Re: poly: Egan's Diaspora

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Wed Mar 18 1998 - 22:06:24 PST

Robin Hanson, <>, writes:
> Egan has the actions of city size groups of people and larger
> being determined their style and philosophical positions, without
> regard to resource constraints or any problems coordinating the
> actions of members.

> Population explosions are not a problem because well that just
> goes against their philosophy; they'd be no better than bacteria
> then.

It did seem strange to see that these civilizations were exempt from
the evolutionary drive to expand, especially when most people are
uploads who can effortlessly clone themselves.

However, I wouldn't say this is completely impossible.

First, there was a general belief that if anyone adopted an
expand-at-all-costs philosophy, the result would be destruction for
everyone. People know that taking the first step down the road towards
expansion will inevitably lead to resource exhaustion. They can use
their intelligence to anticipate the consequences of their actions.

The effect may be similar to an iterated prisoner's dilemma game where
people know they are going to be playing for a long time. In such a
situation it is reasonable to find people consistently adopting the
cooperative strategy.

> Alien star systems are treated hands-off, because they all
> have a good ecological conscience.

I get the impression that the population of the starship is rather small,
maybe just a few thousand people. This will make the coordination
problem easier than for a much larger population.

Actually this was the one case in the book where there was a serious
disagreement. One group proposed this extremely cautious, delicate
investigation, while the other wanted a totally hands-off approach.
Although both positions seem almost ridiculously cautious by our
standards, this is a natural projection of our own cultural evolution
from the rapacious colonial period into our present state of cultural

> They fly off to visit the
> universe, and build scientific experiments, because its all just
> so interesting out there. And others stay home because that's
> what interests them.

It doesn't seem so unlikely that some people will want to go out and
explore, and others want to stay home. And they migrate to polises
which share their philosophy.

> Copies of each of them live or die according
> to odd personal philosophies about when lives are worth living.

I don't think we can predict what the philosophies will be among people
who can freely make copies of their minds. It may well be that it seems
less important to keep "this" copy running when you know there are a
bunch more out there.

> Whole civilizations just kill themselves off when they finally
> get bored enough.

This is a common idea in science fiction, and it is admittedly hard to
understand. Perhaps the whole civilization evolved into a group mind,
so the decision to commit suicide was made by just one entity. Or maybe
they died off gradually.

> And thousands of civilizations can share a
> universe for a long time with lots of resources around for
> newcomers to grab if they want, welcome new neighbor.

This one really stretches credibility. I am willing to postulate that
a future human society shares common values about restraining growth,
but it seems unlikely that all societies will end up that way.

The one super-advanced culture described has actually carried this
tendency to an incredible degree, making themselves almost invisible.
They divide their brains up into tiny nodules orbiting countless numbers
of star systems, which communicate using low power frequencies carefully
constructed to be indistinguishable from background noise.

Why? This is not made clear, but perhaps they just don't want to litter,
and are going to great lengths to keep the universe neat and clean.
Of course, the first thing the aliens do when the starship comes visiting
is to break into the computer and announce their presence, which seems
a little inconsistent with this Star Trek Prime Directive philosophy,
but it does move the story along.

> There is no discussion of how large societies implement these
> philosophies against the possible dissention of members, no
> attention to resource constraints and the costs of actions,
> nor any sense that there are selection effects so not all abstract
> philosophies will be equally represented farther down the road.

It is possible that there is some mechanism for dealing with people who
violate society's norms. Maybe if you make more than a certain number
of clones they automatically get limited in some way. As you say, this
is not addressed.

I think the real issue is, can reason win over evolution? Can we
overcome the simple logic of expansion by our minds? Can a culture,
a whole world, decide collectivelly and uniformly that down one path
lies a future of overcrowding, resource exhaustion, and poverty, and
then choose to take another path which leads to a world of plenty?

It seems that the evolutionary answer is no, this can't happen (in a
voluntary society) because if even one person decides not to limit his
reproduction then his genes or memes or whatever will spread, and soon
every nook will be filled.

But this is only an "asymptotic" analysis. With a sufficiently large
amount of time and a sufficiently large population and a sufficiently
high mutation rate, you can make this prediction. But in any actual
situation it may not happen. In particular, with the size of a human
civilization, and the time scale involved, and the ability to use reason
to anticipate the negative consequences of such actions, you may in fact
be able to avoid this outcome. Evolutionary arguments can only apply
in the long run, and you can't know how long the run needs to be without
getting a lot more specific than is practically possible. So I do think
there is some wriggle room and that authors can get away with postulating
non-aggressive, non-expansionary but voluntary societies.

Received on Thu Mar 19 06:07:08 1998

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