Human-Era Portals (Takeoffs, Runaways): A Starter List
Now that we’ve discussed the apparently special nature of human beings in the universe, let’s look at a sample of apparent portals in the development of human civilization to date. In several of these examples we can clearly see what we can call “takeoffs”, or “runaway” emergences, conditions where the new substrate suddenly becomes far faster, more productive, more intelligent, and more tightly and densely interactive than what came before it.
Some portals involve acceleration on the way to formation of the new complex system. Think of any competitive process, like courtship, or bidding for a job. There’s a race to the finish line, then a period of relaxation. Other portals involve new acceleration after the new system emerges.
Both kinds of portals help us better understand the phenomenon of accelerating change. As we saw in Chapter 2, dematerializing and densifying processes seem key to the way these portals are arranged in possibility phase space. If we live in a universe self-organized to accelerate adaptive intelligence, the presence of accelerating portal paths must be frequent enough to be statistically dominant in our universe, as local complex systems engage in incessant evolutionary search, and their leading edge transitions steadily from matter into mind.
Thinking about the “runaway”, the set of factors that gets special complex adaptive systems onto their highest curves of accelerating complexification, while keeping them interdependent and immune from destruction, seems to be at the heart of an information-centered definition of adaptive complexity. Finding the environmental gestational factors in which evolutionary choice turns into developmental funnel therefore seems to be one key to better guiding development.
Famous runaways/takeoffs in the human sphere include open-ended and endlessly self-improving human tool use, which first happened two million years ago in Africa, and runaway economic growth, which first occurred in the 1850s in Europe. Let’s look at these and a few other examples of convergence portals that have led to accelerations/takeoffs/runaways now:
The Humanoid Form and Tool Kits. As detailed in the last section, besides manipulative hands, and social imitation, other necessary gestational factors for the endlessly tool-using humanoid line may include tree climbing and swinging, which gave primates the ability to imagine and predict their actions beforehand with amazing detail, giving them sufficiently predictive brains with executive functions. Another necessary factor may have been a sustained period of predation by more powerful actors (leopards) or warfare with other primates (an arms race). Another seems likely to be living on land vs. under water, where an organism’s muscles have much more relative strength against the fluid around them, where language can be much better articulated, and where the fluid around the organisms won’t knock over their fragile creations. If we live in an evo devo universe, we couldn’t have stopped these critical factor emergences (tree climbing species, land colonizing species, warring species, etc.) arriving on Earth, even if we wanted to. We could have delayed or accelerated them, but not ultimately prevented them. We can point to a successive array of tool kits, beginning with oral-gestural language (2 mya?), stone (2 Mya), and fire (1.5 Mya), the paleolithic and Neolithic tool kits, that are each developmental portals to new levels of social complexity, all the way to our modern science and computers. Notice that H. habilis occupies a special place in human history, a “knee of the curve” or “state switch”, where brain growth moves from a low exponential to a high exponential mode, as superexponential growth. Such growth doesn’t continue forever of course. But these state switches seem to be commonly found with the emergence of the most important new complexity portals.
Tool Archetypes (the Wheel, etc.). Within every tool kit, certain tool archetypes are also great examples of runaway portals. The discovery, diffusion, dominance, and persistence in their memetic and technetic cultural niches of many simple tools, like spears, levers, pulleys, wheels, and engines, and of complex tools like computers seems both inevitable and socially accelerative in terms of D&D, on close inspection. Let’s look at the wheel for an example. In the 1960’s some technology scholars proposed that because the wheel wasn’t found in Meso- or South American cultures, except on children’s toys (picture left), the wheel is not an inevitable development (portal path) for the complexification of human culture and commerce. Looking closer, we can agree that it wasn’t inevitable in highly centralized and class-based societies, as the Mayan and Incan societies. Mayas even built flat roads (sacbes) in their cities, and Incas even built a massive network of flat roads between cities for administration of their empire. One could argue that the lack of good draft animals in South America, and its mountainous terrain, kept wheels out of that continent. But I think there’s another major factor as well, one that often goes unmentioned, perhaps out of cultural sensitivity. These societies were both so inertial (top-down), the wheel’s use on hand-pulled carts and wheelbarrows in cities and on roads was unlikely to have been attempted, because trade, and individual freedoms and initiative in general, were both so highly regulated. Everyone had their place. If attempted, it may not have been allowed, as a perceived threat to the leader’s power. We know that top-down societies like the Maya are even powerful enough to even to roll back technologies that have already culturally diffused to some extent, as did China with its navy, and as Japan did with early guns, which were banned for centuries because they conflicted with Samurai culture. But once you get threshold levels of free trade, social freedoms, and population density and diversity, the wheel does seem to diffuse and replicate inevitably, and in a runaway fashion, into any culture, both on wheelbarrows and carts and behind draft animals, and eventually on bicycles and automobiles. Like all major transportation technology, the wheel also greatly accelerated the movement and trading of goods, and allowed for new efficiencies within cities, and further acceleration of trading and division of labor. Once you have a wheelbarrow or rickshaw, and later a horse and wheeled buggy, and individual property rights and trade, the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker can easily take their goods to market, getting an exponential payoff for their specialization.
Agricultural Villages and Hydraulic Empires. For two great social complexity portals, consider Carneiro’s automatic hypothesis, the idea agriculture near dependable water sources leads to the first trade-dominant villages, and Wittfogel’s hydraulic empire hypothesis, the observation that near-water-level river deltas with farmable soil, with their opportunity for man-made canals, intensified agriculture, and cities, are a unique gestational environment for humanity’s first large empires, with their bureaucracies, armies, class hierarchies, mass labor projects, regulated trade, writing, technical specialization, and eventually science. Such river delta villages became the first centralized empires in their regions at least six times that we know of: in Mesopotamia in 3500 BCE, Egypt in 3400 BCE, the Indus River Valley in 2500 BCE, China in 1800 BCE, Somalia and Sri Lanka, Meso-America (Mexico) in 500 BCE, and in South America (Peru) in 300 BCE. Several of these developments occurred independently, as in Asia vs. the Americas, before any trade between regions. All developed around the large-scale control of river water for agriculture, via extensive irrigation engineering and flood control, thus. Hydraulic empires are much more densified (STEM efficient and dense) in the production of food. They also needed new information systems (dematerialization) to regulate all this surplus productivity, including bureaucracy, castes, better police and military defenses, and taxation of surplus produce. Once such civilizations emerge, their superior densification and dematerialization ensure that they will be dominant on their continents, forever owning the top niche of complexification until some new even more developed and D&D form of civilization emerges. Empires will rise and fall (for one of countless examples, think of Rome), but hydraulic empires will remain locally dominant until a more STEM-compressed and informationally complex form of civilization (mercantilism, industrialization) rises to displace it. Such portals are an accelerating universal gateway to a higher level of civilization complexity.
Democracy. With their high degree of personal freedoms relative to previous governance forms, the endurance of democracies was low probability in the Age of Empires. Bottom-up political systems like Greek Democracy, and democratic systems like the early Roman Republic both couldn’t persist against the scale of aggressiveness, centralized control, and warfare capacity of the Empires with their ever more cutthroat, top-down politics and warmaking technology. Early Greek democratic states of 1100-400 BCE, being oriented to the short-term needs of Greek citizen-farmers, did not place national defense and state infrastructure as top priorities to safeguard personal freedoms and property rights from those who would take them away. Nevertheless, once we had sufficient levels of literacy, communications, freedoms, and wealth in our populations, democracies seem to inevitably outcompete monarchies, with high developmental probability. Oconomic oligarchies were empowered against the autocratic monarchs with the 13th century Magna Carta in England. Economic democracies grew during mercantilism and after the early corporations. Finally, as literacy, communications, and average citizen wealth and freedoms spread, society birthed representative political democracies, famously in the 18th century American and French Revolutions. What conditions make democracies accelerative versus their competitors? When factors like sufficient individual literacy, property and other rights, and communications and transportation infrastructure emerge, bottom-up economic democracies will generate more useful information, outinnovate and outcompete economic autocracies at providing material wealth. That may create an economic democracy portal in such societies. Later, bottom-up political democracies will outcompete political autocracies at providing both diversity of representation and social satisfaction. We saw this in China beginning in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping gave private property back to the farmers. From that point forward, China’s economic democracy was an unstoppable acceleration—economic communism began to die, except in public goods. Those scholars who argue that political democracy must inevitably follow once sufficient wealth and personal freedoms exist in the populace, are waiting for that next transformation to occur in China, as the new middle class turns away from nationalism toward their own diversification and social satisfaction. When political democracy emerges, the state’s power and focus decelerates while the individual’s power and social engagement accelerates. So we will see accelerations and decelerations in various functions and systems levels as portals emerge. China’s leaders are resisting the transition to political democracy, and that may be a good thing for China for now, as it allows them a bit more time to engage in top-down infrastructure and science and technology accelerations, at a scale that would never be such a high priority in a politically democratic China. At some point, however, Chinese citizens will say enough, and gain a lot more real local and national political representation, control, and choice.
Economic Wealth. As the economic historian Angus Maddison first discovered in Monitoring the World Economy, 1820-1992 (1995) Western Europe went through a growth discontinuity in the 1820’s, moving from almost flat to “runaway” exponential economic growth. Leading nations have averaged 2-3% a year during the entire 20th century. This has created a curve which looks increasingly vertical in absolute marginal wealth growth per year (picture right). William Bernstein’s excellent The Birth of Plenty (2004), explores this takeoff, and offers a four-factor model for why it occurs. We’ll look at that model later in this chapter. Again, notice that just like H. habilis (the tool user), the industrial revolution (collective users of steam engines in industry) is another knee of the curve, another state switch between low exponential and high exponential modes of growth. It is a key portal in human civilization development.
Postbiological Intelligence. We’ve argued in Chapter 2 that increasingly bio-inspired machine intelligence is emerging from our existing information technology industry, and that this in general will be a very positive, immunizing, and accelerative development. That is a strong claim, and fortunately I think we’ll have many decades more of experimentation with and research into the emergence of smart machines before we have to worry about any postbiological challenges to our place in the scheme of things on Earth. If this is one of our next great portals, we need to plot the best path toward it that we can foresee. We’ll talk about that opportunity further at the end of this chapter.
Developmentalism with respect to human society is an unpopular position to take, as seems to remove some of our agency, making us less fully captains of our fates. But that actually isn’t true, as developmental processes have self-organized to protect our evolutionary capabilities. When we develop well, we gain even better evolutionary abilities than we otherwise would have gained. Evo devo thinking clarifies our futures by better showing us where to focus our energies, and what processes the universe is driving to unfold, with our increasingly conscious help.
Fortunately, these and other evolutionary developmentalist hypotheses can increasingly be tested by computer simulation, as our computing technology, historical data, and scientific theory get progressively better. Run the universe simulation multiple times, and anything that appears environmentally dominant time and again, and any immunity that we see (statistical protection of accelerating complexity), is developmental. The rest, of course, is creative and evolutionary. Nature always uses both types of processes to build intelligence.