What Do Nature Lovers Love?

Invasive.org explains who should care about invasive species.  Hikers, Campers:

Invasive plants, such as kudzu, English ivy and Japanese stilt grass can grow over trails and make them harder to follow and navigate through. Natural beauty is reduced by invasives. … Many invasive plants make hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities unpleasant. Exotic stinging needle … can take over camping sites, making it hard to find a good spot to camp.

Gardeners:

Landscape plants that seed freely, like privet … must be weeded out before they take over and displace plants that were painstakingly planted in your garden.

Consider also this review of Lyanda Huapt’s Crow Planet:

[Crows] may be the dark shape of our future. … She admits that she cannot quite love them. … Haupt also appreciates the birds’ intensely social biology. She tells stories of crow “funerals”, when the normally raucous birds gather silently around the body of a dead family member. She emphasises their startling intelligence. …

The crow’s ability to adapt to man-made environments – in contrast to the struggles of more fragile species – has made it one of the planet’s most successful bird species. But this achievement is the source of Haupt’s ambivalence: it’s everyone’s loss, she reminds us, if we create an environment that accommodates only tough survivor species like the crow.

While nature shows and nature lovers often give lip service to the wonders of natural selection, in fact they mainly love the particular species alive now.  When nature adapts to recent changes, nature lovers mostly disapprove.  Most folks react similarly when economic competition creates winners and losers; they say they approve of the competition that led to our current wealth, but they disapprove when new winners, e.g., Walmart or Borders, displace old losers, e.g., small stores.

In contrast, I’ve decided I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today.   So I expect to mostly approve of the future changes competition will bring.  Our descendants may not be beautiful to our eyes, but I expect them to be tough, smart, and scrappy, like the crow.

Added 2Oct: Mark Davis:

Only a few per cent of introduced species are harmful. Most are relatively benign; some, such as the honeybee, can even have beneficial effects. … With the exception of insular environments such as islands and lakes, there are very few examples of extinctions being caused by non-native species.

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  • Caleb

    Our descendants may not be beautiful to our eyes, but I expect them to be tough, smart, and scrappy, like the crow.

    What exactly are you referring to here by “Our descendants”?

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

      Things after us whose features we influence.

  • Jordan Amdahl

    Beauty is one thing, value is another. I’ll make no arguments about beauty because it resides in the eye (sensory order?) of the beholder.

    Jumping from beauty to value, however, is not justified. Natural selection relies more on coercion than on cooperation. Not all emergent phenomena necessarily tend toward the optimal (or the good).

  • michael vassar

    You can make an informed guess about what you mostly love, but you don’t decide what you love, it’s a fact about you, though admittedly one that you may have difficulty verbalizing and vulnerability to verbal overshadowing with regards to.

  • Alex Wilson

    While nature shows and nature lovers often give lip service to the wonders of natural selection, in fact they mainly love the particular species alive now.

    As a nature lover, I believe I pay more than lip service to the wonders of natural selection: were I to live long enough to see unforced (that that occurred before humans became supreme in the natural realm) natural selection I don’t believe I would have too sentimental an attachment to the species of my youth. The changes occurring in my lifetime are mostly a result of a human forcing of natural selection resulting in a considerable reduction of variety. You can believe this leaves us poorer without cursing natural selection.

    (I’m aware that the above paragraph leaves me open to the literalistic criticism that I’m not acknowledging that what is happening now, driven by humans, is also natural selection. Fair enough – but I think the current single-species dominance of the planet is unprecendented enough to stretch the definition of ‘natural’. Regardless, I would still object to Robin’s implication that all nature lovers are implicitly reactionary)

    • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

      Humans also create diversity. The number of species of cats and dogs is increasing.

      Hey! That’s an idea! Want a species saved? Make them pets!

      • Alex Wilson

        The number of species of cats and dogs is decreasing. For instance we’re in the process of losing many of the big cats and wild dogs are also now endangered.

        Of course variety in the morphology of the domestic cat and the domestic dog has been increasing, but as (as far as I know) all of these variants can still interbreed – so each only counts as one species: making two in total.

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

      As humans have prospered, non-human variety has decreased while human variety has increased. On the whole I’d say variety has increased. And yes, humans are “natural.”

      • Jordan Amdahl

        Is there anything that isn’t natural? Not by any objectively reasonable definition I can think of.

      • mikem

        Perhaps there is more variety, but it is variety that depends upon continued human existence.

        I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t really care what happens in the aftermath human extinction, but I for one wouldn’t want the biosphere to be left depleted.

        I’d prefer there to be a good base of diversity to set up the next advanced civilization, like the one we benefited from in setting up ours.

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

        Mikem, I’d rather focus on ensuring the continued existence of our descendants.

  • q

    it’s trivial to prove that at the same level, diversity implies higher utility. this works in almost every domain.

    it’s a simple result of the fact that utility functions are globally convex and that the composition of two convex functions is convex; ie the law of diminishing returns holds, and the relationships thereby engendered hold through time evolution.

  • q

    > I’ve decided I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today

    and you have committed yourself to the fact that the competitive process has not changed? how would you show this?

  • http://www.johnicholas.com Johnicholas

    There are reasons besides “love of nature” to be upset about the mass extinction going on right now.

    Sometimes antibiotics and other drugs are discovered through study of existing species (in rainforests and other places). If those species had gone extinct before they were studied, humans would be worse off.

    Presently, we’re not domesticating new species all that frequently. However, we’ve domesticated species in the past, and benefited greatly by it. Every species that goes extinct is one that we cannot domesticate in the future.

    Near-future nanotechnological designs seem likely to be heavily biomimetic. Having fewer working examples to imitate makes us poorer.

    Even if one only cares about humans, extinction is a loss.

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

      Everything has an opportunity cost. Preserving species is not free; if the growth of the human economy pushes a species into extinction, it probably wasn’t worth preserving.

      • http://www.johnicholas.com Johnicholas

        Fair enough – but I’d like to emphasize that concluding worth (or not-worth) from empirical-success-in-the-market requires the efficient market hypothesis, which is quite strong.

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

        There could of course be market failures whereby some species are lost that should have been saved. But there could also be market failures by which some are saved that should have been lost. Without a more detailed analysis I can’t tell the sign of the errors.

      • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

        What kind of market failure could possibly save a species that should have been lost? The only kind of failure of group rationality that I can imagine might cause that is a government failure. (The other direction, that markets will fail to preserve some species that should be preserved, seems obvious, since species (or information embodied by species) are not owned, so it’s a typical tragedy-of-the-common scenario.)

        If you agree that markets can only fail in one direction on this issue, then the optimal amount of government intervention probably isn’t zero (even taking into account the possibility of government failure).

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

        Weak or ambiguous property rights could be preventing the development of regions, which if developed would drive species extinct.

  • mikem

    I’m all for the most adaptive species surviving, but the short term success of a few species does not necessarily imply long term value.

    The key concern I have in the loss of natural species is the loss of diversity (read: loss of evolved adaptations), and the consequence loss of ability to adapt to changing circumstances as well as a general reduction in robustness. Just because a few species are enjoying short term success in our rapidly changed environment does not mean that they will be able to fill all the adaptive niches which we’ll have in 10, 100, 1000 or a million years. And given the concept of polar traits — traits/adaptations which are hard to evolve but easy to lose — we shouldn’t be confidant that the few tough survivors will be able to quickly regenerate all the lost adaptations from the species which are dying off.

  • http://ville.salmensuu.fi Ville Salmensuu

    We are decreasing species diversity (on-going mass extinction caused by Homo sapiens) without really knowing what is being lost. It will take a pretty long while to regenerate new species to make up for such losses. As ecosystems are complex networks and will affect also our societies for centuries, I’d err on the side of caution for the moment. See for example:

    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/economics/

    Not to talk about the subjective beauty of living nature.

  • Mike

    I think people like to impose some notion of “fair play” to rules of competition.

    It’s OK if one butcher puts another out of business because the loser was lazier or unwilling to work for the same rate of pay. This is seen as “fair play.” But if someone invents a robot butcher, this might put human butchers out of work seemingly through no fault of their own. This draws sympathy from most people, because they sense something “unfair” about the transition.

    I tend to take a middle ground. For the long-term progress of society you should celebrate and adopt the robot butcher, but for social welfare you should provide generous unemployment insurance or whatever to alleviate the temporary hardship of the displaced human butchers. What’s the rationale? For me it’s just basic human sympathy. If somehow someone replaced my work with that of a robot, I’d like it if I were given a fair opportunity to develop a new career as rewarding as the one I have now. The social cost of this is justified by the greater social benefit of replacing my work with that of the robot.

    The analogy to nature is murkier, but I think it’s similar. Invasive species have “unfair” advantages (probably more often they have unfair disadvantages, but we only worry about the former) because they evolved in different environments, against different competitors. In some sense the native plants didn’t get the same “opportunities” as the invading plants (as I said, native plants should average to have had greater opportunity to adapt to the native environment, so invasive plants should tend to be disadvantaged, but sometimes things will work the other way around).

    Something akin to this happened with the confrontation between native Americans and Europeans. The Europeans were able to crush Native American empires because they had the fortune of prior contact with horse breeding, steel manufacture, epidemic diseases, written language, etc. (none of which were developed by the Europeans themselves, except perhaps the diseases, which were unintended). Nowadays we look at this conflict as “unfair.”

    • mattmc

      So you’re saying I should take up robotics?

      I think the thing we can use our intelligence for is to watch out for local minima in the evolutionary process. If a species is eliminated during what is likely to be a temporary condition, we could preserve it for when conditions return to the prevailing trend. Particularly if it is a tasty species or one that provides some other benefits.

  • Pingback: RH doesn’t understand ecology? – false symmetry

  • http://www.philosophyetc.net/ Richard Chappell

    …in fact they mainly love the particular species alive now.

    This is a general point about cherishing intrinsically valuable things.

    I interpret Robin as suggesting that we shouldn’t really cherish the particular products of natural selection; instead, we should regard them as “value receptacles” or instruments for instantiating the abstract value of competitive processes [?]

    Compare how odd it would be to criticize humanitarians for giving “lip service” to the value of humanity, when really what they love is the particular humans that actually exist. While we can imagine an agent who was unconcerned by the prospect of killing existing people and replacing them with marginally happier substitutes, we might wonder whether they’re really responding intelligibly to the intrinsic value of persons.

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

      It would be bad if we worked so hard at preserving existing humans that we prevented the creation of even better descendants to replace them. It is not that the competitive processes are valuable per se, it is that they evolve valuable things. If we let them continue to operate, they will create even more valuable things than we have seen so far.

  • Larry D’Anna

    Except, in the span of time you’re likely to observe it, those fragile species are not going to be replaced by anything new, they’ll just be gone.

  • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

    I’ve decided I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today. So I expect to mostly approve of the future changes competition will bring. Our descendants may not be beautiful to our eyes, but I expect them to be tough, smart, and scrappy, like the crow

    Like this?

    With human labor still in demand, an upload population should explode, and Darwinian evolution of values should once again become a powerful force in human history. Most uploads should quickly come to value life even when life is hard or short, and wages should fall dramatically.

    And this?

    Leading-edge descendants are rapacious and hardscrapple.
    That is, they devote few resources to luxuries that could
    instead be used to speed oasis growth or seed travel.

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

      Yes, those are scenarios of tough, smart, and scrappy descendants, and I’d be proud to be their ancestor.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        It seems to me that Darwinian evolution of human values would lead to lives that were not only hard and short, but also … I am finding it hard to put this into words: devoid of almost all value, where, as an antirealist, I mean value_{Roko2009}.

        For example, you yourself said that the uploads would not have babies and children. They probably wouldn’t have romantic relationships or hobbies or have curiosity for anything outside their chosen specialism. They would be have no personal morals – rather, they would act to maximize their own utility taking into account risk of punishment. They would be our vile offspring, and I would regard their existence as so bad that I would consider such scenarios as only very marginally better than a full-blown existential disaster.

        Now, either I have made factual claims above that you disagree with, or value_{Roko2009} and value_{Hanson2009} are really very different.

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

        They would have descendants, but not kids, deep relations, but perhaps not romance, intense fascinating activities but perhaps not hobbies, morals but perhaps not our morals, and whatever breadth of curiosity was actually most competitive; that seems hard to predict. I could be a proud parent/ancestor, and consider their prospering to be far far better than extinction for all. Perhaps you Roko have never been a parent, and think you could only be proud of a kid who was much like you; we parents know we can be proud of a very wide range of progeny.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        morals but perhaps not our morals

        I am unsure as to what criteria you are implying when you talk about “morals that are distinct from our morals”. For example, can you give me an example of a set of behaviors regarding other agents that a future being could engage in that was “immoral” in the way that you use the term moral? Or does “morals that are distinct from our morals” cover any persistent set of behaviors or behavior patterns regarding other agents that a future being could engage in?

        It seems that you are on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, if you place restrictions upon what behaviors you are prepared to be “proud of”, then you must admit that you only like competition in so far as it doesn’t violate those restrictions.

        If, on the other hand, you claim to be proud of any set of behaviors whatsoever, as long as they are brought about by competition, then unless you have some robust argument that concludes that competition will, in fact, never violate certain constraints and restrictions, you must claim to be proud of arbitrarily “nasty” outcomes. I could list plausible scenarios whereby upload life involves murder and torture of sentient life, as common activities, or you could simply look at some war torn region of Africa where competition is rife.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        I’m proud of Roko. 🙂

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

        By “morals” I mean what an anthropologist or social biologist would mean by the term. I never claimed to be giving a complete logical account describing exactly when I am or am not proud of something. If I said I liked donuts, it wouldn’t mean I always prefer anything that is a donut to anything that is not – this is almost never how anyone talks about their preferences. I’m talking about a tendency in the actual world I expect to see.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        For example, can you give me an example of a set of behaviors regarding other agents that a future being could engage in that was “immoral” in the way that you use the term moral?

        If you have read Accelerando, as your mention of the vile offspring suggests, then you have already seen one possibility; where the settlers in the last section of the book allow their children to fight, torture, even “kill” each other, since the results are not permanent, and it gets them out of the parents’ hair. If you think anyone would consider this moral today, I want to know where so I can avoid them.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        Sorry, that first paragraph was a quote from Roko
        September 15, 2009 at 7:17 pm .

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        “In contrast, I’ve decided I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today. So I expect to mostly approve of the future changes competition will bring. Our descendants may not be beautiful to our eyes, but I expect them to be tough, smart, and scrappy, like the crow.”

        I never claimed to be giving a complete logical account describing exactly when I am or am not proud of something. If I said I liked donuts, it wouldn’t mean I always prefer anything that is a donut to anything that is not – this is almost never how anyone talks about their preferences. I’m talking about a tendency in the actual world I expect to see.

        So do you love the competitive process only when it conforms to certain restrictions? I am confused as to what your position actually is; my best guess is that you love competition up to a point slightly above what I would, for example, you would approve of a planet covered by just one very successful plant species that happened to have won, but I would see that as a loss. I think that we would both agree that competition amongst uploads that led to upload lives that involved no friendship, only legally binding agreements, no romance, and nothing that an anthropologist would identify as “morality” or even family would be a loss. You then seem to conclude that reality will, in fact, never cause a competitive process to violate the boundaries of what you are prepared to tolerate, for example concluding that uploads will have “Deep relations” even if they do not have any friends. But it seems to me that you are likely to be wrong – the same reality that gave us the horrors of child soldiers in Africa will not be kind to he who places faith in the laws of the universe and crosses his fingers hoping that Darwinian evolution of values will produce “Deep Relationships”.

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

        Roko, my approval of one plant taking over a planet depends very much on the features of that plant, and I do not think we agree on the upload scenario. All my approval claims have been relative to what I see as the feasible alternatives. All feasible options can lead to very bad outcomes; the issue is the relative probabilities.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        @Robin:

        So you disagree with

        “competition amongst uploads that led to upload lives that involved no friendship, only legally binding agreements, no romance, and nothing that an anthropologist would identify as “morality” or even family would be a loss.”

        – do you think that uploads who had no friends, no family, no romance, nothing that an anthropologist would identify as “morality” would be a good outcome, or do you think that it is a bad outcome but less bad than all other plausible alternatives? To make this concrete, if you had to choose between a p probability of a present-day western democracy accross the whole world/ (1-p) probability of existential disaster against certainty of the scenario above, for what values of p would you choose the former?

        How would that change if I said “uploads who had no friends, no family, no romance, nothing that an anthropologist would identify as “morality” and no subjective experience or subjective experience of being in constant pain”?

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

        Roko, it would take us a lot of effort to figure out what exactly you mean by your no friends, no morals, etc. scenario, before I could place probabilities and relative values on it. This comment thread probably isn’t the best place to work that out.

      • http://rhollerith.com/contact-richard-hollerith/ Richard Hollerith

        Robin is neither enthusiastic promoter of or wannabe captain in a “Napoleon’s army” type of development that if successful will completely transform the world and probably make choices that no one in the lightcone will ever be able to reverse. Consequently, there is no need for Robin to publish a definition of his morality detailed enough to cover a world completely transformed.

        Napoleon’s army was the target of idealistic hopes and the best apparent chance for a large fraction of the bright ambitious young Frenchmen to gain social status in French society.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        @Eliezer: Well, I guess I have demonstrated the ability to make a mistake once rather than twice ;-0

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        @RichardHollerith:


        development that if successful will completely transform the world and probably make choices that no one in the lightcone will ever be able to reverse.

        Choosing to not act is itself a choice, and supporting competition means supporting certain political stances, including implicitly advocating a future choice to unleash the uploads, which would probably be hard or impossible to reverse. Remember, the time between uploads and the next phase shift to a faster doubling regime is hypothesized – by Robin – to be less than a year (correct me if I am wrong here).

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        @Robin:

        Sure, perhaps a comment thread is not the best place to thrash out the true nature of our difference. I’ll see you at the Summit!

  • Joe Teicher

    Dr. Hanson,

    I don’t know any nature lovers who would claim to love natural selection more than their favorite plants and animals. I can’t honestly imagine such a love. For instance, there are a lot of rabbits that live in my neighborhood. They are really cute, and I like having them around. Now, suppose that a new species of poisonous snake migrated into my area and ate most of the rabbits, and established themselves very successfully. If I am your kind of nature lover then I would think this is great even though I don’t get to see as many cute rabbits, and I have to deal with scary poisonous snakes all the time. I really doubt that you or anyone else would consider this a good thing.

    I love those aspects of nature that are aesthetically pleasing to me, or have utility for me. If natural selection makes nature less good for me, then I am not happy about it. Similarly, if my favorite restaurant closed because it was out-competed by the olive garden across the street I wouldn’t be happy about it. That doesn’t mean that I would want the state to intervene on my behalf, but I would still consider it a loss.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      You are obviously not a gardener. Suburban rabbits are almost as nasty a pest as suburban deer. They have become bad enough in some areas (for example, the Washington suburbs, even some places inside the Beltway) that they have been breeding bad-tasting ornamentals to try to survive their onslaught. They are a good argument for people who want interesting gardens to keep a fenced yard with a couple of big dogs in it. Fences alone, at least those suburban gov’ts are willing to allow, aren’t enough; the fences at Brookside Gardens, a park in Wheaton, MD, are 16 feet high, and deer still sometimes manage to get in. Of course, crows are worse as they can fly, and for some reason don’t like round, green things; I have watched crows hop from limb to limb knocking unripe fruits off onto the ground.

  • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

    Darwinian evolution of values should once again become a powerful force in human history … I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today. So I expect to mostly approve of the future changes competition will bring. …

    And do you like this result of the Darwinian process, or do you think that future results of Darwinian processes will not be metaphorically similar?

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

      We humans have discovered law and contract, which reduce predation, and I’m glad such features will help creatures who have them out-compete those who do not.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Roko’s Dilemma still applies. In less convenient possible worlds, which may indeed be actual worlds, law and contract fail to be the final outcome of the competition. In that case, are you no longer proud of law and contract, or are you no longer proud of the outcome of the competition?

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

        If I had to give exact instructions to an all powerful computer about what I liked and didn’t like, I would of course have to be much more precise about it. But I’m talking to human blog readers now, and so my statements have been guesses about the tendencies I expect to actually appear. I don’t aprove of all possible results of competition, but I still expect to approve of the actual results, relative to attempts to preserve the species, firms, etc. that we happen to have now.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        I still expect to approve of the actual results, relative to attempts to preserve the species, firms, etc. that we happen to have now.

        Yes, I can see that, but I want to know whether you expect to approve because you have made strong assumptions about what is likely to happen, or because you have very very broad criteria for approving of something. For example, would you approve of a world where uploads that had little of what most humans value caused homo sapiens to become extinct, or do you think that there is some “guarantee” from reality that upload life will never (or is very unlikely to) become so nasty as to be completely valueless?

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

        There are no guarantees. My approval is of course some combination of approving of a non-trivial measure of outcomes and assigning a substantial probability to that measure. I don’t see how to quantify this here.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      The evolutionary process works to minimise conflict – because it is a wasteful and inefficient use of resources. Thus we see large numbers of mock battles, lots of signalling intended to avoid direct conflict, and the virtualisation of warfare – as seen in the arenas of business and sport.

      Real conflicts still happen – but the evolutionary process is not done yet. Once the software/hardware divide permeates nature, things will improve further.

  • Eric Johnson

    Larry D’Anna is right. What’s the evidence that lost biodiversity will be replaced by anything within the next 1,000,000 years?

    I’m a green (and paleo-right-libertarian) who can honestly deny any belief that the particular organisms that exist now have any intrinsic value or rights whatsoever. Their value is to man. I don’t know that most greens would agree – but I suspect, contra Robin, that most thinking greens — you know, true Scotsmen 🙂 — would consider it more or less OK if present species were replaced by other species; it’s the rich diversity that matters. On the other hand it’s not impossible that we are somewhat adapted to appreciate the species we have now.

    I rather doubt that ecosystems of diverse artifical organisms can be created by man to replace lost ones (and I’m biologically well educated). If they can be, good – but how do we know?

    > As humans have prospered, non-human variety had decreased while human variety has increased. On the whole I’d say variety has increased.

    Still, they aren’t the same thing. On the margins I enjoy the non-human world much more, myself.

    > Preserving species is not free; if the growth of the human economy pushes a species into extinction, it probably wasn’t worth preserving.

    That’s only true if science never figures out better ways to exploit it later. I’m pro-market, but I don’t imagine that markets have information about the scientific and technological discoveries of the future.

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

      Humanity’s descendants are poised to explode in capability and variety, out-competing other organisms. As I said in the post, you may not find that as pretty. Even if species hold knowledge it need not be worthy preserving them for a long time to obtain it.

      • Eric Johnson

        Robin,
        I’m a transhumanist, but that doesn’t mean I think there will be vast changes or diversifications of humans or humanoids anytime soon. Perhaps we have quite different assumptions: I’m AI-agnostic. I’m also agnostic about the sort of ultra-computing that would allow you to predict the results of novel genetic alterations to human genomes, and thus let you ethically vivify humans carrying those alterations. It certainly hasn’t been done so far: molecular modeling is of only modest utility in drug development (modeling drug interaction with receptors), so far. Tertiary protein structures (ie the 3-d structures that determines function) have not been effectively predicted from protein sequences (or the corresponding, equivalent DNA sequences), so far. I see no reason to be confident that it ever will be.

        The one part of the human being that really matters, the brain, is not understood on a level that lets you engineer it with a free hand, and I see no reason that it necessarily will be.

        Alter new humans by giving them DNA variants that already exist in other humans – fine. That much can certainly be done.

        If your hope lies with urban-adapted taxa like starlings and pigeons, I don’t find them diverse or pretty. I enjoy squirrels and crows just fine but again, there ain’t many taxa of those.

        Starlings, pigeons, herring gulls, squirrels, and racoons could certainly diversify naturally, but that will take 10,000s of human generations to occur. We will be sort of stuck in a rut poetically, meanwhile: will your progeny top Shelly by penning “On a pigeon” in 2093? By the time the year 702,093 AD rolls around, we’ll be back in business.

        As for synthetic non-human non-intelligent organisms, it’s ethical (to me) to create them by tinkering without necessarily computing the results beforehand – but that still doesn’t mean it can be done, IMO. I’m especially skeptical that one can create a whole ecosystem this way and not have 95% of the synthetic taxa rapidly go extinct.

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

        I don’t know what you mean by “soon.” Within a thousand years seems to me a safe bet for our descendants’ exploding.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      Re: I rather doubt that ecosystems of diverse artifical organisms can be created by man to replace lost ones (and I’m biologically well educated). If they can be, good – but how do we know?

      Look at the universe of software – where there are many different types of program, each with many copies. That is roughly the level of diversity to be expected in ecosystems created by man – and we can expect something very similar once we have some more decent robots.

  • pdf23ds

    Just curious, Robin: do you disapprove of, for instance, the provision in some draft versions of the healthcare bills that would grandfather the healthcare plans of existing business while requiring higher levels of care for new businesses? It seems to me such provisions give Walmart and other established companies with minimal coverage for their employees an unfair advantage against newcomers, and thus discourage healthy competition.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Sorry, but that’s a bogus claim about Walmart; their insurance is pretty good, I used to work for them, and know first hand. At least, it’s as good as the last time I had insurance, in the 1980s when I worked for the University of Maryland.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Though I agree with your more general point about large companies using the regulation, as they do all regulation, to keep out real competition.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    “Scrappy”? You expect future fighting – rather than, say, the virtualisation of warfare?

  • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

    I’m going to start using Robin’s love of natural selection as another example of the incoherence of human morality.

    (And I didn’t even have to go outside of WEIRD societies to find them.)

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

      Don’t you want to make sure you understand me first?

      • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

        Umm, if I don’t understand you at this point, probably nobody does. I mean, I’ve read all or most of your published papers, including the ones that Roko linked to, most of your blog posts, all of the comments on this page and your responses… Why do you suspect that I’m misunderstanding you?

      • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

        BTW, I’m not saying that your position is incoherent on its own, but that the morality of the human species as a whole is incoherent. Thought I’d clarify that in case it’s the cause of the confusion.

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

        I probably did read you as saying my position was incoherent; sorry.

    • mattmc

      Why limit yourself to “human morality”? Is there another morality you consider to be “coherent”? Is there even a thing that you can call “human morality”? I doubt such a thing exists, in general.

    • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

      @Wei: Well, if you do that, I’m probably going to respond by pointing out that Robin refused to choose at the point where Roko pressed him to specifically endorse a particular inhumane outcome or else deny that it would be an acceptable outcome of competition. Which suggests that Robin has some measure of allegiance to competition, but something like ordinary human morality alongside it, and so would lose either way if forced to choose even hypothetically.

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

        I refused to make a choice I when I didn’t understand the options.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        I think that there is an implicit agreement that when Robin is presented with a sufficiently-detailed-to-be-understandable description of a particular upload life that I deem as “inhumane”, he will choose. I may do an OB post to describe such a scenario.

  • jonathan

    The contradictions buried inside this post are shown as:

    1. Invasive species are brought into an area through some intervention. While we can find examples of lizards borne on the ocean to a new island, we’re generally talking about human intervention. Zebra mussels brought in ballast that’s then discharged without being filtered – and often illegally. Plants imported for ornamental use – like Japanese knotweed – with ignorance of how they spread. Species brought in for hunting – or taken from one area to another (as when southern raccoons were transported north, bringing rabies with them). Other plants and species brought in to control ones that have no natural limits.

    2. Humans then interact with these invasive species which humans brought in.

    3. You are objecting to 2 when 2 is a natural response to 1 and thus describes a balancing system in which we make changes, object to changes and end up with something other than what we intend either way. We can’t eliminate Japanese knotweed, but that’s no reason not to try to keep it off some landscapes that people value – just as the knotweed was imported to make a landscape that people would then value more.

    • mattmc

      “Invasive species are brought into an area through some intervention.”
      Not always, in many cases they migrate. Is a parasite on the side of a whale any different? All species were invasive species at some point.

      #2 doesn’t make any sense to me. How it is a contradiction? Hanson points out that opposition to invasiveness is showing a preference for weaker species, which creates a weaker ecology. That doesn’t prevent you from having that preference.

      • jonathan

        I thought my point was obvious: that what people generally refer to as invasive species – not your “specious” argument that everything was at one time invasive* – are part of a give and take in which humans are on both sides. That is the system. It is, I would argue, the only possible system and thus complaining about efforts to combat certain invasive species is complaining about the real natural order. Adam Smith discussed these concepts. It’s not new.

        *If you are actually of the point of view of unreally extreme laissez-faire, then do you stand in the middle of the street and let cars hit you? Do you not make plans for your life? Do you not insulate your house? It’s reductionist fantasy to say everything was invasive. If you get cancer, you going to shrug your shoulders and say, “Let’s just see what happens.”

      • magfrump

        “preference for weaker species, which creates a weaker ecology.”

        How is human interest related to the survival strength of a species? It is more related to novel mutations (tangible utility), cuteness (less-tangible utility), and possibly sympathetic preference for life over death. Taking action to preserve these things is in human interest. Nature-lover ideology often refers to the cuteness factor, but it also references human utility (i.e. from whatever rare species of undiscovered amazonian frog). Humans naturally interact with these species (i.e. by chopping down forests and building roads) which can take away from human utility (by killing off undiscovered cancer-curing frogs and replacing them with crows, which we already have a bunch of).

        Saying that “building roads is bad” is different from saying “previously building roads gave us high utility, but now the utility of not-building is potentially higher because cancer-curing frogs might live in those roads.”

        Human behavior changes because conditions change. This is (I hope?) the contradiction jonathan referred to.

        i.e. in the past, there were no limits on businesses and lots of competition. Now, there is less competition because big businesses can squash it. Since conditions have changed (the size of businesses and their power) maybe a different response (regulation of business power) will create more utility (competition among coffee shops rather than 4 Starbucks on one block that are all closed at 9 pm on Saturday).

  • Dan

    People don’t like monopolistic mono cultures… no surprise there.
    Regarding invasive species that is what will happen. Sure diversity will return but want to wait a couple of million years? Also when it is a result of human activities, it is seen as avoidable…
    Regarding social Darwinism people like that even less… individual competition is dead, but got replaced by organizational competition that seems to work better.

  • Yvain

    What if our descendants look less like crows, and more like featureless, low-intelligence grey goo nanobots capable only of eating mass and reproducing?

    As the last few molecules of non-nanobot material on Earth were consumed and transformed into Nanobot # 31146784382006, would you smile and say “Yup, those tough, scrappy nanobots sure did a great job of out-competing everything else on Earth, good for them!”, or would you wonder if maybe something had been lost in the transition from “thriving diverse planet full of ecosystems and civilizations” to “four thousand mile radius ball of grey goo”?

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

      Liking something on average doesn’t mean liking every possible instance.

      • Yvain

        Okay, but what, exactly, would you dislike about the nanobot instance, and do you think it’s the same thing nature lovers dislike about the destruction of ecosystems?

        I only used that example because I can’t put my intuition on this subject into words, but I was hoping you shared the same intuition in some circumstances and might be able to do so.

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

        Dumb nanobots could be out-competed by smart ones, but nanobot replication might be so reliable that smart ones never evolve here, and so life here would only spread slowly into the rest of the universe. When smart aliens eventually arrived, they would easily wipe out the dumb nanobots. The dumb nanobot takeover would be a shame because it would have thrown away all the useful design insights embodied in the other life it destroyed.

      • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Liking something on average doesn’t mean liking every possible instance.

        That sounds like quite a loophole. What are some other possible outcomes of evolutionary competition which you would not approve? Is evolutionary competition approved for itself, or only in virtue of its instrumental value in optimizing under some higher criterion? What is that higher criterion?

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

        “Loopholes” can appear in language requiring legal precision, similar to “bugs” appearing in computer code. I am not speaking in such a style, and cannot offer a precise compact description of what I value in all cases. I approve competition because it tends to make good things, though it is hardly guaranteed to always do so. But I know of no other feasible process I’d trust more to make good things.

      • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

        I approve competition because it tends to make good things, though it is hardly guaranteed to always do so. But I know of no other feasible process I’d trust more to make good things

        I think that the fact that competitive processes have made good things like us – what Eliezer would call the moral miracle – is not a good guarantee that they will continue to do so in the future, because all of the good things that competition made that we find around us are highly correlated to us. For example, subjective experience may not be necessary for intelligence, it may be a byproduct of this particular way that evolution happened.

        If you have some criteria of goodness apart from the competitive process, then it would be nice if those criteria were put in charge of the universe instead of competition.

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

        Our choices are limited. We can choose between processes to encourage or discourage, and we may choose our criteria to evaluate these processes, but there is unlikely to be a one-to-one correspondence between available processes and possible evaluation criteria.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      The “dumb nanobot” scenario is incredibly unlikely – and the “dumb nanobot that can’t evolve” scenario is even more ridiculous. Do we really need to spend time considering such thought experiments?

  • Adam

    Mr. Hanson you do not address the issue of equal opportunity. If as a society we fail to do our best to equalize the opportunities available to each individual, how will we end up with the best descendants? Isn’t the competition rigged in favor of the have’s and their immediate off-springs?

  • Eric Johnson

    > I don’t know what you mean by “soon.” Within a thousand years seems to me a safe bet for our descendants’ exploding.

    Though it may not quite be necessary to do so, I’ll go so far as to say “ever.”

    We’ve been on a heck of a roll since Copernicus, but one doesn’t get any certainty out of extrapolating that. Near-certainty or even mere confidence only comes from plotting the course, at least in broad outline. I think attaching computer prostheses to the brain is not something to count on; it requires a serious grasp of the brain. That leaves genetic alterations, some of which can certainly be done ethically – I would nearly (but not quite) count on the ability of science to soon produce plentiful numbers of people as smart as the smartest we have today, and maybe smarter. You don’t need a detailed grasp of the brain to do this. You can use existing alleles. And it *may* be ethical to *very* incrementally alter the transcription rates of certain genes using novel alleles. Even if you just brought cloning to a high safety standard such that we became prepared to clone humans, you could simply create 100 Richard Feynmans, and right there you’d already be well on your way to abundant production of geniuses. (I mention human cloning partly to point out that I’m not using hide-bound or over-squeamish standards of ethics.)

    But get a god’s eye view of genome sequence space, using a computer to simulate almost perfectly the entire development of the organism, so we anticipate the effects of radical genomic changes? Within a thousand years? How can one possibly be confident of this? I hope it happens, but we need to be very seriously prepared for it not happening. Unbounded beauty, greatness, and joy may or may not be possible; we need to protect the means of beauty, greatness, and joy that we already have.

    What exactly is the justification for confidence in the advent of technologies we cannot even *broadly* explain today?… confidence, not conceivability: I know that all these things are perfectly conceivable.

  • mjgeddes

    Endless competition is not a stable state – all it would take was one agent with a big power advantage to gain total control and stamp out the very meta-notion of ‘competition’ itself. If you counter that some sub-systems could be designed to protect the meta-notion of ‘competition’ itself, the same problem arises if these sub-systems were also competitive, since they too could be subverted.

    In an ideal market, total competition is zero surely? – what is optimal is simply to have every single agent in their own unique niche, doing what they do best.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      Then the environment changes slightly and they all die off. Real bright.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      There has been quite a bit of competition over the past 3.7 billion years – it has certainly been a stable state so far. Any agents with big power advantages in the past have tended to reproduce – and then their descendants diverged and competed among each other.

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

    I just added to this post.