Harari on the great divergence

Harari again:

…if in 1770 Europeans had no significant technological advantage over Muslims, Indians and Chinese, how did they manage in the following century to open such a gap between themselves and the rest of the world?

…After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?

The world’s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 40,000 kilometres of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 4,000 kilometres of tracks. In 1880, the West boasted more than 350,000 kilometres of railroads, whereas in the rest of the world there were but 35,000 kilometres of train lines (and most of these were laid by the British in India). The first railroad in China opened only in 1876. It was twenty-five kilometres long and built by Europeans – the Chinese government destroyed it the following year. In 1880 the Chinese Empire did not operate a single railroad. The first railroad in Persia was built only in 1888, and it connected Tehran with a Muslim holy site about ten kilometres south of the capital. It was constructed and operated by a Belgian company. In 1950, the total railway network of Persia still amounted to a meagre 2,500 kilometres, in a country seven times the size of Britain.

The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.

This explanation sheds new light on the period from 1500 to 1850. During this era Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological, political, military or economic advantage over the Asian powers, yet the continent built up a unique potential, whose importance suddenly became obvious around 1850. The apparent equality between Europe, China and the Muslim world in 1750 was a mirage. Imagine two builders, each busy constructing very tall towers. One builder uses wood and mud bricks, whereas the other uses steel and concrete. At first it seems that there is not much of a difference between the two methods, since both towers grow at a similar pace and reach a similar height. However, once a critical threshold is crossed, the wood and mud tower cannot stand the strain and collapses, whereas the steel and concrete tower grows storey by storey, as far as the eye can see.

What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages. When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else.

Chapters 16 and 17 defend this thesis. I don’t quite agree with all of the above, nor do I agree entirely with his version of this thesis, but nevertheless it might be the best popular exposition of the thesis I’ve seen yet.

Harari on what is natural

Harari, Sapiens:

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility.

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.

In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?


February 2015 links

Yes, please: When talking about variation in intelligence, use variation in height as a sanity-check on your intuitions.

Steven Pinker replies to a book symposium on Better Angels of Our Nature.

Dennis Pamlin (Global Challenges Foundation) and Stuart Armstrong (FHI) have issued a new 212-page report: 12 Risks that threaten human civilisation. I don’t like the “infinite impact” framing, but interesting novel contributions of the report include:

  1. Page 20: a graph of relations between different risks.
  2. Page 21: a chart of the technical and collaboration difficulty of each risk.
  3. Page 22: a comparison of risks by how estimable they are, by how much data is available about them, and by how much we understand the chain of events from present actions to the risk events.
  4. For each of the risks, a causal diagram with different levels of uncertainty for each node.
  5. Lots more.


AI stuff

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2015 report discusses the superintelligence alignment challenge quite clearly — see box 2.8 on page 40.

Scott Aaronson explains what we know so far about what quantum computing could do for machine learning. It’s “a simple question with a complicated answer.”

Future of Life Institute, “A survey of research questions for robust and beneficial AI.” Because this document surveys strategic/forecasting research in more detail than the earlier “research priorities” document, it cites 7 of my own articles, and several more by others at MIRI.

Theories of artistic evolution

Carlo Gesualdo was a 16th century prince famous for murdering his wife and her lover in his own bed when he caught them in flagrante delicto there. He left their bodies in front of the palace and moved away to Ferrara, where the most progressive composers of his era lived. After learning from them, he returned to his palace — as a nobleman he was immune to prosecution — and isolated himself there for the rest of his life, doing little else but composing music and hiring singers to perform it for him.

Tortured by guilt, his mental health deteriorated. He had his own servants beat him, and tried to obtain his uncle’s bones as magical relics that might cure his mental problems. As time passed, his music became increasingly emotional and desperate, as well as more experimental. His last book of madrigals is probably the most insane music of its era, so insane that no significant composer followed in his chromatic footsteps for about 300 years, and only then in very different styles. Gesualdo represents a fascinating dead end in musical history.

The painter Van Gogh underwent a similar descent into madness, famously cutting off his own ear and later being admitted to an asylum. Simultaneously, his paintings became increasingly wild and impressionistic.

More recently, The Beatles’ introduction to LSD corresponded with the experimental turn in their music kicked off with Revolver tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” then Sgt. Pepper, then “Revolution 9″ and others from the white album.

In all three cases, my brain wants to tell a story about how the artists’ madness (either chronic or temporarily induced) was the driving force behind their increasing creativity.

But whenever your brain wants to tell a story about something, it’s a good idea to take a breath and generate some alternate hypotheses. What else could explain the above cases of artistic change, and indeed artistic change in general?

The theory I favor is that psychological and sociological pressures drive artists toward increasing novelty. No artist makes a name for herself by doing what Beethoven or Turner or Eliot have already done in music, painting, and poetry. No, the artist must do something new, like Igor Stravinsky did when he invented heavy metal in 1913, or like John Adams did when he fused Beethovenian symphonic romanticism with minimalism, or — sigh — like John Cage did when he composed a piece of music instructing the pianist to sit silently at a piano for four and half minutes.1

I do know of at least one case where drugs were directly responsible for inventing a new artistic style. In 1956, blues singer Jay Hawkins entered the studio to record a refined love ballad called “I Put a Spell on You.” But first the producer brought in ribs and chicken and beer and got everybody drunk. Jay was so drunk he couldn’t remember the recording session, but when they played back the tape it turned out he had just screamed the song to death like a demented madman, thus accidentally inventing goth rock. After that he performed the song in a long cape after rising out of an onstage coffin, and became known as “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”

  1. If you want to read more on this subject, Martindale’s The Clockwork Muse surveys other theories that seem much less plausible, for example that artistic style changes to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. []