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. 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?
 – 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.
2 thoughts on “Il Faudrait L’inventer?”
Reblogged this on The Ratliff Notepad.
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I’m cautious about the reversal test. It fails to consider the possibility of generic reasons not to change things, such as Chesterton’s Fence-like reasons, or such the cost of changes from the status quo.
It also fails to consider the possibility of a relatively flat curve on one side, such that you’re not actually at the peak, but if you go in one direction you’ll fall off an edge while if you go another the change is small (I think it would be bad if everyone were to be a basketweaving teacher, but that doesn’t mean I feel that basketweaving teaching should be eliminated; the effect on society of varying amounts of basketweaving is flat in the direction towards to 0, but pretty bad at 100%.)
Finally, it ignores the possibility that by making the answer depend on the opposite question, you’re encouraging the spread of any bias or dishonesty associated with the opposite question. (Saying “I don’t mind there being fewer female protagonists in movies” is highly stigmatized. Many people will lie about it, or conclude the opposite only by motivated reasoning. Using their responses to force them into a position about more female protagonists just expands the reach of the lie or the motivated reasoning, and that’s terrible.)
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