Book review: The Doomsday Machine

This book and the movie Dr. Strangelove are my two recommendations for learning about why you should still be concerned about nuclear war. The Dr. Strangelove post is coming soon. For now, The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg:

…is a book about designing the end of the world as we know it, chronologically through Daniel Ellsberg’s career as a nuclear war planner. It’s well written, and Ellsberg makes a compelling hero.

He’s most famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, government documents on the Vietnam War that contributed to Nixon’s resignation. This book came out of a second set of documents he photocopied and intended to release after his trial for the Pentagon Papers, but lost in an act of nature. Early on, he describes this second planned leak as the one that he fully expected to put him in jail for the rest of his life, and how he felt the loss of those documents as both a tragedy for the nation, and a blessing that allowed him to spend the following decades beside his wife. It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you’re driving alone when your audiobook is making you tear up in the desert along the Washington-Idaho border.

But all this just helps – the real meat of the book is in the systems he describes.


Let’s talk about nuclear winter real quick. (My favorite line on dates.) Ellsberg puts this at the end, which makes sense chronologically, but it’d be burying the lede for an x-risk focused blog, so let’s get it out there now:

All of our plans for cold war were decided before anyone knew about nuclear winter. I feel like I should capitalize that – Nuclear Winter. It’s the hypothesized event where nuclear explosions cause fired in cities that launch so much ash into the stratosphere that it blots out the sun for months and makes it impossible for plants to grow, killing most human and large animal life. There’s uncertainty around the specifics, but its existence is generally agreed upon in the scientific community.

All US strategy during the early Cold War hinged on this idea of “general war”, an all-out nuclear exchange with Russia and China. General War included dropping enormous nuclear weapons on literally every single city in both Russia and China. Obviously, this is atrocious enough – this level of calamity was expected to kill something like 20% of the world’s population at the time, mostly from fallout.

But every time general war was mentioned, a little voice in my head yelled “nuclear winter!” – that the death toll is actually >90% of humanity, Americans, Russians, Chinese, and everyone else alike, unbeknownst to everybody at the time. My loose impression is that there’s not substantial reason to believe that nuclear war planning policy ever shifted to account for this fact.


Another quick takeaway: the US planned on making the first nuclear strike on Russia and China throughout the Cold War. Today we have a perception that the US only plans for using a second strike, but almost the entirety of planning material is based on the supposition of the US using nuclear weapons first. Again, there’s little reason to suspect this has changed now.


Through this book, I was repeatedly reminded of the Litany of Jai: Almost nobody is evil, almost everything is broken. The problems described in the book aren’t the result of insanity or complete carelessness, but instead a horrifying spider web of incentives, laid unwittingly by people with limited goals and limited knowledge. It’s a sinister net of multipolar traps. If you follow this web down, as Ellsberg does, you find yourself looking into the yawning chasm of a nuclear apocalypse – not built on purpose, but built nonetheless.

Let’s look at how some of these tangled incentives lead us there.


  • Branches of the military want high budgets.
  • Budget decisions are made based on intelligence from those branches.
  • Branches compete with each other for funding from Congress and other officials.

  • Various branches hugely overestimate enemy capacities.
  • E.g. the army reports extremely high Soviet ground force numbers.
  • The Air Force reports extremely high Soviet ICBM capacity.
  • Inter-branch coordination gets trampled.
  • There is no incentive for estimates or behavior that aligns with strategy or reality.

  • All military branches want to get in all-out war if/when it happens.

  • The Pacific Navy basically insists on attacking Asia alongside Russia in all cases, because they want to be involved and don’t just want to attack minor Siberian targets “on the sidelines” of The Big War.
  • Nuclear plans have Moscow area getting blanketed with hundreds of nuclear bombs from all sides. “Hundreds of nuclear bombs” is a phrase that here and elsewhere means “calamitous overkill”.

  • Military branches don’t want to listen to civilian politicians.
  • Civilian politicians are powerful decision-makers.

  • Information is concealed, including from the president (for instance, the JSCP, which is the detailed plan for all-out war).
  • Military leaders just don’t listen to civilians who outrank them (e.g. in moving ships with nuclear warheads illegally stationed in Japanese ports).
  • Civilian President Kennedy is politically obliged not to override poor decisions made by President Eisenhower, the famous military general.

  • Nuclear bomber pilots need to receive an authorized signal to enact plans for bombing Russian and Asian targets.
  • Air force planners want as little delay as possible in executing war plans once they get the order.
  • Air Force planners want to save time and effort.

  • Authorization codes are stored in plaintext in envelopes in each plane, are the same between every plane, and are rarely changed.
  • Any pilot who realized this could easily lead their base in a nuclear strike, and almost certainly trigger all-out nuclear war.
  • There’s no way in the target database to easily distinguish Russian and Chinese targets, so everyone at Air Force bases assumes that if they get the war order, they’ll just drop nuclear weapons on everyone. All Chinese cities were going to be destroyed under every nuclear attack plan, throughout the entire early Cold War.

  • Communications systems with Washington DC might be destroyed if Russia attacks the US with nuclear weapons first.
  • Communication systems between bases might be destroyed during a Russian attack.
  • Communications in general are pretty unreliable.
  • Everyone in the military chain of command, including the President, wants the US to be able to respond as quickly as possible to a Russian first strike.

  • Ability to initiate a nuclear war is secretly delegated down the chain of command in cases where bases are not in touch with Washington DC.
  • Contact with Washington DC is often unreliable – for hours every day on some bases in the Pacific.
  • Basically anyone in the chain of command is not just capable of, but entirely authorized to, declare total nuclear war most of the time.

This are not even every example. A story retold in many different forms throughout the entire book goes like this:

  1. Daniel Ellsberg learns about one of these outcomes.
  2. Ellsberg talks to some relevant officials and outlines a possible catastrophe.
  3. The officials go still, think about it, and say with concern, “That seems entirely possible.”
  4. Nothing changes, ever.

A possible solution for most of these spiraling incentives is a countervailing force, balancing the dynamic back away from “total catastrophe”. An actor, or an incentive, or something. Often, that does not exist – in the veil of secrecy surrounding nuclear war, any party with an incentive to care about the implied risk isn’t aware of the entire situation, and can’t unilaterally fix it if it exists. Ellsberg tries to repair these flawed systems when he notices them, but has little power to do so.

He talks about how he suspects that some leaders, including President Kennedy, never had real intentions of using nuclear weapons, but even if that’s true, the scenarios above suggest that presidential intent may have had little to do with the outcome.

Ellsberg’s knowledge of the situation drops off in the 70’s or so when he started doing other work. Are all of these nuclear war and control systems still like this?? Maybe??!! Certainly nobody was rushing to reform them throughout his long tenure with the government.

I don’t know what to do about any of this. This book illuminates the number of needles we somehow threaded in avoiding catastrophe since the start of the Cold War. Here’s where you can get it.

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Nemesis club

[Cover photo taken by T. R. Shankar Raman, under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.]

College season is starting soon and many, including me, will be returning to school soon. In that spirit, I thought I’d try and pitch the Eukaryotes Read Blog collective on an idea I never tried out in undergrad.*

On undergrad campuses, fall is a magical time. A lot of energetic new students have found themselves joining together, bereft of their previous friends and social networks, away from their family, drastically changing their lifestyles, and making it on their own in the world.

University campuses are well-equipped to help you make friends. There are plenty of campus-organized bonding opportunities in the first few weeks, and, if you’re like most people, you’ll end up making friends with roommates, classmates, other people on your floor, people you eat with in the cafeteria, etc.

What university campuses do not help you make are enemies.

Enemies are an important and time-honored form of human relationship. Beowulf had Grendel, Batman had Catwoman, St. Patrick had the snakes. But forming and nurturing early-stage enemyships can be difficult. Sometimes your enemy has killed your son and you’ve come to exact retribution, or you’re investigating the same murder, or you’re driving your enemy out of Ireland. But these opportunities are few and far between.

Don’t get me wrong. True nemesis relationships can happen early on in the college career. Maybe you were in a conversation with them about land management during your “get acquainted” circle in Orientation Week, and their opinions were so bad you wanted to punch them, and now they’re dating your roommate. But most people aren’t looking to make nemeses off the bat, and the stifling atmosphere of today’s college campuses – rife with memes like “be good to each other” – is simply not fertile ground for real adversarial relationships.

Without this release valve early on, nemeses tend to form painfully and explosively at random points throughout your college career, when you’ve already signed a 12-month lease with them. Eventually, they get increasingly awful, and you have to kick them out and suffer through a massive screaming fit that goes on all night when you have a six-hour O-chem lab the next day. Go fuck yourself, Amy.

I don’t want that. None of us want that. Enter Nemesis Club.

Upon joining Nemesis Club, you fill out a form. It asks for your name and class standing, and goes into what you’re looking for in a nemesis.

2018_08_02_20:24:42_Selection

A sample nemesis-matching survey.

Over the next week, organizers match you with another participant with similar needs and desires. Congratulations! You now have a nemesis. While you make friends, reorient your life, and try to ace your classes, this friendly face will be there to curse, shake your fist at, and plot against.

There’s a tricky balance here – society has poorly equipped us for the nuances of the comradversarial relationship, so the club has to be ready to help members navigate this. What if two nemeses have different assumptions about the seriousness of the enemyship? What if people are unhappy in their nemesis bonds?

It’s important that these bonds be navigated carefully. Ideally, these relationships will be satisfying. Maybe they’ll lead to academic success, grudging friendship, or romance. Maybe at the end of the college career, both nemeses will set aside their grudges and continue their lives as pals. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, these connections will blossom into life-long rivalries.

If anyone starts a nemesis club, or some variation of it, do let me know.


  • My ex did actually briefly try to start this. I declined to participate because he refused to take out “physical violence” as a club-endorsed nemesis activity (between willing participants). I admire his commitment to the aesthetic, but have to disrecommend this approach if you’re planning on starting your own, for reasons both of legitimacy and of gaining members that really don’t want to be involved with something that includes physical violence (which is to say: most people).

Biodiversity for heretics

Epistemic status: Not very confident in my conclusions here. Could be missing big things. Information gained through many hours of reading about somewhat-related topics, and a small few hours of direct research.

Summary: Biodiversity research is popular, but interpretations of it are probably flawed, in that they’re liable to confuse causation and correlation. Biodiversity can be associated with lots of variables that are rarely studied themselves, and one of these, not “biodiversity” in general, might cause an effect. (For example, more biodiverse ecosystems are more likely to include a particular species that has significant effects on its own.) I think “biodiversity” is likely overstudied compared to abundance, biomass, etc., because it’s A) easier to measure and B) holds special and perhaps undue moral consideration.


From what I was told, biodiversity – the number of species present in an environment – always seemed to be kind of magical. Biodiverse ecosystems are more productive, more stable over time, produce higher crop yields, and are more resistant to parasites and invaders. Having biodiversity in one place increases diversity in nearby places, even though diversity isn’t even one thing (forgive me for losing my citation here). Biodiverse microbiomes are healthier for humans. Biodiversity is itself the most important metric of ecosystem health. The property “having a suite of different organisms living in the same place” just seems to have really incredible effects.

First of all – quickly – some of what I was told isn’t actually true. More diverse microbiomes in bodies aren’t always healthier for humans or more stable. The effects of losing species in ecosystems varies a ton. More biodiverse ecosystems don’t necessarily produce more biomass.

That said, there’s still plenty of evidence that biodiversity correlates with something.

But: biodiversity research and its interpretations have problems. Huston (1997) introduced me to a few very concrete ways this can turn up misleading or downright inaccurate results.

Our knowledge about biodiversity’s effects on ecosystems comes from either experiments, in which biodiversity is manipulated in a controlled setting; or in observations of existing ecosystems. Huston identifies a few ways that these have, historically, given us bad or misleading data:

  1. Biotic or abiotic conditions, either in observations or experiments, are altered between groups. (E.g. you pick some sites to study that are less and more biodiverse, but the more-biodiverse sites are that way because they get more rainfall – which obviously is going to have other impacts)
  2. Species representing the “additional biodiversity” in experiments aren’t chosen randomly, they’re known to have some ecosystem function.
  3. Increasing the number of species increases the chance that one or a few of the added species will have some notable ecosystem effect on their own.

I’m really concerned about (3).


To show why, let’s imagine aliens who come to earth and want to study how humans work. They abduct random humans from across the world and put them in groups of various sizes.

Building walls

The aliens notice that the human civilizations have walls. They give their groups of abducted humans blocks and instruct them to build simple walls.

It turns out that larger groups of humans can build, on average, proportionally longer walls. The aliens conclude that wall-building is a property of larger groups of humans.

Building radios

The aliens also notice that human civilizations have radios. They give their groups of abducted humans spare electronic parts, and instruct them to build a radio.

Once again, it turns out that larger groups of humans are proportionally more likely to be able to build a radio. The aliens conclude that radio-building, too, is a property of large groups of humans.


The mistake the aliens are making is in assuming that wall- and radio-building are functions of “the number of humans you have in one place”. More people can build a longer simple wall, because there’s more hands to lift and help. But when it comes to building radios, a larger group just increases the chance that at least one human in the group will be an engineer.

To the aliens, who don’t know about engineers, “number of humans” kind of relates to the thing they’re interested in – they will notice a correlation – but they’re making a mistake by just waving their hands and saying that mostly only large groups of humans possess the intelligence needed to build a radio, perhaps some sort of hivemind.

Similarly, we’d make a mistake by looking at all the strange things that happen in diverse ecosystems, and saying that these are a magical effect that appears whenever you get large numbers of different plants in the same field. I wonder how often we notice that something correlates with “biodiversity” and completely miss the actual mechanism.

Aside from a specific species or couple of species in combination that have a particular powerful effect on ecosystems, what else might biodiversity correlate to that’s more directly relevant? How about abundance (the number of certain organisms of some kind present)? Or biomass (the combined weight of organisms)? Or environmental conditions, like the input of energy? Or the amount of biomass turnover, or the amount of predation, etc., etc.?

I started wondering about this while doing one of my several projects that relate to abundance in nature. We should still study biodiversity, sure. But the degree to which biodiversity has been studied compared to, say, abundance, has lead us to a world where we know there are 6,399 species of mammals, but nobody has any idea – even very roughly – how many mammals there are. Or how we’re pretty sure that there are about 7.7 million species of animals, plus or minus a few hundred thousand, which is a refinement of many previous estimates of the same thing – and then we have about two people (one of whom is wildly underqualified) trying to figure out how many animals there are at all.

It’s improving. A lot of recent work focuses on functional biodiversity. This is the diversity of properties of organisms in an environment. Instead of just recording the number of algae species in a coastal marine shelf, you might notice that some algae crusts on rocks, some forms a tall canopy, some forms a low canopy, and some grows as a mat. It’s a way of separating organisms into niches and into their interactions with the environment.

Functional diversity seems to better describe ecosystem effects than diversity alone (as described e.g. here). That said, it still leaves the door open for (3) – looking at functional diversity means you must know something about the ecosystem, but it’s not enough to tell you what’s causing the effect in and of itself.


To illustrate why:

Every species has some functional properties that separate it from other species – some different interactions, some different niche or physical properties, etc. We can imagine increasing biodiversity, then, as “a big pile of random variables.”

It turns out that when you start with a certain environment and slowly add or remove “a big pile of random variables”, that changes the environment’s properties. Who would have thought?


So is biodiversity instrumentally relevant to humans?

  1. There are sometimes solid explanations for why biodiversity itself might be relevant to ecosystems, e.g. the increased selection for species complementary over time theory.
  2. Biodiversity probably correlates to the things that studies claim it correlates to, including the ones that find significant environmental effects. I just claim that often, biodiversity is plausibly falsely described as the controlling variable rather than one of its correlates. (That said, there are reasons we might expect people to overstate its benefits – read on.)

If this is true, and biodiversity itself isn’t the driving force we make it out to be, why does everyone study it?

Firstly, I think biodiversity is easier to measure than, say, individual properties, or abundance. Looking at the individual properties and traits of each species in the environment is its whole own science, specific to that particular species and that particular environment. It would be a ridiculous amount of work.

But when we try to get the measure of an ecosystem without this really deep knowledge, we turn into the alien scientists – replacing a precise and intricate interaction with a separate but easier-to-measure variable that sort of corresponds with the real one.

What about studying one of the other ecosystem properties, like abundance? I’m guessing that in the modern research environment, you’d basically have to be collecting biodiversity data anyways.

Researcher: We found 255 beetles in this quadrant!

PI: What kind?

Researcher: You know. Beetles.

…And if you’re identifying everything you find in an environment anyways, it’s easier to just keep track of how many different things you find, rather than do that plus exhaustively search for every individual.

This is just speculation, though.

Secondly, a lot of people believe that species and ecosystems are a special moral unit (independent of any effects or benefits they might have on humans). That’s why people worry about losing the parasites of endangered species, or wonder if we shouldn’t damage biodiversity by eradicating diseases.

And… it’s hard to explain why this seems wrong to me, but I’ll try. I get it. Environmentalism is compelling and widespread. It was the background radiation of virtually almost every interaction with nature I had growing up. It was taken for granted that every drop of biodiversity was a jewel with value beyond measure, that endangered species were inherently worth going to great lengths to protect and preserve, that ecosystems are precariously balanced configurations that should be defended as much as possible from encroachment by humans. Under this lens, of course the number of species present is the default measurement – the more biodiversity preserved from human destruction, the more intricate and elaborate the ecosystem (introduced species excepted), the better.

And… doesn’t that seem a little limited? Doesn’t that seem like a sort of arbitrary way to look at huge parts of the world we live in? It’s not worth throwing out, but perhaps it deserves a little questioning. Where else could we draw the moral lines?

Personally, I realized my morality required me to treat animals as moral patients. This started with animals directly used by humans, but then got me re-examining the wild animals I’d been so fond of for so long.

Currently, I put individual animals and species in mostly-separated mental buckets. A species, a particular pattern instantiated by evolution acting on rocks and water over time, is important – but it’s important because it’s beautiful, like a fantastic painting made over decades by a long-dead artist. We value aesthetics, and interpretations, and certainly the world would be worse off without a piece of beauty like this one.

But an individual matters morally because it feels. It cares, it thinks, it feels joy, it suffers. We know because we are one, and because the same circuits and incentives that run in our brains also run in the brains of the cats, chickens, songbirds, insects, earthworms, whale sharks, and bristlemouths that we share this lonely earth with.

We might say that a species “suffers” or “is in pain”, the same way that a city “is in pain”, and we might mean several different things by that. We might say many of the individuals in the collective suffer. Or we might mean that the species is degraded somehow the way art is degraded – lessened in quantity, less likely to survive into the future, changing rapidly, etc. But it seems like a stretch to call that pain, in the way that being eaten alive is pain.

Obviously, at some point, you have to make trade-offs over what you care about. I don’t have my answers worked out yet, but for now, I put a lot more value on the welfare of individual animals than I used to, and I care less about species.

I don’t expect this viewpoint to become widespread any time soon. But I think it’s possible that the important things in nature aren’t the ones we’ve expected, and that under other values, properties like abundance and interactions deserve much more attention (compared to biodiversity) than they have now.


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Eukaryote Writes Blog resource pages

The same way I sometimes get interested in a topic and go learn a bunch about it, I tend to collect useful links and resources.  So I’ve put some of those collections here. (The meta-resource page is linked on the sidebar.)

Current resource pages are:

Why was smallpox so deadly in the Americas?

In Eurasia, smallpox was undoubtedly a killer. It came and went in waves for ages, changing the course of empires and countries. 30% of those infected with the disease died from it. This is astonishingly high mortality from a disease – worse than botulism, Lassa Fever, tularemia, the Spanish flu, Legionnaire’s disease, and SARS.

In the Americas, smallpox was a rampaging monster.

When it first appeared Hispaniola in 1518, it spread 150 miles in four months and killed 30-50% of people. Not just of those infected, of the entire population1. It’s said to have infected a quarter of the population of the Aztec Empire within two weeks, killing half of those2, and laying the stage for another disease to kill many more3. 

Then, alongside other diseases and warfare, it contributed to 84% of the Incan Empire dying4.

Among the people who sometimes traded at the Hudson Bay Company’s Cumberland House on the Seskatchewan River in 1781 and 1782, 95% seemed to have died. Of them, the U’Basquiau (also called, I believe, the Basquia Cree people) were entirely killed5.

Over time, smallpox killed 90% of the Mandan tribe, along with 80% of people in the Columbia River region, 67% of the Omahas, and half of the Piegan tribe and of the Huron and Iroquois Confederations6.

Here are some estimates of the death rates between ~1605 and 1650 in various Northeastern American groups. This was during a time of severe smallpox epidemics. Particularly astonishing figures are highlighted (mine).

highlightedtable

Figure adapted from European contact and Indian depopulation in the Northeast: The timing of the first epidemics[^7]

Most of our truly deadly diseases don’t move quickly or aren’t contagious. Rabies, prion diseases, and primary amoebic meningoencephalitis have more or less 100% fatality rates. So do trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness) and HIV, when untreated.

When we look at the impact of smallpox in the Americas, we see extremely fast death rates that are worse than the worst forms of Ebola.

What happened?

In short, probably a total lack of previous exposure to smallpox and the other pathogenic European diseases, combined with cultural responses that helped the pathogen spread. The fact that smallpox was intentionally spread by Europeans in some cases probably contributed, but I’m not sure how much.

Virgin soil

Smallpox and its relatives in the orthopox family – monkeypox, cowpox, horsepox, and alastrim (smallpox’s milder variant) – had been established in Eurasia and Africa for centuries. Exposure to one would give some immune protection to the others. Variolation, a cruder version of vaccination, was also sometimes practiced.

Between these, and the frequent waves of outbreaks, a European adult would have survived some kind of direct exposure to smallpox-like antigens in the past, and would have the protection of antibodies to it, preventing future sickness. They would also have had, as children, the indirect protection of maternal antibodies, protecting them as children1.

In the Americas, everyone was exposed to the most virulent form of the disease with no defenses. This is called a “virgin soil epidemic”.

In this case, epidemics would stampede through occasionally, ferociously but infrequently enough for any given tribe that antibodies wouldn’t successfully form, and maternal protection didn’t develop. Many groups were devastated repeatedly by smallpox outbreaks over decades, as well as other European diseases: the Cocolizti epidemics3, measles, influenza, typhoid fever, and others7.

In virgin soil epidemics, including these ones, disease strikes all ages: children and babies, the elderly and strong young adults6. This sort of indiscriminate attack on all age groups is a known sign in animal populations that a disease is extremely lethal8. In humans, it also slows the gears of society to a halt.

When so much of the population of a village was too sick to move, not only was there nobody to tend crops or hunt – setting the stage for scarcity and starvation – but there was nobody to fetch water. Dehydration is suspected as a major cause of death, especially in children16. Very sick mothers would also be unable to nurse infants6

Other factors that probably contributed:

Cultural factors

Native Americans had some concept of disease transmission – some people would run away when smallpox arrived in their village, possibly carrying and spreading the germ7. They also would steer clear of other tribes that had it. That said, many people lived in communal or large family dwellings, and didn’t quarantine the sick to private areas. They continued to sleep alongside and spend time with contagious people6.

In addition, pre-colonization Native American measures against diseases were probably somewhat effective to pre-colonization diseases, but tended to be ineffective or harmful for European diseases. Sweat baths, for instance, could have spread the disease and wouldn’t have helped9. Transmission could also have occurred during funerals10

Looking at combinations of the above factors, death rates of 70% and up are not entirely unsurprising.

Use as a bioweapon

Colonizers repeatedly used smallpox as an early form of biowarfare against Native Americans, knowing that they were more susceptible. This included, at times, intentionally withholding vaccines from them. Smallpox also spreads rapidly naturally, so I’m not sure how much contributed to the overall extreme death toll, although it certainly resulted in tremendous loss of life.

Probably not responsible:

Genetics. A lack of immunological diversity, or some other genetic susceptibility, has been cited as a possible reason for the extreme mortality rate. This might be particularly expected in South America, because of the serial founder effect – in which a small number of people move away from their home community and start their own, repeated over and over again, all the way across Beringia and down North America, into South America9.

That said, this theory is considered unlikely today1. For one, the immune systems of native peoples of the Americas react similarly to vaccines as the immune systems of Europeans10. For another, groups in the Americas also had unusually high mortality from other European diseases (influenza, measles, etc), but this mortality decreased relatively quickly after first exposure – quickly enough that genetic attributes couldn’t change quickly enough to explain the response10.

Some have also proposed general malnutrition, which would weaken the immune system and make it harder to fight off smallpox. This doesn’t seem to have been a factor1. Scarce food was a fact of life in many Native American groups, but then again, the same was true for European peasants, who still didn’t suffer as much from smallpox.

Africa

Smallpox has had a long history in parts of Africa – the earliest known instance of smallpox infection comes from Egyptian mummies2, and frequent European contact throughout the centuries spread the disease to the parts they interacted with. Various groups in North, East, and West Africa developed their own variolation techniques11.

However, when the disease was introduced to areas it hadn’t existed before, we saw similarly astounding death rates as in the Americas: one source describes mortality rates of 80% among the Griqua people of South Africa. Less quantitatively, it describes how several Hottentot tribes were “wiped out” by the disease, that some tribes in northern Kenya were “almost exterminated”, and that parts of the eastern Congo River basin became “completely depopulated”2.

This makes it sound like smallpox acted similarly in unexposed people in Africa. It also lends another piece of evidence against the genetic predisposition hypothesis – that the disease would act similarly on groups so geographically removed.

Wikipedia also tells me that smallpox was comparably deadly when it was first introduced to various Australasian islands, but I haven’t looked into this further.

Extra

Required reading on humanism, smallpox, and smallpox eradication.


When smallpox arrived in India around 400 AD, it spurred the creation of Shitala, the Hindu goddess of (both causing and curing) smallpox. She is normally depicted on a donkey, carrying a broom for either spreading germs or sweeping out a house, and a bowl of either smallpox germs or of cool water.

The last set of images on this page also seems to be a depiction of the goddess, and captures something altogether different, something more dark and visceral.


Finally, this blog has a Patreon. If you like what you’ve read, consider giving it your support so I can make more of it.

References


  1. Riley, J. C. (2010). Smallpox and American Indians revisited. Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences65(4), 445-477. 
  2. Fenner, F., Henderson, D. A., Arita, I., Jezek, Z., Ladnyi, I. D., & World Health Organization. (1988). Smallpox and its eradication. 
  3. Acuna-Soto, R., Sthale, D. W., Cleaveland, M. K., & Therrell, M. D. (2002). Megadrought and megadeath in 16th century Mexico. Revista Biomédica13, 289-292. 
  4. Beer, M., & Eisenstat, R. A. (2000). The silent killers of strategy implementation and learning. Sloan management review41(4), 29. 
  5. Houston, C. S., & Houston, S. (2000). The first smallpox epidemic on the Canadian Plains: in the fur-traders’ words. Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology11(2), 112-115. 
  6. Crosby, A. W. (1976). Virgin soil epidemics as a factor in the aboriginal depopulation in America. The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History, 289-299. 
  7. Sundstrom, L. (1997). Smallpox Used Them Up: References to Epidemic Disease in Northern Plains Winter Counts, 1714-1920. Ethnohistory, 305-343. 
  8. MacPhee, R. D., & Greenwood, A. D. (2013). Infectious disease, endangerment, and extinction. International journal of evolutionary biology, 2013. 
  9. Snow, D. R., & Lanphear, K. M. (1988). European contact and Indian depopulation in the Northeast: the timing of the first epidemics. Ethnohistory, 15-33. 
  10. Walker, R. S., Sattenspiel, L., & Hill, K. R. (2015). Mortality from contact-related epidemics among indigenous populations in Greater Amazonia. Scientific reports5, 14032. 
  11. Herbert, E. W. (1975). Smallpox inoculation in Africa. The Journal of African History16(4), 539-559. 

[OPEN QUESTION] Insect declines: Why aren’t we dead already?

One study on a German nature reserve found insect biomass (e.g., kilograms of insects you’d catch in a net) has declined 75% over the last 27 years. Here’s a good summary that answered some questions I had about the study itself.

Another review study found that, globally, invertebrate (mostly insect) abundance has declined 35% over the last 40 years.

Insects are important, as I’ve been told repeatedly (and written about myself). So this news begs a very important and urgent question:

Why aren’t we all dead yet?

This is an honest question, and I want an answer. (Readers will know I take catastrophic possibilities very seriously.) Insects are among the most numerous animals on earth and central to our ecosystems, food chains, etcetera. 35%+ lower populations are the kind of thing where, if you’d asked me to guess the result in advanced, I would have expected marked effects on ecosystems. By 75% declines – if the German study reflects the rest of the world to any degree – I would have predicted literal global catastrophe.

Yet these declines have been going on for apparently decades apparently consistently, and the biosphere, while not exactly doing great, hasn’t literally exploded.

So what’s the deal? Any ideas?

Speculation/answers welcome in the comments. Try to convey how confident you are and what your sources are, if you refer to any.

(If your answer is “the biosphere has exploded already”, can you explain how, and why that hasn’t changed trends in things like global crop production or human population growth? I believe, and think most other readers will agree, that various parts of ecosystems worldwide are obviously being degraded, but not to the degree that I would expect by drastic global declines in insect numbers (especially compared to other well-understood factors like carbon dioxide emissions or deforestation.) If you have reason to think otherwise, let me know.)


Sidenote: I was going to append this with a similar question about the decline in ocean phytoplankton levels I’d heard about – the news that populations of phytoplankton, the little guys that feed the ocean food chain and make most of the oxygen on earth, have decreased 40% since 1950.

But a better dataset, collected over 80 years with consistent methods, suggests that phytoplankton have actually increased over time. There’s speculation that the appearance of decrease in the other study may have been because they switched measurement methods partway through. An apocalypse for another day! Or hopefully, no other day, ever.


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Caring less

Why don’t more attempts at persuasion take the form “care less about ABC”, rather than the popular “care more about XYZ”?

People, in general, can only do so much caring. We can only spend so many resources and so much effort and brainpower on the things we value.

For instance: Avery spends 40 hours a week working at a homeless shelter, and a substantial amount of their free time researching issues and lobbying for better policy for the homeless. Avery learns about existential risk and decides that it’s much more important than homelessness, say 100 times more, and is able to pivot their career into working on existential risk instead.

But nobody expects Avery to work 100 times harder on existential risk, or feel 100 times more strongly about it. That’s ridiculous. There literally isn’t enough time in the day, and thinking like that is a good way to burn out like a meteor in orbit.

Avery also doesn’t stop caring about homelessness – not at all. But as a result of caring so much more about existential risk, they do have to care less about homelessness (in any meaningful or practical sense) as a result.

And this is totally normal. It would be kind of nice if we could put a meaningful amount of energy in proportion to everything we care about, but we only have so much emotional and physical energy and time, and caring about different things over time is a natural part of learning and life.

When we talk about what we should care about, where we should focus more of our time and energy, we really only have one kludgey tool to do so: “care more”. Society, people, and companies are constantly telling you to “care more” about certain things. Your brain will take some of these, and through a complicated process, reallocate your priorities such that each gets an amount of attention that fits into your actual stores of time and emotional and physical energy.

But since what we value and how much is often considered, literally, the most important thing on this dismal earth, I want more nuance and more accuracy in this process. Introducing “consider caring less” into the conversation does this. It describes an important mental action and lets you describe what you want more accurately. Caring less already happens in people’s beliefs, it affects the world, so let’s talk about it.

On top of that, the constant chorus of “care more” is also exhausting. It creates a societal backdrop of guilt and anxiety. And some of this is good – the world is filled with problems and it’s important to care about fixing them. But you can’t actually do everything, and establishing the mental affordance to care less about something without disregarding it entirely or feeling like an awful human is better for the ability to prioritize things in accordance with your values.

I’ve been talking loosely about cause areas, but this applies everywhere. A friend describes how in work meetings, the only conversational attitude ever used is this is so important, we need to work hard on that, this part is crucial, let’s put more effort here. Are these employees going to work three times harder because you gave them more things to focus on, and didn’t tell them to focus on anything else less? No.

I suspect that more “care less” messaging would do wonders on creating a life or a society with more yin, more slack, and a more relaxed and sensible attitude towards priorities and values.

It also implies a style of thinking we’re less used to than “finding reasons people should care”, but it’s one that can be done and it reflects actual mental processes that already exist.


Why don’t we see this more?

(Or “why couldn’t we care less”?)

Some suggestions:

  • It’s more incongruous with brains

Brains can create connections easily, but unlike computers, can’t erase them. You can learn a fact by practicing it on notecards or by phone reminders, but can’t un-learn a fact except by disuse. “Care less” is requesting an action from you that’s harder to implement than “care more”.

  • It’s not obvious how to care less about something

This might be a cultural thing, though. Ways to care less about something include: mindfulness, devoting fewer resources towards a thing, allowing yourself to put more time into your other interests, and reconsidering when you’re taking an action based on the thing and deciding if you want to do something else.

  • It sounds preachy

I suspect people feel that if you assert “care more about this”, you’re just sharing your point of view, and information that might be useful, and working in good faith. But if you say “care less about that”, it feels like you know their values and their point of view, and you’re declaring that you understand their priorities better than them and that their priorities are wrong.

Actually, I think either “care more” or “care less” can have both of those nuances. At its best, “maybe care less” is a helpful and friendly suggestion made in your best interests. There are plenty of times I could use advice along the lines of “care less”.

At its worst, “care more” means “I know your values better than you, I know you’re not taking them seriously, and I’m so sure I’m right that I feel entitled to take up your valuable time explaining why.”

  • It invokes defensiveness

If you treat the things you care about as cherished parts of your identity, you may react badly to people telling you to care less about them. If so, “care less about something you already care about” has a negative emotional effect compared to “care more about something you don’t already care about”.

(On the other hand, being told you don’t have to worry about something can be a relief. It might depend on if you see the thought in question as a treasured gift or as a burden. I’m not sure.)

  • It’s less memetically fit

“Care more about X” sounds more exciting and engaging than “care less about Y”, so people are more likely to remember and spread it.

  • It’s dangerous

Maybe? Maybe by telling people to “care less” you’ll remove their motivations and drive them into an unrelenting apathy. But if you stop caring about something major, you can care more about other things.

Also, if this happens and harms people, it already happens when you tell people to “care more” and thus radically change their feelings and values. Unfortunately, a process exists by which other people can insert potentially-hostile memes into your brain without permission, and it’s called communication. “Care less” doesn’t seem obviously more risky than the reverse.

  • We already do (sometimes)

Buddhism has a lot to say on relinquishing attachment and desires.

Self-help-type things often say “don’t worry about what other people think of you” or “peer pressure isn’t worth your attention”, although they rarely come with strategies.

Criticism implicitly says “care less about X”, though this is rarely explicitly turned into suggestions for the reader.

Effective Altruism is an example of this when it criticizes ineffective cause areas or charities. This image implicitly says “…So maybe care more about animals on farms and less about pets,” which seems like a correct message for them to be sending.

Image from Animal Charity Evaluators.


Anyway, maybe “care less” messaging doesn’t work well for some reason, but existing messaging is homogeneous in this way and I’d love to see people at least try for some variation.


Photo taken at the 2016 Bay Area Secular Solstice. During an intermission, sticky notes and markers were passed around, and we were given the prompt: “If someone you knew and loved was suffering in a really bad situation, and was on the verge of giving up, what would you tell them?” Most of them were beautiful messages of encouragement and hope and support, but this was my favorite.


Crossposted on LessWrong.

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2 extremely literal introspection techniques

Introspection literally means “to look inside”. Your eye is a camera made of meat – here are two ways to use your eyes to look at their own structure.

The Blue Field Entopic Phenomena

Stare up at a clear blue sky. (If no blue sky is available, for instance, if you’re in Seattle and it’s January, I was able to get a weaker version by putting my face close to this image instead. Your mileage may vary.)

BlueFieldGif

Animation of the phenomena. Made by Wikimedia user Unmismoobjectivo, under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Notice tiny white spots with dark tails darting around your field of vision? You’re looking at your own immune system  – those are white blood cells moving in the capillaries in your retina. Normally transparent, they reflect blue light. The darker tails are build-ups of smaller red blood cells in the narrow capillaries, which are all but blocked by the large white blood cells.

This is clear enough that the speed at which the dots move can be used to accurately measure blood pressure in the retina. To do this, patients compare their blue field entopic phenomena to animated dots moving at various speeds. I wanted to find some calibrated gifs to try this at home, so if you see some, let me know.

On the other hand, if you see things that look like this all the time everywhere, it might be visual snow.

2. The Purkinje Tree

WARNING: A cell phone flashlight probably isn’t strong enough to damage your eyes, but especially if you try this with anything stronger than that, or if you have a condition that would make it very bad to accidentally shine a flashlight in your face, use your own judgement on proceeding.

Stand or lie down in a dark room.

Turn on your phone flashlight or a penlight, and hold it up against the side of your face.

Position yourself so that you’re looking into darkness, and the light beam passes just over the front of your eyes – you’re trying to get light to go across the surface of your pupil, but not directly into your eyes.

You might need to adjust the angle.

What you’re looking for is the Purkinje tree – shadows of the retinal blood vessels cast onto other parts of the retina. It was first seen by legendary Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista Purkynê, who also found Purkinje brain cells, sweat glands, and Purkinje fibers in the heart, and introduced the terms “blood plasma” and “protoplasm”.

YarlungTsangpoRiver.jpg

The Purkinje Tree reminded me of aerial photos of branching riverbeds, as in this NASA photo of the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet. So look for a structure like this.

Once you see it, the image will vanish quickly – your brain already gets an image of the blood vessels on the retina, so it’s used to removing it from your perception and will adapt. If you waggle the light source gently at about one hertz (once per second), the image stays visible.


Happy new year from Eukaryote Writes Blog!

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The children of 3,500,000,000 years of evolution

[NASA image of the winter solstice from space. Found here.]

This is the speech I gave during the “Twilight” portion of Seattle’s 2017 Secular Solstice. See also the incomparable Jai’s speech. A retrospective on our solstice and how we did it coming soon.


Eons ago, perhaps in a volcanic vent in the deep sea, under crushing pressure, in total darkness, chemicals came together in a process that made copies of itself. We’re not exactly sure how this happened – perhaps a simple tangle of molecules grabbed other nearby molecules, and formed them into identical tangles.

You know the story – some of those chemical processes made mistakes along the way. A few of those copies were better at copying themselves, so there were more of them. But some of their copies were subtly different too. And so it goes. This seems straightforward, but this alone is the mechanic of evolution, the root of the tree of life. Everything else follows.

So these tangles of protein or DNA or whatever-it-was in the deep sea, it keeps going. This chemical process grows a cell wall, DNA, a metabolism, starts banding together and eating sunlight.

By this point, the deep-sea vent itself had long since been swallowed up by tectonic plates, the rock recycled into magma beneath the ocean floor. But the process carried on.

Biologists even understand that if you let this process run for long enough, it starts going to war, and paying taxes, and curing diseases, and driving old beat-up cars, and lying awake at night wondering what it means to exist at all.

All of that? Evolution didn’t tell us to do that. Evolution is what gave you a fist-sized ball of neurons, and gave you the tools to reshape those neurons based on what you learned. And you did the rest.

Sure, evolution gave you some other things – hands for grabbing, a voice for communicating, a vague predilection for fat and sugar and other entities who are similar to you. But all of this is the output of a particular process – a long and unlikely chemical process for which you, the building blocks of your brain, your hands, your tastes, are a few of the results. None of this happened on purpose. In the eyes of the evolutionary tree of life, you can’t think about existing ‘for a greater reason’ beyond the result of this process. What would that mean? Does fusion ‘happen on purpose’? Does gravity work ‘for a greater reason’?

This might sound nihilistic. I think this has two lessons for us. First of all, when you and your friends are sitting in a diner eating milkshakes and french fries at 2 AM, as far as evolution gets any say in your life, you’re doing just fine.

But here’s the other thing – we’re a biological process. Apparently, we’re just what happens when you mix rocks and water together and then wait 3.5 billion years. Everything around us today, our lives, our struggles, nobody prepared us for this. It makes sense that there will be times when nothing makes sense. When your body or your brain don’t seem to be enough, well, we weren’t made for anything.

Nobody exists on purpose. There’s no promise that we’ll get to keep existing. There’s no assurance that we, as a species, will be able to solve our problems. Maybe one day we’ll run into something that’s just too big, and the tools evolution gave us won’t enough. It hasn’t happened yet, but what do we know? As far as we’re aware, we’re the only processes in the whole wide night sky that have ever come this far at all. We don’t have the luxury of examples or mentors to look to.

All we have are these tools, this earth, this process, these hands, these minds, each other. Nothing less and nothing more.


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How many neurons are there?

Image from NOAA, in the public domain.

Last updated on March 16, 2018. I just finished a large project trying to estimate that. I’ve posted it on its own page here. Here’s the abstract:

We estimate that there are between 10^23 and 10^24 neurons on earth. Most of this is distributed roughly evenly among small land arthropods, fish, and nematodes, or possibly dominated by nematodes with the other two as significant contenders. For land arthropods, we multiplied the apparent number of animals on earth by mostly springtail-sized animals, with some small percentage being from larger insects modeled as fruit flies. For nematodes, we looked at studies that provide an average number of nematodes per square meter of soil or the ocean floor, and multiplied them by the number of neurons in Caenorhabditis elegans, an average-sized nematode. For fish, we used total estimates of ocean fish biomass, attributed some to species caught by humans, and used two different ways of allocating the remaining biomass. Most other classes of animal contribute 10^22 neurons at most, and so are unlikely to change the final analysis. We neglected a few categories that probably aren’t significant, but could conceivably push the estimate up.

Using a similar but less precise process based on evolutionary history and biomass over time, we also estimate that there have been between 10^32 and 10^33 neuron-years of work over the history of life, with around an order of magnitude of uncertainty.