Descent of man: Bruce Charlton solves Fermi’s paradox

Thanks, Bruce, for giving me something else to be gloomy about.

Not knowing much about biology, I’m used to thinking of natural selection as something that improves species (at least by the measure of ability to successfully reproduce), but BC points out that, because of the continual accumulation of deleterious mutations, one actually needs a continual culling of the herd just to keep a species “in place”.  As in, he thinks that before the Industrial Revolution of order 3/4 of humans died before successfully reproducing (most during childhood), with the more fit having a slight edge, and that this was necessary to avoid genetic decline.  With the end of infant mortality and the ability of just about anyone to successfully reproduce, mutations are now accumulating and genetic IQ declining precipitously, a process that will continue until civilization collapses and the death of most children re-establishes itself as the norm.  Industrial civilization is, thus, an intrinsically transient thing.

What to make of this?  Bruce won’t appreciate the comparison (although it is meant positively), but I think the situation here is analogous to global warming.  In both cases, the effect being described certainly exists to some degree.  Nobody doubts that CO2 is a greenhouse gas or that humanity is dumping huge amounts of it into the atmosphere, and now that I’ve had mutation load explained to me, I must admit that turning off selection must have the effect BC describes, at least at some nonzero rate.  What’s more, the mutation overload theory is impervious to many escapes.  One can’t say “well, maybe modern civilization can get by with a lower-IQ population”, because the process continues until the disaster comes.  One might actually hope that it takes a pretty high IQ to maintain industrial civilization, because although we hit “giga-death” sooner, we leave with more mental capacity intact.  Saying that the accumulation of mutations is slower than BC thinks doesn’t help either, because with no positive selection one must hit the disaster eventually.  One might imagine an aggressive eugenics program as a way to save civilization, but it would have to be more draconian than anything anyone today would stomach (although presumably not as bad as pre-industrial unguided eugenics, which measured fitness only by the loosely correlated economic status).  For both global warming and BC’s scenarios, there remains a great deal of doubt regarding both observations and models.  For example, I’m still not sold on the assumption that the relation between reaction time and intelligence is constant in time.  (Not that I disbelieve it; I just remain agnostic, and because I haven’t really studied it, my agnosticism doesn’t mean much for the claim itself.)  However, for both theories, just because there are uncertainties doesn’t give us any reason to assume that things must be less bleak than the models predict or observations indicate, that truth is always on the optimistic edge of all the error bars.

19 Responses

  1. “Industrial civilization is, thus, an intrinsically transient thing.”

    That doesn’t do much good for the Drake equation…

    Anyway, regarding the high (3/4!!) infant mortality rates of yore, I wonder if the benefit to our species’s “fitness” of this thinning of the herd was to any degree cancelled out by the cost in parental stress, which is known to have a negative impact on the health of offspring.

  2. PS. My handle should link to, but for some reason it’s screwed up and links somewhere else. Bonald, please feel free to correct the error and delete this comment if you are able/have time.

  3. A case could be made that William James made a new and critical distinction with pluralism/ pragmatism. I’m a Jamesian pluralist – but there are so few of us that it could not really be cited as evidence of greatness – and the monist majority do not recognize pluralism as a valid thing.

    The problem is that philosophy as a subject changes through history – it is currently extremely small – but used to be big enough to include everything except theology.

    (I think it is fair to say that philosophy must happen within theology, or else it is so incoherent as to be worse than useless.)

  4. My above comment was supposed to be attached to the philosophy posting…

    wrt to above posting – I join you in hoping I am wrong. Unfortunately the idea doesn’t come from me, but from (my understanding of) the great evolutionary theorist WD Hamilton – and he was usually right about this sort of stuff.

    If it is true, then it has already happened and it will continue to happen – and we will probably never know that it has happened – and it is too big a thing to stop. So, having an opinion either way doesn’t matter much!

  5. Also, this kind of thing is a challenge to our Christianity. As CS Lewis pointed out when talking about the atomic bomb, since we are immortal souls, civilizations are transient things by comparison, so is the life of the sun – we, personally, will outlive them, we will watch them come to an end.

    So, nothing fundamental is changed by nuclear weapons/ mutation accumulation.

  6. “presumably not as bad as pre-industrial unguided eugenics, which measured fitness only by the loosely correlated economic status”

    Except that economic status seems to have been a major factor in survival rates only after the 17th century. Until then, about half of all children did not survive weaning, and this was uniform across all classes. Of the survivors, about half died before puberty, mostly from infectious viral diseases, but also from bacterial infections, like Septicæmia. In the major cities particularly, where viral diseases, such as smallpox, measles, whooping-cough, were endemic, everyone caught them in childhood, about one-third died and the survivors had life-long immunity. In rural areas, such diseases were rare, because there was an insufficient number of potential hosts to sustain them, but, when they did strike, about one-third of all age-groups died. The loss of women of child-bearing age meant that it could take a century for population numbers to recover.

  7. “In both cases, the effect being described certainly exists to some degree.”

    Completely unscientific conclusion–really no more than an opinion informed by agitprop.

  8. Surely being in the upper classes always lessened your chances of dying of malnutrition or exposure?

  9. Not much new under the sun. I’m slowly compiling excerpts from old eugenics texts here:

    Just read the posts by Felix Volkbein and ignore the rest.

    Alfred Ploetz and Raymond Cattell are of particular interest.

  10. There is some positive selection, though, and the possibility for more. Positive selection that exists today is that low IQ, low impulse control people are more likely to die from an accident than their more civilized, high IQ brethren.

    A society with traditional sexual morality (low out of wedlock birth), where the mate selection process takes into account a male’s ability to provide for his young (lower low IQ male fathers) and where birth control use is frowned upon could possibly have enough positive pressures to make up for this.

  11. I’ve been skeptical of Charlton’s claims (without ruling them out!), but a book I’m reading has unsettled me. It’s a Trollope novel, Harry Heathcote of Gongoil. Even though the worst Malthusian grinds should have been over by the late Victorian era when he wrote it, more than half the people in his book are functionally celibate unmarried employees and servants. I was struck by how much he took it for granted. Nothing is ever made of it and no attention is drawn to it. the Victorian idealization of family life makes even more sense if you see family life as a status marker for all and an unrealizable dream for many.

  12. @Kevin Nowell,

    Ah, but liberalism is also an unavoidable outcome of industrialization.

    Actually, I can’t prove that no post-industrially viable culture could produce eugenic effects, meaning that the whole “solution to the Fermi paradox” bit was, like most solutions, mostly tongue in cheek. Being both eugenic and humane is tricky, though. Why should mate selection take into acount ability for the father to provide when the children of fathers who can’t provide can still be expected to survive?

  13. Is there any evidence whatsoever of the “continual accumulation of deleterious mutations,” and of “genetic decline” that would materially affect the social ability to maintain a complex civilization?

    Eugenics is sheer nonsense as Chesterton exploded the eugenics of 100 years ago. Are we to be such materialsts? IS the complex civilization in greater danger from genetic decline or from cultural decline?

  14. Bonald,

    Liberalism is not unavoidable. I will never believe that.

    You ask “why should mate selection take into account ability for the father provide when the children of fathers who can’t provide can still be expected to survive?” This must also be a joke as well because I do not believe that you cannot think of any reason why a father of a potential bride would want to “take into account ability for the father to provide” other than that the children resulting from the union will be expected to survive.


    I don’t think that genetics and culture can be separated. They are entertwined in such a way that there is no separating them. I would never advocate early 20th century type eugenics programs but would merely point out that traditional sexual morality with parental authority over their children’s marriages just is eugenic.

  15. Case for Nicotine
    “Nicotine is good for cognitive functioning, increasing both memory and attention.”

    Could the case be made that nicotine was responsible for the industrial civilization and the abolition of smoking is a strong cause for the possible decline of the industrial civilization.

  16. Charlton wrote recently about the cognitive genome. If what he was describing turns out to be true, then the genome can respond to environment in a directed fashion. Maybe it can make maladaptive changes less likely to occur?

  17. Define what you mean by deleterious mutation? I understand that most people carry a large number of dreadful recessive mutations, but that never have an effect because they are subordinate to a neutral or beneficial dominant gene. Before you conclude that we are sinking under a pile of terrible genes, please determine whether any of these can be expressed? I can’t believe that the inbred populations of the past were less affected by injurious mutations than are modern people.

  18. @bruce – wrt the cognitive genome. There is a respectable school of thinking that suggests that this happens – in that having more mutations is exactly what is required when the population is in danger of collapsing. The vast majority will be disadvantageous, even lethal – but one might be exactly what is required for survival under the novel conditions. The question is whether allowing more mutations is an actual ‘purposive’ adaptation, or whether it simply happens ‘randomly’ as a result of mutational damage to the mechanisms that ensure fidelity of DNA replication, repair etc.

    This has actually been observed in bacteria allowed to exhaust the supplies of their environment – what apparently happens is that weird mutations arise that enable the bacteria to live off chemical which they usually cannot metabolize – the new mutants are very inefficient, and could not compete in ‘normal’ environments; but in unusual environments they can survive and reproduce in situations when the ‘normal’ individuals do not.

    You could draw an analogy with the current situation in developed countries, when traits that would be lethal in conditions of high average mortality rates become adaptive in conditions of average sub-replacement fertility rates.

    For example, Australian Aborigines are regarded as having several socially dysfunctional traits – high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence against women and children and between men, extremely low educational attainment, high child mortality rates etc – yet the indigenous population is increasing very rapidly (in absolute numbers and as a proportion) – simply because they have above replacement fertility when the rest of the population does not.

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