012 01:01:09AM 4 points [-]

The human species was always too weak to render itself extinct. Until we discovered the nuclear chain reaction and manufactured thousands of atomic bombs.

Again, it's still not clear that this is true. There aren't enough bombs to kill everyone, and it's likely humanity would survive a nuclear winter (even if most humans wouldn't).

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 January 2012 01:47:28AM 5 points [-]

It's possible that we'd be able to wreck civilization with a relatively small number of decisions, but "wreck civilization" is vague, and might not be true. It's certainly the case that it's possible to kill more people with fewer decisions than ever before.

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 13 January 2012 06:51:11AM 1 point [-]

It is hard to estimate whether there were enough bombs to kill everyone at any moment. On-ground detonation of entire arsenal of all nuclear powers could cause quite a lot of fallout. It is another question that it would not happen even in a nucleart war, because detonating the nuclear bomb above a military base or a factoy would instantly burn a large area while causing less fallout. So it was considered more effective and more predictable.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 January 2012 12:08:59AM 0 points [-]

There aren't enough bombs to kill everyone

Citation? I'm curious to know what the current consensus is on the likelihood that full-scale nuclear war is an existential risk for humanity.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 January 2012 01:34:54AM 1 point [-]

This is the source that changed my mind, although it appears to be somewhat controversial.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 January 2012 03:29:41AM 2 points [-]

Is the "complete destruction radius" the same as the "everybody dies in this radius"?

Comment author: Vaniver 18 January 2012 04:17:40AM 0 points [-]

I am not an expert in the nuclear weapons business, and so the best I can give you is ">50% chance?".

Comment author: Prismattic 18 January 2012 02:00:56AM 0 points [-]

It could be that I am misunderstanding that infographic, but it appears only to count deaths from the actual blasts and possibly from fatal short-term radiation poisoning. It does not appear to include subsequent deaths due to starvation and economic collapse.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 January 2012 02:14:45AM 0 points [-]

I believe your interpretation is correct. I find it hard to believe, though, that everyone would die in the event of an economic collapse (even economic collapse plus nuclear winter), though it seems very likely most would.

Comment author: dlthomas 13 January 2012 10:58:41PM 2 points [-]

literally have been the textbook example

Cute.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 January 2012 11:28:18PM 5 points [-]

Slavery was ubiquitous for millennia. Until it was outlawed in every country on Earth.

Which is why slavery is now basically extinct... right?

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 13 January 2012 01:38:07AM 10 points [-]

The proportion of humanity held in slavery is probably the lowest it has ever been. And no human has been the legal property of another since the institution was abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962. (I think. It was an Arabian nation in the sixties anyway.)

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 05:06:30PM 5 points [-]

According to the Abolition of slavery timeline (linked to in the article), it's 1981 in Mauritania.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 01:44:17AM 3 points [-]

The proportion of humanity held in slavery is probably the lowest it has ever been.

True, but I find proportional arguments fundamentally wrong. I mean, I can't make up for any atrocity I commit simply by out-breeding my victims! So if slavery is wrong, then the situation is certainly much worse right now than it ever was in history, regardless of how many non-slaves there are now.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 18 January 2012 07:55:22PM 3 points [-]

I can't make up for any atrocity I commit simply by out-breeding my victims!

That's true. But IMHO every moral evaluation has to distinguish between the action in question and the consequent state of the universe.

I think you're still a bad person if you father three children (who are really happy most of the time) but also rape one child. Why not simply father three children without the raping-part? Almost everybody can do that!

But it's not inconsistent to claim that an universe without the raped child and whithout the three happy children is worse than the universe with all four children.

Or does that sound completely bizarre to you?

Comment author: [deleted] 18 January 2012 08:56:22PM 1 point [-]

I agree that we also have to look at actions, in the sense that even if my biased treatment of my children (treat some well, others badly) would reduce the proportion of suffering children, you might still condemn that because it at least encourages me to not just treat all children well and so to pursue inefficient solutions.

(According to Wikipedia, child sexual abuse affects about 19,7% of female and 7,9% of male children, btw. I'd be careful with using "almost everybody".)

I do disagree that "1 more suffering person, 3 more happy persons" (or whatever ratio) is better than "no additional people". I find it non-obvious that it should be true, even just as an intuition. I find the opposite intuition much more plausible.

I think the claim rests on two (somewhat independent) assumptions:

  1. Benefits and harm to a person can be directly compared, so that if I harm you for -3 utilons and benefit you for +5 utilons, that's equivalent to benefiting you for +2 utilons.
  2. Bringing more people into existence is not bad, at least on average.

Assumption 1) is of course straightforward utilitarianism (in most formulations), but it's not clear to me at all why it should be true. My previous comment was meant to highlight the fact that I find this assumption (common as it is) absurd, especially because it makes you look at 10+ million slaves and propose that slavery is basically gone, simply because non-slaves drastically outnumber them. It's not a solid argument (nor intended as one), but at least for me, it's a stronger illustration of the underlying disgust I feel when considering the closely related Repugnant Conclusion.

Maybe as a different illustration, imagine a room with 3 suffering and 6 happy people in it. If I now bring in 6 more happy people, have I halved the harm inside the room? Have I improved the situation even at all? Of course, this is just an appeal to intuition, not an actual argument, but maybe it demonstrates how "more happy people" is suspect.

Assumption 2) is not obvious either way, I think, but I presently favor denying it, so that more slaves is bad, just as more non-slaves is bad. In other words, just because there are ~6 times more people now than 100 years ago, means that the world is dramatically worse off. So celebrating moral progress when people still breed weirds me out. But of course, this is really not a specific problem with Luke's post, just an aspect that proportional arguments tend to miss. Basically, I deny "Yay less harm per person!" if you achieved it by making more people in the process.

Of course it's not inconsistent to accept 1) and 2), or something similar to them, but I find them very alien, almost paperclippy values. (No offense to actual Paperclippers.)

Comment author: wallowinmaya 18 January 2012 11:06:24PM 1 point [-]

(According to Wikipedia, child sexual abuse affects about 19,7% of female and 7,9% of male children, btw. I'd be careful with using "almost everybody".)

Oops. (Let's change "rape" to "rape and eat them while they're alive". That should be sufficiently evil, even for humans.)

I think the claim rests on two (somewhat independent) assumptions: ...

That's probably correct. FWIW I think that 1) is true (say 85%) and 2) is also true, but I'm less confident in my judgement (say 65%). I guess most folks believe that 1) and 2) are true and are much more certain than I am. Seems like you're surrounded by Paperclippers.

Comment author: Vaniver 13 January 2012 02:23:40AM 3 points [-]

So if slavery is wrong, then the situation is certainly much worse right now than it ever was in history, regardless of how many non-slaves there are now.

This implies a number of quantitative measures that I'm not quite sure I agree with.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 02:47:05AM 1 point [-]

... which are?

Comment author: Vaniver 13 January 2012 05:51:15AM 4 points [-]

I could have been clearer in the grandparent. As stated, the great-grandparent can be taken several different ways, and most of them I have trouble with.

One interpretation is that you're essentially judging a business by its expenses and nothing else. I agree with you that proportional measures are sometimes dodgy- oftentimes it's better to look at profit than profit margin- but just because there are more slaves today than there were when the world was much smaller doesn't mean that things are worse now than they ever were in history.

That suggests a deeper contention: I think pure harm-minimization ethics are, well, bland.

Comment author: Prismattic 13 January 2012 03:33:49AM 3 points [-]

The proportional argument is relevant insofar as one is interested in the efficacy of legal prohibitions on slavery. If slavery was legal in the 21st century, do you not think the situation would be much worse than it is now?

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 07:31:27AM 1 point [-]

If slavery was legal in the 21st century, do you not think the situation would be much worse than it is now?

I don't think we can draw this conclusion. For one, we don't have any kind of control. However, looking at other illegal trades like the drug war, I don't think there is any good reason to assume laws to be effective. It seems that things like urbanization and ending poverty are the major factors here, but I'm certainly not an expert nor have I yet had time to look at the literature.

If, say, the volume of human trafficking before and after the introduction of legislation outlawing it fell sharply, I would consider such laws successful. I doubt good numbers exist, but I haven't had the time to look for them yet.

Comment author: Gabriel 13 January 2012 08:40:55PM 4 points [-]

This comment doesn't seem completely silly when read as referring only to the legal abolition of slavery in undeveloped, backwater countries at the end of the twentieth century. But it's not the only reading that makes sense given context of the discussion.

Historically there existed societies that were well-developed by the standards of their respective periods and had a strong rule of law and could effectively prohibit slavery but still chose not to. In fact, in one such nation, not too long ago, slavery was abolished rather abruptly. I heard there was a huge civil war over the entire business which suggests to me that in that particular country the laws could be (and eventually were) effectively enforced.

If developed, stable societies didn't choose to abandon slavery over the last 150 years or so, the situation today would be much worse and we don't need any kind of control to draw that conclusion.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 10 March 2012 05:49:41PM *  2 points [-]

I mean, I can't make up for any atrocity I commit simply by out-breeding my victims!

I think this is a good reductio of many meta-level non-moral-realist FAI approaches like CEV. They retrospectively endorse genocide. (ETA: And of course they also very much disendorse anti-natalist preferences/tendencies, for whatever that's worth.)

Comment author: wedrifid 10 March 2012 08:13:57PM 2 points [-]

I think this is a good reductio of many meta-level non-moral-realist FAI approaches like CEV. They retrospectively endorse genocide.

I've had thoughts along similar lines myself. However I must point out that it isn't CEV that is retrospectively endorsing genocide so much as it is the hypothetical people who commit genocide prior to having their CEV calculated that are (evidently) endorsing genocide. Yes, extrapolating the volition of folks who are into genocide (that you don't approve of) is a bad idea. It is rather critical just which set of agents you plug into a CEV algorithm!

Comment author: Will_Newsome 10 March 2012 09:10:08PM 4 points [-]

It is rather critical just which set of agents you plug into a CEV algorithm!

I take this (very real) possibility as strongly indicating that CEV-like approaches are insufficiently meta and that we should seriously expend a lot of effort on (getting closer to) solving moral philosophy if at all possible. (Or alternatively, as Wei Dai likes to point out, solving metaphilosophy.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 11 March 2012 12:05:46AM 1 point [-]

Sure.

Put slightly differently: if I have some set of ethical standards S against which I'm prepared to compare the results R of a CEV-like algorithm, with the intention of discarding R where R conflicts with S, it follows that I consider wherever I got S from a more reliable source of ethical judgments than I consider CEV. If so, that strongly suggests that if I want reliable ethical judgments, what I ought to be doing is exploring the source of S.

Conversely, if I believe a CEV-like algorithm is a more reliable source of ethical judgments than anything else I have available, then I ought to be willing to discard S where it conflicts with R.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 10 March 2012 09:17:27PM *  5 points [-]

it is the hypothetical people who commit genocide prior to having their CEV calculated that are (evidently) endorsing genocide.

I wasn't really thinking of the same people doing both so much as Germans gaining more biological fitness than Poles due to the Holocaust, where their descendants' population differences might have massive effects on the output of CEV. You can't really blame the current Germans or Poles for existing more or less and yet CEV still doesn't attempt to adjust for this, which seems to violate normal moral intuitions about consistency. If we accept that natural selection isn't a moral process and is beyond the reach of God (which doesn't make any sense, but whatever), then it seems really odd to just accept its results as moral even after we've gained the ability to reflect and fix past errors.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 March 2012 12:34:20PM 4 points [-]

You can't really blame the current Germans or Poles for existing more or less and yet CEV still doesn't attempt to adjust for this, which seems to violate normal moral intuitions about consistency.

I don't see any violation of moral intuitions there. It isn't the business of CEV to second guess what morality should be. It works out the morality (and other preferences) the input class has and seeks to satisfy them. So if you look at CEV<Will and folks similar to Will> you will see a CEV that does take into account the impact of past injustices according to whatever your moral intuitions are.

If we accept that natural selection isn't a moral process and is beyond the reach of God (which doesn't make any sense, but whatever), then it seems really odd to just accept its results as moral even after we've gained the ability to reflect and fix past errors.

Once you eliminate the effects of natural selection - and assorted past genocides - you don't have anything left. It isn't odd to accept whatever morality you happen to have as morality when there isn't anything else. I happen to have my morality because having it helped my ancestors kill their rivals, stay alive and get laid. Take away those influences doesn't leave me with a more pure morality it leaves me with absolutely nothing.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 04:54:57PM 1 point [-]

Could the downvoters please explain their decision? I'm genuinely confused why this warrants -4 at the time of writing.

I can speculate that they might think proportional arguments in such cases are obviously correct. If so, could you at least, say, link to an argument? (The controversial nature of the Repugnant Conclusion at least shows that it isn't obvious.) Or is it something else?

Comment author: Gabriel 13 January 2012 09:02:51PM 4 points [-]

I haven't downvoted but my guess for the reasons is that people see your argument as unreasonable and forced plus the fact that what you said resembles an attempt to signal world-weary cynicism or fatalism and that sort of thing isn't looked upon kindly around here.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 09:24:21PM *  3 points [-]

Good point about the cynicism. Can you think of a way I could've said it that wouldn't have signaled that? I find it problematic to express "Luke's cheering strikes me as weird, or at least way too premature, given what bad shape the world is in" without it sounding cynical.

I also don't object to Luke's intention, namely to write some propaganda that progress is possible, but his specific examples (killing half the male population, questionable (and very costly) abolishment of slavery, even worse anti-religion sentiments, premature cheering for rationality feats that haven't proven their worth yet) don't support it and so I think the post is manipulative, though probably not maliciously so.

I agree with taw that if he had simply made a point that demographic changes can bring rapid behavioral changes and stuck to the baboons, it would have been a much better article.

Comment author: MixedNuts 13 January 2012 05:32:04PM 6 points [-]

The point of the slavery example is that all countries have decided slavery is bad, and fought to stamp it out. That humankind, after millennia of slavery as the way things are, has rejected slavery. This is an example of moral progress. You pointed out that some people are slavers, and this is a good point; despite moral progress, even moral progress for all of humanity, some people still choose to do things that are wrong: there is hope of exposing evil, and hope of fighting it alongside all the world's governments, but not so much hope of every human rejecting evil, unlike in the baboon story. Yet, Barry Cotter says, this doesn't mean the fight is insincere - lip service and government passing silly laws like the drug war - it does reduce slavery. There may be little hope of every human rejecting slavery, yet humankind has in fact decided that slavery is wrong, and will free as many slaves as it can. Moral progress is a real force in the world.

That it can't necessarily help people faster than they are born, and thus may let total damage grow, is completely irrelevant.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 06:07:52PM 1 point [-]

The point of that is that slavery used to be something normal, and now it no longer is.

Comment author: thomblake 13 January 2012 08:46:43PM 0 points [-]

Here's a version, then, that does not rely on the number of non-slaves: If the growth rate of the number of slaves was x, and now it is x/2, then I'd say the situation has improved, even if the number of slaves is higher now.

Comment author: adamisom 13 January 2012 01:48:38AM 0 points [-]

I think this is wrong, though that's a clever point regarding outbreeding as a reason for decreased slavery. Even if that's true, it's done and gone, a sunk cost. The fact that there are far fewer slaves, a much lower proportion, and no legal slavery is what we should be concerned about.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 January 2012 02:52:57AM 4 points [-]

Even if that's true, it's done and gone, a sunk cost. The fact that there are far fewer slaves, a much lower proportion, and no legal slavery is what we should be concerned about.

I don't understand what you mean. What's the sunk cost here?

Luke was making a point that outlawing slavery has ended an institution that has existed throughout much of recorded history, but that's disingenuous, I think, because there are more slaves than there ever were. I don't see how changing the legal status of an institution, without changing the actual practice (in fact, making it more widespread) has improved the situation. It reminds me of war-against-drugs rhetoric.

Another point in favor of disregarding lower proportions: would you feel better if tortured one of my children, if I also made two other children I treated nicely? After all, I would've decreased the rate of tortured children in the world.

Comment author: HungryTurtle 10 February 2012 02:46:37AM *  2 points [-]

Luke, I sympathize with wanting to motivate people that change is possible, but i feel that in your essay you are not promoting the need of a specific change, but change for the sake of change.

In the list of your analogies you discuss how recently humans have become strong enough to render itself extinct.

The human species was always too weak to render itself extinct. Until we discovered the nuclear chain reaction and manufactured thousands of atomic bombs.

To me this is a strong case for why if anything we should show some restraint in the chains we tug on. There is no logic behind the idea that a higher acceleration of change ("progress") would be in anyway beneficial to human survival. In fact, given the fact that evolutionary fitness deals with adapting to a specific environment, forcibly implementing exponentially potent change seems idiotic. Your ending sentence "just get up and walk away to a place you've never seen before" is very poetic, but it over romanticizes aimless wandering and is not realistic at all. Species leave an environment as an act of desperation when they cannot survive where they are. I realize that among Western elites aimless traveling is quite popular, but such behavior is a byproduct of an external environment of extreme privilege. For the majority of humans and the majority of species on our planet the luxury of being powerful enough to transplant yourself into "a place you have never seen before" simply does not exist.

Comment author: JoelCazares 10 February 2012 01:05:50AM 1 point [-]

Thank you for this. I found it very inspiring. If transhumanism had a religion, this would surely be an entry in its holy book.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2012 02:14:08AM *  0 points [-]

That elephant example immediately reminded me of the JYJ vs SM case, because everyone uses that example for them. That case showed us that doing what's right isn't easy in the real world - the "bad" guys will make up something even worse to get their way. I'm sure that you guys have all read additional examples in literature where doing the "right" thing by going against what's generally accepted in society damages the people who try it. So, what I'm trying to say is that it's great that someone has freed themselves from the chain - but what the person does after that is also significant. How do they convince the others around them to follow in their footsteps? Reading about this case has taught me that in the court people can get away with horrible logical reasoning, especially with bribes.

I like your post. I just think it has to be a little more practical.

For example, in JYJ's case they had a literal chain - a contract. Legally and morally, when they found out it was against the international human rights standards and put them into quasi-slavery, would they need to follow it?

"In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere on this planet a legal system that endorses the idea that all contracts must be fulfilled no matter what. If anything, the law frowns upon the notion by introducing the principle of unconscionability into contract law[ii]. When the terms of a contract are clearly unfair to one party or goes against more fundamental norms and principles of social justice, a contract is deemed unconscionable and the court can decide to render it null and void. ... Therefore, the legal system of the 21st century and the value system that supports it do not credit the notion that one must fulfill a contract, even a clearly unfair one, at all costs as “honor” or “responsibility” but as foolishness and reckless endangerment. If anything, the insistence that a contract must be fulfilled no matter what is often indicative of an international crime at hand, as practically every case of human trafficking and the modern sex slave trade demonstrate. If it were indeed true that all contracts must be fulfilled, then the contracts issued by human traffickers would also be considered valid and victims of trafficking would be among the most honorable people on earth." -JYJfiles OP/ED

Even in the legal system, it is recognized that chains are not all good. But, when is it truly right to break them? Some people still have to play the social game.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 January 2012 07:33:37PM 0 points [-]

I think this idea has been developed on lesswrong a few times already, but these are some interesting examples to support the point. As material to explain to new rationalists what this site is about, this is an excellent post.

Comment author: MugaSofer 15 December 2012 05:50:50PM 0 points [-]

Compared to situational effects, we tend to overestimate the effects of lasting dispositions on people's behavior — the fundamental attribution error. But I, for one, was only taught to watch out for this error in explaining the behavior of individual humans, even though the bias also appears when explaining the behavior of humans as a species. I suspect this is partly due to the common misunderstanding that heritability measures the degree to which a trait is due to genetic factors. Another reason may be that for obvious reasons scientists rarely try very hard to measure the effects of exposing human subjects to radically different environments like an artificial prison or total human isolation.

... really? Anyone else experience the same thing?