John_Maxwell_IV comments on Saving expected lives at $10 apiece? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 15 December 2016 11:25:38PM *  2 points [-]

It was interesting to see you mention ocean fertilization. I know this has been proposed as a solution for global warming as well. It seems like scientists are mostly against it on precautionary principle grounds, which is frustrating. If we just had better ocean property rights, fishing companies might be incentivized to fertilize, which could improve food security while helping to reverse global warming as a side effect. It definitely seems to me like a concept that deserves further study. The best argument against it probably involves wild animal suffering.

Comment author: Denkenberger 16 December 2016 07:51:18PM 2 points [-]

Ocean fertilization is another alternative food that might be economical right now, though only with the correct property rights as you point out. In areas of the ocean with low nutrients, many trophic levels including zooplankton are required to get to fish. However, where we fertilize, we could go directly from algae to fish (as happens for natural upwelling). So if you are worried about "insect" (actually arthropod) suffering, ocean fertilization could be better than existing ocean ecosystems (I have made this point to Brian, but it did not end up in his essay).

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 02 January 2017 10:21:25AM 0 points [-]

Interesting. :) Do you have further reading on this point?

It seems that increased phytoplankton in lakes and rivers generally leads to more zooplankton. Do you think the dynamics are different in the oceans? I have a hard time believing that herbivorous fish could not only eat all the extra phytoplankton from fertilization but even some of the phytoplankton that was present pre-fertilization (which is what's necessary to reduce zooplankton populations relative to pre-fertilization levels), but I could be wrong!

Comment author: Denkenberger 03 January 2017 02:58:29AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the information on freshwater systems. I believe the quote about saltwater systems was in this book.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 16 December 2016 07:02:36PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, successful ocean fertilization is a scary scenario in my eyes due to increasing oceanic animal suffering. A bit more discussion here.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 December 2016 07:53:03AM *  2 points [-]

I would expect that improvements to global stability make ocean fertilization a positive prospect in the long run. Do you disagree?

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 20 December 2016 01:35:12AM 0 points [-]

I'm now more ambivalent about global stability than I was previously because, in addition to making uncooperative/violent futures less likely, it also makes space colonization more likely. The overall impact on suffering from a negative-utilitarian standpoint is unclear.

This perspective also requires assuming that the far future dominates over short-term effects in the calculation, which not everyone agrees with.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 22 December 2016 09:16:21AM *  1 point [-]

Another complication: An unstable world could cause human extinction and create the opportunity for some other intelligent species to arise. Even the most destructive human war would probably not kill every animal living around deep-sea vents. We went from the first animals to humans in 600 million years of evolution, and life on Earth probably has at least 1 billion years left (casual Googling). So a new intelligent species evolving on Earth after human extinction seems like a strong possibility.

It's an open question whether we would make for better star colonizers than some later species. Relevant post of mine.

I wish we'd get more systematic about identifying and resolving crucial considerations of this sort.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 27 December 2016 02:27:25AM 0 points [-]

Thanks. :) I discuss that a bit here. I'd be curious to know your probability that non-humans would re-establish civilization if humans went extinct.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 December 2016 01:17:52PM *  1 point [-]

I'd be curious to know your probability that non-humans would re-establish civilization if humans went extinct.

Uninformed speculation follows.

On the face of things it seems pretty likely. "...if the dinosaurs hadn't been killed by an asteroid, plausibly they would still rule the Earth, without any advanced civilization." I got the impression that the dinosaurs experienced several mass extinctions, and mammals displaced them when there was a mass extinction associated with climate change? Periodic mass extinctions are evidence against Earth getting "clogged" this way.

I don't feel like I have a good sense of likely causes of human extinction. Destruction of human civilization seems likely; most civilizations that have existed have eventually ended. But when I look at Wikipedia's page on human extinction, scenarios where every last human dies while other life persists on Earth don't seem super numerous. For example, it seems tricky to engineer a virus with a 100% kill rate that is also infectious enough to infect all 7 billion of us. (Do we have recorded instances of entire species being wiped out due to illness this way?) And if nanobots or some physics experiment eats the planet, that will destroy all the other life too. The most likely scenario seems like destruction of current human civilization alongside destruction of viable ecological niches for technologically unsophisticated human bands--runaway global warming or nuclear winter?

If that's the scenario that comes about, I would guess that lots of animals will survive, analogous to extinction events that killed off dinosaurs. I don't think that a big fraction of the great filter is between development of animals and civilization, although it seems plausible that there is some filter here. A naive way to estimate: divide the number of times civilization has arisen (once) by the number of times Earth has been "wiped" by mass extinctions. Then figure out how frequently mass extinctions occur and how many more "wipes" we can expect before Earth is uninhabitable.

On balance it's plausible our hypothetical replacements would be less compassionate, because compassion is something humans value a lot, while a random other species probably values something else more. The reason I'm asking this question in the first place is because humans are outliers in their degree of compassion.

Why do you believe that humans are outliers in their degree of compassion relative to other social species?

Almost by definition, a species that creates a civilization is capable of large-scale cooperation. But this large-scale cooperation could look much different than human cooperation looks like. (I'm guessing it would be relatively easy for a eusocial species to control its reproduction, so if it achieved sufficient intelligence to understand the basics of breeding, it might be able to "bootstrap" itself to higher levels of intelligence from there.)

(I can imagine exotic scenarios where large-scale cooperation is less necessary for starfaring: consider a species that lived much longer than humans, meaning individuals had longer lifetimes over which to accumulate knowledge, which makes knowledge-sharing through culture less necessary. But I believe that species tend to be longer-lived in highly stable environments, and a highly stable environment is less likely to stumble across a configuration that creates an ecological niche for a highly intelligent tool-using species.)

It occurs to me that we might want to focus on how cohesively a species cooperates over how compassionate it seems to be. If you look at human actions like factory farming, these seem to be less a product of some human prediliction for cruelty, and more a result of incentive structures. In a post-scarcity society, we'd expect this to be less of a consideration. But a post-scarcity society requires more than just technology. Incentive structures also seem less contingent on biological factors and more contingent on societal factors.

Comment author: Denkenberger 30 December 2016 02:52:45PM 1 point [-]

Multipandemic could cause human extinction. Even a single virus has had 100% kill rate.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 31 December 2016 01:02:40PM *  1 point [-]

Interesting paper! I'm intuitively skeptical, though--with 7 billion people, it just seems really hard to kill off every last person.

Where was this paper posted?

Comment author: Denkenberger 02 January 2017 08:02:43PM 0 points [-]

Sorry-I guess the review period for the paper on academia.edu expired. But contact Alexey: https://fromhumantogod.wordpress.com/contacts/ if you want to see the paper.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 02 January 2017 09:02:52AM *  0 points [-]

Interesting about dinosaurs. :) I added this to my piece as footnote 4 (see there for the hyperlinks):

John Maxwell disputes this claim. My reasoning is that dinosaurs lasted for at least 135 million years but only went extinct 66 mya. It's easy to imagine that dinosaurs might have lasted, say, twice as long as they did, in which case they would still rule the Earth today.

I agree that, among ways all humans might go extinct that leave around other animals, runaway climate change and nuclear war are contenders. However, I'm skeptical that there would be many vertebrates left in these scenarios. I would think humans would try to eat every mammal, bird, and fish they could find. I guess humans couldn't kill every last mouse or minnow, but in these scenarios, plant growth would also be compromised (or else humans would be eating plants), so it's not clear how well these small animals could survive.

A naive way to estimate: divide the number of times civilization has arisen (once) by the number of times Earth has been "wiped" by mass extinctions.

Interesting. :) But this is (perhaps very strongly) biased by the selection effect that we find ourselves here and not on the (many?) other planets where intelligent life never got to the human level.

Why do you believe that humans are outliers in their degree of compassion relative to other social species?

This was a statement about selection bias (namely, that humans care more about what they care about than other civilizations do) rather than an empirical generalization from biology. I agree humans seem to be somewhere in the middle in terms of peacefulness relative to primates. Unlike cetaceans, wolves, etc., we're not obligate carnivores. We're also more compassionate to outgroup members than ants are, although it's hard to say what ant morality would look like if ants were as intelligent as mammals.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 03 January 2017 07:45:36PM *  0 points [-]

I still don't see why we should expect these future extinction events to wipe out all vertebrates when vertebrates made it through dinosaur extinction events. Most plants aren't human-edible, and I'm skeptical humans would be systematic enough in foraging through remote wilderness to kill off more than half the wild vertebrates on the planet.

Interesting. :) But this is (perhaps very strongly) biased by the selection effect that we find ourselves here and not on the (many?) other planets where intelligent life never got to the human level.


humans seem to be somewhere in the middle in terms of peacefulness relative to primates

How certain are you about this? Some quick Googling:

  • "The northern muriqui has been argued to be important to understanding human evolution, since it is one of the few primates that has tolerant, nonhierarchial relationships among and between males and females, a feature shared with hunter-gatherer humans, but which contrasts with the ranked relationships of most other primates." (source)

  • "Male primates, in general, take very little interest in helping to rear offspring... Pair bonding of any sort is rare among primates, though gibbons seem to be lifelong monogamists, and some new world monkey groups, such as marmosets, have only one reproductively active pair in any group." (source)

  • "This was also studied in rhesus macaques and pigtail macaques. They found that infants, when separated from their mothers, went though all these stages of separations- protest, despair etc. The saw the same thing with rhesus and pigtails, but in bonnet macaques, the infants don't go through all this psychological trauma. It's pretty clear why if you look at their social organization- there are a lot of allomothers in bonnet macaques and babies are often left by their moms in the wild and someone else will take care of it and bring it back to her later. So it's important to pick more than one species and to compare across species when you're doing this comparative approach for behavioral models... We also are different because we (both sexes) cooperate with non-kin pretty often." (source--first bit is interesting because I don't think humans really alloparent, which seems like an altruistic behavior?)

Some of this stuff might be related to the evolution of intelligence though, e.g. human babies are born prematurely relative to other species because our large heads would not fit through the birth canal otherwise. So perhaps a primate species would need to engage in pair bonding in order to make this sort of 'premature' birth (and thus the evolution of high intelligence) possible. This factor seems relatively contingent on primate anatomy. So maybe a non-primate-descended intelligent species would be less likely to experience pair bonding (I think it's rare in the animal kingdom) and thus be less benevolent. (BTW, I think species that pair bond are a strict (and small) subset of species that are considered K-selected, but I could be wrong. It seems pretty likely that intelligent aliens would be K-selected in some form.)