There, I am told that homo sapiens is a kind of primate. A primate is a kind of mammal. A mammal is a kind of chordate. A chordate is a kind of animal. Animals are things composed of cells that tend to move, reproduce and use energy from chemicals to arrange them in a more orderly way.
We live on planet Earth, which is a lump of matter that formed some 4.5 billion years ago. It orbits around the Sun, which is a bigger lump of matter that is hot and shiny.
A year, as it happens, is what my species calls the period of one orbit of our planet around the sun.
I’m told that the fossil record suggests that my species diverged some 350,000 years ago. That means that roughly 10 million generations back. Relative to other primates, we humans are less furry, have stronger glutes (to walk on two legs), and some of us (not me) have dexterous hands. Oh, and we have big heads that stores an ugly thing called the brain, which is generally agreed to be the coolest thing before baked bread.
Most humans that ever lived didn’t believe any of that. Some still don’t.
So how do we know all of this? That’s what I’m trying to figure out here, at Dendrolagus.
Every day when I wake up, I’m surrounded by things made by other people. Even on a wild camping trip, I wake up under a tent made of a material I don’t know how to make, holding together thanks to pieces of plastic and metal that some other humans know how to make.
I put on some clothes made of “cotton“, “polyester” or “polyamide” made in places like “China” and “Bangladesh” (hopefully not Cooch Behar). Who are the people making these textiles? Do they work with machine or by hand? Who collects the cotton? Where and how is the polyester synthesized?
I always thought that textiles were the most boring thing ever, but they tell a lot about the history, present state and future of humanity.
I make myself a cup of coffee in an aeropress. It ends up being a delicious hot black beverage, but how did it get here? I’m told that the beans are green and need to be roasted. Where and by whom? Why does the ground powder diffuse so nicely in a cup of hot water?
And why does the affect my mood and heartbeat so much?
I’m told that in every speck of this powder, there are lots of tiny molecules called “caffeine” and that these have a similar shape like other molecules. I’m told that beneath my skull, there is an ugly lump of tissue called the brain which is composed of cells called neurons. These neurons use tiny molecules to send signals. And this ”
(I’m told I’m composed of cells – and I’ve kind of seen a blurry image of some of those under a microscope at high school.)
We are able of accumulating cultural knowledge, communicating with symbols and using tools.
If historians are to be believed, I live a life that is very different from the lives of most homo sapiens before me. This seems to be largely because my predecessors figured out how to work with matter and energy using various tools, how to accumulate knowledge, and how to organize themselves in large groups.
I’m trying to keep track of all this in this timeline.
It is all very confusing, so I’m trying to find other humans who seem less confused about this whole thing. Often, this happens through reading what other humans encoded in symbols. Some writings I like coming back to are:
- The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky
- Handbook of the Center for Applied Rationality
- How to Understand Everything (and why) by Eric Drexler
The universe appears to obey a bunch of neatly simple rules. Some smart humans before me managed to uncover some of them. It’s quite satisfying to be able to understand some of those rules.
Some books that capture this beauty particularly well are:
This is also the reason why we can make machines that do useful work for us.
Sometimes, I also learn a thing or two from personal experience.
I like to investigate how my mind-body complex works.
I also explore different parts of the world. My 2019 visit to Nepal seemed like a particularly fruitful learning experience.
Some Problems I sometimes think of:
– The medical system is painfully inadequate in translating research knowledge into practice.
– Our understanding of the human body and its diseases is lacking.
– A large fraction of the most intelligent people of my generation are spending their lives developing stupid but profitable software, selling snake oil in consulting or signaling their virtues by subscribing to the latest political fad.
– Progress on developing computational tools for intelligence augmentation has been much slower than progress on addictive and distracting software and products.
– We don’t have solutions for helping people in countries with poor institutions, infrastructure and human capital stocks.
– There is a negative selection for key positions in administration of public goods.
– Progress in improving basic physical technologies has been underwhelming.
– Incentives in academia and science are set up such that almost nobody has an incentive to work on things of long-term importance or on important big picture questions.
– By naive induction from the past, we’re doing morally reprehensible things we’re not aware of.
– Price of destroying a large fraction of the world’s civilization seems to be going down quite fast and we don’t seem to respond with appropriate institutional measures.
Human life has changed a lot with development of new tools – from bone and stone tools, fire and language to rockets, antibiotics, nuclear bombs, smartphones, the internet.
It seems to be the case that it’s much harder to orient in what’s going on.
There’s a worry that some of the tools we’re making have the potential to destroy life. I think that would be a pity because life is quite cool (and homo sapiens in particular is very cool).
At the same time, many measures point to a slowing down of technological progress. It’s hard to know what to make of all that.
I’m trying to understand new kinds of tools that can once again change a lot of important things, within my lifetime:
- Computing machines might be able to handle most (or all tasks) better than humans.
- Increased control over biological systems.
- Instead of building things from the top down, we might become able to assemble them from the bottom up.
And as with previous technological developments, these might come with a substantial change in social structures and culture.