Why is an ideal free distribution of a species rarely (if ever) observed in nature?

Why is an ideal free distribution of a species rarely (if ever) observed in nature?

[ 23/April/21 ]

How would one ever define a thing like “ideal free distribution”?

The idea is predicated on a fixed fitness landscape.

The whole notion of such a thing seems to be counter to the very idea of evolution.

Looked at from a systemic basis, evolution seems to be a system of semi-random search across the space of possible systems for variants that are able to survive the vast array of changes that constantly happen with various frequencies.

What sort of changes?

Environmental – weather, climate, weathering of rocks, floods, droughts, solar storms, volcanism, earthquakes, ice ages, sea level changes, landslides, comet and meteor strike, Milankovitch cycles……

Then there are all the other biological agents – also doing their version of semi random search for survivable strategies, viruses, bacteria, parasites, food organism, predatory organisms, …….

The state of nature is one of constant change, at various rates and with various frequencies. Genetic systems have to have sufficient variability to have some instances survive all of those things. When you do the math on that, the various spectra of variation, it is mind numbingly complex. To call it a “fitness landscape” is definitely a misnomer, so while it is certainly multidimensional, it is more like a “fitness ocean storm” in terms of the rate of change of relationship of various dimensions of “fitness” – the “landscape” (ocean-scape) itself is constantly varying.

It is basically our relatively short lives, and generally poor memories, and even shorter attention spans, that give most people the idea that there is any sort of normalcy at all. There really isn’t much at all. Mostly what we think of as “normal” is the result of deep biases in our neural nets to simplify the things that we observe.

Every species is a set of systems, of various classes, doing random search across various sets of tuning parameters. Those that survive have a chance to contribute to the “next round of the game”.

That is life.

At least it was, until we came along, with our ability to form abstract models of abstract systems, and to use those to select preferred possibilities from among the candidate possible systems and parameters that we can conceive of – at whatever level we are able to do that. That adds entire new levels to the speed with which we can search levels and classes of systemic spaces for survivable possibilities.

Most of us suffer from having most of our valence (preference) systems having been tuned by genetics to patterns from our deep past – that isn’t so good in the presence of exponential novelty.

Ours is an entirely new game in a sense, even as it shares many systemic parallels with the old genetic game-space – at least in the lower levels of the systems; and to a degree at all levels – if one is capable of sufficient levels of abstraction. And of course, as all things must be, it is built on the platform of the old sets of game spaces, with all the necessary complexities in those.

One key to understanding the evolution of complexity is understanding that all new levels of complexity are built upon, and predicated upon, new levels of cooperation. And raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation, and thus requires ecosystems of cheat detection and mitigation systems, like our legal and ethical systems, and beyond. Deeply complex and eternally varying.

So the idea of an “ideal free distribution” is not a useful one.

What one needs to look at is the reliability and utility of mechanisms of search.

[followed by David Smith – … break it down to simple terms …]

But that is the problem – people looking for simplicity in places that the evidence is beyond any reasonable doubt that it does not exist!

When dealing with evolution, one has to get real about the complexity present, which is profound.

Even the simplest of living things, a single RNA strand in a very specific environment, is complex in ways that takes years to begin to build a reasonable approximation of.

The simplest of cells is beyond the ability of any human mind to deal with in detail, it is in fact that complex. We can (and must) build useful approximations to the major classes of systems present, and we need to also be very aware that the complexity present is always far greater than our models, necessarily.

So yes, we need to start with simple models, and we also need to be very explicit that they are simple models, and that the real thing is always going to behave in ways that the model does not predict. And in some sets of context the model will give useful outputs (that is the definition of a useful model). And we always need to be aware that all models have limits of utility (another level of sets of constraints – almost always probability based).

The very idea of equations balancing is an assumption about the nature of reality that does not seem to be supported by the data. Reality is constantly changing in every significant metric. Every major metric varies across all dimensions of ranges with some sets of probabilities that are often influenced by other factors that are varying with other sets of probabilities, …….

I love math.

I love models.

I love systems.

The source code for the single biggest computer system that I have written and still maintain is larger than the bible (and the code in it is over 95% out of my head, via my fingers, along with all the manuals and documentation). I have written hundreds of systems, a language, lots of stuff. I trained as a biochemist. I have an autistic’s abilities with math and systems. I used to expect 100% correct in math tests (and to be first finished). I got 100% in my test for certification as a fisheries officer, and 100% in my navigation paper for my pilots license. My brain does simple math instantly and complex math far faster than most. And I have essentially been working alone, reading the work of others, critiquing it, and re-assembling the concept sets, for over 50 years; from quantum physics to relativity to cosmology to geology to biochemistry to modeling theory to multidimensional topologies to complexity theory to strategy to ecology. In my head it is all systems and abstractions, and all of the mathematical models seem to me to be “useful approximations in some contexts” to whatever reality actually is. If Garret Lissi’s conjectures are somewhere near accurate, then it is complex at a level that no real computational entity can deal with except through contextually useful approximations.

That is where I tend to get a bit insistent.

We need to have enough humility and reality to start with the explicit statement that it seems very probable that all models are only contextually useful approximations to whatever it is that reality actually is.

We all need to be alert for any indications that we have exceeded the boundaries of the context in which a previously reliable model produces reliable results – always!

If we start with that.

If we are explicitly clear about those limitations, then yes, certainly, teach students how to balance equations as useful sets of tools in many contexts.

But nothing more than that.

We need to avoid giving anyone the idea that any set of models is ever 100% effective. Reality is demonstrably far more complex and fundamentally uncertain and unknowable than that. Such hubris delivers existential level risk if carried into adulthood.

And for complexity such as us to exist, it is logically necessary that some sets of systems and patterns can be very reliable indeed in some sets of contexts. That too is a given. The really interesting bits are starting to get reasonable models of where those boundaries actually are and how they vary with context.

If one approaches it in that fashion, then it becomes abundantly clear to everyone that they need to be personally responsible for the detection and maintenance of those necessary sets of boundaries (ie keeping their choices within survivable limits), at every level of structure and understanding, and awareness, to the best of our limited and fallible abilities, because our very existence depends upon them.

Without everyone being fully conscious (at every level) of the necessity for such responsibility, then we are all at risk.

Without everyone being conscious that all decisions necessarily contain uncertainty, then over confidence leads to systemic collapse via over simplification.

For me, that is the most fundamental of ideas to come out of ecology – at every level. The idea of survivability within constantly varying sets and levels of constraints, and the necessity for degrees of humility in making such assessments.

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Would it be unethical to say that there are too many people on Earth?

Would it be unethical to say that there are too many people on Earth?

[ 22/April/21 ]

At present – yes.

That would imply one valued some other metric higher than individual life and security, and the long term probability of any such system surviving is very low.

If one does an in depth probability analysis across strategic domains, then one is left with the need for a hierarchy of values that goes individual life, followed by individual liberty, and the fact that life comes first imposes responsibilities on all individuals to take whatever measures they reasonably can to ensure the life and liberty of both themselves and others – and that rapidly gets very complex!

Right now, what we have is a failure of systems to meet the reasonable needs of the people present (including the ecosystems that support us all), and most of that stems from systems developed using overly simplistic understandings of the depths of complexity actually present.

[followed by Ron Gutman replied ‘Didn’t you mean No?’]


I mean that right now, we are perfectly capable of designing systems that deliver reasonable standards of living and reasonable degrees of freedom to every person on the planet.

That being the case, it would be unethical to pretend otherwise.

The fact that the current economic system is fundamentally broken, and is incapable of delivering such an outcome (in and of its own internal incentive structures) is not sufficient excuse for claiming we can’t do anything about it and we need to kill off people.

Life has to come first, then liberty, responsibly expressed.

A fundamental respect for life is an essential part of any responsible expression of freedom. That demands of us that we reform the economic system so that it does respect both life and liberty.

Thus it is necessarily unethical to pretend that we “must” reduce the population (which is what a hard formulation of “there are too many people on Earth” requires).

And there are real limits to the number of people we can have on the planet, and retain reasonable examples of functional ecosystems, and have reasonable standards of living and degrees of freedom for all individuals. We are not there yet, and we are not too far away. One more doubling would about get us there.

Once indefinite life extension arrives, even with a one child family, that does eventually lead to a doubling in population. So there are some major changes coming our way. More people need to start seriously thinking about them and doing the numbers on the systems required. I’ve been working on it since 1974. It is complicated.

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Are there too many people in the world for it to survive without radical social change?

Are there too many people in the world for it to survive without radical social change?

[ 22/April/21 ]

The number of people present is not yet the major driver for social change, and it is rapidly growing in importance.

The two major drivers at present are individual expectations and technological change, and of those it is technological changes (some of which are on double exponentials) that are so rapidly changing the “systemic landscape” that many of the systems and ideas that arguably worked reasonably well for most of the past are now starting to fail in new ways for which there is no recent historical precedent.

It is this fact that is the major driver for social change.

Some of the major technological drivers are:

  1. AI systems can now beat any human level intelligence in any definable “game space”. That means that if the rules can be defined, AI wins – every time, no exceptions. That is as true for defined sets of legal or financial systems as it is any traditional set of games like chess or go.
  2. Fully automated systems can now be developed to produce any good or service without any human labour input. This destroys the balance that was arguably present between the ideas of capital and labour (though such simple ideas were always a vast over simplification of a deeply more complex reality, and they were often historically useful). It also fundamentally breaks the idea of measuring value in markets, as markets require scarcity to deliver a useful measure, and fully automated systems potentially remove scarcity and set all market measures to zero. Thus we see the many levels of artificial barriers to abundance (to preserve scarcity and keep the market systems in some degree of functionality). The human cost of trying to keep a competitive market system is huge – all the hunger and lack we see in the world today. And changing it is not simple, as many who thought a communist central control system could do it have found out, central control does not and cannot work. So changing our ways of considering problems from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking is extremely complex, as all real complex systems have multiple levels of real constraints that are required for their existence – and humans living in ecosystems are the most complex systems we yet know of. So there are no “simple” answers, and we do know enough about complexity theory to understand that we need both respect for life, and respect for liberty and diversity, if we are to survive long term. There can be no simple answers, as the real levels of complexity that are actually present demand the deepest levels of responsibility from each of us that we are capable of delivering.
  3. There are real limits on the amount of energy and heat that can be managed on this planet without causing major long term changes to things like climate and sea level. If we each have reasonable expectations of particular levels of lifestyle, there will be energy and materials associated with those, that do pose limits on populations. Those limits are a little way off, but not as far off as many think, so there is a real need to be moving towards a reality that delivers an average of one child per family. We have a little time to create such a reality, but not many decades.
  4. One branch of technology that is rapidly developing is biotechnology, and that will, in the not too distant future (within the next three decades), deliver the ability to extend life and health spans indefinitely. All individuals will in that future have the ability to live on indefinitely in their 20ish bodies with all damage and ailments repaired. It is not here yet, and it was obvious to me as I completed my undergraduate biochemistry studies in 1974 that there were no logical barriers to such a potential future. The last of the major technological challenges (being able to predict the structure of proteins from the linear sequence of the RNA coding for them) has now been solved. There remains a lot of work to do, and there are now no major technical barriers to that work being done.
  5. Those of us who now understand the fundamental systemic drivers of evolution are now clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that all levels of complexity in evolved systems are possible because of new levels of cooperation. The logic of complex systems is similarly clear beyond any remaining shadow of reasonable doubt that all real expressions of freedom are maximized in cooperative contexts, and that competition that is not built on a firm cooperative base tends to destroy and limit both freedom and complexity. So the common dogmas that competition is the friend of liberty, and that evolution is all about competition, are both fundamentally wrong. Competition can be an important part of the complex systems that are both evolution and liberty in social systems; but only if there is fundamental cooperation first and foremost (every level). To make that idea clear, think of the game of golf. Golf is fundamentally cooperative in that golfers are required to look after both the course and the welfare of other players. If one actually goes full competitive and takes a club and attacks another player one is banned from the game for life. Thus the fundamental basis of golf is cooperative. Our social systems need to be similarly cooperative, ensuring the life and reasonable liberty of all, and that demands responsibility from all, as all real systems have real limits that must be respected for their survival, and any form of liberty that breaks any of those real limits destroys itself.

So we have very real issues.

Many of our old social systems are no longer fit for purpose.

That is deeply complex, as many of those old social systems are deeply more complex than most people in them have any real idea of.

There are no simple answers, and there are some simple principles that can be reliably used to navigate through such complexity:

  1. Respect for life
  2. Respect for liberty
  3. Responsibility for ones own actions at all levels and as far into the future as one can reasonably foresee
  4. Respect for diversity

Everyone necessarily starts with simple models of reality.

That principle is deeply built into our bodies and brains, with our subconscious systems delivering a simplified model of the complexity present as our experiential reality. So even with the most advanced conceptual tools for dealing with complexity, we all necessarily are still working with perceptual and conceptual tools that simplify the reality that seems to actually be present for us. So it is entirely probable that reality is always much more complex than it seems (to all of us, always).

We all start out with simple ideas, and the simplest possible classification systems are binaries – sets of two, like true/false, right/wrong, good/bad, light/dark. Those simple ideas can be very useful when we need to make rapid decisions in complex contexts, and they are not very useful when one is actually trying to understand just how complex we are, and the reality of our existence is.

The logic of complexity is clear, that to be able to start to build a reasonable understanding of complexity one has to be able to deal with fundamental uncertainty, and accept levels of fundamental unknowability. One can then start to build understandings based on probabilities, and to understand the types of contexts where one can build very high reliability with some classes of systems, and the sorts of contexts where reliability is not possible. Most of the assumptions underlying classical economic and political thought are overly simplistic, and have catastrophic failure modalities. It will seem paradoxical to many that long term security is only reasonably possible if one accepts fundamental uncertainty, because only then does one have a reasonable probability of actually seeing where the real dangers actually are.

There are very real systemic dangers present, and there are available very real possibilities for long term security, but only if we accept that all such security demands cooperation between all levels and classes of agents with whatever degrees of freedom they have (that includes international as well as individual). And all levels of agent do in fact need to be fundamentally cooperative, any who are not need to be restrained by those who are. That is how it has to work. Any move towards single agent control is by definition a cheating strategy on freedom itself, and poses risk to all.

[followed by in response to Gordon Atkins]

Food production is one of the fundamental and necessary goods. I rank those as:
Freedom of movement;
Freedom of communication;
Diversity of experience.

To me permaculture as defined by the 12 principles goes in the direction of something but is too restrictive.

For me, it is all about understanding complexity and systems.

We definitely need to move towards optimising systems for long term survival. That will mean using some very high technology to close many of the open loops we have in the use of materials. We need to aim to recycle everything, and that does not need to happen quickly, and it does need to happen. (There is a real sense in which plate tectonics is a crustal recycling system that works on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. We don’t need to think on that sort of time scale, and we should be prepared to accept that some cycles may take decades or even centuries, and most will need to be much quicker than that.)

The idea of using technology to “do more with less” is something we need to continue to refine; and we need to be conscious of all the linkages.

Leonard Read’s “I Pencil” (I, Pencil by Leonard E. Read | Leonard E. Read (https://fee.org/resources/i-pencil/)) is still a good read, and points in the direction of something important (even if I quibble with many of the details, the main themes are reasonably accurate).

Most of the reality that we take for granted is complex in ways that few begin to seriously consider. Our economic system is fundamentally flawed, and is as such a danger, and it is deeply complex, and does currently perform many essential functions; so changing it to something that is sustainable long term is a deeply complex exercise; and that has to start by seeing that the problem is real enough to warrant the effort.
Most people may never delve into the depths of the complexities present, and that is ok and workable, provided that everyone accepts that all levels of liberty have real responsibilities that come with them, real limits that must be respected, if they are to be survivable. If we all accept that every level of awareness is necessarily limited an fallible; if we all “have each other’s backs” – to the best of our limited and fallible abilities; then we do have a reasonable probability of a very secure and interesting future. And that future seems very likely to always contain novelty and interest and uncertainty – all levels, always.

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Response to Elon’s – maximize freedom – comment

Comment to Elon Musk – My Final Warning

[ 21/April/21 ]

Maximizing freedom is self terminating.

What is needed is to maximize freedom with minimal risk to life.

Every level of structure has necessary constraints required to support that level of structure.

Any “free” action that destroys a necessary constraint leads to self termination.

So simply maximizing freedom, without minimizing risk to life, self terminates.

Life has to be first priority, liberty second to it. Cannot sustain life long term with anything less.

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Not knowing

[Foundations of Logic – Feynmann quote – Its ok to say I don’t know!]

[ 21/April/21 Its ok to say “I don’t know!” There is no shame in that! The only shame is to pretend that we know everything.]

We all necessarily start with such simple models of reality that we have certainty about sure knowledge, then, if we are lucky, we end up accepting that most things seem to be sufficiently complex that we are probably wrong about some essential aspects of almost everything, and then we use science to become less wrong over time where that is useful and possible.

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What is the central theme that makes up the moral law that governs the earth and the earth itself and inhabitants?

What is the central theme that makes up the moral law that governs the earth and the earth itself and inhabitants?

[ 20/April/21 ]

The survival of complexity over deep time and across a wide variety of dynamic contexts.

If you do a deep mathematical analysis of survival strategies over such a “landscape” then it becomes clear that all new levels of complexity in evolved systems are built on a new level of cooperation, and that competition tends to remove complexity and drive systems to some set of minima on the available complexity landscape.

And that rapidly gets very complex, because at every level cooperation requires an evolving ecosystem of cheat detection and cheat removal systems.

At higher levels of complexity, our moral, financial and legal systems need to be a reasonable approximation to such an ecosystem of cheat detection and removal systems if we are to survive. At present all seem to have been invaded by multiple levels of essentially “cheating” strategies. This is not a good thing in terms of long term survival.

And the systems that we are, and within which we exist, are sufficiently complex that there will eternally be multiple levels of uncertainties present in every level of such determinations; and it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make our best efforts to make such determinations as we reasonably can, to the best of our limited and fallible abilities.

Every level is potentially infinitely complex, and there appears to be no limit to the number of levels potentially present. We seem to be well into double digits at present, and growing.

Any moral system that does not pass this test in the long term will go extinct.

It seems very probable that many have already.

The concern at present is that some of the “cheating” variants present today have the potential to threaten all other variants (all levels).

If one does a sufficiently deep analysis of the ideas of both freedom and security, then it is clear that both are optimized within cooperative contexts. And cooperation is a very different thing from control (though they may look superficially similar from some levels of analysis).

One of the eternal issues with open systems is that there are always multiple levels of boundaries to knowledge and exploration that some will wish to explore beyond. By definition what lies beyond is unknown, and could be either or both of beneficial or threatening. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not security. Security demands exploration, and it is not without risk.

It seems likely to be eternally true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” – in any and all dimensions one is able to explore.

The mathematics and logic is beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that in such an environment, fundamental cooperation that is alert for cheating is the only strategic option with any significant long term survival probability.

The dinosaurs seemed to settle into a competitive space that did not allow sufficient exploration of the very real (but low frequency) threats to existence. If we are interested in long term survival, we must have cooperation to maintain exploration eternally. It cannot be without risk, and the logic is clear that provided it is in a cooperative context, the risk profile can be minimized.

[followed by]

Hi Nathalie,

I am definitely human, and I have many uncommon attributes, like an ability to do complex math very quickly (from a very early age). I trained as a biochemist and evolutionary biologist about 50 years ago, and have operated a software business that I founded for the last 35 years. I tend to look at everything as systems with sets of incentives and constraints.

In this view, a human being capable of speech is a stack of complex adaptive systems at least 15 levels deep (some genetic/biological, some cultural/ethical/abstract).

In evolutionary terms, every level of complexity is built upon a level of cooperation, and naïve cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation by strategies that “cheat” on that cooperative; so can only survive if accompanied by an evolving ecosystem of cheat identification and mitigation systems.

In this view, each level of morality is such an ecosystem of cheat detection and mitigation systems that is some approximation to optimal for that particular context of its development.

It is in this sense that all morality seems to ultimately be about the survival of some level of complexity over time. As yet, I know of nothing more complex than a human being, and some developments in AI systems are starting to rapidly close that gap.

I am an autistic spectrum geek who has pushed sets of abstractions past 12 levels on a few occasions. It is very difficult to explain a second level abstraction to another person, let alone anything more abstract. It would take me decades to go through some of the details even with specialist mathematicians, because I have “flown over” many of the conceptual systems that I have tested in other domains, without doing the step by step work to revalidate them.

So I fully acknowledge that there are gaps in what I wrote if one is looking for a step by step development. And what I tried to do is to point to the major relevant themes, and the major supporting conceptual systems, and the details would take me several lifetimes to write out (I can think far faster than I can write).

The test for any moral system is being able to identify agents that are cheating on the cooperative that makes that level of complexity possible and then to mitigate the effects of that cheating (which at higher levels usually involves creating contexts that return that agent to cooperative behaviour).

I do not see any beauty in death and disability. I see far more beauty and stability in having a reasonable probability of living with the long term consequences of one’s actions – that seems to be required for stability at multiple levels.

The sorts of behaviour that are actually survivable long term depend very much on the context. And that can become a very deep strategic conversation.

I agree that fear and hate are major issues for many people. Understanding the evolutionary strategic contexts that support the emergence of such behaviours allows us to actively design contexts to suppress the expression of such things and to promote the emergence of cooperative and creative behaviours more generally. If one starts to deeply explore the systemic nature of both freedom and responsibility then one can start to appreciate that if one wants reasonable degrees of security with reasonable degrees of freedom, then it demands of us that we are both cooperative and responsible (to the best of our limited and fallible abilities, whatever level they may be at in any particular context).

And certainly there is necessarily more unknown than known in any infinity for any finite entity. So we are all necessarily ignorant and mistaken, and the role of science is to become less wrong over time.

Errors and mistakes are necessarily part of the process.

A degree of acceptance and respect seems to be required for all individuals, all levels.

[followed by]

Hi Nathalie,

Having been deeply involved in the development of a legislative system through 2 acts of parliament (one in 1983 and another in 1996) and in the development of many aspects of the monitoring and compliance and enforcement systems over that time; I have no reasonable doubt remaining that closing loopholes in legal systems is an impossible task – there are too many levels of systems and complexity present.

I have thus decided that while a certain level of law is required as backstop, the law itself can never provide stability, there must always be a level of responsibility present in individuals that is greater than any law, if we are to actually survive the risks in the complexity present.

My current focus is trying to make as many people as possible aware of the fundamental role of cooperation in both the evolution of complexity and in all real expressions of liberty. And in doing that I am consistently clear that liberty without responsibility necessarily self terminates.

So the current dogma common in economic and libertarian schools of thought, that competitive markets are the friend of liberty, could not actually be further from the truth in contexts where fully automated systems are coming “on stream” (they are here now, en masse).

So I am definitely a fan of longevity, and of liberty, and I freely acknowledge that liberty without responsibility is self destructive.

Hence the focus on bringing people to an awareness of the need for responsibility – all levels.

The “paradox” that will appear to many who have not looked deeply enough at the systems, is that in really complex systems, hard constraints (like laws) tend to become brittle and fracture, thus breaking the system. The focus must go from following the letter of the law to following the intent of the law, to the best of our limited abilities (and if one is not clear about the intent, then following the letter of the law is the best option). It is in this sense that I focus on responsibility. Too many laws prevent people being responsible, because the probability of punishment becomes essentially random – as the perverse incentives in complex contexts multiple exponentially.

It is in this sense that I assert that it is not logically possible to close all loopholes in any legal system. Any of that set of classes of approaches necessarily fail – David Snowden gives some great insights into that line of thinking, even as Dave and I differ on some of the details.

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What is the most immediate challenge you have at startup ecosystem level that you would like automation to help solve?

What is the most immediate challenge you have at startup ecosystem level that you would like automation to help solve?

[ 20/April/21 ]

In New Zealand that would be a trap that catches mammals – particularly mice, rats, cats, hedgehogs, ferrets, stoats, weasels, rabbits, possums and hares; catches them alive, then takes a photo of what is caught so that someone can determine whether it needs to be killed or released, then does the killing or releasing, then resets and rebaits.

Ideally it would be solar powered and only need servicing once a year.

Would be nice if it could report on larger animals too – deer, chamois, tahr, goats, wallabies, dogs, sheep – particularly in the alpine areas.

The problem is that the native birds that we are trying to protect tend to be extremely inquisitive and will investigate anything in their territories. The Kea in particular are a very smart parrot that can dismantle almost anything (and often do).

The next challenge would be a solar powered weeder that would roam the countryside, identify plants, and exterminate those that did not belong. Such a device would have application in cropping as well. It would need to be able to travel over steep terrain, and the cutter/digger part would need to be able to go 100m or so away from the power collector part (probably with power and comms cable link) – to get into the tricky places on cliffs, and go under canopy. So a multi-legged walker/gripper is probably necessary, with reasonably advanced mapping and plant ID abilities built in.

Both devices need to be able to be built relatively cheaply, operate reliably, and eventually be deployed at landscape scale (200,000 km2).

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Will humanity’s extinction be abrupt, or will it slow after a long decadence?

Will humanity’s extinction be abrupt, or will it slow after a long decadence?

[ 19/April/21 ]

It seems to me that there are finite probabilities associated with various sorts of extinctions (some rapid, some slower) that together sum to about .4, and it seems more probable to me (about .6) that humanity will actually survive for the balance of eternity, though that is only likely if the vast majority of people are acting responsibly, and do in fact recognize that there are some limits on freedom that are necessary for survival, and that such limits can change significantly with rather small changes in context.

That requires each of us to work on finding reasonable and appropriate balances between the needs of all the various levels of structure present in our particular contexts (ecological, social, political, technological, and personal).

So it seems reasonably likely that humanity’s extinction will be non-existent (which is certainly the outcome I am working towards) – and it is a sufficiently significant risk that it is worth all of us making the time to take such actions as we reasonably can to avoid it. That basically corresponds to working cooperatively, being willing to take on any level of cheating, accepting and respecting diversity, considering the long term ecological consequences of actions, etc.

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Foundations of Logic Walter Kant asked

[ 16/April/21 Time:
What is the nature of your definition of time:

Time is a necessary pre condition for the existence of complexity.

Time is that aspect of a system that delivers some probability of a system transitioning from one state to another state.

Without any sort of phase transition, then there can be no change.

Without a differential in the probability of a transition happening in one direction rather than another, there can be no complexity.

Time is what results from such asymmetry in phase transition matrices at any and all levels of complexity.

By the time you build enough levels of complexity to sustain a human level awareness, then time is necessarily deeply embodied in all the degrees of causality (state sequence relationship) present in such systems.

In a purely logical sense, time is necessary for the existence of complexity.

When one looks deeply at the evidence for relativity, time does in fact appear to be local, and to be mediated by light like quanta. And that is a deeply complex topic that demands the use of non-binary logic and fundamental uncertainty.

[Followed by – 19/4/21]

It seems clear to me that all complexity requires time to exist, so in that sense alone, of being a necessary pre-condition, then a proposition could be said to bear or embody time.

If there were no asymmetry in system state transitions, if every state were equally likely to go one way or another, then there could be no “arrow of time”, everything would be a simple mass of sub-atomic soup at some equilibrium temperature.

The arrow of time seems to result from such asymmetries.

It is easy to tell the film is running backwards if you see a mess of egg shell and mixed liquid suddenly assemble into a yolk sac then be surrounded by albumin then have the shell fragments assemble into an eggshell as they fly together and upwards. Such events are so improbable as to likely never have occurred anywhere in the history of the universe as we know it. The process of assembling an egg is much slower, much more complex, and very dependent on a large series of contexts involving multiple levels of chemistry and behaviour.

It seems clear to me that most interest in modelling happens in the phase transition matrices. How does a system change states?

If Garret Lissi is correct in his conjectures, that the phase transitions of the simplest structures known to quantum mechanics are some function of the geometry of most complex symmetry known to mathematics (the E8 Lie group), then it is a form of “simplest” that is not what most people would consider “simple” – even though it certainly has a degree of “elegance”.

Complexity demands time, and it demands directionality in time.

We are complex, and could only possibly exist in a universe that does in fact have such properties (or something reasonably approximating them at certain scales).

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Do scientists increasingly doubt the truth of evolution?

Do scientists increasingly doubt the truth of evolution?

[ 16/April/21 ]


I know of no scientists (as I accept the definition of scientist), who has any significant doubts about evolution.

And that requires understanding the definition of scientist.

I have met many people who have PhDs who are employed as what most would consider science roles, who do not meet my definition of a scientist.

To be a scientist, one must be able to consider many different possible interpretive schema, to look for sets of conditions that might falsify some and not others, and to design reliable tests in reality, then do those tests, and let the results (not one’s pre-conceived notions) determine which of the schema one then continues to use in practice.

If one looks at human beings and at the logic of the systems that allow us to learn and to build models, then it becomes clear that all models, all understandings, are necessarily simplifications of the complexity present in reality.

Sometimes the demands of reality for rapid response demand that we use simple models that usually give survivable results. That reality seems to explain most of “culture”.

And some systems are very complex, and have no simple model that delivers reliable results. So sometimes we need to create very complex models.

The modern synthesis of evolution is such a very complex suite of models. I have been studying it for over 50 years, and should I live the rest of eternity I would fully expect to find new and interesting things to study within it, it does in fact seem to be that complex.

So if people are look for simple answers that always work in science – sorry, that does not seem to be the sort of reality we exist in – it seems to be more complex and uncomfortable than that, demanding far greater levels of effort and responsibility from all of us than any simple adherence to any set of stories from the past can possible deliver (and that is not saying that all stories from the past are without value – some of the stories from the past encode deep levels of lessons which we ignore at our peril – those stories that have stood the test of time need to be given due respect and consideration, but not necessarily belief as any sort of ultimate truth, rather more of deeply useful lessons and pointers).

So no – I have not met anyone that is sufficiently free of all forms of dogma that they meet my definition of scientist who has any significant doubt about the reality of evolution. And all real scientists deal in uncertainty, always, all contexts of reality. In science the idea of truth is often misleading, and I prefer not to use it. Real science is always a balance of probabilities – it always has uncertainties in any particular context, even if in many contexts those uncertainties are so small that we ignore them in practice.

[followed by Brett Passmore replied …”But there certainly are geneticists, microbiologists, zoologists etc who rejects common ancestry beliefs”…]

Not in my experience.

I have never met one that didn’t have such a firm and unquestionable belief before they started to study science. I have not met anyone who was actually able to consider reasonably complex sets of evidence and strategic systems who has come to such a conclusion.

I have met more than a few who were unable to consider uncertainty, who hold such dogma – but to me, such people do not meet the test of being a scientist, even if they have PhDs. But in every case it is belief denying evidence, not evidence directing belief.

[followed by Brett replied “You haven’t met a true Scotsman but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. For example geneticist John Sanford.”..]

I have met many a Scotsman (and woman). I have some Scottish ancestry.

There is no evidence for such a belief.

Sorry if that offends some set of beliefs you have.

Biology is deeply complex.

I was 19 when I completed my undergraduate studies in biochemistry, and I was top of the class in many of the tests (even as I was the youngest in the class). The biochemistry of genetics is deeply complex, and very few people understand it well. Most people who pass tests do so by some form of wrote learning, rather than by derivation from first principles derived from probability analysis of evidence sets.

Few people appreciate probability.

Very few have taken the time to examine both the evidence sets and the logic of the schema applied, to all of the assumption sets and schema that they use.

Fewer still have a reasonable grasp of quantum mechanics, and that demands being able to work with non-binary logic – being able consider reality having more states than true or false (not many can do that – our neural networks are so heavily biased to deliver true/false answers).

Both are demanded if one wants to build a reasonable understanding of modern genetics.

So I fully understand that there are many people employed in roles in the field of genetics who do not fit my definition of a scientist, who do indeed subscribe to the dogma you propose.

And I restate the assertion that I made, in a slightly different form:
Of the many thousands of people with whom I have discussed the subject of evolution over the last 50+ years, I have not met any who in my estimation had looked sufficiently broadly across the breadth of fields required to build a reasonable model of the modern synthesis, that did so with an open mind to the evidence from the best available interpretations of the evidence sets available, who have any significant doubt about the reality of the evolutionary relatedness of all life forms on earth. And that is the most complex thing I have studied – more complex by many orders of magnitude than any computer system yet existing (and that gap is rapidly narrowing).

[Followed by]

Sorry – all examples you give are just wrong.

They demonstrate that you do not understand.

The manner of your reply demonstrates no knowledge of or interest in the actual evidence.

The difference between science and dogma is that science relies upon evidence from tests designed to distinguish between different possible explanatory frameworks.

There are many people employed in what most people consider scientific pursuits who have not made the effort to rigorously apply that principle across all of the beliefs they use.

I give up, as clearly you have no real knowledge of the evidence or the interpretive schema. Your claims are all either false or irrelevant straw men.

How much time have you actually spent reviewing scientific papers?

How much time have you spent designing and performing experiments?

Have you actually read Darwin, or Dawkins, or any papers on biochemistry (my text book when I was doing undergrad was White Handler and Smith “Principles of Biochemistry” – brand new in 1973. I read it cover to cover. Along with everything written by Darwin and Dawkins, and many many others (and the bible, and many other cultural texts). A lot of reading, a lot of time in labs, a lot of mistakes, a lot of learning, Delving deeply into the mathematics of matter, to get an idea of what makes chemistry work, what allows for complexity to emerge in some very special sorts of contexts. Delving into probability. Slowly developing models of just how complex systems interact and operate. There is a kind of profound beauty in it, and it is a beauty and simplicity that can only emerge after one has pushed through the complexity – over and over again.

It isn’t easy, It wasn’t easy for me, and I have many unusual attributes, including an ability to do math that few possess.

Simplifying complexity is an essential part of learning, and at some point one has to accept that some things are sufficiently complex that there is no reliable simplification, and one simply has to deal with the complexity that exists.

That is why few people have much real idea about the modern synthesis of evolution, because it is seriously complex.

Of course simple models fail if you push them too hard.

And some things deliver just overwhelming evidence, like the fact that the same embryological gene expression codes for eye formation in all animals. All eyes, from those in worms, to those in squid, to those in insects, to those in us, clearly share a common developmental linkage. All those different life forms, all those very different types of eyes, all clearly share a common ancestor that had a very simple kind of eye – little more than a spot of light sensitive pigment – but a particular chemical trick that initiates its formation that is so unusual that everything since uses it. The biochemistry of that is just so clear, yet it takes a lot of work to get to.

And I am reasonably certain that you have not made a similar level of study, and thus, rather than using evidence you have examined yourself, you are using dogma to attack a straw man argument; rather than make the effort yourself to seriously examine the evidence.

So it seems very likely that you are not able at this point to conceive of the modern synthesis of evolution, because it contradicts a treasured dogma that is foundational to your understanding.
I can understand and accept that in a sense.

At the same time you need to accept that you have no real idea what the modern synthesis of evolution is.

[followed by 17 Apr 21]


First – let us look at the figure of 100 million nucleotide changes between us and chimps, which is what I assume you are referring to.

Of that figure, about 35 million are single nucleotide changes, and the rest are made up of insertions and deletions (bulk changes, so not part of the average drift process – so I will not go into details about those processes, and they are well characterized if you want to dive into the detail yourself).

Our likely common ancestor was about 7 million years ago, so that is 14 million years of mutations (7 million on each lineage – the one leading to us, and the one leading to chimps).

Let us just consider single nucleotide change.

It is not a straight forward thing, it varies a lot between different areas of the chromosomes, and different environments, but if we just stick with the averages we can observe and measure today.

The average change we see today is about 70 changes per generation, and even there it can vary quite a bit depending on a large number of factors, but if we use the average, with a generation being 20 years (3.5 per year), then it is easy to see how the single nucleotide portion of the difference is accounted for within the random drift we see right now (3.5 x 14 gives 50 roughly, allow for a bit of selection pressure and there is the observed 35).

And there is nothing simple about differential survival of variants.

Some few areas of the chromosome are very highly conserved. Areas that code for the active sites of key protein catalysts tend not to survive even minor mutations. Such eggs or sperm don’t survive, and less critical changes the embryos tend not to complete gestation.

Other areas of the chromosome can be mutated with little or no negative effects. What is a negative vs a positive effect will vary a great deal with the specific context in most situations. Environments are not steady state things.

So it gets really complex exactly how you measure mutation, and exactly where the filtering of damaging mutations occurs, as to how one looks very closely at the mutation rates over time between lineages.

It is not a subject for a 10 minute conversation. The conversation can take several days assuming that both parties are already familiar with complex math.

The empirical evidence is clear.

If you were actually interested you would have been aware of it. But instead you create an overly simplistic straw man argument, and then burn it.

So clearly you are not interested in details.

Clearly you are looking for anything that might be used to substantiate dogma – which is not how science works.

As to the development of eyes, no, I was not referring to opsin, but to the Hox family of genes involved in the embryology of eye development. If you take the time to get into the details the systemic structure of that whole family of genes is just beautiful; and what seems very probably to have been its emergence from a series of chromosomal doublings from the homeobox gene cluster of earlier life forms. It is a truly fascinating aspect if you take the time to follow it, and build up an understanding of all the levels of patterns and systems and probabilities involved (but it took me a few years to really start to understand it).

And if you get seriously into biology, then it is all probabilities, not certainties. All quantum mechanical processes are probability based, all enzyme action. And in some contexts those probabilities can sum to things that very closely approximate classical causality (which is a great thing for the emergence of complex pattern), but not all (which is the hard bit for most minds to accept – we are so strongly biased towards simple models – we tend to ignore the exceptions, and one cannot make sense of biology if one does that).

So every one of the objections that you raised are not actually objections based on understanding of the complexity present, but come from using overly simplistic models. They are objections from ignorance.

And of course there is a sense in which we are all ignorant, necessarily, as one doesn’t need to do a lot of math to realize that the complexity surrounding us is more complex than any computational entity can deal with in real time. So we must all work with some degree of simplification and ignorance (that gets really complex once you see that all perceptions are already simplified models).

Part of understanding is accepting that, and getting out of the habit of being confident through willful ignorance, rather than doing the work required to step into uncertainty with degrees of confidence and with associated eternal uncertainty. And that is hard, because our brains are so heavily biased to be “right” (for the simple fast answer). Certainty is like candy to the brain. In times of real stress, real urgency, it can be very helpful, but most of the time it is not. Most of the time reality is far more complex and uncertain than our brains are comfortable with, so we all have very strong tendencies to accept simple models that do not require us to deal with uncertainty. Seeing that for the evolved tendency that it is, is a necessary step on the path to real science. So it is easy to understand why most do not take that step – it is hard and uncomfortable at multiple levels. That is why most involved in science are not what I classify as scientists, but are some form of dogmatists involved in scientific activities; and why there is a degree of truth in the saying that science progresses one funeral at a time. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it very often is.

[Followed by 19 Apr 21]

Sorry Brett – but yet again your overly simple model leads to erroneous conclusions.

Most of the DNA of interest codes for proteins.

Most of the proteins of interest are catalysts of various types, but some are structural or perform other roles (often multiple overlapping roles).

If you look at the active site of a catalyst, then most mutations (changes – the words mean the same) have serious negative consequences. Most changes in the active areas of the protein are selected out before conception, the egg or sperm simply die. Such seriously negative changes do not take a generation to get selected out, they never make it into a generation.

The further along the chain a change is, the smaller its impact. Most changes that manage to make it through conception and gestation tend to be of this minor kind. Thus the vast bulk of changes (mutations) that make it into a generation have little or no effect. This is in fact what we observe. Very few mutations that seriously impact function at the cellular level make it through gestation (some, but not many).

The observed rate of change is about 70 per generation in humans (with quite a bit of variation from a wide variety of factors).

That is what we can actually measure – happening.

There is in fact variation in every generation – not just in humans but in every species.

That only changes when you have events like Toba some 70,000 years ago, which reduced the entire population of humans on the planet to a few thousand. Things like that happened from time to time in our past (not just to humans, but to all species).

When something like that happens, variation can be drastically reduced. The populations start to build up again, and diversity increases again when that happens. (Estimates are that the Toba winter lasted about 6 years). That seems to be the most recent major reset on human genetic variation, and there were almost certainly many more before that.

There is absolutely no evidence whatever – zero – for any sort of biblical creation event – none!

You are not arguing from evidence, you are twisting evidence to suit dogma. And it seems very likely that you have no intention of doing anything else. I doubt that you have ever seriously considered a position that you consider wrong. It is hard to suspend judgement, and consider another’s argument.

To try and argue young earth creationism, as you are, from genetic evidence, you have to ignore way over 90% of the evidence and focus only on a very tiny portion that from a simple interpretation seems to lend some weight to the argument. Sorry – but it doesn’t.

In going back 7 million years, then forward 7 million years – I am not doubling the amount of mutations, just doubling the time available for them to occur. The difference between us and chimps is still the same, but our common ancestor was probably somewhere near half way between us (at least in terms of single nucleotide mutations). That shows a failure to check even the most basic of math.

I don’t know how you can claim that J F Crow supported your hypothesis when he published papers like this that clearly refute what you claimed:
Mid-Century Controversies in Population Genetics (https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.genet.42.110807.091612)

Another case of picking one aspect of an argument, simplifying it, and paying no attention to everything else.

Pay attention to the evidence – all of it!

[followed 20 Apr 21]


If you pay attention to the evidence, all of it, then some things are very clear.

The evidence from geology is clear that the earth is about 4 billion years old.

The evidence from the fossils in rocks is that for about half of that time such life as existed was single celled.

The evidence from fossils is that we see changes in the makeup over time, with some periods of mass extinction (which we now have reasonable sets of evidence for the causes of and the timing of – to within a few million years for the older stuff – all measurement has uncertainty).

If you go to the evidence in the biochemistry of the life forms we see present today then it is fascinating, and multiple levels of evidence of slow genetic drift (of exactly the sort we see between us and chimps from our last common ancestor) is overwhelming.

I have not met anyone who is capable of doing the probability landscape analysis who has examined such evidence in depth who has any reasonable doubt about the long term nature of the evolution of those systems.

If seems beyond reasonable doubt that the earliest version of RNA life used a doublet codon for protein formation that only used the 4 most common amino acids; but understanding that requires a whole other level of sets of abstractions and data. And having had a reasonable examination of those datasets the issue is settled with 95%+ confidence in my mind.

Having read the bible cover to cover I can see a lot of wisdom encoded in the stories within it, and also a lot of mythology (like the creation myths) that simply do not stand up to modern evidence. And that is entirely what one would expect of such an evolving system of awareness and understanding.

So the evidence really is overwhelming, if one is prepared to seriously look at it, and examine the systems.

Yes mutations happen.

Yes some of those mutations have some deleterious effects.

And most of the serious negative effects are removed by levels of selection at the level of single cells (in eggs and sperm) long before a fully formed human is born. Most selection happens at that level – invisible to our naked eyes.

Only the tiny fraction that survive that vast selective pressure get to grow into children, and then on into adults.

When you have expanding populations then necessarily there is expanding diversity. That is a necessary part of how the system works.

It is a form of random search across the space of available variants for those that can survive the harsher periods.

One of the strategies our species can explore is that of reducing the harshness and frequency of the harsher periods, and thus allowing the survival of a far greater range of diversity.

This, clearly, is the system we exist within.

Sure there is some great wisdom in some of the stories of the bible, and there is a lot that is not relevant to our modern understanding, but does make sense in terms of the evolution of stories over time.

If you look at all evidence, across all sprectra, then there is no reasonable doubt.

[Followed by 21/Apr/21]


There is no evidence for a young earth.

If you look at evidence of physics, and geology, all of it – then it makes sense only with an old earth.

Very clearly you have no interest in evidence – you really want to believe in a dogma and will ignore any and all evidence that contradicts your favoured dogma. That is not unusual, it is a reasonably common human response; and there are evolutionary reasons why such behaviours tend to persist in populations, and you really are fooling yourself if you think you are being evidence based. You are not.

[followed by different sub thread – in response to Mark H Smit – 19 Apr]

I don’t understand the claim you made that “Self-assembly is a logical impossibility” – I would like you to flesh that out a bit.

To me it seems entirely probable that life initially evolved in a very unusual context – probably a “white smoker” (an alkaline undersea hydrothermal vent) that provided sufficient hydrogen ions to power the initial processes of replication prior to the emergence of more complex metabolism. And we are unlikely to ever have any direct evidence of exactly how and when life emerged, and this does seem to me (on balance of probabilities across the dozen or so contenders I have investigated) to be the most likely (and I have been known to make mistakes – quite a few of them, as I have spent a lot of my life pushing various levels of boundaries of the known and understood).

So to me, self assembly – as in complex pattern emerging in a context containing a reliable energy gradient, is entirely possible – even probable.

To me, life seems to be about survival of pattern across varying domains of context over time; and often the class of pattern that survives best is very context sensitive. Thus the type of context present is often the major determinant of the general classes of life form that emerge in that class of context(s). When one explores that notion at sufficient levels of abstraction then it becomes clear that the existence of both complexity and freedom are predicated on levels of cooperation that can only survive in contexts with levels of abundance (sufficiency). That is something that existing economic theory is not doing a great job of acknowledging.

When one starts to seriously look at the classes of context that have existed in the not too distant past, then it becomes clear that we need some major new classes of risk mitigation technologies, and those demand entirely new levels of cooperation if they are to be of more benefit than risk. It does get really complex!!!

[followed by 20 Apr 21]

Hi Mark,

Self assembly only works in a very tiny range of contexts.

It seems very probable that it only happened once, in the entire history of life on earth (that qualifies as a very tiny set of contexts).

In terms of obeying the second law of thermodynamics, of increasing entropy (greater disorder overall) then life has to obey that, and it does so via metabolism. In order to maintain the order embodied, life has to take energy and order from one system, and leave the systems as a whole in a more chaotic state than the amount of order preserved in the living part of the system.

These days plants are responsible for most of that, taking the higher energy photons of light from the sun and converting them into bonds in carbohydrate molecules, and low energy photons.

To maintain the order of life there must be low grade heat as waste product. Managing that, and a lot of other environmental factors, are always issues for life forms.

Finding an environment with sufficient available energy, and sufficient reliability and sufficient stability for the random aspects of all such systems to deliver the first replicating system is a very special sort of context, and the most likely of the candidates proposed to my way of thinking is that of white smokers.

And we are unlikely to ever have any direct evidence. It is highly unlikely that any alien species was around with some sort of molecular level “video camera”, taking a tourist shot to show the family, at the precise time that the first replicating system that included metabolism got under way. And very likely that first system could only exist in that specific white smoker for a very long time, before any variants emerged that were sufficiently stable that they could drift around until they found another environment that they could grow in. Any way you look at it, it had to be a very uncertain start, and the evidence strongly suggests that it had to have happened, somewhere, somehow, in some way that is something like this general sort of picture.

The details of the processes present in the details of the chemistry of life are very strongly suggestive of classes of pattern; and they are fairly abstract topologies.

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