Diamonds, Pyramids, and Civilization

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VERNER PANTON  “Diamond Pyramid” mirror: Vernerpanton Diamond, Inspiration, Diamonds, Mirror Model, Pyramid Mirror, Diamond Pyramid, Design

Recently, I viewed David Brin’s inspirational TED talk, titled “What’s next — the horizon of our dreams.” He also delves into the issue of pyramids and diamonds here.

I respectfully disagree with Brin on several things, including, crucially, his strong focus on the diamond-shaped distribution of power/resources within society as the cause of humanity’s recent success. He is mistaken: said “diamond”, being less of a driver, is more like the outcome of the explosive, orders of magnitude-multiplying, increase of civilization’s carrying capacity. A carrying capacity explosion that itself was caused by Industrial Revolution. And what caused the Industrial Revolution late 1700’s and 1800’s? Until fairly recently, most of the truly civilization-enabling competition happened via militaristic inter-group (tribal/supra-tribal/imperial level) conflict, which — crucially — is what caused the genetic-cultural evolution and the eventual development of the underlying physical techno-machinery… So, au contraire (and alas, not to be easily brushed aside either!), it’s not the magic sprinkle-dust of “diversity” that is the cause, but the painful, cruel, and slow evolution of humans via intergroup competition: via, since times immemorial, patriarchally-driven status acquisition, expansion, rule-setting (i.e. morality), rule-resetting (i.e. evolving/conflicting understanding of morality, be they rooted in hunter-gathering group structure or agricultural or anything else), and, yes, via differential fertility of various groups caused by economic circumstances and, much more often, by warfare.

Most importantly, nonetheless, David Brin’s very vocal message of hope and higher purpose for the future of humans and human civilization resonates strongly within me. I agree: the likelihood, based on long-running SETI’s results up to date, is that humans may be one of the very few, perhaps either the only ones or maybe the very first, survivors of “The Great Filter” within the Milky Way Galaxy — and it may be incumbent upon future humanity, if it survives civilizationally, to either materially/culturally help other potentially existing species within our galactic neighborhood or absorb/contribute to them genetically (be it for their own good or for human civilization’s). Maybe some will become the next Borg, and maybe some are destined for something else entirely — but only if, and that’s an IF, Humanity, not just humans/hominids, civilizationally survives in the next few hundred years.

The still pertinent question is: which primary “competition type,” be it on level of countries/cultures/”multi-culture”/confederations, does one see as being the closest to providing the best chance or hope for survival of Humanity?

If the answer is the magic sprinkle-dust of enlightened multi-culture, i.e. diversity, with the hypothetically ensuing “diamond-shaped” power distribution, which involves nobly regulated competition of individuals vs individuals and capital vs capital, a la “Brin’s way” — if that is the answer leading to long-term progress and civilization, then we (the abstract “we”) should pursue that. Taken to its extreme scope, the main danger here is that a unified planetary multicultural framework, i.e. ultimately a hypothetically enlightened, trade-friendly, likely somewhat socialist “one-world government” based on combining statism with capitalism with the goal of ever-increasing inclusion may lead to, essentially, a single government-capitalist complex where regulation favors monopolism and a diversity which de facto ends up enforcing a divide-and-conquer rule via a bought-mob voting class, living outside of the gated communities of the rich, protected by rent-a-cops, i.e. essentially, a pyramid-shaped power structure. But this outcome is exactly what Brin protests against! This populist-statism-merging-with-capitalism issue, by the way, was deeply delved into by Joseph Schumpeter, in his seminal “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.” But Schumpeter, due to his understanding that this framework arises as a response to Soviet regime, viewed such a framework as driven by Communism-sympathetic elites, hence did not at all envision the de facto increasing class divisions, which both Brin and I witness. Such divisions are happening not just in the United States, but also in other plural-Democratic, multicultural, very diverse countries — countries like India and Brazil. Both Brin and I would agree that such class divisions are a natural state of society, from historical perspective. However, unlike me, he thinks that it’s essential to combat those, to preserve/expand the diamond, no matter what.

If, on the other hand, neither diversity per se nor “diamond-shaped” power distribution, are the long-term solution to human civilization’s preservation and expansion, but the answer lies in strongly-cohesive, well-defined cultures — cultures which may incorporate genetically diverse individuals that can well-fit said strict frameworks, but where accommodating diversity is not the goal per se — cultures that compete with each other on macro level, possibly to the point of pursuing import-minimizing/mercantilist autarkies, but bounded in their military actions by sane adherence to the MAD doctrine — then this is what will sustain and advance overall human civilization, either indefinitely or until a winner emerges and prevails planetarily. And if an ultimate winner does emerge, then it either absorbs the loser/losers or, more likely, pushes it/them out into cosmos — hence ensuring that either competition remains or the spreading of civilization continues on galactic scale either way. The main danger here is contingent upon a winner emerging too early, with said winner being technologically and culturally strong enough to control its masses, but unable and not desiring to propel itself out into the cosmos. In some way, if you notice, it is superficially identical to the scenario from the one-world government scenario above, except that it happens later (hopefully, tens of generations later). In this case, humanity may or may not evolve into a single, global-pyramid shaped society, halting progress indefinitely. However, and importantly, the saving grace here is, by definition, that by that time, said society will be cohesive and smart enough to empower it to self-evolve, in a directed fashion, towards enabling its own technological salvation and expansion, especially, in case it or members thereof determine that it needs such a leap (and of course, it will need it!).

To summarize, which is it: continuing with (possibly, global) statist multiculturalism-maximizing approach or shifting the worldview to accept cultural macro-competition bounded by MAD as the better approach? Although nothing is perfect, my abstract bet, after weighing both, is on the latter scenario as the right one. Sure, one might say, the answer may be a combination of the above, but the question, essentially, still stands: what is the primary mechanism? My bet, again, is on the latter: humanity is not yet ready, it is not yet evolved and cohesive enough for a one-world government, a government with enough leverage and self-conviction to progress and evolve towards a survivable mode. To continue to pretend that nationalist/cultural concerns are passe, is to pursue an ultimately losing, if not suicidal approach, at least as things currently stand.

If preserving civilization is of concern, competition works better, more smartly, when it’s primarily driven on macro scale, as opposed to micro scale, be it individual or even corporate one. Ironically, and historians agree (although I will not provide references here), it’s not a radical statement that the peak-50’s-era American-style diamond-shaped individual power and capital distribution structure, including the next few decades, until the very late 90’s and a bit after (count inertia here), were themselves, in a big way, a result of the macro competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  At least, competition to the extent of the U.S. government needing to maximize its domestic scientific, military, and even social expenditures, thus benefiting its own technological progress, including of course countless citizens, in the process. Having noted that, if societies compete, a diamond-shaped scenario might ensue again, but such is not necessarily the case, and civilizations may possibly be more competitive by being organized via completely different orders, be they, in nature, totalitarian (more centralized) or theocratic (more distributed) or even some weird combination of all of the above¹, strengthened by techno-mind control complemented with genetic engineering. To imagine such structures as viable may not be very palatable to the cultural sensitivities of pro-plural Democracy ideologues, especially, to Social Progress and Justice-minded Americans, but reality does not necessarily always correspond to our wishes for it. The U.S. winning the previous round of the cultural war (against the Soviet Union) is not an indicator of it winning the current one, against a different sort of cultural adversary (China) or the one after (whatever that might be).

Sure,  having too many players possessing nuclear arsenals may not be a good idea. It is also obvious that said players need to be large and technologically advanced enough to not need to depend on conquest of other nations to expand their civilization. This topic requires careful analysis, but does not, in itself, constitute an anathema to the inter-national competition mode of Humanity’s evolution. Also, some cultures can be so dysfunctional as to be de facto suicidal. Most vivid examples from recent history are Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, but it’s also possible that other cultures/countries are de facto suicidal, albeit via different mechanisms, discussion of which I’ll leave for another post.

Brin’s well-wishing mistake, then, is one of confusing correlation with causation: the diamond is not a cause, it’s a consequence. But, then, one may ask: is individual-level selection pertinent? Yes, of course, the micro/individual-level mode selection indeed happens, but it happens at the less significant, inner level of the overall multi-level selection for cooperation, as both the result of and feeding into the macro competition between existing cultural/national groups. Contrary to Brin (and he, too, is a self-described contrarian), the question of which mode of inner-level selection is the right/best is still far from being settled and will become especially pertinent as societies compete not just with regard to simple survival, but with regard to maximizing their own (inner) expansion. Increasingly, acquiring and nurturing human talents and resources, especially mental ones, will be an imperative for any sane society, due to highly-skilled human capital requirements dictated by the need to maintain and improve sophisticated technology and to deal with constraints imposed by density of said societies. Whether said constraints are technological or social, they will involve solving never-ending problems of scale-expansion and easing the pressures entailed by need to provide water, food, energy, space, eliminating/recycling waste, regulating (micro-) climates, as well as regulating and policing citizens’ behavior, stemming from societies becoming ever more populous in the process of existing and competing with each other.

But certainly, Brin is right about the following: technology’s march can sustain civilizational expansion for at least another few centuries of humans living on Earth, eventually supporting trillions (yes, trillions!) of people.

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¹I will post on those scenarios separately, someday.