In a worst case scenario, immortalists might avoid competition with pro-growth ems by leaving the solar system and making sure that they're one step ahead of any expanding wave of pro-growth em colonization.

Expand full comment

For this, I have a couple of observations. First, if one knows in advance that redesign is likely, one can make a design more flexible and capable of redesign. For example, one could maintain a network structure of usual design states. The "stock car" of the car example above could be a base state, with a truck and race car state as well. If there was a lot of demand for shifting between the truck and race car, then one could develop direct transitions. Else one could transition back to the stock car and then to the new state.

Second, we also need to keep in mind that a system that can change and has recently done so (that is, hasn't settled down as evolutionary systems tend to do), is probably more likely to be changeable again than a system that hasn't changed in a long time. The critter that evolved into a new niche may well have tricks that allow it to evolve quicker to a new niche than the old critter.

Looking at the ems discussion about the declining value of ems "labor", I have to say that capital is the big missing factor. Not only can having the right capital make your existence cheaper and easier, but it can be used to generate passive income on its own or to leverage your ability to make income.

I find a good analogy here is to the gaming ideas of "grind" income versus "passive" income to be quite relevant here. Assume that you have a game with some sort of economic aspect to it. Grind income requires that you sit at the keyboard/console and actually play the game in order to get income or something of value. Passive income means that you don't need to be playing in order to rake it in. It turns out that successfully creating passive income (well in games that have such) usually differentiates the wealthiest players from everyone else. Another path is via cooperative behavior. Leaders in a group or "guild" can earn income well over what they could earn on their own, just through the efforts of the teammates they coordinate.

Frankly, a lot of massively multiplayer online games are very close to ems in character. You can run many characters and cooperate between them (it's common that cooperative behavior results in better grind and passive income in such games). So it is possible just to run many characters and harvest the income yourself. That's a bit different from ems since you have a scarce resource, your time at the keyboard. So there's only so much time you can spend running your characters.

Anyway, I think capital is the missing ingredient in this soup. If you can create ems without creating corresponding support capital (so that they have to work work work in order to continue to exist), then eventually the value of their "labor" is going to drop to near subsidence. Some factors can aggravate this, such as a tax on capital that transfers wealth from capital owners to poor ems. Other policies could work differently, such as requiring a gift of capital to every created em either from society or from the ems creator. It'll be much harder to flood the system with ems, if one has to sacrifice capital everytime an em is created.

Expand full comment

The amount we will need to know in order to make ems is pretty large.  We are already able to emulate 1000-neuron networks (not the traditional but not very biological "neural nets") and we know how to turn up and turn down their learning, how to stop their learning.  If we are able to build a reliably functioning em, we will know how to emulate the 2 year old brain, the 10 year old brain and the 50 year old brain.  We will know in enough detail, and likely have enough modularity, that an em will probably be able to choose which memories to keep accurately, and which bodies of expertise to "turn up" the innovation rate and which to keep it fixed.  Further, there will probably be enough modularity that earlier states of expertise can be saved and brought back out if/when needed in consciousness.  

An em which has all the limitations of the em running on meat is unlikely to be cost effective.  We will have to know enough to do fine tuning, and what entity would pay extra to emulate all the limitations that come from evolved meat?

Expand full comment

I was referring to the Wikipedia article:


but I was mislead by the table, because it reports the increment every eight years except the last one which refers to a two years interval.

So, according to that table, their yearly growth rate for the 2008-2010 was 6.15%, while for the previous eight year period it was 3.64%.However, the article mentions that the figures are from two different sources, and that there are methodological difficulties in the estimation of the Amish population size.

This article: http://phys.org/news/2012-0... cites a 2012 census that reports an estimate of about 251,000 Amish, which compared to the 2008 estimate yields a yearly growth rate of 3.23%, which is consistent with the 21 - 22 years doubling time reported in the same article.

By contrast, in the 1984-1992 period, they had a growth rate of 5.09%, corresponding to a doubling time of about 14 years.

Thus, their fertility did indeed drop, though not as dramatically as I thought before.

Their growth model of splintering off new communities using more and more land is clearly unsustainable. They might keep growing up to  Malthusian levels, but we don't expect them to push to Malthusian levels the surrounding population. At some point, they will be unable to buy additional land, and military conquest is certainly not an option.

Expand full comment

Learning more is not learning faster. 

Adults give up on learning sooner, probably because they are satisfied with communicating with other expats. It is believed that isolated expats make more progress, but it is hard to measure.

Expand full comment

I was under the impression that they still had very high fertility rates and have been expanding their territory because there wasn't enough farmland in Lancaster. I know that there are still very high fertility rates in Kiryas Joel (Satmar Hasidic rather than Amish), which officially has the highest poverty rate in America. Could you provide a link on those changes in Amish fertility?

Expand full comment

 Actually it's far from obvious that trying to reproduce as much as possible actually yields increased evolutionary fitness, particularly at group level.

Consider the Anabaptist (Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite) groups in North America. They marry young, follow traditional "farmer" values, and until recently, they didn't use any birth control.Despite their apparent rejection of modern technology, they do enjoy some benefits of the technological society they are embedded into, in terms of increased food production and reduced infant mortality. In principle this would allow for fertility rates in excess of 12 children per woman, and most of these children would reach adulthood.Indeed, in the early decades of the 20th they had this spectacular evolutionary fitness, but their fertility rates had fallen since then they are now comparable to those of low-class Americans and Canadians.We definitely don't expect these group to ever become anything but a negligible fraction of the general population.

Expand full comment

That paper has three main points, the third of which is "Acquirers who begin natural exposure to second languages during childhood generally achieve higher second language proficiency than those beginning as adults." So overall kids learn language faster.

Expand full comment

 For example, we are great at learning languages when young, and terrible when old.

While we are better at learning to distinguish and produce sounds when we are children, in all other aspects of language learning that have been measured, adults learn faster than children. a survey

Expand full comment

David, we can imagine an isolated society which is self-sufficient with respect to resources, perhaps in a biodome or something. That might possibly persist apart from the rest of the world, while most of humanity returned to Malthusian existence. But if they required some outside resource (oil, or maybe even sunshine if the planet got covered) it would be hard to compete with all those outsiders.

Dawkins came up with the term "meme" in an analogy to genes. It's rather obvious that a gene encouraging reproduction will spread while genes for infertility will go extinct. As long as children's memes are positively correlated with their parents, we should similarly expect a spread of pro-natalist memes over the long term. If there are prevalent less-natalist memes, we could even expect the spread of genes resulting in resistance to such memes (the movie Idiocracy humorously suggests that genes for lower IQ will be selected).

Expand full comment


"Governments aren't omnipotent even within their jurisdictions. Nor is there a world-government yet."

This is not necessary for reducing reproduction to above-subsistence. All you need is a government that is functional enough to steer fertility within its own borders, defend those borders against immigration and invasion, and allocate its resources sustainably and socially enough to maintain a high per-capita wealth.

"There are people in the U.S who are simply indifferent, don't bother using birth control, and have repeated unplanned births. ... There are subcultures that close themselves from most of the fitness-reducing effects of modernity"

The question is how stable the heritability of these traits is in the long run. People being indifferent or negatively inclined to use birth control may see their children do the exact opposite as culture and incentives change, which can be very rapid. Isolationist pro-fertility societies are not necessarily scalable. And they aren't competitive enough against outside pressure. Think what religion does to science. Or what an all-Amish USA could do to stave off drone-using invaders. It's a joke.

I think the game-changer is person-copying technology. Then you copy the memes directly into the offspring, which will not undergo a childhood stage before it becomes functional and (re-)productive.

Expand full comment

V V, a Malthusian situation is one in which you can't reproduce more (by which I mean having viable surviving offspring) because of resource limitations. K vs r selection is a matter of taking a gamble with lots of low-probability offspring or concentrating your eggs in fewer baskets (which individually have a higher chance of survival). If we trace out a population history of some K or r selected species, the difference is that a lot more of the latter never get to have offspring, although their siblings may. For both population keeps growing until there aren't enough resources for further growth. And human population growth can be explosive, even if we are near the extreme end of small broods. Cochran, Harpending, Hawks & etc paper on the speedup in evolution since the invention of agriculture led to population growth is one example. Within colonial America there were some unbelievable fertility rates among the Yankee farmers who settled Greater New England.

Governments aren't omnipotent even within their jurisdictions. Nor is there a world-government yet. The term "singleton" refers to something much more potent than anything currently existing. A world government could potentially be a singleton, scenarios of that sort often involve it having some kind of powerful A.I.

It is currently the case that fertility has dropped a lot in much of the first world (this is a relatively recent event evolution has not yet had time to overturn). But all that's necessary for the Malthusian outcome is for some subset to be different. There are people in the U.S who are simply indifferent, don't bother using birth control, and have repeated unplanned births. There are people who explicitly try to have lots of kids as part of a larger ideology, as with the "quiverfull" or even Bryan Caplan (to a lesser extent). There are subcultures that close themselves from most of the fitness-reducing effects of modernity, like the Amish or ultra-orthodox Jews. This should not at all be a Darwinian puzzle.

Expand full comment

 TGGP, what I meant about physical conflict not being too expensive is that desperate people will do desperate things.  If you have a 99.999% chance of dying of starvation, a 10% chance of success in physical conflict looks great in comparison.  

I looked at the wikipedia page on Greg Clark's and he gets the biology wrong.  The idea that the the children of the wealthy had some inherent genetic superiority is not correct.  Economic deprivation all by itself is sufficient to stunt the abilities of the poor through nutrition, lack of education, and epigenetic programming.  

We are already at subsistence wages.  Minimum wage is not enough to live on.  People on minimum wage need food stamps and other governmental support to survive.  


This change (over what was happening 40 years ago) did not occur due to population increase.  It occurred due to a transfer of income from the middle class to the most wealthy.  

The whole point of the food stamp program in the US was to provide adequate nutrition to the poor so that they would be suitable as draftees in the event of war.  War now depends more on the military industrial complex and less on soldiers, so food stamps are a luxury (as far as the military industrial complex is concerned).  

If the poor are deprived of the resources they need to grow into competent adults, then there will be a permanent underclass of poor people.  The resources that are needed to become a competent adult include prenatal nutrition, early childhood nutrition, kindergarten, grade school, high school and college.  Thwart acquisition of these things and you prevent children from becoming competent adults.

Expand full comment


Both r selection and K selection will eventually result in Malthusianism.

That's not obvious to me. If there is a small fraction of the population that uses a reproductive strategy that is suboptimal w.r.t. the average, they will not become dominant.

Stephen Diamond, a scenario where some authority limits the choices of all entities (as in your eugenics example) is referred to as a "singleton".

Actually it is referred to as "government".

Robin thinks coordination is too hard for an effective world government to emerge and control fertility as you describe.

The People's Republic of China, which population-wise is the closest thing to a world government we have, seems quite successful at mandating fertility limitations.

Anyway, I don't think that in a society of wealthy, educated people with access to reliable birth control, mandated fertility limitations are neccessary to keep the population size in check.

Expand full comment

Humans do emphasize "quality" over "quantity" relative to insects who have huge broods with most of their children not surviving. But post demographic-transition humans are not following a strategy that will be selected when they have fewer grandchildren than their grandparents did. Both r selection and K selection will eventually result in Malthusianism.

Stephen Diamond, a scenario where some authority limits the choices of all entities (as in your eugenics example) is referred to as a "singleton". Eliezer's artificial intelligence could constitute a singleton, as it quickly grows more powerful than anything else in existence, which is why he fears it tiling the universe with smiley-faces. Robin thinks coordination is too hard for an effective world government to emerge and control fertility as you describe.

Expand full comment

"A eugenics program would ensue, culling out of the population those disposed to high fertility."

This implies genetic determinism of reproductive behavior. I actually think this is quite false, cultural aspects overwhelm this. Availability of contraception and social incentives play a larger role, though there are certainly genetic differences. I also dislike the jump to "culling" even though there are milder degrees of coercion such as taxing high fertility or subsidizing low fertility.

Important: Memetic evolution is faster than genetic. For a new biological generation, there is a childhood stage of at least 12-14 years before pregnancy can commence. For ems, reproduction would be practically instantaneous. And all the memes are copied directly - the beliefs about reproduction, the behavioral habits, the personality traits etc. This is still a Darwinian explanation, just not on the genetic level.

"That claim entails that r-selected reproductive strategies ("quantity over quality") always dominate K-selected reproductive strategies ("quality over quantity")."

No, it doesn't. But it it striking that direct person-copying has much more in common with r-selection than K-selection. After all, K-selection is all about getting few long-lived offspring to be successful in competing for resources. And with digital minds, the copying of an experienced person is essentially free.

"They would quickly reach near-subsistence level and then replicate much more slowly."

But near-subsistence level means that the copies compete for subsistence wages with the rest of the population, driving everyone else's wages down. If the rest doesn't find that life appealing, they won't reproduce as much as the ems who accept it and spend all their available income on reproduction. The outcome is exactly the Malthusian one Hanson predicts. If property rights are preserved, this makes capital owners incredibly rich since they can rely on extremely cheap labor while owning natural resources or the physical means of production.

Expand full comment