Capitas Vs. Per Capita

From a recent Science:

Agriculture and cities made human life better, right? Wrong, say archaeologists who presented stunning new evidence at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting. They pooled data on standardized indicators of health from skeletal remains, including stature, dental health, degenerative joint disease, anemia, trauma, and the isotopic signatures of what they ate, and gathered data on settlement size, latitude, and socioeconomic and subsistence patterns. They found that the health of many Europeans began to worsen markedly about 3000 years ago, after agriculture became widely adopted in Europe and during the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations. …

The team presented the first analysis of data on 11,000 individuals who lived from 3000 years ago until 200 years ago through Europe and the Mediterranean … The project has taken 8 years and $1.2 million to organize so far.

The longest term trends we can see clearly forecast growth in the total capacity and power of humanity and its descendants. But this does not imply growth in the quality of individual lives.  While individual lives may have improved on average over the last two hundred years, over longer timescales we have seen sustained and substantial declines. 

Looking to the future, we can have far more confidence in a continued growth in total capacity than in improved quality of individual lives.  If, like me, you count the vast increase in the number of lives worth living as a grand and glorious thing, you'll think the future a better place even if individual lives get somewhat worse.  If, like many others, you care little about creatures who do not yet exist, you can reasonably think the future will be a worse place. 

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  • http://ssmag.wordpress.com PeterW

    Having escaped a Malthusian trap what is your basis for thinking that quality of living will decline, barring technological collapse?

  • Phil

    What is your tradeoff between number of people and quality of life? For instance, would you put another billion people on earth now, if the result was that everyone’s quality of life were to drop 10%? (Assume the extra billion wind up at the median.)

    If you say yes, then what about 20%, or 30%? At what point do the interests of the unborn billion equal the decline in living standards of everyone else?

  • psychohistorian

    First of all, it seems more accurate to label them as “little creatures that DO NOT exist.” Quantifying utility over potential people seems to lead to some pretty serious divide by zero errors.

    That aside, “While individual lives may have improved on average over the last two hundred years, over longer timescales we have seen sustained and substantial declines,” is true only if “longer time scales” explicitly exclude the last 100 years or so. Recent gains exceed historical losses by a very wide margin.

    Incidentally, how do you avoid the Mere addition paradox, or do you? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_addition_paradox)

  • Tony

    Wow, it would never have occurred to me that having more people in the world would, in itself, be a better thing. I can’t imagine why it’s even desirable, let alone “grand and glorious”. I guess that makes me a misanthrope, because I value nature way more than other people, and frankly resent having to share such a nice planet with so many of them.

    Ignoring the technological nicities that are enabled by population density (especially antibiotics!), it seems to me that the best possible life would be to live in a small and peaceful tribe on a (very) sparsely populated planet, with all its natural resources at your disposal.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Tony, would you forgo existing if it meant someone else could live in such a place?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: “Agriculture and cities made human life better, right? Wrong, say archaeologists who presented stunning new evidence […]”

    The evidence may be new – but the findings are not – this has been known for a long time. It looks like spin by the editors to imply that the findings are more revolutionary than they are.

  • http://macroethics.blogspot.com nazgulnarsil

    this is easily explained as our diet diverging from the environment it was adapted to. we consume huge amounts of carbohydrates relative to chimpanzees. all these carb staples require lots of preparation to be edible. corn, beans, wheat, rice etc are not consumable in their natural form.

  • psychohistorian

    “Tony, would you forgo existing if it meant someone else could live in such a place?”

    This is that divide by zero problem.

    Tony already exists, and it seems conceptually impossible to forgo existence. It is possible to forgo continuing to exist by dying, but it isn’t possible to forgo all the existing you’ve already done. Furthermore, you can’t compare your existence to your non-existence, because there is quite literally nothing on half of the comparison. Not zero; nothing, undefined. “10 > (12/0)” is not true OR false; it’s meaningless.

    More simply put, not producing more people is a victimless crime.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Peter, see here.

    Phil, I don’t have an exact formula to offer, but choices behind a veil of ignorance seem relevant. If I saw my chance of existing given a scenario as proportional to population, and my quality of life given existence to be a random draw from that scenario, which scenario would I prefer?

    psycho, I don’t find the repugnant conclusion repugnant.

    Tim, agreed, the basic result isn’t news.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    psychohistorian, where do you divide by zero in this?

  • psychohistorian

    Katja – You’re trying to compare utility for an existing entity (U/1) over utility for a non-existing entity (U*/0). Divide by zero might not be the best term for it, but any attempt to compare an existent person to a non-existent person (as you seem to be asking Tony to do) runs into an undefined quantity problem.

    More generally, comparing utility between two potential populations A and B, where A>B, can generate this problem, since the utility of additional members of A is (arguably) being compared to that of nonexistent members of B. There’s a sense in which it’s meaningless to say A is better off because it has more people who’s lives are worth living, since those “more people” are opposed to non-existent people, who’s utility is not zero, but undefined.

    If you treat it as zero, you get Robin’s conclusion, as people with positive utility value > 0. If you treat it as undefined, this conclusion does not follow, as people with positive utility value cannot be compared to non-existent people, which is their theoretical alternative.

    I personally would choose the society based on which one, *given* that I exist, I would want to exist in, and the smaller, richer population clearly seems superior in this context. Evaluating utility with existence as a prerequisite makes more sense to me than the alternative.

  • Daniel Griffin

    For everyone’s benefit, regarding Robin Hanson’s comment: veil of ignorance (John Rawls)

  • Patri Friedman

    There is more going on here than just quantity vs. quality.

    The Agricultural Revolution was a necessary precursor to the Industrial Revolution, because agriculture is necessary to get the quantity to have enough gains from trade and generation of ideas. The former made life quality worse, but the latter made quality better. I suspect the future will be much more like the Industrial Revolution (resources less important, ideas more important, thus huge gains to everyone from a large population). So I expect quality to keep increasing for awhile.

  • Patri Friedman

    Tony – you are missing the fact that natural resources are a small (< 10%) part of the economy. Most of the modern economy is ideas. The larger the population, the more ideas we can all share. Your sparsely populated planet will be poor. If that's what you want, fine, just understand that you are sacrificing technological development. It will not be long before each individual on a dense tech planet has an annual income equal to your entire planet's GDP. Which means you are likely at their mercy in warfare, and can only keep your planet if they let you. Not the path for me.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Patri, the key issue is not the importance of ideas relative to resources, but the growth rate of the economy relative to that of the population of people. A new technology that allowed a sudden and large increase in the growth rate of people could drastically reduce per capita wealth, even if the total growth rate remained large.

  • Leonid

    Is it possible you are making too much of this study?

    In the primitive societies only the healthiest individuals survive into the adulthood. By focusing on parameters relevant mainly to the adults (“stature, dental health, degenerative joint disease…”), you may find more about what it takes to survive in a given environment than about the actual environmental impact on the life quality.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jhertzli Joseph Hertzlinger

    Doesn’t a higher rate of population growth imply a lower death rate?

  • mitchell porter

    “If, like me, you count the vast increase in the number of lives worth living as a grand and glorious thing, you’ll think the future a better place even if individual lives get somewhat worse.”

    There has to be something wrong with this when every one of those future individuals would regard themselves as having been better off in a less-crowded world.

    Let’s go over this. We have two scenarios: a less populated future with a higher individual quality of life, and a more populated future with a lower quality of life. When everyone in the second scenario is worse off than everyone in the first scenario, how can you regard the second scenario as better than the first?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Mitchell, the whole point is that some people don’t exist your first scenario, which is an outcome those people prefer less than the second scenario outcome, where they exist.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com Vijay Krishnan

    @Robin:

    It is true that people prefer living miserable lives to dying. It is not clear that they prefer living miserable lives to having never been born! I am evolutionarily trained to not be a big fan of dying. To steal from a popular quote (Mark Twain I think):

    I have been dead for billions of years prior to this life and have not suffered the slightest inconvenience!

    I suspect this is also one of the reasons you strongly support cryonics. You seem to not draw a clear distinction between avoiding dying (with the familiar notions of dying in place) and between some relatively theoretical and freaky form of existence that cryonics offers. I am evolutionarily trained to like the idea of being treated by doctors, have a longer lifespan etc. in the normal sense. I have zero evolutionary training in whether I should like something like cryonics or existence in a theoretical sense, which was probably only an idle philosophical question so far.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I suspect this is also one of the reasons you strongly support cryonics. You seem to not draw a clear distinction between avoiding dying (with the familiar notions of dying in place) and between some relatively theoretical and freaky form of existence that cryonics offers.

    Please don’t leap to conclusions like that; I, for instance, strongly support cryonics while strongly disagreeing with Robin’s stance on population ethics.

  • Ricardo Cruz

    What’s the surprise? 3 millenniums ago only the strongest survived past childhood and had children, so of course those skeletons are going to look fit. Besides, people developed their bodies with the intense labor and died at their prime age.

  • http://liberatingminds.forumotion.com/forum.htm Vichy

    Quality of life is entirely subjective. It is quite possible that many people are actually less happy than they would be in a hunter-gatherer tribal society. Which would explain why, since Plato at least, they have striven to recreate it.

  • mitchell porter

    “the whole point is that some people don’t exist in your first scenario, which is an outcome those people prefer less than the second scenario outcome, where they exist.”

    This is one of those cases of Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning where one feels that an enormous fallacy is being committed, but the very alienness of what is being asserted makes it hard to guess what assumptions make it seem plausible to the other person, which in turn makes it a little difficult to engage with.

    I could begin by observing that once a person exists, possible worlds in which they never exist are no longer possible for them, and thus no longer of practical significance. Choosing between this world, in which I exist, and some other world, in which I never exist, is not like choosing between one future and another future for this world. It is also simply not the case that I (or anyone else) will necessarily favor any world that happens to contain me over every world that does not. If I am asked to imagine a utopian alternative history which diverges from this one thousands of years ago, and then asked whether that world is better than this one, I really ought to say that world is the better one, even though I’m not in it, because it is a utopia and this is not.

    But maybe I’m missing the point.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Chip Smith sent me the following regarding antinatalism, but it seems appropriate here:

    The Fehig essay is called “A Pareto Principle for Possible People.” I haven’t read it, but it’s discussed by Benatar [author of “Better To Have Never Been”]. It’s weird as intuition pumps go (there’s a pill creates a desire that is either met or denied and the asymmetry is thus addressed without the existential predicate that leads people to squawk about non-identity).

    Do you folks think it is morally preferable to be given a desire which is then satisfied relative to doing nothing or just neutral? Would you carry over the logic to creating a new life you expect to possess positive utility, or do you think there is an important distinction?

  • nick

    Robin: “[From behind a veil of ignorance] If I saw my chance of existing given a scenario as proportional to population, and my quality of life given existence to be a random draw from that scenario, which scenario would I prefer?”

    Well, that depends. How pleasant is life behind the veil of ignorance? Is real existence better or worse?

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Mitchell,

    “This is one of those cases of Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning where one feels that an enormous fallacy is being committed, but the very alienness of what is being asserted makes it hard to guess what assumptions make it seem plausible to the other person, which in turn makes it a little difficult to engage with.”

    If you can’t pin down a fallacy, maybe it’s the lack of one that makes somebody else find it plausible? If it’s just your feeling of alienness about the assertion, why do you think your feeling on that is likely to be more reliable than others’ feelings plus their reasoning?

    In the second part of your next paragraph you say you can prefer worlds you aren’t in. You do so because of the people in the worlds who will enjoy them presumably. Why can’t I do the same for future possible worlds containing people who don’t exist yet? Why does it matter that once they do exist past possibilities of them not are irrelevant? Their judgement on the matter isn’t important to whether we should prefer such worlds.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Psychohistorian,

    “Katja – You’re trying to compare utility for an existing entity (U/1) over utility for a non-existing entity (U*/0). Divide by zero might not be the best term for it, but any attempt to compare an existent person to a non-existent person (as you seem to be asking Tony to do) runs into an undefined quantity problem.”

    So the same problem I run into when I wonder whether if I had another jar I could fit more jelly beans into it – I don’t have the jar yet, so the calculation would be (extra beans)/(number of extra jars I have now) = 100/0 = oh no!
    Is there a pertinent difference I’m missing, or do I need to give up making judgments about future quantities all together?

  • mitchell porter

    Katja – let me try to paraphrase the argument so far. It won’t get the subtleties exactly right but I hope it makes the central issues clear.

    I said that a world of a few happy people is better than a world of many unhappy people.

    Robin said that the many unhappy people would still prefer their world to the world of a few happy people, because they don’t exist in the latter world. And I gather he also thinks that we in this world should prefer the unhappy world to the happy world because there are more people (or people-who-want-to-live) in it. And finally this is presented as a reason to be enthusiastic about highly populated but possibly unhappy futures in this world.

    In response I first drew the distinction between preferences that can make a difference, and preferences which are purely of abstract significance – which in being voiced express an aesthetic or ethical value, but which do not correspond to a choice of outcomes. When the people of the unhappy world are asked to express a preference between the unhappy world and the happy world, it is a purely abstract preference. They are already in the unhappy world and nothing can undo that. So it is at the very least a contingent matter as to whether they will say that their world is better than the abstract alternative.

    The next issue concerns abstract preferences as expressed by us in this world. Robin asks us to judge one world as better than another basically by counting up the number of people in it who want to live (I am guessing that this is the criterion of “lives worth living”). I don’t know if he would amend this principle in additive-utilitarian fashion by making quality of life a matter of degree; in that case a few very happy people might trump a slightly larger number of miserable people. But we seem to be coming close to the view that a galaxy full of people who are miserable, but not so miserable as to commit suicide, is better than a single planet of extremely happy people. I believe this is the “repugnant conclusion” and Robin says above he does not find it repugnant, whereas I regard it as a reductio ad absurdum of naive additive utilitarianism.

    The final issue concerns the consequential preferences we express in this world regarding our own possible futures. Should we regard a future for this world, our world, that is miserable but populous, as better than one which is happy but sparsely populated? Robin apparently says yes, I say no.

    I hope that this addresses your second batch of questions by providing the context to what I wrote. As to whether there’s a fallacy in Robin’s argument or not – the belief there’s a fallacy comes from the sense that the proposition is absurd, and the inability to pin down the specific fallacy comes from not knowing the specific perspective from which it nonetheless appears reasonable to Robin.

  • steven

    Mitchell, if a life is worth living, that means it’s on the whole at least slightly happy, not “miserable”.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Mitchell, Robin Hanson is made of many selves who live at different times. The current self who writes this is glad to be alive, and so is glad Robin Hanson did not die in his sleep last night. You might say that if I were dead I wouldn’t have preferences, but my preferences about such things don’t change much from day to day so the preferences of my yesterday self are a good proxy for my preferences now. It is not just that yesterday’s self feels altruism toward today’s self; it is that he liked to be alive too, and he correctly anticipated that I’d feel the same.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Mitchell, what’s wrong with the repugnant conclusion? I agree that you find it repugnant, but we seem to disagree on how much evidence that is against its being grand and glorious. We have a bunch of intuitions and reasons, and they don’t come to the same conclusion, so why don’t we try to work out which is flawed?

    Why intuitions on this seem likely to be bad evidence:

    1) Human moral intuitions generally don’t react a lot for people who can’t return influence (e.g. distant people, other groups, people likely to keep suffering, strangers, sufferers of omissions rather than actions [hard to apportion blame], omissions in crowds). Those who don’t exist yet are the extreme of this. So no reason our feelings should be attuned to their interests.

    2) It is easier to imagine the difference between happier and sadder than between one person being happy and two from the inside. I can’t imagine being two people easily, let alone a galaxy full. So I would expect level of happiness to be accounted for in feelings much more than number living.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Katja wrote:

    > I can’t imagine being two people easily, let alone a galaxy full.

    Approximate being two people as living twice as long.

  • Allen

    Given time, I would think that evolution will always produce people who consider any given life to be worth living, even if that life really really really sucks. And those people will then have a survival advantage, and produce more offspring, who will be even more tolerant of low living standards, and so on. Eventually, what we originally considered to be pure hell would be considered by these “evolved” humans to be quite acceptable.