Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

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Collusion In Quadratic Voting

Two weeks ago I posted on the idea of quadratic voting, where voters pay a cost to buy votes, a cost that goes as the square of the number of votes they buy. Under certain reasonable assumptions, this voting system should produce economically efficient outcomes! Since so many get so obsessed with the objection that the rich might buy more votes, I focused on a “voting quarks” variation, wherein everyone gets the same number of points to spend across many elections.

I mentioned that this system could make agenda-setting more important. And if we did not ensure anonymous voting, there could also be a problem with some paying others to vote certain ways. On reflection, however, what I most worry about is that collusive voting becomes a bigger issue under quadratic voting, relative to ordinary voting.

How strongly you care about an election outcome depends on how much of a difference it makes to outcomes you care about, and on your chance of being pivotal, so that the election turns on your vote. Under ordinary voting, how much you care influences 1) if you bother to vote at all, and 2) how much effort you put into getting relevant info. But under quadratic voting, we must also add 3) how many votes you buy.

Without collusion, i.e., with each voter choosing independently, then under ordinary voting everyone has the same chance to be pivotal. So then if voting were mainly done to influence election outcomes, the election outcome would become a weighted average, among those who care enough to bother to vote, of how well informed each voter is, times the sign of their preference on the election. Note that the weights satiate, however; once you care enough to bother and are well informed, it doesn’t matter if you care a lot more or get much better informed.

When a group of voters colludes to vote as a block, then their chance of being pivotal is roughly proportional to the number of votes that their block controls. This proportionally increases their collective interest in bothering to vote, and in getting info. So they have a stronger interest in getting themselves to vote, and in getting info about which way to vote. But, this effect satiates at the point where they will pretty surely vote and are pretty sure which way to vote. So the possibility of block voting does end up adding an additional weight favoring groups who can coordinate, but all groups who can coordinate above some level count the same.

Under quadratic voting, colluding groups acquire an additional advantage, because they also have a stronger group interest in buying more votes. And importantly, this advantage does not satiate, but continues to grow with the size of the group. So the election outcome much more strongly weighs the ability of people to form larger groups that coordinate to vote as a block. I’m not at all sure this would be a good thing.

Added 5a: I was wrong to say that collusion gains satiate once a group is sure to vote and sure how they want to vote. A group also gains from internal vote trading, and this gain continues to larger groups. This gain happens in both ordinary and quadratic voting.

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Is `Libby’ A Slur?

I recently used the the word “Jews” in a draft, and someone suggested that might be offensive, and that I should instead used something like “people of Jewish descent.” I asked around, and while most people didn’t see any offense, at least a few thought that a few others would take offense.

I suspect people are using a simple signaling heuristic here. When people insult or denigrate something they tend to do so with short familiar easy to say and understand words and phrases. So when other people want to signal that they do not intend to insult or denigrate something, they instead choose long awkward words and phrases.

Also, it is probably in fact easier for listeners to unthinkingly apply stereotypes when they hear short easy words and phrases. There is less time for thought, and less thought is needed. In contrast, long awkward words and phrases directly invite more conscious reflection on what is being said. In addition, using a noun rather than an adjective to indicate a feature may invite listeners to see that feature as more essential.

This fits with many racial and ethnic slurs and their “politically correct” alternatives. For example, “African american” is less short and easy than “black” or “negro” (which is just “black” in Spanish). And “a Chinese person” is apparently less likely to offend than “a Chinese”.

I’ve been involved in several communities specialized in concepts associated with these relatively easy words: “nanotech”, “transhuman”, and “singularity.” When their concept got popular and used much by others, insiders lost control over their words’ public associations. In each case, insiders then began media campaigns to try to substitute another new phrase.

The new phrases were: “atomically-precise manufacturing”, “humanity plus” and “artificial intelligence risk”. In each case, the new approved phrases were longer and more awkward, and so less likely to be used by a wider public. But even if these new phrases never caught on with outsiders, insiders could still use them to signal loyalty to these groups.

We can also note the related phenomena of people preferring long awkward titles for their jobs, like “Vice President of Social Advertising Media and Sales”. And academics often prefer long awkward names for academic theories and fields, like “construal level theory” instead of “near/far effects”.

While I understand this overall urge, I feel inclined to usually resist it. After all, the more groups for which we use long awkward phrases to show that we are not insulting them, the longer and more awkward our communication becomes. And if we are not willing to treat all groups this way, then our signals become relative – we must end up showing that we care more about not insulting some groups than we do about other groups.

Libertarians may think themselves immune from this. But I’d guess that if libertarians were often called “libbies”, and if that word were often used within insults and criticisms of libertarians, then libertarians might well get in the habit of saying that they felt insulted by that word, saying in effect “You insult us if you do not show your respect for us by using all five syllables of our official name.”

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Ritual Instinct

Humans have an instinct that is specific to arbitrary rituals, which we see as signaling group loyalty:

Show a child how to perform some action that they haven’t seen before, and they will faithfully replicate not only the steps required to achieve the goal, but also superfluous ones. Why they do this is a puzzle, especially as other animals do not. … What if children can identify actions as causally opaque? If so, perhaps their brains see them as a cue to switch from normal reasoning to a “ritual stance” in which they interpret the behaviour of others as social signals, and go out of their way to copy them. … Children copy apparently aimless sequences of actions more faithfully than sequences that move towards an obvious goal. …

Group one saw one person doing the actions, and watched the video twice. Group two saw videos of two people performing the same manipulation in succession. Group three watched two people performing the actions in synchrony. And group four saw the synchronised demonstration video twice. The accuracy with which the children subsequently copied the nonsensical actions increased progressively from groups one to four. … The children who had seen the spectre of ostracism copied more accurately, and the effect was especially marked when ritualistic actions were involved. … This effect is even stronger when kids are ostracised from a group with which they identify. …

Members of two groups spent 7 minutes making necklaces in synchrony with other group members, following a script such as “first we add a green heart, then an orange square”, and so on. Another two groups were simply given beads and allowed to spend 7 minutes stringing them up however they wished. … Those who had worked together ritualistically reported a greater sense of connection to their group than those who made freestyle necklaces. (more)

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Why Not Sell Cities?

Economists don’t like seeing economic inefficiency, and there’s a lot of it out there to bother us. But some of the very worst we see is in cities; there are many incredible inefficiencies in city land use and in supporting utilities. Which of course makes economists wonder: how could we do better?

Here is one idea that should seem obvious to most economists, but even so I can’t find much discussion of it. So let me try to think it through. What if we auctioned off cities, whole?

Specifically, imagine that we sell all the land and immobile property in an urban region, including all the municipal property, plus all the rights to make urban governance choices. We sell this to a single buyer, who might of course be a consortium. The winning bid would have to be higher than the prior sum of all regional property values, plus a gain of say 50%. The money would be paid to all the prior property owners in proportion to prior property values. (“Prior” should be well before the auction was announced.)

The winning buyer would control all property and governance in this region for a specific time period, say twenty years, after which they’d have to divide the region into at least a thousand property units and auction all them off again individually. Urban governance would revert back to its previous system, except that there’d be a single up-or-down vote on one proposal for a new governance regime offered by this buyer, using previous rules about who can vote in such things.

The idea here is of course to “internalize the externalities”, at least for a while. This single buyer would encompass most of the varying conflicting interests that usually cause existing inefficiencies. And they’d have the power to resolve these conflicts decisively.

OK, now let’s ask: what could go wrong? Well first maybe no bidder could actually collect enough money to make a big enough bid. Or maybe the city inefficiencies aren’t big enough to produce the 50% added value requirement. Or twenty years isn’t long enough to fix the deep problems. Or maybe the plan leaks out too early and pushes up “prior” property values. In these cases, there’d be no change, so not much would be lost.

Another thing that could go wrong would be that larger units of government, like states or nations, might try to tax or regulate this single buyer so much as to take away most of their gains from this process. In expectation of this outcome, no one would bid enough for the city. And again there’d be no change, so little would be lost. So we should try to set this up to avoid such taxation/regulation, but knowing that the downside isn’t terrible if we fail.

Finally, the new city owner might price-discriminate against residents who are especially attached to the city, and so are especially unwilling to leave. Like an old couple whose children all live nearby. Or a big firm with an expensive plant located there. If the new owner cranks up their rent high, these folks might lose on net, even if they are paid a 50% bonus on property values. Of course one might try to set rules to limit price-discrimination, though that might create the over-regulate scenario above. Also, if selling off cities whole became a regular thing, then people may learn to not get too attached to any one city.

I don’t see any of these problems as overwhelming, so I’d endorse trying to do this. But I don’t actually expect many places to try it, because I think most voters whose support would be needed would see their status as threatened. They’d be offended by the very idea of a single powerful actor having strong control over their lives, even if that actor had to pay dearly for the right, and even if they end up better off as a result. So I’d guess it is pride that most goeth before our city falls.

As I’ve mentioned before, people tend to love cities even as they hate firms, mainly because firms tend for-profit, while cities tend democratic. People now mostly accept for-profit firms because the non-profit ones don’t offer attractive jobs or products. Similarly, I’d predict that if there were many for-profit cities most people would be okay with them, as they’d be reluctant to move to worse-run non-profit cities. Also, if almost all firms were non-profit, people might be reluctant to rely on for-profit firms due to their bad public image. Multiple equilibria are possible here, and we may not be in the best one.

Added 9p: Many commentaries seem to fear private city owners evicting undesirable people from the city, in contrast to democratically controlled cities which they see as fountains of altruism toward such people. But see here, here, here, or consider that democracies regularly vote to exclude immigrants who would in fact benefit them materially.

Added 9a:

At the state and local level, government is indeed engaged in redistribution — but it’s redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. (more)

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Trade Quarks, Not Votes

If you don’t care about some election today all you can do is abstain, but what if you could instead save your vote to have extra votes in a future election? Or what if you could transfer your vote from a topic where you care less, say mayor, to a topic you where care more, say president? Or what if you could trade votes with other people, like your next two cycles of mayor votes for one of their president votes? Or what if you could buy and sell votes for cash on an open market?

All of these options have intrigued people over the years. But they all have the same problem: they tend toward having each election decided by the few people who care the most about it. True, ordinary elections don’t reflect people’s strength of preference; people who care a lot have the same influence as people who care a little. But these alternate ways to collect, transfer, and trade votes all have the opposite problem; most everyone’s preferences may be ignored except for the few extremists who care the very most.

However, a simple yet amazing variation can allow collection, transfer, trading, and selling in the voting process, while having elections tend to be decided by a weighted average of how much each voter cares. This amazing variation is: voting quarks.

Hadrons are basic particles in physics that can fly around and smash into things. They are made out of quarks, but (in our world today) those quarks are always stuck inside hadrons, and can’t fly around by themselves. Quarks influence the world via the hadrons of which they are part.

By analogy, a voting quark is a part of a vote that can’t influence an election by itself; it must be part of a vote particle. And voting quarks must be formed into square arrays in order to make votes. So you can use one quark to make a vote of size one, or four quarks to make a vote of size two, or nine quarks to make a vote of size three, and so on.

The key idea here is that elections are won by which ever side has the most votes, with bigger votes counting for proportionally more; but what voters are given are quarks, not votes. For example, each election each voter might be given four new quarks. If no collection, transfer, or trading were allowed, this would be pretty boring, as the only useful option would be to convert those four quarks into one vote of size two to use in this election. (After which that vote, and those quarks, would be gone.)

But if quark collection was allowed, a voter could choose to instead save all these new quarks for future elections. Or they might use one quark this election to make a vote of size one, and save the other three for future elections. Or if they had collected at least five previous quarks, they might add them to these new four quarks to create a vote of size three to use in this election.

Abilities to transfer or trade quarks would work similarly; you’d move the quarks around as allowed by the rules, and then form votes from the quarks as desired to use in each election. The system might even not directly give voters quarks at all, but only sell them quarks for cash.

The main point is that in a system like this people have an incentive to vote in each election roughly in proportion to their strength of preference on that topic. Which allows elections to produce more economically efficient outcomes. And the wider the scope over which quarks can be moved, the wider the scope over which choices could be more efficient.

This point has been plausibly argued in a paper called “Quadratic Voting” by Steven Lalley and Glen Weyl. (Weyl has a related paper with Eric Posner.) They talk about this in terms of buying votes directly with cash, paying proportional to the square of the votes bought. This is an extreme version that I suspect most people will find hard to swallow, at least as the first change to accept. So I designed the above quark language to show how we might move there gradually, such as perhaps by first allowing collection, then transfer, then trading. And we might slowly increase the number of quarks given per election, to approach a more continuous voting.

Steven Levitt has commented positively on the quadratic voting idea, but Tyler Cowen criticized it for encouraging “intense preferences of minorities”. I find that a rather odd criticism, and agree with Eric Posner’s response.

I do have a concern though: this approach would require us to pay more attention to agenda setting. Once votes or quarks can be moved between elections, then every election not only decides an issue, it also creates resources that be used to decide other elections. So we’d want to try to ensure that issues in elections connected by quark moves are similarly important, or perhaps set relative quark prices between them.

Also, the act of introducing an election on some topic ends up being an implicit tax on the people who expect to win that election. They will have to use up quarks there than they can’t use elsewhere. If the status quo is already in their direction, then people who favor the status quo will regret holding an election on that topic, even if they expect to win. Factions may conspire to hold repeated elections that they expect to repeatedly lose, just to tax other factions.

This isn’t an overwhelming objection. We already must pay substantial attention to agenda setting even under ordinary voting. But this does up the ante a bit. So we should try this stuff out slowly, gradually, testing and observing as we go. And we may need to invent new ways to set agendas. But this looks pretty promising, so let’s get started!

Added 11a: OK, on reflection one only has to worry about the relative importance of elections when voters can collect or transfer quarks between them. If voters can instead only trade quarks between elections, their relative importance will be reflected automatically in the relative prices of quarks traded. Also Eric Posner suggests a general agenda mechanism:

Added 10Jan: Commenters are too hung up on money. Money is only relevant in the most extreme version I mentioned, where quarks are bought with cash. Consider instead the other options to only collect, transfer, or trade quarks.

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On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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Show Outside Critics

Worried that you might be wrong? That you might be wrong because you are biased? You might think that your best response is to study different kinds of biases, so that you can try to correct your own biases. And yes, that can help sometimes. But overall, I don’t think it helps much. The vast depths of your mind are quite capable of tricking you into thinking you are overcoming biases, when you are doing no such thing.

A more robust solution is to seek motivated and capable critics. Real humans who have incentives to find and explain flaws in your analysis. They can more reliably find your biases, and force you to hear about them. This is of course an ancient idea. The Vatican has long had “devil’s advocates”, and many other organizations regularly assign critics to evaluate presented arguments. For example, academic conferences often assign “discussants” tasked with finding flaws in talks, and journals assign referees to criticize submitted papers.

Since this idea is so ancient, you might think that the people who talk the most about trying to overcoming bias would apply this principle far more often than do others. But from what I’ve seen, you’d be wrong.

Oh, almost everyone circulates drafts among close associates for friendly criticism. But that criticism is mostly directed toward avoiding looking bad when they present to a wider audience. Which isn’t at all the same as making sure they are right. That is, friendly local criticism isn’t usually directed at trying to show a wider audience flaws in your arguments. If your audience won’t notice a flaw, your friendly local critics have little incentive to point it out.

If your audience cared about flaws in your arguments, they’d prefer to hear you in a context where they can expect to hear motivated capable outside critics point out flaws. Not your close associates or friends, or people from shared institutions via which you could punish them for overly effective criticism. Then when the flaws your audience hears about are weak, they can have more confidence that your arguments are strong.

And if even if your audience only cared about the appearance of caring about flaws in your argument, they’d still want to hear you matched with apparently motivated capable critics. Or at least have their associates hear that such matching happens. Critics would likely be less motivated and capable in this case, but at least there’d be a fig leaf that looked like good outside critics matched with your presented arguments.

So when you see people presenting arguments without even a fig leaf of the appearance of outside critics being matched with presented arguments, you can reasonably conclude that this audience doesn’t really care much about appearing to care about hidden flaws in your argument. And if you are the one presenting arguments, and if you didn’t try to ensure available critics, then others can reasonably conclude that you don’t care much about persuading your audience that your argument lacks hidden flaws.

Now often this criticism approach is often muddled by the question of which kinds of critics are in fact motivated and capable. So often “critics” are used who don’t have in fact have much relevant expertise, or who have incentives that are opaque to the audience. And prediction markets can be seen as a robust solution to this problem. Every bet is an interaction between two sides who each implicitly criticize the other. Both are clearly motivated to be accurate, and have clear incentives to only participate if they are capable. Of course prediction market critics typically don’t give as much detail to explain the flaws they see. But they do make clear that they see a flaw.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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The Evolution-Is-Over Fallacy

David Brin and Jerome Barkow both responded to my last Cato Unbound comment by assuming that the evolution of aliens would end at somewhere around our human level of development. While aliens would acquire new tech, there would be little further change in their preferences or basic psychology over the following millions or billions of years. In my latest comment, I mainly just repeat what I’d said before:

Even when each creature has [powerful tech and] far broader control [over its local environment], this won’t prevent selection from favoring creatures who better use their controls to survive and reproduce. No, what is required to stop selection is very broad and strong coordination. As I wrote:

Yes it is possible that a particular group of aliens will somehow take collective and complete control over all local evolution early in their history, and thereby forever retain their early styles. … Such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities. … Anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation.

My guess is that even when this happens, it will only be after a great degree of adaptation to post-biological possibilities. So even then adaptation to advanced technology should be useful in predicting their behaviors.

I’ll call this mistake the “evolution is over” fallacy, and I nominate it as the most important fallacy about aliens, and our future. Evolutionary selection of preferences and psychology is not tied to DNA-based replication, or to making beings out of squishy proteins, or to a lack of intelligence. Selection is instead a robust long-run feature of decentralized competition. The universe is influenced more by whatever wins competitions for influence; where competition continues, selection also continues.

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