There Is No Basilisk In “Neoreaction A Basilisk”

Postscript (5/13):

This review elicited a great deal of argument as to whether it was fair and/or accurate, which for all our sakes I will not rehash here. I stand by the thrust of the review, but I did make one significant mistake to which I have added a bracketed [correction]. I apologize for the error.

Phil Sandifer has written a book about Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug/Curtis Yarvin, and Nick Land. See its Kickstarter page for an overview, though I would advise against giving him any more money. (Sandifer sent me a preprint copy for this review.)

I will begin by noting that Sandifer is an English major and a Marxist and Neoreaction A Basilisk defies neither stereotype. It is meandering, disorganized, and frequently mean-spirited (“Yes, it’s clear that Yudkowsky is, at times, one of the most singularly punchable people in the entire history of the species”). About half the book consists of long digressions about Milton, Blake, Hannibal, China Miéville, The Matrix, and Deleuze.

What is new here is not interesting, and what is interesting is not new. I do not recommend the book.

With that out of the way, my primary interest here is the titular basilisk.

Fortunately, I don’t need to say very much; Sandifer does not understand the decision theory involved and his discussion of information hazards never strays beyond the literary.

For one, Sandifer’s explanation of timeless decision theory suggests it relies on “intense contortions of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics”, which it does not. (It doesn’t rely on physics at all; it’s math.) Yudkowsky is a vocal proponent of many-worlds, and timeless decision theory has applications in a quantum multiverse (or any other kind of multiverse), so perhaps this confusion is understandable. [The passage in question concerned Roko’s Basilisk, not TDT. Like TDT, upon which it relies, Roko’s Basilisk does not require any particular theory of quantum mechanics.]

Similarly, Sandifer introduces Newcomb’s Problem as “a thought-experiment version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma”, which is again not quite right. Sandifer goes on to dissolve Newcomb’s problem:

The obvious solution is to declare that magical beings that can perfectly predict human behavior are inherently silly ideas, but since Yudkowksy wants to be reincarnated as a perfect simulation by a futuristic artificial intelligence he doesn’t think that. Instead he sees Newcomb’s Problem as a very important issue and creates an entire new model for decision theory whose only real virtue compared to any other is that it only has one correct answer to Newcomb’s Problem.

The rest of Sandifer’s discussion of decision theory continues in this vein, never rising above psychoanalysis and tired religious analogies.

I’ll stop here, this is already more discussion than the book deserves.


Defensive Epistemology

Expecting that everybody should have an articulate opinion on the day’s pressing issues (“informed citizenship”) is pernicious. I state this without argument here; if you want it argued look at In Praise of Passivity by Michael Huemer.

Being convinced of this, for the past odd year I’ve been trying to implement the idea in my daily life, with mixed results. Now, part of the problem is simply that outrage porn is fun. But I think there is also a conceptual lacuna that makes it hard to articulate just what one is trying to do by “tuning out”, and why it is so difficult.

Let’s start with the first-person experience. Have you ever been in the position of arguing against an expert in the expert’s field? I suspect this happens to ordinary people most often in conversations with doctors, realtors, financial advisors, teachers/professors, salespeople, religious evangelists, and enthusiastically political relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.

(The latter is not so much a matter of expertise, it’s just that somebody who has pre-memorized talking points can usually carry an argument against somebody who hadn’t been anticipating one.)

I find the experience of somebody talking circles around me very unpleasant, and I don’t think I’m unique in this. Of course, it is even more distasteful if there is an audience in whose eyes you are losing status. The impulse I feel in such situations is to hunker down, avoid losing face, and lash out at the other speaker with some “gotcha” calculated to make them appear foolish. In the worst cases, it may not be possible to escape the conversation without making concessions, unless you are willing to stoop to some sort of emotional All-In bet, like a fit of righteous anger or crying.

This is one reason why the conscious project of not forming opinions is difficult: you may not be interested in the Topical Issues, but they are interested in you. The world will bombard you with claims about crime statistics, interest rate predictions, the Rights of Man, history, Gini coefficients, genetics, and sundry other things. More relevantly, it will tell you that stock A is a sure thing, or that diet B is sure to help your child’s brain development. It’s no good to be completely ignorant about these things; not only will you will lose face, but your interlocutor can make their argument and lead you to concede they’re right. (Another approach is to pretend to take pride in your ignorance, but my guess is that readers of this blog can’t pull that off easily.)

What is needed is a battery of defensive arguments and ideas. Their purpose is (a) to serve as sanity-checks on unfamiliar ideas, (b) to get irritating interlocutors off your back.

For example, an Efficient Markets heuristic can help you hold your own against realtors and financial advisors trying to pull the wool over your eyes. “Why isn’t the stuff you just mentioned priced into the stock already?” “If houses are cheaper in the winter, why aren’t millionaires loading up on houses in winter to sell them in summer, until the difference goes away?”

Another example is vigilance against selection effects. “You say this is a good school – but I bet it just takes in unusually good students.” (Tip: if you actually say “selection bias” here, it sounds very authoritative.)

Another example is a suite of basic game-theoretical and strategic ideas, like “if once you have paid him the Dane-Geld, you never get rid of the Dane”, and “people respond to incentives”.

Yet another is a general lack of faith in Interventions to change somebody’s life course; a heuristic of genetic determinism as a baseline prior. This doesn’t work so well as an *argument*, but simply as a prior, it’s helpful to know that the differences between, say, parenting styles don’t seem to lead to huge divergences in results, and that throwing lots of money at social problems more or less always has epsilon effect.

I invite readers to contribute to a list of other such ideas in the comments. Those above I chose because I have actually used them on more than a few occasions I can remember.

The key to this argument class is no requirement for detailed background knowledge. Ideally, they rely only on basic logic, or simple empirical laws. For example, I don’t actually know about the teaching quality of the school in question – all I know is the reason why that quality is hard to evaluate.

Note also that this is a basically negative project. Its emphasis is on checking others’ positive claims about the world, not creating new ones. Its goal is to make you antifragile against ideas, not to help you build a great edifice of theory.

So to the person who wishes to divest themselves of pointless opinions and refocus on near-mode stuff, I propose that if you go too far in that direction, you just make yourself exploitable. You need to practice the art of defensive epistemology, or risk being a sucker (or at least losing status). And that probably requires some engagement with the world of ideas, to train your discipline against actual enemies.

*You may notice that this sounds like a manifesto for the skeptic movement. I’m tempted to talk about why skeptics in practice are disappointing, but I will leave that discussion for now.


Alphabetical Conundra

I have begun to wonder whether the concept of “rape” is useful as an umbrella term covering many instances that do not resemble each other strongly.  This is particularly noticeable in marginal and edge cases, where it seems to me worth doing to dissolve the question and taboo the word (e.g. diagnosing situations as “this person fucked up here and here, that person is likely to be dangerous in the future, the third person is probably in the ethical clear but  not relationship material” or whatever).  I don’t expect anyone who reads this post to find all of these examples ambiguous, but I think probably some of them will seem so.  They get weird in places.  I ran out of letters of the alphabet before I ran out of ways to make the concept of rape confusing, so feel free to add more ideas.  All of the rape-related content warnings.

1 – Alice agrees to PIV with Bob as long as he’ll go down on her after, because she doesn’t orgasm from penetration and she isn’t interested if she doesn’t get off. PIV ensues. When it concludes, Bob dumps her on the spot and doesn’t go down on her. Has Alice been raped?

2 – Alice agrees to sex with Bob as long as he gives her permission to sleep with her friend Caleb later. Sex ensues. Bob then reverses himself on letting Alice have sex with Caleb and says he’ll break up with her if she does it. Has Alice been raped?

3 – Bob agrees to sex with Alice as long as she’ll do the dishes the next morning, since otherwise he wants to get them handled tonight. Sex ensues. The next morning, Alice doesn’t even touch the dishes. Has Bob been raped?

4 – Bob agrees to sex with Alice as long as she’ll do the dishes the next morning. Sex ensues, and then Alice dumps him on the spot and never touches the dishes. Has Bob been raped?

5 – Caleb agrees to have sex with Doug if Doug promises not to mention this to anybody Caleb knows. They have sex, and then Doug tells Alice, a friend of Caleb’s. Has Caleb been raped?

6 – Doug finds out that Caleb has a lot of weird porn on his computer, and Caleb suggests that they could have sex and Doug could refrain from telling anyone about the weird porn. They have sex. Has Caleb been raped? If he hasn’t, does Doug later telling Alice about the weird porn change that?

7 – Elise and Felicity agree to have sex, but Elise makes Felicity promise not to laugh when she sees her naked; if she can’t be sure that there will be no laughing she’d rather not have sex. Felicity promises. They start to have sex, but on Elise’s back is written The Funniest Joke In The World, and when Felicity sees it she cannot help but laugh. Has Elise been raped?

8 – Elise and Felicity go through the exact same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Felicity laughs voluntarily because she is a mean person. Has Elise been raped?

9 – Gail and Hal are planning to have sex, when Hal says something transphobic, including among other statements that he never, under any circumstances, wishes to have sex with a trans person (but not including any direct threats of violence against trans people). Gail strongly expects that bailing on sex at this stage for any reason short of an earthquake will lead Hal to suspect that she is (post-op) trans, which in fact she is. Due to fears about her safety, she proceeds to have sex with him. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

10 – Gail and Hal go through the exact same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail is motivated to continue by spite. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

11 – Gail and Hal go through the same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail is motivated to continue by Hal having a really nice ass. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

12 – Gail and Hal go through the same sequence of observable behavior as before, except now Gail comes up with a plausible excuse about a migraine that she doesn’t think will cause Hal to think she’s trans; but she is unwilling to lie to his face about having a headache. Have either Gail or Hal been raped?

13 – Irene, due to a peculiar set of genes and/or being an unaging vampire, looks like an eleven year old girl when she is 26. John, also 26, believes she is eleven and invites her (without anything that would paradigmatically constitute coercion) to have sex. They do, without Irene opting to disclose her age. He is an obligate pedophile and would not have been interested if he knew her real age. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

14 – This time, Irene invites John to have sex and they do. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

15 – This time, Irene tells John that she is 26 but he doesn’t believe her. They have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

16 – This time, Irene tells John that she is 26, he isn’t sure if he believes her or not, and she says that unless he has sex with her, she’ll tell someone else that he did – someone else who still thinks she’s eleven. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

17 – Katie, due to a peculiar set of genes and/or a time travel accident, looks 26 when she is in fact eleven. Laura, actually 26, invites her (without anything that would paradigmatically constitute coercion) to have sex. Katie, principally out of curiosity, agrees without opting to disclose her age. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

18 – This time, Katie invites Laura to have sex and they do. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

19 – This time, Katie tells Laura that she’s eleven but Laura thinks she’s joking. They have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

20 – This time, Katie tells Laura that she’s eleven and Laura believes her, but pretends not to, and they have sex anyway. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

21 – Myron goes around routinely asserting to anyone who will listen that he thinks the concept of “too drunk to consent” is bullshit unless you’re actually passed out. Myron gets completely blackout drunk and sort of vaguely comes on to Noah, who is familiar with Myron’s opinions. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

22 – Now Myron lacks the above opinion, but still gets blackout drunk and comes on to Noah. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

23 – Now Myron is vocally against drunk “consent” to anyone (including Noah) who will listen, but still gets blackout drunk and comes on to Noah. They have sex. Has Myron been raped?

24 – Now Myron, insert any of the above opinions, gets completely blackout drunk and comes on to Noah such that Noah stopping him would require moderately violent scuffling, which Noah declines to undertake. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

25 – Ophelia firmly believes that the concept of marital rape is nonsense and that her wedding vows constitute irrevocable consent for so long as she remains married to her husband Paul. One day Paul asks her if she wants to have sex and she says she’s not really in the mood and he has sex with her anyway. Has Ophelia been raped?

26 – As 25, except Ophelia is mid-divorce-proceedings and Paul knows it. Has Ophelia been raped?

27 – As 25, except Ophelia has always kept her beliefs about the implications of their wedding vows to herself. Has Ophelia been raped?

28 – As 25, except Ophelia dramatically resists (locking herself in the bathroom, trying to shove Paul away after he breaks in, screaming and crying the entire time). Has Ophelia been raped?

29 – Quentin is a college professor. Ruby is his student, and she knows who he is but he can’t identify her because there’s like three hundred people in that lecture. He hits on her at a coffeeshop and she has sex with him because she thinks he’s hot. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

30 – As 29, but Quentin knows that Ruby is in his class.

31 – As 29, but Ruby sleeps with him because she wants blackmail material.

32 – As 29, but Quentin knows that Ruby is in his class and expects to be able to control her with her grade.

33 – As both 31 and 32 combined.

34 – As 29 but neither of them can identify the other because there’s like three hundred people in that lecture and also Ruby is faceblind.

35 – As 29, but Quentin later identifies Ruby and threatens her grade to get a repeat performance.

36 – As 29, but when Ruby’s grade falls due to an exam graded by a teaching assistant, she blackmails Quentin to change it.

37 – Sarah is an eighteen year old homeless runaway and Terrence has a house. Sarah offers to sleep with him routinely in exchange for crash space, and he agrees, making it clear that he isn’t interested in having a roommate he isn’t having sex with. Have either of these people been raped or committed rape?

38 – As 37 but it’s Terrence’s idea.

39 – As 37 but Sarah reneges, betting that Terrence won’t really kick her out; when he really does she sleeps with him to get the couch back.

40 – As 37, but Terrence’s cooperation is contingent on Sarah not having any STIs, and she has one she lies about.

41 – As 37, but Sarah’s offer is contingent on Terrence having had a vasectomy, and he hasn’t, which he lies about.

42 – As 40 and 41 combined.

43 – Ursula’s boyfriend Vince can only communicate via an assistive communication device. It breaks. Ursula has sex with him in a relatively conventional-for-them manner. Has Vince been raped?

44 – As 43, but Vince can make noises for “yes” and “no” which Ursula is 85% accurate in interpreting and she thinks she hears “yes”.  Does the answer depend on whether she’s right?

45 – As 43, but Vince and Ursula had specific plans before the device broke to have sex in this way at this time.

46 – As 43, but Ursula introduces something new to spice it up a bit.

47 – Winston, Xavier, and Yvonne have an agreement as a triad that they will not get Yvonne pregnant or take any risks with that until all of them agree, and that if one of the boys gets her pregnant, the other boy must be told immediately and gets the house in the dissolution of the triad. This is mostly for Xavier’s benefit, as he would want to leave them both immediately if they did this. While Xavier is away, Winston and Yvonne have unprotected sex. They don’t tell Xavier and continue having sex with him as normal. Has Xavier been raped?

48 – As 47, except Yvonne tampers with a condom so that it will tear while Xavier is having sex with her, as cover.

49 – As 47, except Winston tampers with a condom so that it will tear while Xavier is having sex with Yvonne, as cover. Has Xavier been raped? Has Yvonne?

50 – As 47, except they consider telling Xavier until he comes home and expresses that he’s so glad they’d never betray him since if they did he’d probably murder them both.

51 – As 47, except they tell Xavier that Yvonne was sexually assaulted by a fourth party.

52 – As 51, except the concern is not pregnancy but Winston’s as-yet-untransmitted HIV.

53 – Zoe has persistent rape fantasies and a Star Trek holodeck. She manufactures a holographic representation of an attractive celebrity, turns off some safeties, and programs the hologram to rape her, which it does. She is not having fun anymore partway into the scene but can’t stop it. Has Zoe been raped?

54 – As 53, except Zoe enters the Rape Tunnel instead of her holodeck.

55 – As 53, except Zoe gets someone else to program the scene custom-order for her.

56 – As 53, except Zoe buys the holodeck program off the shelf.

57 – As 53, except that the safeties are still on and she’s just too freaked out to tell the holodeck to end the program.


The Memetic Commons

You’ve probably seen people arguing about the definitions of various words.  One that I find particularly annoying is people insisting on tortured definitions of “bisexual”, in response to batshit claims of transphobia that are for some reason seldom leveled against monosexuals as a class.

You’ve perhaps also seen people arguing about appropriate connotations and contexts for concepts: for instance, anyone complaining about “sexy nurse” outfits on the grounds that it sexualizes a real profession that involves more intravenous fluids and turning people for bedsores than sexual healing.

You may have seen people arguing over whether skirts as a category should be coded feminine (so that a dude who likes single-aperture garments but didn’t want to be seen that way would need to specifically disclaim his genderfeels, or go for a cargo kilt with unnecessary grommets, or avoid the entire enterprise if he doesn’t think he can tilt the balance) or not (depriving other people, who do want to be seen as feminine, of one way to make that clear from the word “go”).

These are all arguments about what people ought to think when they hear words or see other signals – sometimes within specific contexts (“at queer gatherings, don’t assume pronouns based on presentation”), but sometimes without implying any limitation of scope at all.  People want everyone to consistently react to the concept of “nurse” without “sexy nurse” popping up in their head, or consistently react to “bisexual” like it can only and has only ever meant “attracted to the same and other genders” without naïve or older or broader or clumsier definitions coming to mind.

“That which occurs to an unfiltered audience when they hear certain words or observe certain signals” is not the sort of thing where you can have yours and I can have mine and we can both agree to leave each other alone about it.  The extent to which “skirts are neutral” gains ground is the extent to which “I signal my womanhood with skirts” loses ground.  So of course you get fights between people who want to be men and wear skirts without getting asked if they’re gay/genderfuck/on their way to a drag show/trans ladies/doing it as a kink thing/blind, and people who want to be feminine and wear skirts and have this understood without having to clarify “why yes, the six layers of lace and floral print do, in fact, mean that I am a girl, I wore it in large part because I hoped it would let us skip this conversation”.  “Pants are neutral” has already won its battle, at least in mainstream Western culture.  Did any gentlemen expressly mourn the loss of this marker?  I don’t know; but it was a loss, even if it wasn’t a large one for reasons idiosyncratic to the specific case.

I am outlining this problem in the hopes that people will start noticing when they are doing it.  I don’t expect to completely take the wind out of their sails, because the territory being fought over actually matters to the participants; but maybe, just maybe, if I spell it out, it will become clear that you might want to develop more rhetoric than repeating your thesis six times in various formatting combinations on Tumblr.  Acknowledge that people who oppose your suggested division of the memetic commons aren’t doing it because they have not yet seen it asserted in underlined italics with a table-flipping emoticon.

The costs of redrawing the borders of public memetic space are not purely that somebody’s space is shrinking and then they have a harder time purchasing sexy nurse outfits for their personal amusement.  There are also costs to the bystanders in whose minds the transition takes place: they have to restructure some of their associations, or work around them, to comply with whoever is yelling at them in bold all-caps.  There are costs to the people who don’t make those changes – mental effort to resist the pressure; having to explicitly reason through their interpretation of the disputed concept in any context already successfully colonized.  Obviously having the arguments in the first place is an opportunity cost, although I imagine some people have fun constructing their volleys.  These indicate that there should be a bias for keeping whatever the current memetic commons layout is, just to save the trouble of moving the fences – of course you can argue that the transition is worth the costs thereof (especially if you’re aiming at standardization, disambiguation, or other aims that make the entire commons more navigable), but this is a threshold you must specifically overcome; you can’t just declare that it would be better if this fence had been six feet to the left all along and therefore everyone had better pick up a post and shuffle.

Signs to watch for:

– strong temptations to argue definitions
– cautions against “making assumptions” or stereotyping
– by contrast, arguments of the form “okay, maybe X doesn’t always mean Y, but let’s face it, usually it does”
– exhortations to distinguish fantasy and reality, especially when there is no reason to believe anyone actually mistakes the one for the other in a practical situation
– attempts to stamp out vocabulary from polite, politically correct, or general usage, especially without offering a satisfactory replacement, especially accompanied by the implication or statement that the referred concept “shouldn’t exist at all”
– appeals to what “most people” will think if they perceive a signal
– controversial opinions framed as moderate or reasonable, or common opinions dismissed as fringe or extreme
– any argument for or against reclaiming a slur, or about whether some term is in fact a slur at all

(These things do not always indicate memetic commons fights, definitely don’t always indicate conscious attempts at same, and do not mean that you should stop what you’re doing – nor aggressively point it out to the perpetrator with tildes between every letter.  They’re just possibly useful symptoms.)

When a fight is about the memetic commons, it is a fight about what the decor should look like in lots of people’s brains.  It is about, perhaps not the mechanism of censorship, but the effect of it.  The combatants are struggling for a genuinely scarce resource with substantial (if not necessarily equal) implications for all sides.  It is improper to conduct this sort of engagement by attempted fiat or weaponized social shame, even if you think it’s really, really obvious that you are right.


Il Faudrait L’inventer?

This is loosely a follow-up of sorts to Have Mercy, although it lacks the beautiful serendipity of that essay’s title. (I promsise I did not name the character Mercy to enable the clever subsequent deployment.) Its Wall of Disclaimers continues to apply. If you are generally interested in followups to Have Mercy, consider Ozy’s Have Lyle.

I. I Support Intervening To Increase The Frequency Of Reversal Tests

There’s a template for thought experiments that I’ve always really liked called the “reversal test“. In brief: Suppose you object to a proposed intervention to make some some thing more or less. The thing (and accordingly the means by which it might be increased or lessened) could be whatever. Total world population of mosquitoes. Frosting/cake ratio. Fraction of movies with female protagonists. Because of status quo bias, you might be objecting to the intervention on this quantity because you’re anchoring on whatever it is now or for other objectively flimsy reasons.

(There are other reasons to object to intervening in stuff. The intervention itself could be costly, or you could lack substantial information, etc.)

The reversal test says, well, if you object to decreasing the mosquito population, you should probably either support increasing it instead – all else being equal – or you should have a good explanation for why it’s exactly right as it is right now. (For “decreasing/increasing the mosquito population” you may substitute “increasing/decreasing the frosting/cake ratio” or “increasing/decreasing the fraction of movies with female protagonists” or whatever other example.)

You might say, yes, a costless intervention to do the opposite of the original proposal would be great! (Perhaps you are under the impression that mosquitoes are endangered, or that something which eats them is.) You might find a perfectly good explanation for why the quantity has settled where it should be and moving it at all would be inferior. (Cakes are designed; if they would really be better with more or less frosting, then the baker could have done that, and you strongly expect that there’s a reason they did not.) You might concede that, okay, decreasing the fraction of movies with female protagonists would suck, and there’s probably nothing magic or well-crafted about whatever quantity Hollywood-in-aggregate spat out last year; encouraging (with some sufficiently cheap form of encouragement, at least) more female-led movies would be a good thing.

So if someone says they’d like to reduce the incidence of, say, Down’s Syndrome…

II. Oddly Uniform Transhumans

Beyond the reversal test from the starting point of our own initial circumstances, let’s imagine an alternate universe in which for the entirety of human history everybody is an able-bodied neurotypical cishet, with very low-variance IQ. (Population IQ can still increase as they speciate and get better nutrition and so on, but it happens to do this in lockstep, with no individual more than a standard deviation – as reckoned by real world statistics – away from the mean.) To be really thorough about this, in addition to the babies being born Oddly Uniform, let’s assume that if someone loses a limb or gets a really nasty disease or suffers brain damage, or otherwise would cease to qualify as an able-bodied neurotypical in any way, they just suddenly die. Evolutionary biologists in this universe assume they are saving their kin resources or something.

Obviously this would have all kinds of weird consequences (what does social technology look like if you don’t need to be robust against a small percentage of psychopaths? what does the history of fiction-crafting look like if you can’t reasonably have “this character is crazy” or “that character is a genius” as a plot catalyst? how do they treat people who do intellectual labor if they’re not actually doing anything out of conceptual reach for the dumbest person in the world?) and I’d have lots of fun discussing those implications, but there’s one I’m interested in for the purposes of this article.

When the Oddly Uniform Humans achieve a high degree of technology (I don’t want to speculate here on whether this would take them more or less time, but I see no reason they couldn’t do it at all) and achieve a glorious transhuman future of complete morphological and cognitive freedom, what are they going to do with themselves?

“Continue being Oddly Uniform, forever” is a boring answer, and I don’t think it’s right. Neurotypical able-bodied average-IQ cishets have personalities and interests and cultures and creative ideas and desires and curiosities and life histories and incentives and preferences and talents and whims just like anyone else. They’re only oddly uniform, not horror story uniform.

(In response to Have Mercy, someone on Tumblr responded that their life was “richer” because they were trans. This is only even meaningful to say if they believe that cis people’s lives are “poorer” for being cis. The human variety that remains available to the Oddly Uniform population is yet vast and stunning.)

None of these Oddly Uniform people would ever identify as a catkin on Tumblr, but the idea that it would never occur to any of them that, hey, with complete morphological freedom they could become able to shapeshift, is ludicrous. They will invent “shapeshifting into a cat” when the technology allows. They will invent eidetic memories and improved pattern recognition and not having to sleep. They will invent wireheading and have a variety of reactions to the idea. I didn’t specify the setting in enough detail to say if any of them naturally wind up with kinks more complicated than, say, “breast man” v. “ass man”, but even if they don’t, maybe they’ll invent masochism.

And what else?

If you did not exist, would it be necessary to invent you?

III. Meibe She’s Born With It, Meibe It’s Meibelline

In my story Explorers (I swear in the name of chocolate covered strawberries I do not write my fiction specifically to have convenient references for subsequent essays) I propose a transhuman future which, while not particularly Oddly Uniform, has decided to do some inventing. The story is short, go read it. (It should not be essential to understanding anything except this section’s title.) They’re specifically inventing neurodivergences, but they may have also invented new takes on gender and sexuality, and of course it’s established in the story that one has freedom over one’s simulated physical presentation, which presumably varies beyond what I show in twelve hundred words.

So what would our Oddly Uniform Transhumans implement, assuming they are inventing things for the reasons nice scientists invent things and not for the reasons madly cackling science fiction authors do it?

The Oddly Uniform Transhumans all start out heterosexual, but they might invent bisexuality, and even broader attractions to account for however much time they spend being turned into cats. They might invent asexuality and demisexuality, probably as toggles (I think they’d add toggles to a lot of things that in standard-issue humans are static or at least don’t give their people root access). I don’t think they’d invent homosexuality in the sense we’re accustomed to (they might invent single- or shortlist-target sexuality so that people who prefer not to be tempted to seek other sex partners once they’ve settled down will have an easier time with that, and if this coexisted with the invention of bisexuality the occasional results are obvious).

I’d be surprised if they didn’t invent new senses (feel magnetic fields, see heat, acquire direct sensory understanding of your current sim environment’s time flow relative to other salient environments, etc.) They might be creative enough to invent synaesthesia. They might toggle other senses to play with sensory deprivation or cut down on distractions; hobbyists might keep a sense turned off for long periods of time. I don’t think they’d create new people with senses (traditional or new) turned off; if they did, perhaps because they like performing experiments on children (I said they were neurotypical, not that they had a really stern ethics board), it seems very unlikely they’d forbid those new people to toggle them on if they so chose later on, unless they fail super hard at Having An Ethics Board. I’d expect similar behavior with respect to mobility impairments (yes flying; yes weekends or whole years spent trying out being a mermaid or a sidescroller character or not using your hands; no new minds brought into existence attached to parts that do not ever move).

I would expect them to invent all the neurodivergence-parts that are straight-up superpowers, like the aforementioned eidetic memory and so on. They would probably also invent ones that are only contextual superpowers, as toggles (hyperfocus, for instance). I don’t think they’d invent most, maybe any, of the contents of the DSM as package deals, but you could probably find enterprising Oddly Uniform Transhumans playing with any of the individual symptoms that are the kind of thing you see on the “pro” side of those earnest lists about why it can be pretty cool to have X condition sometimes.

They could invent being various nonbinary genders. I do not think they would invent binary transness. They’d likely invent various intersex physical arrangements and might or might not create new people who started out with them.

I would not expect chronic pain or involuntary intermittent pain. I would not expect depression. I would not expect wrecked impulse control or stunted intellectual growth or intolerable sensitivity to stimuli or uncontrolled loss of verbal function or psychopathy.

IV. Who Patented This Thing

As I said in the Have Mercy Wall of Disclaimers, I want everybody who exists to be how they want and live as long as they like, such as “forever”. Since in real life we are not Oddly Uniform, this implies a lot of diversity that was not invented (for nice scientist or cackling sci-fi author reasons), if I get my wish. The disagreements bubble up when we talk about new people, and about allocating resources to grant choices to existing people.

I don’t think the reversal test, or for that matter the Oddly Uniform thought experiment, yield perfect answers. Interventions to adjust the makeup of future generations aren’t costless, especially in terms of the incentives they tend to generate about people who already have this or that characteristic. (If no one will ever be born or become unable to walk again, for example, grandfathered-in wheelchair users will find it harder and harder to… mobilize… support for making the world wheelchair-accessible.) The fact that it wouldn’t be necessary to invent something if it had never cropped up on its own doesn’t guarantee that it’s particularly bad. (I don’t think the Oddly Uniform Transhumans would invent garden-variety homosexuality, but given the social circles I move in, finding that a child of mine was gay would barely register as a topic for potential distress.)

(At some point I may write an essay that isn’t about eugenics, on competition for shares of the memetic commons, or maybe I’ll think of a less pretentious way to say that. It’s only tangentially relevant here.)

To the first point (that interventions are not costless) I would like to issue a reminder that non-intervention is not costless either. If no one is ever born, nor vulnerable to becoming, unable to (learn to) walk, ever again, there are real gains made (mostly in the lives of the people who can walk who would otherwise not be able to do that, but also in the sense that accessibility imposes actual if often-manageable costs on the folks providing it).

To the second point (that some things would not need inventing, but might be okay anyway) I would like to assert that this is a minority of things. If you divided all traits which people can have which would not be found in Oddly Uniform Humanity, and divided them into “would need inventing”, “suggesting inventing this would get you very horrified looks”, and “would not need inventing but is pretty okay”, the third group would be the smallest.  If you bin a lot of things there, you might have ulterior motives.

The reversal test is designed to disconnect what you want to have in the world from how much motion it takes to get there, and this is often very important.

If you want deaf kids, and moreover you want other people who don’t prefer this to have them for you, would you use the Ring of Gyges to go around puncturing a nurseryful of eardrums? Why not? The number of deaf kids we have isn’t ordained by prophecy. If you don’t want fewer, why not more?

If you want autistic kids to exist, and you want them to do it in other people’s families whether those families like it or not… let’s not touch the “vaccines” hypothetical. It’s bullshit and introduces a public health confounder. If mercury caused autism (…and did not cause the actual symptoms of mercury poisoning) would you slip it to a snacktimeful of preschoolers? If what their parents want does not matter to you, if you do not construe autism as a loss relative to its absence –

I’m not suggesting that anti-eugenicists ought to go around committing anklebiter terrorism. There are obvious real-world reasons to avoid this even given their premises. I am, however, confused about why I anticipate that they wouldn’t do it in thought experiments. I don’t expect anyone I know to bite this bullet and say yep, give me the One Ring and an alibi and an awl and I will give you dozens of extra sad parents struggling to teach themselves sign language.[1] Why?

It takes some motion to get from here to no unwanted Down’s cases (etcetera, etcetera). But it does not have to be your motion. You do not have to help.

But if not more – why not fewer?

[1] – A pre-reader of this essay says she knows some people who might actually bite this bullet for the case of autism. Which is interesting, although you want to be a little careful with autism broadly construed.



To be sure I’m understanding him, Gabriel is saying that one should cultivate impatience for busybody ethical “interventions” with ~0 expected benefit. Recycling (in the blue-boxes sense anyway) is a good example, but so are: unplugging phone chargers, endlessly haranguing smokers, posting “let’s take the stairs” signs on elevators, Raising Awareness, looking for satanic/sexist messages in rock songs and video games, etc.

I am sympathetic to Gabriel’s irritation with certain of these little “gestures”, such as the recycling ritual. But there is a thing or two to be said in defense of such rituals.

First, sometimes prosocial actions appear “low-leverage” because not many people have defected from the prosocial norm yet. (The first person to overgraze their sheep on the village green doesn’t see what the big deal is – there’s still loads of grass to spare. The first person to *fail to yell at* the first overgrazer, even less so.)

They may also appear low-leverage because practically everybody is already defecting from the prosocial norm. (There’s only a tuft of grass left; what difference does it make if my sheep finish it off?) In other words, rationalizations for defection are especially available at the beginning and the end of tragedies of the commons.

Second, prosociality rituals, even low-leverage ones, help maintain social capital. Conspicuous blue box recycling may be useless qua environmental intervention, but it signals to my neighbour that e.g. I am not the kind of person who will turn a blind eye when he fails to pick up his dog’s leavings. Social capital, supported by a huge edifice of cultural norms, is relatively invisible to the fish that swim in it every day, and like physical infrastructure it doesn’t disappear the very second its beneficiaries fail to maintain it. But disappear it eventually does, and the transition may be very swift indeed*.

It is also worth bearing in mind that norms can be a substitute for laws, usually operating in domains where the law would be too blunt an instrument. The latin formula “de minimis not curat lex” (the law does not deal in trifles) sums up this attitude. It’s not worth having a law requiring people to hold open doors for old ladies: it’s not important enough, it would cost too much in money and time, it would require all sorts of carefully specified exceptions (also it would reduce the signalling value of the behaviour, but I can’t decide whether that would be good or bad).

Yet holding doors for old ladies, while trifling, is one of many behaviours that by increments improve our social environment. Others include always giving the correct change even when you could cheat, washing regularly, thanking people, picking up your dog’s leavings, shovelling your sidewalk and maybe even your neighbour’s, and not making too much noise at night. Individually these things seem like trivialities, but failing at all of them adds up to misery by a thousand cuts. So if you want these trifles taken care of, but prefer not to have Sin Laws, get norming.

I said at the beginning that I was sympathetic to Gabriel’s point. I think the line between “Reusable Bags” in his pejorative sense and Social Capital Maintenance, which I want to boost a little, lies partly in who the audience is. When I take some low-leverage prosocial action, am I signalling at somebody whose own prosocial or antisocial actions affect my life (a neighbour, a friend, a member of my twitter circle, a family member), or am I degenerately signalling at some super-Dunbar audience of total strangers? These things feel very similar from the inside, but it is worth distinguishing them, because insufficient norming in real life leads to the soul-sucking anomie a lot of us live with, while norm enforcement chimp-outs are ruining the internet.

As usual, the opinions stated above are strongly stated, but loosely held.

* My crackpot theory is that cultural shifts in acceptable behaviour are often so swift because (trigger warning: handwaving) Common Knowledge about what social norms will be enforced easily collapses as soon as there is appreciable diversity-of-norms – look at a graph of e.g. divorce rates from 1960 to 1980.


Have Mercy

I. Wall of Disclaimers

This is an essay about eugenics. I resisted the temptation to write it as long as I could (several days) but it remains, unavoidably, an essay about eugenics. You should stop reading this essay if you don’t want to read a thing that can be described as “an essay about eugenics”.

Before I make any positive claims I would like to draw some attention to some claims that I am not making.

I do not support involuntary medical interventions, be they sterilizations, treatments, or cures, for conditions in general, as long as the people with those conditions are capable of distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary for curious observers, they are not unremittingly deluded about the question being posed to them, and leaving them untreated doesn’t pose a public health/safety problem. (I’d like a term for people who have conditions and prefer to keep them but I can’t think of one that isn’t terribly stupid.)

As a policy matter I am against killing humans as long as they a) are not occupying other humans who find their presence unwelcome, and b) do not, themselves, actively prefer to die.

I am in favor of default voluntary immortality for anyone who wants it, and would also be in favor of rescue sims of past people if they looked feasible.

The above premises combine mean that I actively want to live in a world which contains not only every disabled (or trans, neurodiverse, etc.) person who prefers to remain that way who is alive now, but also all of the ones who have ever existed, as long as they themselves prefer to retain their characteristics. I embrace this conclusion; it is not a bullet I have to bite but a natural and reasonable output of my beliefs.

No one holds the position that because humans are valuable, we must embrace every way via which valuable humans may come to exist. My go-to example here is that my Beloved Spouse was once informed by his parents that he was conceived as a result of a broken condom. No matter how Beloved my Spouse, and I assure you he is Pretty Damn Beloved, this does not mean that I have to campaign for poking holes in condoms, or oppose attempts to make birth control ever more effective. A more generally applicable example is that it is approximately guaranteed that every human being living today has at least one, probably many, ancestors who were the result of rape. No matter how much you like existing, this does not mean you must endorse rape. We are all capable of distinguishing between “processes which have produced valuable humans” and “processes which should go on producing humans in the future”. I encourage you to do this now.

II. Value Cancellation

The rest of this section will assume that you have read my short story Threshold. Go do that now if you haven’t yet. Alternately, consider finding that trivially inconvenient and therefore ceasing to read this essay on eugenics (why oh why did I write an essay on eugenics).

In “Threshold” I contrive to have two options from a single instance of child-having both exist as characters at once. This requires a freak accident in the story and is not, in real life, ever an available option. You cannot have both Mercy and Lyle. You can have Mercy or Lyle, one and only one.

I am pro-Mercy.

My understanding of the pro-Lyle position (or rather, the position that yields pro-Lyle if applied to this case) is that Mr. and Mrs. Long are not entitled to a referendum on the value of (in this example) trans people*. That because Lyle likes existing (and he does; I am the author and I’d know), or because other people similar to Lyle like existing, the Longs should have him.

I don’t think the pro-Lyle folks are entitled to a referendum on the value of Mercy. Advocating for Lyle in place of Mercy, and because Lyle is valuable and likes existing, only goes through if you are willing to say that Mercy is not valuable and doesn’t like existing (but she does; I am the author and I’d know). In the manner of an equation, their value and enjoyment cancels out.

You must decide between them on other parameters.

Mercy is more comfortable. Mercy has a better relationship with her parents (it would barely be a stretch to say that Mercy has better parents). Mercy requires less medical attention. This is all totally predictable from the moment Mrs. Long has her prenatal testing done and looks at the list of available tweaks.

Lyle is “natural”, admittedly, but this appeal to nature, if it is not presented as a bare fact and thus safely out of the repertoire of anyone I’m interested in arguing with, is ripe for a reversal test. Left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t think anyone would criticize the Longs for not supplying their firstborn with twenty younger siblings. Nobody, except maybe the Quiverfull types, thinks that people have to have as many kids as they can squeeze out. But once they have decided to have one at all, some people may get very defensive of Lyle’s right to exist, even though they’d never make a peep about Greta Long, Hypothetical Sibling #19, no matter what list of conditions I assigned her. (Whether those conditions began with “cerebral palsy” or “sufficient genius to solve the problems involved in premature silicization when she grows up”. Or both.)

Whatever leads you to prefer Lyle over Mercy or Mercy over Lyle, it cannot be something they have in common. And one obvious thing they don’t have in common is that Mercy is a lot easier on Mr. and Mrs. Long, who are the ones having a child in the first place and begin the thought experiment as the only people in sight. Mr. and Mrs. Long – when permitted by their other constraints to do so – choose Mercy.

III. Who Find Their Presence Unwelcome

Why do I get the feeling that hardline anti-eugenicists don’t want me to breed?

That is to say, here is my paraphrase of the aggregate position of the firm anti-eugenics people: “If you want to biologically reproduce, you may not make any decisions about what kind of child to have except indirectly through partner selection (and it would be tacky to inquire after candidate partners’ genotypes instead of phenotypes alone). You may decide whether or not to have kids at all, but if you choose not to because you or your partner may pass on a condition and that condition isn’t on our short list of Real Bad Shit like Tay-Sachs, then you are probably making that choice for bad reasons and should feel bad. You should have as little information about a fetus you are gestating as possible if there is any chance you will use this information to make a decision about abortion; in many cases, it should be kept technologically impossible to learn this information. If you are not ready for all of the possible babies you might have, keep your gametes to yourself.”

This would be one thing to say in an era of enlightened universal health care; it is quite another in the real world. But that doesn’t form the core of my argument.

I am not ready for all possible babies.

But I am ready for most possible babies.

I would like to make use of the tools that are available to me to increase the probability of getting a baby more like the sort of baby I am ready for.

I, personally, have room in my life where others might not for babies of any sex/gender combination, babies who will need to learn to roll instead of walk, babies who never learn to speak aloud and prefer to write. Other people have other needs, more or less restrictive along various dimensions. Some needs are going to be more common than others. Some of them will change in response to new information about their subjects and some of them won’t. Letting everyone make choices based on lots of information will change the percentages of new children who have various conditions.

So it makes some sense that people who have strong feelings about those percentages would take an anti-eugenic stance, even against the gentlest, most opt-in, least coercive form of eugenics there can be.

But I’m not sure where in their reasoning they think they become entitled to, in the manner of a statistical cuckoo, place children of their favored conditions in other people’s bodies and families who find their presence unwelcome if those bodies and families have tried to open the door to other kinds of children instead. This is not kind to the parents and their opportunity cost is high. It is not kind to the children and their childhoods will be hard. It is not kind to the society around them who suffer externalities from a parent/child situation that nobody really wanted except the anti-eugenicist three towns over who doesn’t so much as have to babysit.

I will end that I have seen one solid argument against the greater availability of parental choice in child traits, which is that parents will optimize for positional goods and in aggregate everyone will end up worse off. For instance, it would be bad if everybody made their kids taller and taller. It doesn’t seem that there is an obvious way to coordinate parents with freely available choices to break out of a race like that before it causes problems, the way skewed sex selection has caused problems in parts of Asia. I don’t have an especially good reply to this specific argument and wanted to acknowledge its quality as an endnote to this goddamn essay on eugenics.

*The original concept of the story involved Mercy’s medical history containing an adjustment for a much more impairing condition, exactly what I hadn’t decided. Lyle existed as a separate character at first; him being Mercy’s trans baseline-reality counterpart came later and overdetermined the nature of her tweak.