26 December 2010

How Reversible Is Progress?

Sometimes in history, mankind fails. Empires fall. Hard won knowledge is lost. Niceties of civilization disappear. Languages die. Prejudices tamed resurface. Barbarism defeats civilization. Centers of progress stagnate and ossify. Wars, pointless or not, kill millions when wiser statesmen could have secured better outcomes.

We are a fortunate people. We live in a time of technological virtuosity, global communication, remarkable tolerance, greater scientific knowledge than any generation to come before us, awareness of many of the threats to our way of life that loom ahead, economic prosperity viewed in the long term, and a point in time when many countries are liberal democracies, many countries that were once brutal tyrannies like the Soviet Union and early Communist China have changed course, and where truly abysmal countries, like North Korea, are small and isolated and perhaps even on the brink of collapse.

We are, in other words, at a point when we have a great deal to lose.

The risks are not abstract. Our era of toleration has brought out into the open the identities of people who would have been persecuted or killed in all prior eras.

Widespread gay marriage and the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" which has already been matched in much of the Western world, means that hosts of gays and lesbians who would have lived secret lives in the past are now out and public. This openness has brought with it acceptance, toleration, and access to legal recognition with all of its blessings. But, openness comes with the price of constant vigilance. Once out of the closet, a population that will always be in the minority must rely forever after on the good will of a liberal democratic society to protect it.

Gays aren't the only ones taking a risk. Many people have come out publicly as atheists, and if religion becomes established, as there has often been democratic pressure of governments to do, they risk persecution as heretics and apostates and blasphemers.

Pagans are in much the same shoes. The Denver Post on Christmas Day informed us that 45 people in Haiti had been murdered based on accusations of witchcraft connected with its recent cholera outbreak.

Anti-Islamic sentiment has swept much of Europe, and lurks ready to turn ugly in America.

It would take a greater calamity to set back human knowledge, science and technology, but would it really take an event so unthinkable. As glorious as a digitized world may seem, the collapse of the Internet remains far more possible than the sack of every decent university and public library on earth. But, if the libraries no long have independent copies of the knowledge upon which we rely, if the technologies we use to access our data cease to be supported for any myriad reasons before the data the technologies make us privy to is converted to new media, how much could we lose?

It is hard to believe that we could ever see a setback as dire as the one that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. The college textbooks lurking in the basements of hundreds of thousands of middle class families could reconstruct science, if not to the standards of 2010, at least to the start of the art from the 1980s. It might take a long time to rebuild particle accelerators necessary to prove the existence of quarks, and weak force carrier bosons and neutrinos and their properties from first principles and to return to the point where we could answer the remaining open questions of physics. But,a backpack full of graduate school textbooks (or even a binder full of relevant wikipedia printouts) would make the task far less arduous than it was the first time. Not many people know how to run an iron foundry, but again, if just once decent university library of thousands in the United States were to survive, we could learn to do so much more efficiently.

We could easily lose many of the primary documents that back up the story of history. But, there are enough histories out there that it is hard to believe that the broad outlines and even references to many of the key primary sources from which they can be reconstructed, will ever again be lost.

I'd sleep a little better if someone were consciously working out a way to insure that this knowledge survived longer -- printing out a massive library on bronze plates in a dozen different languages maybe -- but even a truly global apocalyptic event would have to be extremely thorough to set back the state of knowledge too far.

It might take a few decades to reconstruct the infrastructure necessary to manufacture decent computers, or mass produce precision stainless steel appliances, or to generate advanced medicines with high levels of purity at reasonable costs. But, there are quite a few copies of the key information available in the kind of technical detail found in patent applications, for example, out there.

More intangibly, how deeply can the modern worldview be suppressed? There have certainly been episodes of history that makes one worry. Who in late tsarist Russia on the verge of Western style liberal democracy could have foreseen Stalinist massacres? Who in the collapsing Chinese empire could have foreseen the Cultural Revolution? The example of Korea is particularly troubling because it was so recent. Dean Koh of the Harvard Law School recounts cities of people with eyes as listless of those of Orwell's 1984 in the hear and now in North Korea, which has been divided from the South for less than sixty years. The return of Albanian society to a medieval state from a similarly brief period of isolation likewise leaves one with qualms.

Yet, Cambodia, while hardly a model of national success, seems to have returned to some semblence of normalcy even after Pol Pot's massacre of the entire bourgouise class in his society. Albania is being reintegrated into Europe. The death of Soviet style communism was traumatic for a generation, but its successor regime seems to be emerging and tentatively is not a total nightmare.

If progress really is inevitable in the long run, despite dire and painful setbacks, then perhaps economic development in places that have not yet experienced its benefits, may also be more or less inevitable. Surely, results achieved from scratch in one place can be secured elsewhere, where they need only be copied, somewhat more easily than they came about in the first place. Or, can they?

Could it be that centuries of ruthless capital punishment that prevailed across Europe was necessary to build a more tame society? Could it be that modern nation states are not really stable unless they arise gradually and naturally from smaller principalities together with all the attendent wars and nationalist strife, unless they arise from a uniform orderly process of colonization? Could it be that liberal democracy has functioned well enough for the last couple of centuries (and far less in much of the world) because it has been sustained by economic growth that has actually only been a coincidental fellow traveler with it?

Historically, mankind has managed to make progress, even as one empire or another has collapsed, by passing the torch of knowledge and tolerance and innovation from one place to another. But, in an increasingly global society, we are increasingly placing all of our eggs in one basket. The collapse of China, or a subcontinental nuclear war between Pakistan and India, or the stagnation of American society, or economic collapse in the European Union due to mismanaged public finance, is no longer the kind of event that the rest of the world can ignore. A major collapse in one part of the world drags the rest of the world down with it to some extent.

In World Wars I and II, Switzerland managed to stay neutral and above the fray. In the next global calamity, there may be no Switzerlands.

The political-economies of the world evolve in very path dependent ways. When something works better than what came before it, it sweeps the "known world" at the time. The invention of farming obliterated the cultures that proceeded it for as far around of empires could spread, even though the extent to which the actual people who followed the old cultures is disputed. Rome expanded as far as the terrain would permit. Every country in the world has a basically modern military, even if its economy carries on with centuries old means of production. All but a handful of legal systems in the world are derived from those of Revolutionary France, the Kaiser's Germany, 17th century England, or 19th century Spain, and the European Civil Law systems had more similarities than differences due to their common Roman origins. There are a few not particularly promising outliers that are more home grown - China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, some of which have a few followers, as do various dictatorships. But, what none of the four or five main political systems that predominate in our big blue marble are up to the next challenge our world needs to overcome.

I'm basically an optimist. I think that humanity will come up with a way to maintain modernity without oil and natural gas. I think that humanity will come up with a way to cope with global warming, although I have no confidence that we will have the will to keep it from running its course. I don't think that a global nuclear war will cause our species to go extinct. I am inclined to think that our ability to detect and deal with diseases have reached a point where we can address any new disease before it does irrepairable damage to the species. I don't think that the bulk of our knowledge scientific and otherwise will be lost.

I worry more that we may reach a point where we have a global government, initially a good one, that stagnates and stifles us. Perhaps we need one to prevent global environmental threats and nuclear war from doing us in. But, we aren't anywhere close to that point now. We may be in a single global system, but it is not a united one.

But, I am not a believer in the notion that we are at "the end of history." I fully expect to see rapid change for centuries to come. The social sciences have a moving target to chase, culture constantly evolves, and the scientific and technical advances we are experiencing now will take decades or even a century to run their course.

Yes, there surely must come a time when our constant barrage of new scientific discoveries is the physical sciences slows down and eventually reaches a trickle.

We are close to that point in physics and earth sciences and inorganic chemistry and mathematics. We are coming to that point in civil engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and a great many other practical fields. Computers haven't been perfected to their theoretical limits, but their capabilities are continuing to grow so fast that we will surely come very close, very soon.

There is little in mathematics today that the leaning mathematicians of 1910 could not grasp with a year or so of additional study that would make heavy use of what they already knew. General Relativity has received a lot of experimental confirmation since the theory was published by Einstein in 1915, and several different mathematically equivalent expressions, but it remains state of the art physics 95 years later. Many blanks have been filled into the Periodic Table of the Elements since Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev published it in more or less its current form in 1869, and we understand in much more detail why the periodic table has the properties that it does, but it remains the point of departure for modern chemistry (and he also is the man responsible for the fact that liquor is sold primarily at 80 proof strength, a cultural impact still felt today).

The standard model of particle physics, which reached something close to its current form in 1981, and has been refined in a few minor respects since then, isn't quite so musty and will probably be refined further before it reaches its final form, but its resiliance in the face of three decades of intense efforts to find deviations and refinements suggest that whatever beyond the standard model physics are still out there to be discovered may have rather modest practical impact. The Higgs boson which the Large Hadron Collider will either discover or disprove in the next couple of years, was predicted in 1964.

We haven't discovered every species of life on Earth, but for many taxonomy categories, we are very close to having done so, and the tool of genetics has imparted considerable heft to those classifications. Most of the new discoveries have been of new species of existing taxonomic categories; we may well have discovered ever kingdom, phylum, class and order of living thing in existence already, and almost every species of vertebrates, certainly the pace of new discoveries of higher level taxons and new species of large animals and plants is slowing. There are probably undiscovered beetle species out there, and some new deep sea organisms or microbiological organism that have yet to be discovered, but our sense of the extent and shape of the biosphere and its evolutionary origins is already quite refined.

Biotechnology is still hurling forward. It will take time to truly master the genome and the epigenome, to really have a firm grasp of how the brain works, and to master the manipulation of it all. But, we are getting much closer.

The blue print in the form of the complete genome is available on computers already for a host of organisms including many people, even if we don't yet know how to read it fluently. We've identified the functions many key working parts. We know a great deal about the overall structure. We've identified a large share of the genome that is common to every human being alive today, and can even trace which parts changed from our common ancestor with chimpanzees and from our Neanderthal predecessors.

We have working models of the structure of the human brain functionally and involving its major subsystems, of the role of the major components of our brain chemistry, of the connection between the brain and the rest of our body, of the way that neurons bind themselves into networks, of the process by which memory works, of the extent to which knowledge is hardwired or learned, of the connections between our senses and our experience of them. We have some sense of how gender and age influences the brain. We have some sense of the variety of mental conditions that can arise, their usual course, and their causes. We may understand the brain far less well than we understand bacterial infections, the heart, or the liver, but for the most part, it seems as if our work is cut out for us. We don't know everything, but we have a pretty good sense of what we don't know and have to discover.

One time pipe dreams, like cures for many kinds of cancers, cures for nervous system disorders, cures for autoimmune diseases, workable treatments for many kinds of mental illnesses, treatments for hereditary blindness and more, while not yet attained, seem attainable. Science has brought us an understanding of many diseases that is exquisitely detailed. Even when we can't cure a disease yet, we often know with excruciating specificity how it works. The implications of those developments for our society may be profound.

Even if we don't learn all that science can offer us, we may reach a point where what we don't know is largely esoteric and is only of intellectual curiousity, with little practical impact, sooner. While history may not be at an end, I wouldn't be surprised if the pace of progress in the physical sciences and engineering in 2110 is much slower than it is now. By 2210, it will probably have reached a crawl indeed, simply because we will already know so much at that point. Perhaps at that point a certain amount of political stagnantion will be acceptable, because the world will stop changing so fast and our leaders can be enlightened by a large corpus of established scientific knowledge.


Michael Malak said...

Using textbooks alone, it would be difficult to produce circa 1980 microprocessors of 50,000 transistors.

More ominously, if technology were to suddenly disappear, humanity would not have the benefit, this second time around, of "easy oil". All that's left now is "difficult oil" and if all those oil wells were to disappear it would take a build-up of technology to recreate them. The world would be steampunking for a while on coal -- and that's assuming that near-surface coal remains in climatologically friendly areas, a big assumption.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Yes, it would be difficult. But, perhaps not so difficult to get to 1960s electronics, and with a much more ready leaning curve the rest of the way.