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.

The Fifteen Fundamental Properties

Pages 144-235 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life contain a theory of beauty as perceived by humans, conveyed in fifteen “fundamental properties.” Not every property occurs in every beautiful object, but in very beautiful buildings and objects, many of these properties are usually apparent, baked into the logic, structure, and detail.

Here I will briefly explain the fifteen fundamental properties, with reference to an early 20th century ivory dog netsuke and a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.

Here is the netsuke:
Continue reading “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties”


In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander argues for the counterintuitive proposition that feeling (in the sense of perceiving the beauty and “life” of a space), unlike ideas or opinions, is quite objective; there is an astounding level of agreement between people about how different environments and buildings feel, though there may be little agreement of opinions or ideas about them in general. I reproduce here a few crucial paragraphs from Chapter 15 of the book, which chapter and book I of course recommend reading in their entirety.
Continue reading “Centers”

Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats

The internet is probably the most important social domain for play, not just for children but for adults as well. All cultures have some form of ritual combat – a form of ritualized fighting that transforms and subverts the normal human tendencies for hostility towards outgroups into fun. The most obvious and widespread form is athletic competition – football games, fencing, soccer. Non-athletic competition, such as chess and go, also fits the bill. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes cockfighting among the Balinese as such:

Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

Continue reading “Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats”


“How do you manage trash disposal in the Endless World?”

As he looked, he observed that the name was not inaccurate. Unlike the other places he’d visited so far, the horizon here never actually terminated… If he strained his eyes, which seemed impossibly perceptive, he could continue to differentiate further detail. There were all sorts of questions he wanted to ask Endless’s god, but that wasn’t the issue at hand.

“Trash? Disposal of industrial and household waste, you mean?”

Endless’ god gestured to a nearby smattering of color, differentiated from emerald fields around. A small town, and indeed, in a single lot near the town’s center was a stack of materials. Corrugated metal, extruded aluminum; thin, dry cardboard, bound in thick bundles; bronze and steel cast into various odd shapes; and colorful sheets, cut to be more hole than plastic, peeking out here and there and fluttering in the wind. All remnants of different industrial processes.

Continue reading “Scribbles”