Covid response, evolution and survival

Covid-19 responses – again

[ 29/December/21 ]

What premises are flawed – precisely???

For me it is simple in a very real sense. It comes back to values. It always does.

What do we actually value?

Why those and not something else?

For me, as a geek who has be exploring the deep strategy of the evolution of complexity it is deeply complex, and yet it has some simple principles (which deeply recurs through multiple levels of systems). And since completing undergrad biochem in 1974, and becoming clear that in logic and cellular systems, indefinite life had to be the default mode for cells (as all cells alive have an equal claim to being the first cell), then indefinite life extension for humans had to be possible. Extremely complex, and possible.

That led to a deep exploration of the question: given potentially very long lived individuals, what sort of social, political, technological and ethical systems are required to give potentially very long lived individuals a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom? Since November 1974, my autistic mathematical brain has probably spent an average of 2 hours a day contemplating various strategic aspects of that question. It would probably take me a month to write up any one of those hours in a form that would be reasonably available to most other individuals.

After about 30 years of that, in something that closely resembles a Markov Chain Monte Carlo set of simulations; the resulting suite of probabilities across a vast array of contexts has led me to conclude beyond any shadow of remaining reasonable doubt that two values are essential.

First and foremost, individual life; and that necessarily imposes multiple levels of responsibilities; and
Second, individual liberty, within such limits as those individuals can demonstrate responsibility for the lives and liberties of all other sapient entities (human and non-human, biological and non-biological).

And that gets deeply complex almost immediately, because it also seems beyond reasonable doubt that reality is complex and unpredictable in ways that defy any computational entity’s attempts to understand; so we must all use simplistic models of it, and we must all start with the most simplistic models possible, which are binaries like True/False, right/wrong, good/bad, ….. Reality seems to be vastly more complex and nuanced than any simple binary can capture, but such simple models do have the characteristic that they allow for rapid decision making, and in many contexts speed is essential (like if a big cat or a bus or a set of armed marauders are rapidly approaching). But most issues around political and technological and ethical systems are deeply more complex, and require far greater depth of nuance and understanding, particularly when multiple levels of agent are present in the same “game space” at the same time.

So if one does value individual life, of all individuals, then that must, of logical necessity; trump all claims to freedom; because without life there is no freedom.

Thus constraints on liberty must be accepted if life really is at risk.

Now we enter the deeply complex areas of assessing such risk, particularly when using novel technologies. From the perspective of human use, mRNA vaccines are novel technologies, as are cationic lipid vectors. From the perspective of living systems, both sets of technology are ancient and well tested. How one assesses risk is always deeply dependent of the sets of assumptions one brings to the process.

So for me, having novel pathogens is way up there, alongside various social pathologies as prime existential risks to humanity; accepting a loss of freedom to secure significant reduction in risk to life is a no-brainer, but only for so long as the risk is real and external. If people are choosing to increase such risk by refusing to use the available technology, then the responsibility devolves from me back to them. We seem to be in that transition phase right now in respect of this particular pandemic.

And I have no reasonable doubt that it is a real pandemic, and as pandemics go it is a rather mild one, they can be very much worse.

The New Zealand response clearly demonstrated that elimination is a viable strategy, and that in terms of long term costs it is the cheapest and most effective strategy possible. But there were cultural blocks to its adoption in many countries, most significantly the USA, because the sense-making infrastructure within the USA has been fundamentally hijacked by multiple levels of cheating strategies. And it is deeply complex – nothing at all simple there.

So that is my brief and simplistic summary of a deeply complex situation.

[followed by]

Hi Dirk & Pawel,

From my perspective, both of you have bits of the picture, and both have serious errors.

There is some truth in opinions expressed by the Zambian economist, but not nearly enough.

I see everything as systems.

I do see a quantitative difference between systems that are capable of modeling themselves as part of a wider system (self aware sapience) and those that are not.

I do understand a little about evolution, and it is deeply complex in ways that even Richard Dawkins fails to comprehend. And that is all understandable from an evolutionary perspective.

We must all start with relatively simple models, and if we need to make rapid assessments then we have no option but to use simple models.

Do either of those realities mean that what is being modeled is simple?


That is not required.

Free markets are much better than central control by any sort of central authority (king, lords, clergy, bank, whatever). They are better because they make more effective use of the distributed cognition available by providing useful signals at several different levels.

Does that mean that markets are any sort of perfect solution to exponentially changing problems of existence?


It most definitely does not mean that.

And because I am pointing out that markets have failure modalities that create existential level risk in some contexts does not in any way mean that I am in favour of central control.

I am not.

I am in favour of developing systems that deliver as much freedom and resources to every agent as that agent is capable of responsibly using.

That might sound simple, and in a very superficial sense it is; but it is actually deeply complex, and is both necessary and possible only because we can now create advanced artificial intelligence, and advanced automation of processes (physical production, distribution, and information).

We all contain systems that meet all the phenotypic characteristics of demons. They may never have triggered into existence, or we may never have consciously seen them in operation (which are very different things), but they are there, and the evolutionary reasons for their existence are now well characterised. I do not believe in gods or devils, and the attributes of reality do very closely approximate such things at times.

So what I see is deeply complex.

I do not see that free markets are any real sort of solution to Africa’s problems, which are much more about multiple levels of exploitation by multiple sets of essentially “cheating strategies”.

To begin to understand how complex life is possible, one must accept that every new level of complexity is based on a new level of cooperation; and that competition is only survivable if that level of cooperation is maintained. That is the bit that modern economics simply does not yet comprehend.

The economic models in use, for all their complexity, are based on overly simplistic and essentially false sets of assumptions about the nature of reality and the nature of complexity and its survival long term. The entire profession has essentially been captured by self serving “cheating strategies” that simply have no care or awareness of the existential level threat that they pose.

I get called socialist by economists often, because in their simple models there is only one alternative to free market capitalism, and that is central control. That is a failure of imagination on their part.

[followed by]

Hi Dirk,

You need to explore systems and strategy more deeply.

I can only say “kind of”, but “not really”.

The existing system is failing for three very different classes of reason, all stemming from changes in what were previously useful approximations, that no longer work with advanced automation.

1 is the idea that people can generate value through labour. Advanced automation changes that – fundamentally. Which is why there is no way for free markets to lift Africa out of poverty, because they cannot work their way out of it like we and our ancestors did, because the machines can do the work cheaper.

2 Value in exchange is no longer a useful proxy for human value more generally, and in a very real sense, it never was as useful as many thought, and many pathologies have resulted from that simplistic confusion. When oxygen in the air was the only thing that could reasonably be universally abundant, the fact that is was important, but of zero market value, didn’t really distort things too much. Now we have a large and exponentially increasing class of things that can be delivered in universal abundance, but doing so breaks the economic system, so we see a plethora of mechanisms coming out of corporate controlled governments to create scarcity to maintain market function. All of the intellectual property laws are explicitly in that class, most health and safety legislation does so indirectly in a sense (and much of that indirection was explicitly intentional by some classes of agents).
When you do a detailed systems analysis, then most legislation actually has that aspect to it.

3 Mechanisms of money generation are no longer fit for purpose. There are many different mechanisms by which money is created, and most are controlled by the banking and finance industries, and are protected by multiple levels of law.

Where there is genuine scarcity, then markets do provide genuinely useful signals, and are a useful tool. But, all agents need to have appropriate levels of money to be able to participate meaningfully in that system – to be able to generate useful signals.

There needs to be fundamental change to the money generation systems. Something like a universal dividend on the sum of human achievement to date.

In terms of planning metrics, using money does not capture the value that people have in things that are abundant and free.

In terms of existential risk mitigation, money is of no use at all in making assessments. People with money usually want a return on investment (they want more money, simply from the fact that they have some, and they organise systems to provide that).

That isn’t actually a useful signal.

The alternatives to markets do not need to be centrally controlled.

We agree that systems need to be distributed.

I am confident that they need to be distributed in all possible dimensions (so diversity in every sense of the word). Diverse trust networks, diverse information networks, diverse value networks. And there needs to be cooperation and trust between the diverse systems, if they are to survive long term.

The idea that it is either “Markets” or “Central Control” is an over simplification of what is in fact infinite diversity.

[Followed by]

Hi Dirk

Totalitarianism is a very real threat – we agree on that.

The paths to it are far more diverse than most appreciate, and some of them are essentially entirely subconscious – they are just how our neural networks are necessarily biased by survival. Awareness is the only way out of that set of traps.

I never made the claim that any of this was simple.

I have been quite explicit in stating otherwise.

And anyone who thinks modern communication systems are simple has never worked on the details of them. I have.

[Followed by 3rd Jan 2022]

Hi Pawel and Dirk,

I am a native English speaker, and I find this topic difficult because there are no agreed words for the concepts that I have in my head that relate all the levels of systems I “see” present. I speak no Polish at all, and so little German that it is near enough to nothing.

I am high functioning autistic, very good with systems and computers, not so good with deciphering what regular humans are thinking or up to. I often miss humour completely, and can be extremely literal.

I got interested in maths early, then moved to biology, particularly biochemistry, but all aspects of evolution and behaviour; then I moved on to computers; then to complexity, computation, strategy and multidimensional probabilistic topologies.

I do not see totalitarianism as necessary.

It can be an effective strategy when a group has a common enemy and requires coordination, at all other times it tends to promote exploitation of the multiple levels of cooperatives required to make society work.

If we go back and look deeply at the evolution of us, then we are each as individuals built of multiple levels of cooperatives. It seems that the first level was cooperative groups of RNA that allow the emergence of the next level of complexity, proteins and metabolism (and that could only happen in a particular type of environment). Then RNA and proteins cooperated to allow cells. Then within cells RNA and protein cooperate to allow DNA. Then cooperating DNA. Then cooperating sets of cells within a cell (chloroplasts and mitochondria), allow for the cooperation of groups of cells, with specialised roles. That led to the Cambrian Explosion, of macroscopic life forms.

By the time you get to homonid evolution, you have a trend of increasing brain size, but to get that big brain required a neotony – a retention of juvenile characteristics. That allowed for plasticity to emerge at a new level within our brains, but it also demanded cooperation at the level of family and tribe in order to raise a juvenile to a survivable age.

Maintaining cooperation in large tribes is not easy, it requires effective cheat detection and mitigation strategies (as every level of cooperation does).

So we have many levels of cooperation deeply embedded within us, from atomic, up through cellular to social levels (all mammals have some degree of sociality, necessarily – because of the care of young).

Our cultures embody deep levels of such systems also.

Nothing simple about us at all !!!

And I like complexity. I have written a computer language (by myself), I have redeveloped an operating system, I have written transport layer systems (for X25, prior to the internet), and encryption systems, as well as many user programs.

And I find the systems of life fascinating in their complexity, subtlety, and multi-level interactions.

They are almost always heuristic, relying on things that were close enough to optimal in the sets of contexts of our ancestors to survive. That seems to me to be the definition of evolution in a sense – as Dawkins says, Climbing Mt Improbable, once you start up a particular ridge, it is highly unlikely you will go down a valley to cross to a better ridge. And some ridges have bluffs on them – so evolution gets “stuck” at that point.

And it is an amazing process. So recursively complex.

So I don’t see us as either fully autonomous, nor as slaves to totalitarian social systems.

I see us as extremely complex collections of systems that are part of even larger collections of systems (ecosytems, cosmological systems, etc); and we are capable of degrees of influence that varies with context.

If you look deeply at the logic behind Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework for the management of complexity, it is applicable to every level of personal and social organisation (from our subconscious on upwards).

So I see liberty as critical to our survival and flourishing, and liberty has to come with responsibility, or it is necessarily destructive. And at every new level the responsibilities grow – necessarily, and they include social level responsibilities – necessarily. And we all have no option but to start simply, and slowly develop awareness of the complexity that we are and within which we are embedded – each to the best of our limited and fallible abilities.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) with reasonable security, tools, resources and degrees of freedom, and reasonable examples of the natural environment; and that is going to demand responsibility from all of us - see
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