World Peace

posted 16 April 2002

Tonight's internal dialogue: world peace. Topical, eh?

Method of attack:

  • The way the world is now
  • How it got to be that way
  • Is peace a good idea?
  • Is peace possible?
  • How can we achieve peace?

But I can't promise I'll stick to that; it's just an initial plan.

The way the world is now

As I sit here, one had to admit that the world seems pretty much doomed. The deluded and self-serving masses of the American Empire have been grievously stung by an unexpectedly deadly side-effect of the centuries-old conflict in the Middle East and have been convinced by the people who run their TV stations that the best way to cope with their grief and pain is to inflict as much grief and pain as they possibly can upon everyone else while singing the national anthem and putting flags everywhere they will stick. Pockets of pointless territorial violence continue to erupt in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Chechnya, basically everywhere in Africa, Columbia, Peru, lots of Central America, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. The only continents not affected are Australia and Antarctica, the latter because nobody lives there and the former because they don't let in anybody they might disagree with.

The highest level of pointless bloodshed is of course the middle east, where two groups of people with different and apparently incompatible ways of life are attempting to live in the same place at the same time without acknowledging the part that sharing must play in attempting to do so. Suicide bombers blow themselves up every day, helicopters fire missiles, bombs rain down, and people shoot at each other until they run out of bullets, at which point they throw rocks.

The situation simultaneously angers and depresses me, to the point that I can't work out if I want to nuke them all until they're a glowing puddle of molten rock or just sit and here and weep into my hands for the unending stupidity of mankind.

How it got to be that way

Forget Osama's childhood, forget the formation of Israel, forget Islam vs. Christianity. Why is the world so screwed? Because we as a species are fundamentally flawed. I [used to say] that conflict and war are entirely the result of miscommunication, or lack of communication, and that if people understood each other, then they would be unable to hate. While that is still true, I was unfortunately hugely overestimating the intelligence of human beings. People *can't* understand each other; they're built not to, and the reasons for this can be explained, as can so many things, in evolutionary terms.

Go back to basics. Genes are genetically-coded algorithms for creating and managing biological systems. Memes are mentally-coded algorithms for managing biological systems. The genes and memes that survive are the most "successful", since they are propagated. It's important to note that "successful" is not the same as "good" (well, obviously, since it's arbitrary anyway), which is why the memes of thieves and cheaters are still around. And unfortunately, we are genetically coded to split into factions and fight.

I think this behaviour is likely to a gene -- or rather, a combination of genes, since it's complex behaviour. It's not a meme: it affects our thoughts, but it's an involuntary instinct, not something we're conscious of, even to the limited extent that we're conscious of other viral memes like religion. It's going to be genetically-coded instinct because it's been around for a very, very long time. This is because genes are more efficient than memes.

To put it in the terms of computer science, genes are compiled, not interpreted: they are built into the very structure of the organism. Instincts operate at a low level, where stimulus leads to a direct response, rather than stimulus being evaluated for the appropriate response first. And since they are not subject to radical change, they can be made very efficient over time. And given sufficient time in which to operate, natural selection will ensure that even minimal improvements are more "successful". By this same principle, given a long period in which it faces no major competition, an algorithm will trade the flexibility of memes for the efficiency of genes. This is what we have: an idea so basic that it has become an instinct.

The behaviour that these genes are coding for is in effect the operating system in which memes operate; a basic meme common to all other memes. It is the behaviour that says "this meme will fight with that meme by means other than natural selection". Memes are not always, possibly even usually not, survival-oriented. This makes natural selection a bad method for memes to rely upon, which is why memes supposedly spread by communication. But lots of memes, such as religion, have discovered the trick self-defense: viral memes such as religion in particular dig in at a very low level and prevent other memes from taking hold by rejecting conflicting ideas.

If this method were unchecked, viral memes would have already occupied every available brain and reached a standstill, spreading only by biological means as neither would surrender any ground. Why [viral memes do not occupy every brain] is another matter. But since viral memes cannot gain ground from each other directly, the only way to occupy more brains is to enhance the reproductive chances of its hosts. However, this would effectively render memes that did not center around reproduction as irrelevant. The solution to this for non-reproductive memes is not to limit the reproductive chances of other memes, thereby freeing resources for its own hosts to reproduce. Since other memes will not allow communication into their hosts, this limitation is instead very efficiently accomplished by methods not involving communication at all: namely, war. "Kill anyone who doesn't share this meme" is an enormously useful addition to any meme -- any meme which did not incorporate it would be swiftly made extinct by those that did. So we now have a gene (read: genetic combination) that says "kill people who don't have your memes".

The existence of this gene is most obvious in the conflicts between religions. But even in groups that share some memes, the gene operates to distinguish between the remaining differences: so you get schisms in religious groups, and wars over political ideology, and even violent arguments over theoretical points of science (although I can't think of a fatal conflict over science offhand, I'm sure it has happened or will happen in the future). These are not ideas that majorly affect ones reproductive potential, so they are fighting by other means. To put it another way, the evolving ecology of memes produced the viral memes with a very effective method of defence, which spurred others to develop a method of attack capable of defeating it.

So where does this leave us? We are genetically hardwired to fight over ideologies, no matter how trivial -- indeed, the more trivial (and thus less related to reproduction), the more that meme will find it necessary to use conflict as a method of ensuring its survival. So war is natural for human beings. Cheerful, huh?

Is peace a good idea?

Well, in evolutionary terms -- and you'd be a fool if you thought any other terms mattered -- the answer, sadly, is no. Evolution relies upon, or rather, is defined by continuous competition -- you can't have survival of the fittest if the less fit don't die. And conflict and war are part of that package. "Peace" would be a lack of competition, which would lead to slower development and eventual stagnation. So does evolution have to happen? Of course it does. Since we live in a world of finite resources, competition is inevitable, and evolution is an emergent process that comes from competition.

The only time conflict could be viewed as a bad thing in these terms is if it led to destruction of the entire species. Doomsday prophets aside, this is very unlikely -- but, importantly, not impossible. One day a Left-handed extremist might decide the time has come to deal death to the right-handed scum and slam an asteroid into the planet and kill everyone. Or if you want to deal with a multiplanetary society, imagine some kind of galaxy-spanning doomsday weapon and repeat the scenario. So some kind of balance must be found to allow competition within the population without threatening the population as a whole.

That would involve limiting conflict in some way, which could be described as "increasing peace". However, "limited conflict" is not "peace": what we have *now* is "limited conflict"; the whole world isn't threatened. How does one determine the optimum level of limitation of conflict? I can't address that now.

Is peace possible?

Total peace: no. "Limited conflict": yes, but see above for how enticing limited conflict is as a continued mode of existence.

So once again we reach the conclusion that life is a meaningless blip on the probability curve of the universe, that there are no answers and there are no solutions. Slit your throat now, or carry on, it makes no difference either way. Is this called "maturity" or something? How unendingly depressing.

How can we achieve peace?

See above. Fuck this. I'll just have to keep myself happy, and attempt to maintain limited conflict. Change of heading: How do we limit conflict?

In the long term, you can't. As populations expand, competition for resources will increase, and conflict will escalate. You might try to limit population expansion, but in evolutionary terms that [leads to extinction], since you will never convince everyone to do it since the advantage clearly lies in increasing your population.

Another way to limit conflict would be to increase the resources available. This can be produced in three ways:

  1. Through increases in efficiency, e.g. that of matter-to-energy conversion. AKA: stop burning oil to boil water to move a turbine to create an electric field to power an electric stove so you can accidentally set fire to your oil.
  2. To a limited extent, through resource recovery. AKA: recycle stuff. Mine the dumps.
  3. Through reource acquisition. We already live everywhere on the planet, so this means going off-planet, colonisation being one of the best bets for doing this efficiently. Even then, expanding your territory infinitely to avoid competition for territory, you eventually hit Fermi's paradox (is that the right one?) where in order to maintain your expansion you have to be going faster than light.

Conclusion:

World peace is impossible. Multi-world peace is impossible. Conflict limitation is possible. The way to limit conflict is to develop faster than light travel, and assume the universe is infinite in size. You heard it here first. Oddly, that does make me feel a bit better: at least there's *something* you can aim for, rather than just wallow in hopelessness. Of course, that's enormously long term. In the medium-long term you have to develop interstellar colonisation techniques, and in the medium term you need to hope we don't blow ourselves up.

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