Seven Billion

[disclaimer: this post appears just days after some friends of mine announce their pregnancy; this is a complete coincidence (this post was written and scheduled some time ago) and of course I’m delighted for the new parents-to-be]

In October, the world population is expected to reach seven billion. Seven fucking billion. I remember being a child and the media reports around the time that we hit five billion: that was in the late 1980s. When my parents were growing up, we hadn’t even hit three billion. For the first nine or ten thousand years of human civilisation between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the world population was consistently below a billion. Let’s visualise that for a moment:

World population for the last 12,000 years.

How big is our island?

Am I the only one who gets really bothered by graphs that look like this? Does it not cause alarm?

We have runaway population growth and finite natural resources. Those two things can’t coexist together forever. Let’s have a look at another graph:

Reindeer population on St. Matthew Island, from the comic of the same name.

This one is taken from a wonderful comic called St. Matthew Island, about the real island. It charts the population explosion of a herd of reindeer introduced to the island in the 1940s and then left to their own devices in a safe and predator-free environment. Their population ballooned until they were consuming all of their available resources. As it continued to expand, a tipping point was reached, and catastrophe struck: without sufficient food, mass starvation set in and the population crashed down from about 6,000 to only 43. By the 1980s, even these few had died out.

There are now no reindeer on St. Matthew Island. And it looks like this 40-year story could serve as a model for the larger, multi-century, world-wide population explosion that humans are having.

Game Theory

Humans are – in theory at least – smart enough to see what’s coming. If we continue to expand in this way, we risk enormous hardship (likely) and possible extinction (perhaps). Yet still the vast majority of us choose to breed, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that this is Not A Good Thing.

But even people smart enough to know better seem to continue to be procreating. And perhaps they’re right to: for most people, there is – for obvious evolutionary reasons – a biological urge to pass on one’s genes to the next generation. During a period of population explosion, the risk that your genetic material will be “drowned out” by the material of those practically unrelated to you. Sure: there might be a complete ecological collapse in 10, 100 or 1000 years… but the best way to ensure that your genes survive it is to put them into as many individuals as possible: surely some of them will make it, right? Just like buying several lottery tickets improves your chances of hitting the jackpot.

A stack of lottery tickets. If I buy enough, I’m sure to win, right?

On a political level, too, a similar application of game theory applies: if the other countries are going to have more people, then our country needs more people too! Very few countries penalise families for having multiple children (in fact, to the contrary), and those that do don’t do so very effectively. This leads to a “population arms race”, and no nation can afford to fall behind its rivals: it needs a young workforce ready to pay taxes, produce goods, pay for the upkeep of the retired… and conceive yet more children.

The same tired arguments

Mostly, though, I hear the same tired arguments for breeding [PDF]: cultural conditioning and social expectations, a desire to “pass on” a name (needless to say, I have a different idea about names than many people), a xenophobic belief that the world needs “more people like us” but “less like them”, and worry that you might regret it later (curious how few people seem to consider the reverse of this argument).

For me, the genetic problem is easy enough to fix: if your children’s genes are valuable to you because of their direct relationship (50%) to your genes, then presumably your brother’s (50%) and your niece’s (25%) are valuable to you to: more so than that of somebody on the other side of the world? I just draw the boundary in a different place – all of us humans share well over 99% of our DNA with one another anyway: we’re all one big family! We only share a lower percentage with other primates,  a lower percentage still with other mammals, and so on (although we still share quite a lot even with plants).

The similarity between you and your children is only marginally more – almost insignificantly so – than the similarity between you and every other human that has ever lived.

If you’re looking for a “family” that carries your genetic material: you’re living in one… with almost seven billion brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts! If you can expand your thinking to include the non-human animals, too, well: good for you (I can’t quite stretch that far!). But if you’re looking to help your family survive… can you expand that thinking into a loyalty to your species, instead, and make the effort to reduce population growth for the benefit of all of us?

My family tree. Have you met my great aunt baboon? Oh; sorry – that’s my sister before she brushes her hair on a morning…

The other argument I frequently see is the “replacement” argument: that it’s ethically okay for a breeding pair of humans to have exactly two children to “replace” them. This argument has (at least) three flaws:

  1. The replacement is not instantaneous. If a couple, aged 30, have 2 children, and live to age 80, then there are 50 years during which there are four humans taking up space, food, water and energy. The problem is compounded even further when we factor in the fact that life spans continue to increase. If you live longer than your parents, and your children live longer than you, then “replacement” breeding actually results in a continuous increase in total population.
  2. Even ignoring the above, “replacement” breeding strategies only actually works if they’re universal. Given that many humans will probably continue to engage super-replacement level reproduction, we’re likely to need a huge number of humans to engage in sub-replacement level or no reproduction in order to balance it out.
  3. It makes the assumption that current population levels represent a sustainable situation. That might or might not be true – various studies peg the maximum capacity for the planet at anywhere between one and a hundred billion individuals, with the majority concluding a value somewhere between four and ten billion. Given the gravity of the situation, I’d rather err on the side of caution.

Child sandwiches

“Do you not like children, then?” I’m sometimes asked, as if this were the only explanation for my notion. And recently, I’ve found a new analogy to help explain myself: children are like bacon sandwiches.

I’m sure I’m overusing this picture of a BLT.

Children are like bacon sandwiches for five major reasons:

  1. Like most (but not all) people, I like them.
  2. I’d love to have them some day.
  3. But I choose not to, principally because it would be ethically wrong.
  4. I don’t want to prevent others from having them (although I don’t encourage it either), because their freedom is more important than that they agree with me. However, I’d like everybody to carefully consider their actions.
  5. They taste best when they’re grilled until they’re just barely-crispy. Mmm.

Now of course I’ve only been refraining from bacon sandwiches for a few months: that’s why this is a new analogy to me… but I’ve felt this way about procreation for as long as I can remember.

The reasons are similar, though: I care about other humans (and, to a much lesser degree, about other living things, especially those which are “closer” family), and I’d rather not be responsible, even a little, for the kind of widespread starvation that was doubtless experienced by the reindeer of St. Matthew Island. Given the way that humans will go to war over limited resources and our capacity to cause destruction and suffering, we might even envy the reindeer – who “only” had to starve to death – before we’re done.

Leslie Nielsen was admitted to hospital earlier this month

You: To Hospital? What is it?

Me: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

Sad to say, he died yesterday. The world has lost a fantastic actor and comedian.

Just a short post, here: the wedding this weekend was amazing, but I’ll be writing about that at a later point, once I’ve caught up on all the work and email I’ve neglected over the last week or so.

My Friends Are Amazing

I’d just like to take a moment to say how amazing my friends are. It’s likely to be a little sappy: for those of you who like your blog posts on the other side of the wall, please switch off your eyes now.

Earlier this month, I blogged about Claire and I’s break-up. For many of the people I know, this will have been the very first they’ll have heard about it. Over the 36 hours or so that followed, I was completely swamped by consolations and concern: by comment, text message, Facebook, instant message, e-mail and phone – as well as in person from those I’ve seen in the meantime. Every single one of those messages is appreciated so very much. Thank you all.

And that’s not even mentioning the check-ins that people have made in the weeks since. It’s so kind of you all. I hope that Claire’s feeling as supported as I’ve been lucky enough to feel.

So how’s it going? That’s what everybody asks. Well…

…it’s still difficult. I’m not sure why I might have expected anything else: Claire and I were together for a quarter of my life so far. I still cry quite a lot, especially when Grooveshark Radio conspires against me and decides to queue up a whole series of songs that remind me of her. I don’t see as much of her as I used to, and I miss her, but when we’re together I often find it quite painfully awkward: even just down to little things, like the times that I realise that for the last few minutes I’d forgotten we aren’t a couple. I’m intensely keen on us being friends, and at least salvaging the awesome friendship we’ve shared for most of the millenium, but it’s not as comfortable as I’d like.

As I’ve said to a handful of people, now: without Claire, there’s no compelling reason for me to stay in Aberystwyth, so in the New Year, I’ll be aiming to leave town. I’m not sure where I’ll go, yet, or what I’ll do, but I’ve got some ideas. Today, I told my boss about my situation and that I’d like to start taking steps to make sure that the company can do without me: the joy of small-team development, eh?

When I first came to town, I promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the trap of being “stuck” here. I realised that Aberystwyth was a place that I could really fall in love with, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay more than ten years.

That was ten years and two months ago. I think it’s time to leave my love behind.

The Break-Up

Yesterday, Claire and I broke up.

We’ve had several rough months, and several even rougher weeks, and this seemed to be the best solution to a variety of difficulties we’ve faced recently. It’s hard to answer the question as to whether the split could be described as mutual, but it can certainly be described as amicable, if that’s enough. If not, then perhaps it might help to understand that we’re both, little doubt, unhappy, but that it’s better to end things now in a friendly way than, say, in six months time in an unfriendly way.

I’m sure that neither of us want to go in depth into the issues behind this break-up in the public forum, but I’m sure that those of you who are our friends are more than welcome to ask privately, “what happened?” I apologise to everybody for whom this comes as a shock (i.e. most of you, from what I gather).

I’ve no doubt that Claire and I will continue to be close friends and will kick arse in all the fabulous ways that you’re used to, whether in one another’s company or apart. And I expect I speak for both of us when I say that there’s a slap on the wrist waiting for anybody we catch “taking sides”: there are no sides to be taken.

Virgil wrote that omnia vincit amor – love conquers all – but he was wrong. Despite our love for one another, if Claire and I had carried on the way we were, people would have ended up hurt. I’m feeling drained and miserable, but it’ll pass, and all will be well again. For a quarter of my life thus far I’ve been Claire’s, and she’s been mine, and through one another we’ve done so much. For the last seven and a half years I’ve been thankful for the great richness of experience that my relationship with Claire has brought. There will always be a special place in my heart for her.

Thanks for reading. I think I shall go and sit quietly for a while, now.

Edit @ 21:20 01-Nov-2009: Claire has a few things to say, too.

Fry’s Dog

Remember Jurassic Bark, Futurama series four, episode seven? It’s the one in which Fry’s dog, Seymour, left in the present-day when Fry gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the far future, sits outside the pizza parlour where Fry had worked, waiting for him to return. Turns out it’s based on a true (sad) story, of a dog called Hachiko. Read about Haciko’s life here.

Thought I’d share for all the rest of you Futurama-junkies out there.

On My Grandma And The Nature Of Time, Space, And Models Of The Universe

I’d hoped to finish writing this post before my gran died so suddenly yesterday, but I guess I was a bit slow. I realised that there were so many changes of tense to be made to make the article make sense that it was actually easier to start again. So I did.

On The Nature Of Models

I have a certain model of the universe and the way it works in my head, just as you do in yours. Some people’s models are more complex than others, and some are more complex in different areas. A great example of model complexity comes from the usage of a car. A great number of people are able to drive a car – they know what pedals to press and what levers and wheels and switches to operate to make the car go faster or slower, to make it turn corners, to park it safely, and to turn on things like the lights, indicators, and windscreen wipers. The majority of these people do not understand – or need to understand – anything beyond the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine, or a car’s electrical system, or the algorithm used to determine if ABS should be activated. This doesn’t make them bad drivers: this makes them bad mechanic… but not everybody wants to be a mechanic.

A mechanic has a somewhat deeper understanding of the car. Technically speaking, being a car mechanic doesn’t necessitate knowing how to drive (although it probably helps with learning the trade and it’s certainly conventional). He knows that if it makes a particular bad noise to replace a particular part, and how to test different components. The car’s owner probably barely looks at the engine, except to appear manly by the roadside after a breakdown by opening the bonnet and staring at it without the slightest comprehension of what is actually wrong, and occassionally to check the oil or refill the water. But the mechanic knows how the car actually works, how the engine powers the wheels and how the mysterious gearbox actually works and why the brakes squeak on old cars and how to pad a bill.

The mechanic probably can’t tell you how the electromagnets in the centrally-controlled door locks or the light-emitting diodes in the dashboard actually work, because that’s into the realm of the physicist, and so on. We all have different models for different subsets of the universe, and the way that it works. And in particular, I’m about to talk about my model of the fundamentals of the universe as a whole.

A Model Of The Universe

My model of the universe is a particularly clinicially scientific one. Like about 4% of the world’s population, I am an atheist – I believe that there are no deities. I am, at the most fundamental levels, a determinist – I believe that with a good enough model everything could be explained and predicted, although I appreciate only one such model of the universe will ever exist, and we’re standing in it. However, my determinist ideas are so fundamental that the question of free will doesn’t really come into it: while, technically, I don’t believe in free will, I also don’t believe that it’s possible to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty either way, which makes my disbelief in free will a matter of faith, rather than of scientific reason.

My model is more simplistic than that of many theoretical physicists: I don’t claim to understand string theory, or spacetime curvature, or any number of other things. For day to day use, my model of gravity is Dan’s Simplified Gravitational Theory, which has one rule: “things fall down” (although at a deeper level, I’m quite happy with the idea that mass attracts other mass, and can comprehend orbits and expansion and stuff). But it’s a well-packaged and strong model without holes, and I’m a firm believer in it. It’s my belief that humans naturally build models in their head to explain the way the world works and make it more predictable. The “things fall down” theory of gravity is more than enough for a spear-throwing caveman to use to catch an animal to skin and eat, and it’s fine for me to go and play frisbee on the beach, but it’s not enough to put a man on the moon. To do that took some far more powerful models of the universe which had been refined by very clever people over hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

For a single paragraph, here, I’ll take what I feel is an intellectual high ground over many theists (particularly, right now, anti-evolutionists), and state that one thing I do like about my model is that it’s malleable by science. When we’re talking about fundamentals like those discussed above, it is, to some degree, a matter of faith and “what feels right” because it’s hard to prove either way whether free will exists, for example (and, in my mind, a pointless exercise anyway). But on other matters, scientific study can really shine. Like many people (atheists and theists alike) I believe that the universe began taking it’s current form after an event long ago called the Big Bang (which is a silly name, because it was neither big – depending on how you define it – nor did it make a bang). Scientists often talk about three key theories about what’ll happen at “the end” of the universe: the Big Crunch (whereby the universe falls back in on itself and collpases into a single, tiny point), the Big Freeze (whereby the universe keeps expanding forever), and a “sweet spot” in-between, and scientists are split on the three. There’s evidence for all three, and, as yet, no consensus. As a philosophically-minded individual, I like to hypothesise about the possibilities, and come to conclusions. My belief is that the universe will eventually collapse into a Big Crunch. It became apparent to me recently, however, through a thought experiment during a conversation, that I had failed to fully grasp a key concept of the Big Freeze and had dismissed it because of this. This lead me to a whole new re-assessment of the possibilities, in which I eventually still settled on the Big Crunch as being the most likely option, in my mind. My model (a loose model, in this case: I don’t think I have enough information about the Big Crunch to argue convincingly that it is certain, it’s just what I suspect) was shaken by new evidence, which caused me to re-assess my position. In this case, as it happens, I came to the same conclusion as before. Nevertheless, I feel that one of the strengths of my model is that it allows itself to be challenged, and broken, and re-assembled. Right; end of anti-blind-faith-rant.

Needless to say, my model does not have space for ghosts or spirits. While I appreciate that these things could exist, I feel that argument for them makes as much sense as argument for unicorns, fairies, aliens “living among us”, and God. I’ll certainly agree that “there are things beyond what we know,” and I hope that always remains the case (the world is full of mysteries, and that makes it beautiful): but I don’t think there’s any reason to jump onto superstitious beliefs to justify them.

So Where Does My Gran Fit In

So you’ve probably noticed the title of this article. Yeah; I’m getting to that.

In the days leading up to my grandma’s death, I’ve engaged in a couple of conversations with Claire about my gran’s beliefs and how they link in with this whole “models of the universe” thing.

For as long as I can remember, my gran would always talk about her children and her grandchildren in a particular way: “I love all of my children and my grandchildren,” she would say, “but Dan is the special one.” This singling out – this thinly-veiled favouritism – caused some embarrasment until it started becoming “just one of those things old people do,” like talking about the war or complaining about the forms of entertainment/dress/communication enjoyed by young people today. I spoke to my gran on a handful of occassions about what she meant by this strange statement, and she would explain: “You’re the one that I’ll talk to after I’m dead.”

As a young child, this filled me with a sense of both dread and pride: dread that “she could be right” (my godless, souless model of the world was not so hard-set as a child as it was once I’d realised that higher-level physics, philosophy, and psychology held a lot of answers that evidenced it) and pride that, if she was, I had been “selected” as the “special one” to receive the “gift” that she believed she had: the gift of talking to the dead.

Her spiritualistic beliefs, though, combined with my skeptical worldview, lead to some conflict. For example, one time I was talking to both my gran and my mum, when my gran was relaying how she intended to communicate with my from beyond the grave (or, as it happens, beyond the grate: she wanted to be cremated):

“You’ve got to look out for bad spirits,” she warned me, “But you’ll know that it’s me that’s talking to you because I’ll call you my little white rabbit.” [a nickname she had for me when I was very young, perhaps because of the intensely blonde hair I sported]

“But that won’t prove anything,” my mum, who is also an excellent skeptic, although I sometimes wonder whether her models are too concrete, and I argued, “Because I could now imagine I’d heard that. What you need to do, to prove that it’s you, if you’re right, is to tell me something that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise: something that you hadn’t told me before you died, but which we could later verify.”

It took a little while to explain this concept to her, and we gave her an example of some information that we didn’t know, but that she did and we could potentially find out after her death, if necessary. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said, and promptly told us the information. It seemed that she hadn’t quite grasped the concept at all. So, we had a few more drinks and left the conversation to finish another time.

My gran’s raving spiritualism rarely got in the way of anybody. Sure, she made me promise never to use a Ouija board (she had a particularly terrifying experience while using one and since decided that they were dangerous) and there was that one time she argued with her grandma about fireworks, upsetting my sisters, but in general, she seemed to appreciate that her beliefs were hers and not those of many others.

Models, Meet Grandma; Grandma, Models

And so we come full circle back to mental models, and my conversations with Claire. We were saying about how having such well-defined and rarely-challenged mental models of the universe as we do is, in a way, a boring stagnation. It’s rare, these days, for our models to be challenged by anything that can not be (very easily) explained, and that’s uninteresting (I disagree with Claire that it made the world boring, because there’s still plenty of mystery left that lacks any conclusive evidence whatsoever), and we came on, in the days before my grandma died, to discussing her curious prophecy that she’ll continue to talk to me from the afterlife.

And so, the skeptics that we are, we came up with a suite of experiments to help provide evidence for or against any voices that I hear, dreams I have, or whatever, actually being my post-death grandmother. I don’t believe it for a moment, but I wouldn’t be a very good skeptic if I wasn’t skeptical about my own beliefs, too. We came up with well defined hypotheses for different scenarios and sensible ways to collate information. It’s kind of interesting to develop experiments to test data that you never expect to obtain for a hypothesis you don’t believe in, but it’s the nature of science to question things, and, even if the only evidence so far is that “my gran said it”, our construction of a virtual laboratory in which to test a crazy theory (if the data is ever delivered) made a long car journey quite a lot more enjoyable.

And honestly; it’d be as interesting to prove as to disprove. Now all I need is to start hallucinating.