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"Progress"

1 Post author: PhilGoetz 04 June 2012 03:51AM

I often hear people speak of democracy as the next, or the final, inevitable stage of human social development.  Its inevitability is usually justified not by describing power relations that result in democracy being a stable attractor, but in terms of morality - democracy is more "enlightened".  I don't see any inevitability to it - China and the Soviet Union manage(d) to maintain large, technologically-advanced nations for a long time without it - but suppose, for the sake of argument, that democracy is the inevitable next stage of human progress.

The May 18 2012 issue of Science has an article on p. 844, "Ancestral hierarchy and conflict", by Christopher Boehm, which, among other things, describes the changes over time of equality among male hominids.  If we add its timeline to recent human history, then here is the history of democracy over time in the evolutionary line leading to humans:

  1. Pre-human male hominids, we infer from observing bonobos and chimpanzees, were dominated by one alpha male per group, who got the best food and most of the females.
  2. Then, in the human lineage, hunter-gatherers developed larger social groups, and the ability to form stronger coalitions against the alpha; and they became more egalitarian.
  3. Then, human social groups even became larger, and it became possible for a central alpha-male chieftain to control a large area; and the groups became less egalitarian.
  4. Then, they became even larger, so that they were too large for a central authority to administer efficiently; and decentralized market-based methods of production led to democracy.  (Or so goes one story.)

There are two points to observe in this data:

  • There is no linear relationship between social complexity, and equality.  Steadily-increasing social complexity lead to more equality, then less, then more.
  • Enlightenment has nothing to do with it - if any theory makes sense, it is that social equality tunes itself to the level that provides maximal social competitive fitness.  Even if we agree that democracy is the most-enlightened political system, this realization says nothing about what the future holds.

I do believe "progress" is a meaningful term.  But there isn't some cosmic niceness built into the universe that makes everything improve monotonically along every dimension at once.

Comments (69)

Comment author: asparisi 04 June 2012 06:07:47AM 15 points [-]

I find the idea that humans have already found their ideal system of government suspicious. Democracy is, at best, low-hanging fruit. I do think it is a step up from previous systems, but it is unlikely that it is the best system that will ever exist. Changes in styles of governance tend to be slow, so whatever "better than democracy" systems are out there, I don't expect to see any pop up anytime soon. Whatever it is, it will probably be weird.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 June 2012 11:20:46AM 8 points [-]

I find the idea that humans have already found their ideal system of government suspicious.

'Suspicious', not 'ridiculous'?

Comment author: Bugmaster 04 June 2012 11:04:18PM 0 points [-]

Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, even Eudaimonia. It all depends on what you mean by "ideal" -- ideal for what purpose ?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 June 2012 12:44:28PM 20 points [-]

Pre-human male hominids, we infer from observing bonobos and chimpanzees, were dominated by one alpha male per group, who got the best food and most of the females.

Um. Bonobos don't work that way. They're "dominated", if you can use the term, by less-vertical coalitions of comparitively high-status females. Food is shared widely, paternity certainty is a nonissue.

We're equidistant from them and chimps, talking divergence from common ancestors, so it's really less clear-cut than you think how well chimp analogies suffice to model proto-hominids -- both are equally-close relations, but their lifestyles and social strategies differ tremendously.

Comment author: Clarity1992 04 June 2012 03:08:39PM 2 points [-]

Could you elaborate on "less-vertical coalitions of comparitively high-status females" and "paternity certainty is a nonissue" please?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 June 2012 11:37:14PM 6 points [-]

What I mean by the former is that the status hierarchy for females is more diffuse and has fewer strata; there are coalitions of females, and typically eldest females occupy a de facto "alpha" position.

As to paternity certainty -- yeah, bonobos don't form any sort of exclusive or permanent sexual connection. Male/male, male/female, female/female and group sex are all standard behaviors (they're also the only nonhuman primate species seen engaged in mouth/tongue kissing and oral sex). Instead of "securing access" to desirable mates, you pretty much don't know who's going to be the parent of your future children, and it doesn't matter; both males and females will socialize, care for and protect children.

Comment author: Clarity1992 05 June 2012 06:12:03AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for that, really good!

Comment author: Clarity1992 11 June 2012 06:42:55AM 4 points [-]

Why the downvote? I'm expressing gratitude that goes beyond the anonymity and single point karma increase of merely clicking thumbs up, and clarifying that the answer was acceptable to me.

My reasoning is that by stating this publicly I make it more likely people will respond in detail to such requests in future, as they see that (some) such requesters do read the responses and do appreciate them. I am also making clear that the original request was earnest and not rhetorical.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 04 June 2012 01:46:05PM 4 points [-]

Bonobos still have alpha females and alpha males, and, according to the article, though they have less violent conflict than chimpanzees, they are still more hierarchical than human foragers. This is not a binary distinction, but the review article definitely supports the "less egalitarian - more egalitarian - less egalitarian" progression.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 June 2012 11:28:57PM 6 points [-]

There are males with greater status, but the typical associations of "alpha male" don't really cover it. They're simply males with higher-status mothers, and their relative status only really holds leverage among the other males; they're still subordinate to the dominant coalition of females.

(The basic progression I don't take issue with.)

Comment author: [deleted] 04 June 2012 01:33:24PM 13 points [-]

Why is this in main? For that matter, what has this got to do with rationality? Sure its nice to poke fun at people who think democracy is the shit, but it doesn't really add anything to LW.

People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation... When, today, you get into an argument about whether "we" ought to raise the minimum wage, you're executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed... Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back - providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 June 2012 05:12:35PM 5 points [-]

The lesswrong main page generally bugs me at this point, inbetween posts like this, meetups, and rationality quote pages there does not seem to be much content worth reading anymore. If anything discussion seems like a better place to find posts about rationality, but the standards are not high there either.

Comment author: shminux 04 June 2012 11:09:54PM *  6 points [-]

First, this belongs in Discussion.

Second, "progress" is more like the dialectic helical spiral, so beloved by Marxists, with various manifestations periodically revisited, albeit each time on a different level. Democracy works for a time, then it is replaced by a monarchy or an oligarchy or anarchy, then back again, though hopefully in a more "evolved" form (whatever it means). In that sense, I agree, thinking of democracy as the final form of government is rather short-sighted.

Third, the idea of democracy currently has a feel-good halo, probably due to Western (British?) influences, so nearly all dictatorships still bill themselves as democracies. One can imagine that this fad will pass and something else comes into vogue, such as "responsible corporate governance at a state level", and every government, democratic or not, will try to pretend that they are run like a corporation. Then the prevailing wisdom will be that the corporate model is the final stage of "human social development", until that fad, too, passes.

Comment author: Konkvistador 10 June 2012 01:49:34PM *  4 points [-]

First, this belongs in Discussion.

This is a big reason behind Main being so boring. Old style Ovecoming Bias posts never make it into main any more and when they do they are never promoted.

Comment author: shminux 10 June 2012 06:23:10PM *  1 point [-]

Aren't all OB posts currently made by RH?

EDIT: My point is that there is a reason that, without EY there, OB is basically the RH's blog.

they are never promoted

I agree, and I previously suggested that a post upvoted to, say, +20 should (automatically) be moved to Main.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 June 2012 11:49:13PM *  2 points [-]

First, this belongs in Discussion.

Why? It reads rather like a Robin Hanson posting, and those seem generally regarded as superior to the run of posts appearing on the Main page here. (At least according to commenters on Hanson's blog.) It's more original and important than the average Main post. The differences I discern relative to the typical Main post is that it's concise (a plus), better written (a huge plus), and less scholarly (a small minus). By my lights, of course.

It seems a question of what you want to read here. I look for novel ideas rather than extensive scholarship. Do others really look to this blog for scholarship? And if others denigrate the posting as substandard, I have to wonder why so many have taken the time to comment.

Comment author: shminux 09 June 2012 12:43:56AM 3 points [-]

I prefer it when posts are promoted to Main, not started there.

Comment author: metaphysicist 09 June 2012 03:45:40AM *  3 points [-]

First, this belongs in Discussion.

Why?

I prefer it when posts are promoted to Main, not started there.

So, you wrote this belongs in Discussion to express your position that posts generally should start there? That's somewhat disingenuous.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 04 June 2012 07:04:19AM 3 points [-]

If nothing else, futarchy seems like an obvious improvement on democracy.

Comment author: Strange7 04 June 2012 08:56:26AM 3 points [-]

That will only become true when it has outcompeted democracy in some practical, real-world setting.

Comment author: albeola 04 June 2012 04:56:44AM 3 points [-]

But there isn't some cosmic niceness built into the universe that makes everything improve monotonically along every dimension at once.

Who believes this?

Comment author: Oligopsony 04 June 2012 05:42:21AM 7 points [-]

Nobody, stated explicitly, but the word "progress" links a lot of those dimensions together, so it's easy to think, functionally, as if they are. Wiggins and all that.

Comment author: albeola 04 June 2012 06:59:55PM 3 points [-]

There's a difference between thinking as if dimensions are linked together, and thinking as if there's "some cosmic niceness built into the universe that makes everything improve monotonically along every dimension at once" (emphasis mine). Switching between attacking moderate and extreme versions of the same claim is classic logical rudeness.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 04 June 2012 05:37:30AM 0 points [-]

whig history? shrug

Comment author: banana 04 June 2012 09:51:41AM *  -1 points [-]

"The Evolution of Political Thought" by C. Northcote Parkinson (1958) points out that "political progress" actually happens in cycles and that the appearance of "progress" is just the result of people having short time horizons and not being able to see enough of history to see the whole cycle. Also not realising what is happening in the third world, where many democracies have collapsed into dictatorships.

Governing bodies can be either one person (monarch or dictator), a small group (oligarchy or aristocracy) or by a majority (democracy). (Parkinson included Communism in the chapter on Theocracy). States tend to cycle through these different types. This has been known from ancient Greek times. (The Greeks were the first place where there were lots of small city states in a small area and they could see each other in different parts of the cycle.)

Let's start with Monarchy.

A monarch has children and wants to give something to each child, not just the eldest. Thus the other children become nobles. Over time this family grows and grows and the number with political power keeps increasing until the government is really an aristocracy.

Its not fair that a limited number of people have power in the aristocracy so its size keeps growing. Eventually it is so big that there is not much distinction between aristocrats and other and the system evolves towards democracy.

The problem with democracy is that the populace can vote themselves largess from the treasury (cf current situation in USA where everyone wants "the government" to pay for their health care, or the situation in Greece where political parties that promised that Greece would not have to pay off its public debt (which would have required higher taxes and cutting pensions) were successful in the recent election). Sooner or later the government falls apart because it has no money. In the chaos a dictator arises and is GIVEN the power by the majority in return for making everything predictable and safe again.

The dictator passes on power to his children and over generations this becomes established by custom as a monarchy and so the cycle continues.

Parkinson does claim that different cultures fit more naturally in different forms of government, racing through the others until they get back to their natural form where they tend to be stable for longer.

Comment author: gwern 04 June 2012 02:24:11PM 26 points [-]

Parkinson's schematic is ridiculously, well, schematic. And from this perspective in time, the usual ideologue's move of taking a concern of his time (anti-liberalism and big government) and claiming it applies over all time.

Democracies die because of too much welfare? Ridiculous! Is that how the Athenian democracy died, voting too much pay for jurors? Is that how Weimar Germany became Nazi Germany, because the burgomasters were drawing too much disability? Is that how the nascent Japanese Meiji democracy was snuffed into militarism with the Emperor's aid? Is that why Sun Yat-sen's democratic movement split into the Communist and the corrupt KMT, because they were voting themselves largesse? Venice's oligarchical democracy didn't seem to have any such problem before its conquest. And so on.

The monarchy to democracy progression is little better. I bet you could not name 6 clear examples of that, from the full sweep of human history. Certainly it doesn't apply to America, Japan, or Athens, which either went straight from aristocracy (such as it was) to democracy, or retained the aristocracy well into their democratic periods.

(I used to think my time reading people like Thucydides or Herodotus or Gibbons was wasted on trivia, but at least it saves me from grotesquely false simplifications.)

Comment author: Jack 04 June 2012 10:22:28PM 4 points [-]

This argument seems plausible on the surface but it doesn't explain the recent and dramatic global shift toward government by democracy. And I struggle to think of a single example of this cycle completing as described.

Comment author: Alejandro1 04 June 2012 08:55:34PM 0 points [-]

It is amusing that this description how democracy leads to tyranny is virtually identical to that of Plato.

Comment author: Sarokrae 04 June 2012 07:59:11AM *  0 points [-]

Democracy without raising the sanity waterline first is pretty much as useless a form of government as any other we've had so far. It's not really much in the way of "progress". In fact, I'd wager to say that no form of government can be that great without a decent baseline sanity level.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 June 2012 08:13:14AM 4 points [-]

Democracy without raising the sanity waterline first is pretty much as useless a form of government as any other we've had so far.

I totally haven't been killed or robbed. Either by a citizen or by someone in the government. Sure, the government is useless but at least it serves as a way to comparatively harmlessly waste a bunch of competition.

Comment author: DanArmak 04 June 2012 10:47:31AM 2 points [-]

That should also be correlated with e.g low corruption, good laws, low crime, good police, good courts, good neighbors / social norms, low poverty, etc. etc. It's much easier to see how these things can directly lower the chance of you being robbed or killed, while the relation to democracy seems less direct.

Non-democratic governments have in the past paid service to all these ideals and claimed to good results on these measures. Do we have good information on how democracy correlates with not being killed or robbed if you control for all those other variables? Are there models which predict that democracy causes some of these other factors, perhaps?

Comment author: wedrifid 04 June 2012 11:14:09AM 5 points [-]

That should also be correlated with e.g low corruption, good laws, low crime, good police, good courts, good neighbors / social norms, low poverty, etc. etc. It's much easier to see how these things can directly lower the chance of you being robbed or killed, while the relation to democracy seems less direct.

My comment was prompted by the concept of governments so far being 'useless', advocacy of democracy isn't especially intended.

The phenomenon of people not getting killed by other people much, and especially not getting killed by those with the most power is a remarkable achievement, given how humans and other animals usually behave. We can call our governments "useless" only in the sense of "Yay! We've managed to find a way to make the machinations of leaders to be irrelevant rather than a constant threat and net negative to the rest of the population!"

Comment author: DanArmak 04 June 2012 01:42:40PM 0 points [-]

Right, I didn't notice your comment wasn't about democracy specifically. Even if democracy is "as useless" (=as useful) as some alternatives, it wouldn't imply it is useless (=of no use) as e.g. having no formal government at all.

Comment author: nekomata 25 June 2012 02:40:32PM 0 points [-]

This is what has been attempted by the Ferry laws in France. The high rates of atheists and agnostics in France are a consequence of these laws, which made education mandatory and reduced the influence of the Catholic church on education.

However, I do not think it raised the sanity line in other domains, and it had bizarre effects, such as an important part of the population which say they belong to a religion but do not believe in any god.

Comment author: Multiheaded 04 June 2012 11:11:33AM *  1 point [-]

I'm much more interested in the question of democracy's morality per se, given baseline human nature, than its "efficiency" or costs in a given historical environment (not meaning the intristic goodness of some abstract "eidos of Democracy", just whether it should be Sacred, like other "moral essentials", or not).

Unfortunately, I don't (yet) even have a remote inkling of an answer; my intuition, of course, is that ruling people without meaningful group consent is very ugly in itself, and "manufacturing consent" too directly is paperclipping, but I'm honestly trying to reflect on the matter according to my entire breadth of view.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 04 June 2012 05:12:18AM 0 points [-]

Large businesses tend to be organized around a central authority. Many writers have commented on the supposed alpha-male-ness of members of the executive class, and others on their supposed psychopathy.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 04 June 2012 06:10:46PM 0 points [-]

"Ancestral hierarchy and conflict", by Christopher Boehm. requires free registration, I think.

Comment author: Ezekiel 04 June 2012 08:50:47AM 0 points [-]

Quick poll: Who here has actually met someone who thinks democracy arises inevitably from human nature?

Comment author: D2AEFEA1 04 June 2012 10:24:23AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: thomblake 05 June 2012 06:18:39PM 1 point [-]

Plato thought so. I think Marx did too, for similar reasons. I've met hardcore marxists.

Comment author: shminux 05 June 2012 08:09:03PM *  1 point [-]

Marx's idea was the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and its evolution into a "classless society", without discussing the details of the governance, though he did quote the example of the Paris Commune (the following quote is from Wikipedia):

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible, and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive, and legislative at the same time. This form of popular government, featuring revocable election of councilors and maximal public participation in governance, resembles contemporary direct democracy.

Comment author: Ezekiel 05 June 2012 07:49:47PM 1 point [-]

I've never read Marx, but I don't think Plato's Republic would match most modern definitions of "democracy"; it was made up of predefined castes ruled by an elite minority.

Comment author: thomblake 05 June 2012 08:39:47PM 4 points [-]

I don't think Plato's Republic would match most modern definitions of "democracy"

No, Plato sketched out the way that his Republic would gradually deteriorate - one of the inevitable stages was "democracy". He also suggested that once the people began to rule, they would not only enjoy their freedom, they would begin to value freedom for its own sake - and then they would start to do ridiculous things, like free all the slaves, allow women to rule, and even show concern for the rights of animals.

Comment author: Ezekiel 06 June 2012 12:00:11AM 0 points [-]

That's really interesting. Thanks for the education.

Comment author: Oligopsony 05 June 2012 08:01:14PM *  1 point [-]

The Republic wasn't democracy, but points along the political cycle he sketched were democratic (though surely Plato wasn't thinking of anything as specific as parliamentary democracy as we know it today.)

The young Marx would have said that democracy (though not anything as specific as parliamentary democracy as we know it today - more like free association, cooperation, and individual autonomy) expressed the truth of human nature, while the old Marx would say that human nature plus the path of technological development existing over our whole history implies that at a certain point something like parliamentary democracy would be inevitable (but not irreplacable.)

Comment author: DanArmak 04 June 2012 10:26:06AM 0 points [-]

What does "inevitably" mean? Obviously democracy is not universally used; does that make the statement trivially false?

Comment author: Ezekiel 04 June 2012 10:39:23AM 1 point [-]

In this context, it would mean that those countries that aren't currently democratic will almost certainly adopt democracy at some point in the future.

Comment author: soreff 04 June 2012 10:33:41PM 0 points [-]

And stay there? Or visit it as part of, for instance, a random walk?

Comment author: Ezekiel 05 June 2012 12:23:47AM 1 point [-]

And stay there, except for occasional digressions.

In other words, assuming I understand the claim: as time approaches infinity, so the probability of a randomly selected country being democratic approaches 1.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 04 June 2012 09:11:23AM 0 points [-]

Quick poll: Who here has actually met someone who thinks democracy arises inevitably from human nature?

If you delete "inevitably", then I have. Otherwise, I have not.

Comment author: DanArmak 04 June 2012 10:24:19AM 7 points [-]

If you delete "inevitably", then every human behavior and institution that ever existed arose out of human nature - where else would it come from?

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 04 June 2012 04:35:07AM -2 points [-]

Interesting point. Looking at democracy as a societal attractor is the best explanation I have yet to encounter.

Comment author: bramflakes 04 June 2012 10:23:21AM 0 points [-]

Has it been demonstrated that it is an attractor?

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 04 June 2012 01:57:15PM 1 point [-]

Mental note: don't discuss things on LW when really sleep deprived.

No, it has not been demonstrated as an attractor, but it is interesting to see an argument about why democracy is a thing that isn't a moral one.

Comment author: Konkvistador 10 June 2012 02:03:57PM *  0 points [-]

More interesting than half of the other articles that seem to make it to Main.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 05 June 2012 02:30:09PM 0 points [-]

This seems like a result of the same simple strategy in different environments. The strategy is: "try to get as much power as you can, and reduce the power others have". The environment includes technology and other people. As the humankind develops (technologically, intelectually, socially), different tactics become possible, sometimes small changes can lead to big results. (For other species, the tactics remain rather constant for millenia.)

How difficult is it for the most powerful individual to retain power? How difficult is it for the powerful groups to keep the most powerful individual in check? How difficult is it for masses to keep the powerful groups in check? Answer these, and you will see whether some variant of "monarchy", "aristocracy" or "democracy" will be the most "natural" form of government.

It depends on technology. Cheap weapons, such as sticks or stones, give more power to large groups (a group of weaker humans can stone one strong individual, distributing the risks of counterattack). Expensive weapons, such as nukes or battle droids, give more power to rich groups = the groups currently in power. Centralized media, such as radio or TV, give more power to their rich owners. Distributed media, such as internet, give more power to masses.

None of this is an absolute advantage; for many forms of power there is a defense that weakens it partially. A physically strong person will be also good at sword-fighting. A large group of people, containing very skilled individuals, could steal nukes or hack battle droids. A large group of people could occupy a TV station. A rich organization can pay people to defend their interests on internet. A government can censor internet communication, and punish those who break the rules. Etc.

It also depends on culture, religion, education, fashion, surrounding countries, economical situation, etc. After including many factors, sometimes the strongest individual wins, sometimes the strongest group wins, and sometimes the power is distributed widely.

If you want, you can try to fit these data into a trend (usually by filtering the evidence), or into a "spiral" (which is just a form of saying "sometimes this, sometimes that", while pretending deeper understanding).

What will happen in the future? It will depend on specific inventions and other changes, which is hard to predict, especially if something "completely new" happens. I think that some individuals will always keep trying to concentrate power in their own hands; other people will keep fighting for power as groups; and those unsuccessful will keep hating them.

If I had to make my bet now, I would bet on aristocracy. The world is too complex to be ruled by an individual, and most people are too ignorant for a real democracy. Of course the ruling class may choose a person to represent them, thus creating a nominal monarchy; or allow free election about unimportant topics, thus creating a nominal democracy. Actually I think this has already happened; except unlike old aristocracies the current one does not have exact definition and strict boundaries, so it can be joined by people who have enough skills and luck.

Comment author: bogus 05 June 2012 10:49:42PM *  0 points [-]

It depends on technology.

I agree that technology is a key factor here, but it isn't clear that weapons are especially important--not in a context of institutional evolution where national defense is taken for granted and relied upon as part of a smoothly-functioning economy. Ability to coordinate on complex goals is probably more important: at present, large number of folks cannot easily coordinate to affect public policy except in relatively crude ways (such as through ideologically-driven organizations). Hence, our current institutions in the West are effectively a mixture of "oligarchy" and "democracy": large groups of folks can effectively ensure that policymaking does not make them too badly off, but special interest groups can get their way on lots of individual issues if they spend enough resources to promote their cause.

It remains to be seen how this could change in the future, especially when one considers that Internet-based open politics may be a possibility. My guess is that there is some scope for further shifts in the "democracy-like" direction, particularly if actions to "raise the sanity waterline" are successful. However, the inherent difficulty of cooperation will mean that 'oligarchical' tendencies will exist for the foreseeable future.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 June 2012 07:56:56AM *  0 points [-]

The situation can be influenced on too many levels. In a dictatorship, weapons win. In a liberal democracy in theory weapons should not be relevant, because they are only used against criminals and external enemies; the conflicts should be decided by votes. However in real-life democracies the people with power can sometimes use police and secret service to harm their opponents; they just can't do it too openly. Maybe espionage is even better that weapons; if you have access to plans of your opponents and if you know about their internal conflicts, you have big advantage. If cryptography can give them security, you can make cryptography illegal. Etc. The existing power can be in many ways used to protect the status quo. Also education, or deciding which projects will be financially supported by state and which will get administrative barriers.

Besides using violence, the critical abilities are to coordinate and influence others.

It remains to be seen how this could change in the future, especially when one considers that Internet-based open politics may be a possibility.

Even with internet-based politics, money can give you huge advantage. Find smart people who agree with your cause, and give them money, so they don't have to work, and can spend all day online, advocating your cause; while your opponents must spend 8 hours a day in work. Find stupid people and pay them to follow your smart opponents online, and fill discussions in their blogs by stupidity and hate, post false accusations, create artificial controversies. Simply, create a feeling that majority of smart people agree with your cause, and that there is something fishy about your opponents.

Raising the sanity waterline is a noble goal, but as soon as it will visibly harm someone's political agenda, there will be problems. Just like creationists are able to make a museum with dinosaurs to support their cause, I expect that if "sanity waterline" activities will become popular, copycat "alternative sanity waterline" activities will appear soon. And it is easy even for an x-rationalist to shoot themselves in the foot, especially if someone will help them to aim.

Comment author: knb 05 June 2012 10:10:36AM 0 points [-]

Then, human social groups even became larger, and it became possible for a central alpha-male chieftain to control a large area; and the groups became less egalitarian.

Can you explain how this would work? Why would an "alpha male" be more able to defend against coalitions in larger groups?

Comment author: [deleted] 08 June 2012 11:39:47PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I don't see why the size of the group is the crucial factor, particularly since the relationship between concentrated wealth and power and size is nonmonotonic.

The usual explanation, which seems sounder, is that when technology became advanced enough to produce a social surplus of wealth, it became possible for a privileged ruling layer to be supported from production by the rest of the population. The possibility of surplus wealth drove stratification.

Comment author: timtyler 04 June 2012 10:02:06AM *  0 points [-]

I do believe "progress" is a meaningful term. But there isn't some cosmic niceness built into the universe that makes everything improve monotonically along every dimension at once.

Here's my "progress" advocacy.

I don't think I go that far, though. Everyone acknowledges setbacks, AFAIK. Meteorite strikes for example.

Your article seems to link equality with progress - but ISTM that this relationship is pretty weak.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 04 June 2012 01:47:51PM 0 points [-]

No, equality is just one example. The basic point is that you can have two variables of interest, and increasing one smoothly can cause the value of the other to fluctuate non-smoothly.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 June 2012 11:55:03PM 0 points [-]

The basic point is that you can have two variables of interest, and increasing one smoothly can cause the value of the other to fluctuate non-smoothly.

The article requires registration or prior membership, so I wonder if that's your conclusion or the authors. Does the author make a convincing case that growing complexity—as opposed to some underlying variable, like Marxian mode of production— causes these nonmonotonic changes?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 10 June 2012 11:07:30PM -1 points [-]

There are some arguments for democracies being attractors that are worth considering. One major one is that the free speech generally associated with democracies allows more scientific production. Thus for example as a proportion of population the USSR had many fewer Nobel Prizes than most major Western countries (especially the US, France and Britain). So the democracies have faster technological progress.

Comment author: syzygy 05 June 2012 06:53:01PM -2 points [-]

Maybe "progress" doesn't refer to equality, but autonomy. It does seem like the progression of social organization generally leads to individual autonomy and equality of opportunity. Egalitarianism is a nice talking point for politicians, but when we say "progress" we really mean individual autonomy.