History of Transition Inequality

I’ve posted recently on how the max innovations are meta ones bringing faster innovation rates.  I also posted recently on how faster growth rates reduce the natural genocide effect whereby success fluctuations make most lineages eventually extinct.  Today, let’s consider what we know about the extra inequality that has arisen because some lineages embodied new growth modes before others.

For example, the transition to multi-cellular organisms produced huge inequality.  A probably tiny initial lineage soon came to dominate the metabolism, if not the mass, of life on Earth.  Then for the next half billion years animal brain sizes doubled roughly every thirty million years, but species only lasted about one to twenty million years.

It is not clear how large was the first lineage or species to embody the key human brain innovation (whatever that was), but apparently our ancestors have since suffered a few bottlenecks where at most a few thousand individuals then essentially gave rise to all descendants now.  When successive waves of explorers left Africa, it seems later waves almost completely displaced earlier waves.  And groups of about seventy people apparently colonized both Polynesia and the New World.

The lineages that first mastered farming did gain from it, but their advantage was not as overwhelming as before.  In Europe, Africa, and Bali it seems post-transition population was about 20-50% from invading farmer groups, and the rest from the previous locals.  Locals learned to adapt invader techniques fast enough to survive.

For the industrial revolution, the advantage seems even smaller.  In 1500, Western Europe seems to have had about 18% of world population, and today it has about 4%.  It seems unlikely that more than half of people today are descended from year 1500 Western Europeans.  So they seem to have gained less than a relative factor of 2.5 in number of descendants by starting the industrial revolution.  In GDP terms they have gained more of course.

Overall it seems that singularity first-movers have gained smaller advantages in successive singularities.  Dare we hope this pattern will continue?  Tomorrow I’ll try to make some sense of this pattern (though you are of course welcome to discuss it today).

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  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Heh! I suppose that if the Friendly AI thing works out, most of the future population of the galaxy might end up descending from modern humans. But that’s probably not what you have in mind, is it.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “most of the future population of the galaxy might end up descending from modern humans”

    Eliezer, why do you care? It’s those damn genes, isn’t it. What I see exciting is much of the mass of the galaxy ending up as tools to maximize my persistence odds, not as mechanisms to make as many copies of the dna I share with other modern humans as possible.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, I’m trying to distinguish changes in the size of the pie from changes in relative pie shares. An unfriendly AI scenario, where one small basement today takes over everything and enslaves or destroys the rest of us, is clearly a scenario of huge transition inequality.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “For the industrial revolution, the advantage seems even smaller. In 1500, Western Europe seems to have had about 18% of world population, and today it has about 4%.”

    Yup, smaller. Your post implies the “advantage” could even be negative, from the perspective of biological reproduction.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think the reduction in female fecundity in populations with post-industrialization singularity advantages is probably tied to female empowerment, reduction of infant and lifetime mortality rates, and the divorcing of wealth production from amount of children. All old explanations. I’m not sure the trend will hold with upcoming singularities. As you point out in a recent essay, if brain modeling and copying is a next singularity, there will be incentives to create huge numbers of them. They won’t be genetic people, but if you measure numbers by thinking minds rather than biological/wet carbon humans we could have a huge population explosion, at least as an intermediate phase before more efficient intelligences that have lost essential similarities to modern human minds.

  • Jeff

    Robin: “A probably tiny initial lineage soon came to dominate the metabolism, if not the mass, of life on Earth”

    Let’s see… unicellular organisms like bacteria and algae outmass other life forms on earth by orders of magnitude. They outnumber us by many orders of magnitude. Their influence on the biosphere was by far the greatest: unicellular plants had to create an oxygen atmosphere before anything else could even get in the game. They have the greatest range, being found deepest underground and underwater and highest in the atmosphere (until powered flight came along, anyway). Hell, even inside our own bodies we’re outnumbered by our bacteria!

    In fact I can only think of one sense in which multicellular organisms dominate:

    “A probably tiny initial lineage soon came to dominate the tiny tiny tiny tiny fraction of life on Earth that we humans find interesting to look at.”

    But then I’m not sure it helps your point any more.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Jeff

    Your point’s well taken. Just as people have used certain principles to shape other animals and plants in ways useful to us, I wonder how our internal flora & fauna have done the same to us for their own benefit.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    HA, don’t be ridiculous. By “descended” I don’t mean DNA-based descendents, but I do mean a stronger connection and greater inheritance than the mere fact of construction.

    Robin, I know what you meant, of course – though since both capability and motive are in dispute, you might want to separate the question “How much of the rest of the world could Western Europe have deliberately exterminated?” and “Why didn’t Western Europe want to exterminate them?”

    Ultimately, though, attempts to extrapolate from the regime of biology to the regime of postbiology by means of following surface trends, have to me the flavor of trying to predict life on biological Earth by looking at surface trends on prebiological Earth. The true laws of physics will continue to hold, and models of fundamental physics might hold even across the rise of the replicators; but trying to extrapolate Moore’s Law as a timing constraint across the postbiological boundary… does not seem strongly justified. I shall be supporting this point in future posts, of course.

  • Tim Tyler

    IMHO, thinking in terms of innovation on this point will simply cause confusion. What we are witnessing is a far more significant development than any in recorded history.

    IMHO, a correct analysis looks at genetic takeovers: http://originoflife.net/takeover/

    What we are witnessing is a genetic takeover. As far as we can tell, under such circumstances, the chances of any of the “old” organisms surviving for long is very small.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @ Eliezer

    “How much of the rest of the world could Western Europe have deliberately exterminated?”

    While it is estimated that, for example, somewhere between 60-90% of the Incan population was killed by smallpox and possibly 80% of the Aztec, I’m not sure that was a “deliberate” extermination. It seems to have been a rather tragic happenstance.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “most of the future population of the galaxy might end up descending from modern humans”

    They probably will not be entirely descended from us. Some of the more basic chemical tricks originally discovered by bacteria are also rather likely to persist indefinitely.

  • http://ged.msu.edu/ Titus Brown

    Your statement “…for the next half billion years animal brain sizes doubled roughly every thirty million years, but species only lasted about one to twenty million years” is an … interesting one. I am somewhat acquainted with evolution and evo devo research, and I cannot imagine where you found this generalization about brain sizes (or how anyone would support it with actual evidence). Do you have a citation, or an explanation of how this estimate was arrived?

    I can *guess* that someone took the evolutionary lineage of humans and tried to guesstimate brain sizes of our ancestors from the fossil record, but that’s pretty hand wavy. It also assumes that you get to cherry pick humans as the cream of the evolutionary crop, while (if using biomass, or species abundance) either microbes or insects would take the prize.

    Anyway, I’m interested in how you arrived at this statement…

    –titus

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Jeff I know they dominate in mass, but I thought perhaps not in metabolism – do you have contrary info on that?

    Titus, see H. Jerison’s ’91 book “Brain Size and the Evolution of the Mind.”

    Eliezer, I look forward to your posts; see also my post tomorrow.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Dare we hope this pattern will continue?

    This sentence makes me curious about your terminal values, Robin. Two questions if I may:

    (1) Under your system for valuing things, is it intrinsically bad for an individual in a population of replicators to have more descendants than another individual?

    (2) Is it intrinsically bad for a human now living to have exert greater influence over the future than another human now living?

  • http://ged.msu.edu/ Titus Brown

    Robin, I can’t find the full text anywhere; any links?

    I am particularly skeptical of the claim that “Then for the next half billion years animal brain sizes doubled roughly every thirty million years”. We estimate the vertebrate lineage — the first lineage where we can clearly pinpoint a central nervous system that is ancestral to mammalian CNS — to have originated approx 350 mya. Brain sizes in vertebrates vary considerably, so it would be hard to reach any conclusions about average brain sizes and intelligence until you hit the mammals, a very distinct subset of the vertebrates which appeared approx 200 mya.

    While I am not an evolutionary neuroscientist, I suspect the strongest argument could be made by limiting oneself to the primates, which appeared approximately 100 mya.

    Anyway, I buy your general argument on intuitive grounds, but I think the ancient brain size argument is not defensible. If the most recent citation you have available is 1991, then it doesn’t take into account the amazing amount we’ve learned about the evolution of the nervous system within the deuterostomes in the last 10 years, which undercuts the idea that a CNS is basal to bilaterian animals.

    best,
    –titus

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Titus, great to see someone of your expertise posting here. My sense is we could use more biologists and biological scientists (particularly of your caliber) to balance out the amount of engineers and social scientists commenting freely on biological topics.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    the divorcing of wealth production from amount of children
    That’s a restatement of the question, not an explanation. Perhaps you meant that children used to produce wealth, which would be misleading because the young were always net consumers of the previous generation’s production (when the elderly become less productive they also consume less).

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “unicellular organisms like bacteria and algae outmass other life forms on earth by orders of magnitude.”

    Reference?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Tim and Richard, my post today may address your issues.

  • http://ged.msu.edu/ Titus Brown

    Thanks for the welcome, HA!

    Tim, here’s a discussion of the biomass issue:

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_bacteria.html

    It seems pretty up-to-date. It’s tough to find good research-level discussions of this stuff because it’s in introductory textbooks in microbiology now, but Gould comes through!

    From the perspective of diversity, we *know* that there are many more species and varieties of bacteria than any other type, class, or group of organisms; that’s been evident for well over a decade and has been confirmed most spectacularly by the recent metagenomic studies by (among many others) Venter and the JGI. (The only possible exception is viruses, which occupy an uncomfortable niche in the biological hierarchy.)

    Gould says that plant biomass outweights bacteria, which is no doubt correct. Diversity-wise, however, bacteria are far more “successful” than animals or plants.

    As for Robin’s generalizations — I think the emergence of multicellularity certainly counts as a dramatic singularity event! (As does the CNS, probably, if he ever properly dates it 🙂

    –titus

  • Tim Tyler

    Gould offers practically no support for the claim that unicellular organisms like bacteria and algae outmass other life forms on earth by orders of magnitude.

  • Peter St. Onge

    Market processes may reduce this inequality even further – compared to the resources applied to invention, it seems far more resources are subsequently dedicated to “democratization” of demand.

    To illustrate, if 1500 military export markets were well-developed, Zulu armies would certainly be cheaply kitted with firearms and stirrups by the time the British got round to visiting.

  • http://ged.msu.edu/ Titus Brown

    Tim, Gould actually explicitly says that plant biomass is dominant; did you read the link or my comment?? From the perspective of diversity, however, bacteria (and maybe viruses) are clearly present in vast numbers. I could probably find some pop sci books if you want that kind of reference, but I don’t know any off the top of my head. Metagenomics probably has the single best set of scientific references for the vast diversity of non-eukaryotes; here are some references, in increasing order of technical detail:

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

    Sogin et al., http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/103/32/12115

    Venter’s work, e.g.: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/304/5667/66
    ; http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0001456

    Note that in the Sargasso Sea work (Venter Science reference), approximately as many or more proteins were sampled from the Sargasso Sea as had previously been known from all previous bacterial work.

    The Sogin work is particularly straightforward and surprising: by the standard (though arguable) definition of species in bacteria, there is a shocking amount of bacterial diversity present in the ocean. We still don’t have a good upper OR lower estimate on the number of bacterial species, but every time we look at a new microbial niche we find 10s or 100s of thousands of different species.

    The real problem, of course, is that this is an active area of research, so I can’t give you hard and fast numbers: the field of microbial diversity is still figuring out the broad outline of what is out there and what it means. Heck, “diversity” by any of the old definitions (16s RNA, for example) may be the wrong way to think about true diversity, because there’s at least some evidence that many of these bacteria don’t do radically new things. (Many of them do, of course, but many of them don’t :).

    –titus

  • Tim Tyler

    On that page, Gould says, among other things:

    “total bacterial biomass (even at such minimal weight per cell) may exceed all the rest of life combined, even forest trees, once we include the subterranean populations as well”

    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_bacteria.html

    …but he offers no figures in support of this – and even if there were any, it would not support the assertion under discussion – since that refers to “unicellular organisms” and “orders of magnitude”.

  • Nick Tarleton

    In fact I can only think of one sense in which multicellular organisms dominate:

    “A probably tiny initial lineage soon came to dominate the tiny tiny tiny tiny fraction of life on Earth that we humans find interesting to look at.”

    What other single species has caused a mass extinction (except possibly, as you say, the first oxygen producer)?

    The relevant inequalities, it seems to me, are not of genetic or even memetic fitness but of power, as vague as that is.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: What other single species has caused a mass extinction (except possibly, as you say, the first oxygen producer)?

    Something like that happens whenever there is a Genetic Takeover.

    For example, probably at one point only one individual used DNA. Now all known life on Earth is descended from that individual – and all the RNA-based organisms have gone extinct.

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