I was riding in to work this morning, listening to volume two of the Audible version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (he was discussing symmetry in physical laws). An accident ahead had closed down all but one lane of traffic, so I got to listen to the lecture much longer than I would have normally; even on a Saturday morning, to have only one lane of traffic open meant that things were very much backed up and slowed down. In such cases, it’s truly a blessing to be able to listen to one of the great minds of the twentieth century sharing his understanding of the nature of the world. It almost made the traffic jam pleasant.
As I rode along, listening to Feynman, I thought about how cool and interesting I’ve always found physics to be, especially when explained by one of its greatest practitioners and teachers. And because Feynman mentioned some specifics of biology and chemistry, such as how the chirality of biological molecules is an accident of history, not a law of nature, I realized how cool and interesting I thought the complexity of biology and chemistry were, too. After that take-off point, I thought about how cool and interesting was the mathematics that underlies physics, and thus underlies chemistry and biology. And mathematics is much broader and more complex than just what’s used for physics, and it can all be tremendously interesting. Even the stuff that’s way beyond my expertise* is fascinating when it’s explained by people who are experts, as on the videos on “Numperphile”, and “Three Blue, One Brown”, for instance.
Even human psychology, with all its biases and heuristics, its “system one” and “system two”, it’s knee-jerk reactions and all the irrationality it entails, is fascinating. Though it frequently seems irreducibly silly, we can often discern why it’s silly, as a system that evolved under a particular set of circumstances that didn’t necessarily require it always to be fully rational.
So why, then, I wondered, is human sociology—and its compatriot, human history—so unfascinating? Not to say that the details can’t be interesting, but the “pattern” it plays out, especially at the level of politics, popular entertainment, social mores, celebrity, and nowadays social media and the rest of the internet and web, is such a muddle. The movement of vast flocks of starlings and of immense schools of fish can seem eerily precise, and we know that such epiphenomena can be produced merely by having each unit follow a few simple rules. But large-scale human interactions are almost never reducible to anything consistent. If there are mathematical patterns, they are difficult to discern.
I don’t know about you, but I find much of human interaction at the largish scale to be simply irritating and stupid. It’s muddy. It’s just a mess. There’s no fractal-level chaos here, with hidden, self-similar intricacy. It’s just the chaos of an untended garbage dump.
Then, suddenly**, it occurred to me: human society is such a mess at least partly because it’s not in any kind of equilibrium. It’s an unstable system whose parameters are constantly changing. The human population is growing, and has been for millennia, at an ever-increasing rate. New technologies, from the initiation of agriculture, to the invention of money, to the creation of the wheel, and to weapons, on into the modern age of deep science and potent technology, produce an ever-changing background set of assumptions in the system. New methods of interaction and exchange of information, from spoken language, to written language, to moveable type, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to the internet, have—especially in recent centuries—changed irrevocably the state of what had come before, producing new and ever-messier epiphenomena.
There has not been anything like the time needed for any kind of sociological and civilizational natural selection to take place. There’s been no way for long-term evolutionarily stable strategies*** to be selected amongst the phenomena of human interactions at large scales, because before any such selection could happen, something fundamental in the driving parameters of the system changed radically.
So I guess maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that politics is such an insane mess, that fashion and celebrity and entertainment are bastions of such goofiness, that we have trouble working out the best economic system (if there is such a thing, and if we are even able to define “best by what measure, best for what purpose?”), that social media is such a nightmare of infantile behavior, and that history is such a catalog of tragedy and horror.
The weather may be a chaotic system that’s all but impossible to predict in specifics beyond a few days, but the physics of it is at least consistent****. The “physics” of human interaction is being subjected to ever-changing constants of nature (if you’ll allow the metaphor). They may not change by that much at any given time, but we know that even tiny changes in the true “constants of nature” would lead to radically different universes, in most of which we would not be able to exist even for a microsecond. We should probably be in awe of the fact that civilization survives at all.
This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve all the many and varied problems of human civilization. We must solve them. But perhaps we (meaning I) should be more forgiving of just how stupid and inefficient and counterproductive and puerile and horrible so many of our institutions seem so often to be. We’re still in the primordial soup here, and the primordial soup is cloudy. We must work on it; we must strive to make it ever clearer. If we don’t, natural selection will do what it seems to do best, which is to wipe out things that don’t have an evolutionarily stable strategy. But we (meaning I) can at least perhaps try not to be so judgmental about the idiocy of our institutions. You don’t judge the mind of a trilobite by the standards of the nervous system of a naked house ape.
But you still must address your problems and try to reach some semblance of an evolutionarily stable strategy (or set thereof) for society and civilization. The trilobites are extinct and have been for a very long time, and the same thing could easily happen to human civilization, and to human individuals. Nature would not care, would not give us any second chances, would not bend its rules in the slightest for us. As far as we can tell, it never has, and it never will.
Still, though it seems any mathematical and modellable science of sociology is at a tremendous disadvantage (Asimov’s “psychohistory” is a long way away) and may never be able to become formalized until after humans have reached a Trantor-level of equilibrium, maybe the problems of trying to reach that stage—trying to survive long enough to reach that stage—can be interesting enough in and of themselves. In any case, interesting or not, they’re problems that can’t be dodged. Sometimes you just have to shut up work.
*The physics being discussed at that point in the Feynman lectures was not beyond my expertise, for what it’s worth. I was a Physics major for a little over a year undergrad at Cornell, so I’m not quite a layman in the field. And as an M.D., my familiarity with biology—at least parts of it—meets the legal definition of “expert”.
**Really. It was honestly like an epiphany.
***I’m not referring to biological evolution here, but to a broader form of natural selection of sociological states.
****And thus, predictive climate science can be done