The Limits of the State

By about 1870, political types were starting to reckon with Darwinism.

Darwinism, as everyone back then knew, requires the unfit to be destroyed.  Nature makes “mistakes” all the time; it’s just that those mistakes don’t survive long enough to propagate themselves.  There are wolf pups born with club feet, for example, but no clubfooted adult wolves.  Nature sees to it — “natural selection.”

But that’s only half the picture.  Since nature ruthlessly destroys her “mistakes,” pretty soon you get a creature exquisitely adapted to its environment.  BUT: what if the environment changes?  Nothing in nature is static.  Darwin knew that, which is why he supposedly said “It is not the strongest of the species which survives, but the ones most responsive to change.”*  To be anachronistic for the sake of clarity: The dinosaur dies, but the wolf survives, because the dinosaur went all-in on bulk and strength while the wolf sacrificed a lot of that for a much better brain.

Humans, of course, went all-in on brains.  Indeed — and this is the dilemma that confronted 19th century politicians — our brains are grossly over-powered, at least from an evolutionary standpoint.  We’re so capable of adapting to our environment that we’re actually capable of adapting our environment to us.  Agriculture alone means that many more of nature’s “mistakes” survive among humans than in any other species.

They survive, which means they propagate, which means that as a species we’ve buried a giant quasi-Malthusian landmine for ourselves.  Malthus, you’ll recall, is the guy who said that population grows geometrically while food production increases arithmetically.  In other words, this:

On the one hand, this is perfectly obvious.  You could chart any population in a given environment this way.  We see it every few years in America, in fact, because some state or other is always giving in to the vegans and the anti-gun nuts and the eco-loons.  That state bans deer hunting, and in a year or two those self-same vegans and anti-gun nuts and eco-loons are out there crusading to save all the poor deer that are suddenly, for no reason, starving to death all over the place.

On the other hand, this is a Darwinian nightmare, because Malthus was wrong.  Oh, populations work like that, all right… for every population except humans.  Humans are capable of doing all sorts of things to avert the food crisis.  He didn’t live to see it, but Malthus would’ve torn his hair out at the spectacle of the Irish Potato Famine.  There really was a crop failure, no doubt, but the “famine” part was almost entirely political:

Records show that Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine.  When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests.  No such export ban happened in the 1840s.

Read the Wiki link for the gruesome details — massive, often increasing, food exports, and often from the most famine-stricken areas.  Prompt political action couldn’t have saved every life (life, math, and human nature being what they are), but it could’ve saved millions.  Ditto every other “famine” in the modern period.  The Bengal Famine of 1943 was a consequence of war measures.  So was the Ethiopian Famine of the early 1980s (“We Are the World!”).  There was plenty of food in Ethiopia.  The government wouldn’t allow it to be shipped to the people in need, because it was using starvation as a war measure against its Eritrean rebels (par for the course for commies like the Derg; see also the Holodomor, Mao’s great famine, daily life in North Korea. etc.).

Put a cold eye on this, and you’ll conclude that when it comes to food at least, Malthus was wrong.  There’s effectively no upper limit to the human food supply.  If there’s going to be a “Malthusian crisis” when it comes to food, we’ll have to elect some commies to do it for us.

Put an even colder eye on that, and you’ll start to wonder: Maybe we should elect some commies to do it for us?

This was the (slightly anachronistic, for clarity’s sake) problem facing the statesmen of the mid-19th century.  A few paragraphs back, I wrote that humans’ over-powered brains buried for us a quasi-Malthusian landmine… and here it is.  If there are no natural mass die-offs, then the main driver of evolution is removed.  Nature’s “mistakes” live, and propagate, and since the poor, improvident, and stupid outbreed the rich and successful — even Malthus knew that** — what you get, in pretty short order, is devolution, a.k.a. Idiocracy.  Our brains have so successfully adapted us to our environment that we’re going to adapt ourselves right into extinction.

This was a crisis of foundations, a new one in world history.  Mass government rests on the assumption that the great masses of the people can be persuaded to act rationally in their own best interests.  Cynicism says they won’t…. but Darwinism says they can’t.  Once you reach a certain inflection point — this is the quasi part of “quasi-Malthusian catastrophe” — you’ve got a population too stupid to operate the world its ancestors built.

The eugenicists of the Gilded Age thought they’d reached that inflection point sometime around 1890.  I think they were off by about 130 years.

Watching the Great Wuhan Flu Freakout, it’s obvious that no government, however intrusive, can protect its citizens from the sniffles.  The Chinese can do whatever the hell they want to their slave population, and they botched it.  Not even total, North Korea-style surveillance would work, because carriers don’t show symptoms for a few days.  The virus will always get through.

It’s also obvious that the treatment is going to be far, far worse than the disease, because it’s going to be both a) world-destroying, and b) more or less ineffective, because c) even if it works, and the vast majority of Boomers get to play one or two more rounds of golf on a Caribbean cruise before finally kicking the bucket, we’ll remember that for next time.  Corona 2.0 will be a lot deadlier than Corona 1.0, and our response will be to blow it off, because remember last time?  We put the entire country on the breadline so a few old fossils wouldn’t catch the “97% of people recover from it” sniffles.

Darwinism is a giant crack in the foundation of the modern world.  All our government, all our social control mechanisms, all our culture is predicated on an understanding of humanity that is not just wrong, but suicidally so.  We all agreed to forget about Social Darwinism in 1945 (thanks, Mustache Guy!) but Social Darwinism surely hasn’t forgotten about us… you know, biology being what it is.  Our society is moving heaven and earth to solve the wrong problem, one that can’t be solved anyway….

…. and in a few weeks all of that will be painfully obvious.  Time for a second look at Francis Galton, at the very least, before we throw Hobbes and Locke out on their ears and go back to the drawing board.

 

 

*As you can see from the link, Darwin didn’t actually say that, but it’s a pithy way of saying what Darwin was getting at, so it was attributed to him.  The Mount Vernon Association of Experts on the Expertise of Mount Vernon Association Experts really earned their paychecks on that one.
**It was his reason for writing, in fact, even though it entailed that his main thesis was wrong from the get-go.  Malthus was an important thinker; just not a real consistent one.
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6 thoughts on “The Limits of the State

  1. contrariandutchman

    The bomber will always get through, except in ww2 it didnt. You underestimate the power of adaptiveness.

    Yet the greater thesis stands, western humans are in the process of destroying themselves, and they cannot adapt, so we are headed for a darwinian selection moment. Afterward the human population will be much smaller but it will be more fit to live with agriculture and industry.

    Well, unless we can adapt after all, that being the great question of this age, can we deal with our mindviruses like equality, as well as with physical viruses?

    1. Severian Post author

      The bomber didn’t get through in World War 2? The city of Rotterdam would like a word with you, to say nothing of Dresden.

      It’s true that the bomber didn’t singlehandedly with the war, as lunatics like Douhet and Billy Mitchell promised. But “didn’t singlehandedly win the war” is a loonnnnnng way from “didn’t get through.” Which is why it’s a good metaphor for the Wuhan Flu. The Wuhan Flu isn’t going to be nearly as destructive as the doomsayers say it is. It’ll be nowhere near lethal enough to justify all this, since again, the only thing that would justify completely shutting down the world’s economy would be an actual deadcarts-rolling-through-city-streets Black Death apocalypse. But it will still cause a lot of damage.

      The question is, what happens in the aftermath? The bombers got through to Rotterdam and Dresden (and Berlin, and Schweinfurt, and Cologne, and so forth), but those places are fairly nice to live in today (if you don’t mind roving gangs of exploding Mohammeds; thanks Mutti Merkel!!). Western Civ will survive this. We might even be materially better off than before in a few years. But there’s no coming back from the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual damage.

      1. contrariandutchman

        Once people got serious about defending against bombers (so not the Netherlands in may 1940) bombing campaigns turned into trench warfare in the sky*. A war of attrition where the attacker could get bombers on the target only provided the attacker was prepared to accept the massive losses. The western allies could do it as they had such a huge advantage in industrial capacity that even wasteful battles seemed worth it since the defender still had to pay a (smaller) price. Everybody else largely ignored strategic bombing. And the war was decided old-skool on the ground.

        Not only did the bomber not single-handedly win the war, strategic bombing was irrelevant to the outcome. So the bomber didnt get through in a meaningful sense even if physical bombers could be and were brought over the target.

        With the rolling blackouts of the economy now, I’d say it is not a question of wether you do a shutdown but of when. While say a 10-=15% casualty rate would technically not prevent society from just continuing I strongly doubt there would not be a major effect on economic activity as people are unlikely to not panic in such a situation.

        Consider this: the Chinese politburo is no doubt one of the nastiest collection of murderous bastards to be found these days, yet they ordered a nationwide shutdown as being the lesser of 2 evils, and they certainly regard the economic losses as a major evil.

        And of course Western governemnets could have avoided major trouble by quarantining China back in january at very little cost to the West, but open borders fetishism prevented it.

        But back to the subject, industrial society is near invulnerable to problems from nature, as the strategic paradox holds, industrial society must thus create its own downfall. And it has, roving merkelkinder are just the rash on the skin that is one of the less serious symptoms. The current crisis demonstartes once again that Western society has a mindvirus like HIV and is no longer capable of dealing with eminently controllable problems. So Western society in its current form will die. Now, what shape will that death take?

        *for this discussion I regard “bombing” as being about strategic atacks against cities etc, not the use of aircraft as flying artillery, that did and does work

  2. Frip

    Sev: “Our brains have so successfully adapted us to our environment that we’re going to adapt ourselves right into extinction.”

    One can only hope to run into you at a bar someday.

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