Sunday, July 23, 2006

Genes, Memes, and the Population Problem: Rapproachment Scenarios

Okay, I know I promised this post a week ago but I've been kinda busy (check out 一+白=百 to find out why.)

If anyone hasn't read the post to which this is a follow-up - in which I discuss the link between memetics (particularly memes passed along horizontal vectors) and the declining birthrate - you might find it helpful do so .

Back? Let's get started.

I could only think of five scenarios. There is of course lots of overlap, but it's important to note that I don't see any of these as being mutually exclusive: they might happen sequentially, and all five could well coexist. Without further ado, then, here's my list of scenarios for how the birthrate problem might get solved in the coming century.

This is the one that is probably easiest for most people to envision:

1) Tax-tweaks: Natalist government policies attempt to encourage child-bearing with tax incentives, and perhaps even discourage non-medical childlessness with tax penalties. An example system (I haven't worked out the numbers on this, it's for discussion purposes only) would be a 10% income tax cut for the first child, 30% for the second, and 90% for the third; the missing tax dollars are made up with punitive taxation on the childless. I say this solution is 'easy to envision' to because I could see any governments seriously proposing it tomorrow, but simply because it's not that big a leap for welfare states to make. Indeed, the most natural thing for socialist governments to do is to attempt social engineering by jury-rigging the tax code (which is why it's such a kludgy shambles at the moment.)

While natalist tax-tweaking is easy to envision, I don't see it being very effective. Too easy for the childless to simply abandon whatever nations try it; as a general rule, childless people are unmarried and don't have close family ties, so they're the most likely to leave.

The next scenario is similar, but quite a bit darker:

2) The Three-Child Policy: Just as China slowed its population growth enormessly by forbidding parents to have more than one child, a natalist government might attempt to do the opposite with a similar policy: legally requiring all women to have three children by, say, their 30th birthday. Obviously this solution would require throwing women's emancipation right out the window, but a desperate natalist state driven by a hysterical population might not care (especially if, for instance, tax-tweaks have been tried and found wanting.) The potential for civil disobedience would be high: what do you do with a women who's edging up on the 27th birthday and still hasn't given birth? Well, you could take her in and forcibly inseminate her, a sort of institutionalized laboratory rape, but then what if she goes out and gets an abortion (almost certainly illegal, in this environment?) Well, you send her back to the hospital, inseminate her again, and don't let her out until she's given birth.

Coercive child-bearing is obviously somewhat of a nightmare scenario, and I doubt it would work out too well in the long run. Any society that tried it might indeed boost their birth-rate, but at the sacrifice of their civil liberties (at least for half of the population.) The societies most likely to try something like this would, I think, be Islamic, if only because the legal status of women in those cultures is already analogous to that of my room-mate's pet caterpillar. I don't see this every becoming a serious policy option in the West.

A lot of smart people have warned about the following scenario, which is where we end up if present trends continue:

3) Triumph of the Traditionalists: All around the world, there are reactionary religious groups that go to great pains to isolate themselves from mainstream society. Many of these subcultures maintain birthrates significantly higher than the mainstream average. Given time (and we're talking centuries here) these groups will have outbred the rest of the population, simply because they had lots of babies and no one else much bothered with kids (careers, toys, and nice vacations being preferable.) This could well be a Dark Ages scenario, not because religious people are inherently stupid, but because the religious memeplexes embraced by these subcultures are so uncompromising that they refuse to allow new or conflicting memes inside. Thus, a wholesale rejection of science, and thus an end to technological change.

That's a scary scenario, but luckily it relies on present trends continuing indefinitely. Luckily, this is unlikely.

The next scenario I stole from Brave New World:

4) Baby Factories: This comes in two flavors, mild (supplemental) and extra-strength (total replacement.) The basic idea is that a state might decide that, as it's citizens aren't bothering to replenish themselves, it'll do it for them. Embryos are grown in machines that mimic the function of the womb, and the resulting children are raised in institutions that are essentially boarding schools on steroids. In the mild version, the state simply takes note of how many people are born in any given year, and orders a number of babies made to bring the birth-rate up to replacement. In the extra-strength version, no one bothers to have kids the old-fashioned way; everyone comes from a bottle. This scenario is thus a logical endpoint of the growing disconnect between sex and reproduction.

This option suffers from a big instinctive ick factor, but there are actually a number of advantages. Since the womb environment is totally controlled, health risks to infants are cut down to an absolute minimum. A certain degree of genetic engineering is likely to make the adult population healthier, by eliminating birth defects and congenital diseases, and ensuring all children have useful traits such as high IQ, emotional stability, verbal agility, etc.

Most of the disadvantages from this scenario grow out of the likelihood of state control. Governments are notoriously poor at long-range forecasting; letting committees determine which genes are expressed in the next generation could be disastrous. I can't see such an activity being undertaken by corporations (absent some form of slavery or indentured servitude, there's no potential for profit) nor by private individuals (the undertaking would be simply too massive.) A collection of private non-profits would be a possible alternative candidate, but their collective size, in terms of manpower and funding, would have to be unprecedented. It's possible the cons and the ick factor will combine to prevent baby factories from ever being used; if they are eventually built, whether the cons outweigh the pros is something reasonable people can disagree on.

The final scenario is the one I personally like the most, but which will probably seem like pure sci-fi fantasy to anyone who isn't always a singulatarian:

5) Uploading: The history of our species has been one largely defined by the synergies and conflicts between the genetic replicators we share with every other living thing, and the memetic replicators that are unique to us. At present memes have the upper hand: they replicate themselves faster, evolve faster, and as a result have largely outsmarted genes. In many species (our own, as well as the hundreds of domesticated plants and animals) genes dance to a tune played by memes.

This is something that could change within a generation. Computers increase exponentially in power, carrying a number of technologies (gene sequencing, brain scanning) and sciences (biotech, cognitive science, neuroscience) along with it. Within 25 years it could well be possible for a person's mind to be extracted from their brain and instantiated in a computer. If this should happen, genes will no longer be of any importance to humans or to human civilization, save as a sort of species memory. Reproduction will be accomplished either by direct copying, or by design of new personalities; reproducing bodies via genetic technology will be irrelevant. Essentially, humans will become wholly memetic creatures; memes and genes will become utterly decoupled.

Of course, it's debatable whether the creatures on the far side of this development would be human in any recognizable sense. What isn't deniable is that the uploading scenario would render declining birthrates a moot point.
These various scenarios could be seen as a chronological progression. Sometime in the next decade, people start to panic about declining birthrates, and governments start to tweak the tax code. When this proves insufficiently effective, coercive childbearing is introduced in some states, which gives way to baby-making; other states might bypass the coercion stage altogether, and go straight to the factories. Meanwhile, there would be states controlled by reactionary religious movements that simply block out the outside world, encouraging high birthrates through adherence to traditional, agrarian ways of life. These states or regions would be economically moribund and largely ignored by the outside world, whose technology is racing ahead, eventually making possible mind-uploading. Once that option becomes available, modernists around the world excercise it and leave the human condition behind forever. In the long run, the traditionalists inherit the Earth, making up the entirety of the human population; but the modernists, having left their humanity behind, inherit the universe.
An important final point is that, in all of these scenarios, I'm assuming the survival of the human species (or at least, of civilization.) It's entirely possible that the issue of declining birthrates will be mooted by the growing extinctionist movement, as I've discussed in previous posts .


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