The Value of Imitation

Originality is overrated. Yes, novel ideas have often accounted for tremendous advancements in human knowledge and conditions; but as Kat McGowan of Aeon writes, the ability to copy one another, and make incremental improvements along the way, has been much more consequential.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits. This idea is most clearly articulated by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, of the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University, and the biologist and mathematical modeller Peter Richerson, of the University of California Davis. ‘When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius,’ they write in their book Not By Genes Alone(2005).

Lots of copying means that many minds get their chance at the problem; imitation ‘makes the contents of brains available to everyone’, writes the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello in the Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). Tomasello, who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, calls the combination of imitation and innovation the ‘cultural ratchet’. It is like a mechanical ratchet that permits motion in only one direction – such as winding a watch, or walking through a turnstile. Good ideas push the ratchet forward one notch. Faithful imitation keeps the ratchet from slipping backward, protecting ideas from being forgotten or lost and keeping knowledge alive for the next round of improvement.

It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying. Luckily, we are very good at it.

In essence, human achievement at both the micro and macro level have been the result of multiple parties, often spanning generations and culture, having their go at an existing idea, invention, or concept. Progress is less about coming up with something immediately unique and earth-shattering, and more about looking around at what we know and how best to improve upon it.

Aside from giving clever and well-meaning imitators their due credit, the lesson here is that progress is a collective and collaborative effort, involving lots of contributors willing to do the humble and thankless work of tweaking what we already have, so that over time, with the help of other tinkerers, the world reaps the benefits.

This might be too much of a romantic take on what many would consider mere copying, but I think it reflects the inherent pragmatism of the human species: whether in art, science, or philosophy, go with what already seems to work and see where that gets you. Give it time, and who knows where that will get us.

Turkish Couple Spends Wedding Feeding Refugees

Speaking of moral exemplars (in reference to my previous post), CBC has reported that a newly couple in Turkey has used their wedding banquet, and all the money given to them for the occasion, to personally feed over 4,000 Syrian refugees. The groom’s father pitched the idea, which the couple and their guests more than happy to make it happen.

You can see a video in the hyperlink above, or catch some of it from Al Jazeera’s video below.

What a way to kick of a loving union.

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading

Slavoj Žižek Weighs In On The Refugee Crisis

I recommend reading the entire article at the London Review of Books, but the following pretty much sum up his points, with which I am personally in agreement.

Humankind should get ready to live in a more ‘plastic’ and nomadic way. One thing is clear: national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new methods of global co-operation and decision-making devised. First, in the present moment, Europe must reassert its commitment to provide for the dignified treatment of the refugees. There should be no compromise here: large migrations are our future, and the only alternative to such a commitment is renewed barbarism (what some call a ‘clash of civilisations’).

Second, as a necessary consequence of this commitment, Europe should impose clear rules and regulations. Control of the stream of refugees should be enforced through an administrative network encompassing all of the members of the European Union (to prevent local barbarisms like those of the authorities in Hungary or Slovakia). Refugees should be assured of their safety, but it should also be made clear to them that they must accept the destination allocated to them by European authorities, and that they will have to respect the laws and social norms of European states: no tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence; no right to impose on others one’s own religion or way of life; respect for every individual’s freedom to abandon his or her communal customs, etc. If a woman chooses to cover her face, her choice must be respected; if she chooses not to cover her face, her freedom not to do so must be guaranteed. Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality. These rules should be clearly stated and enforced, by repressive measures – against foreign fundamentalists as well as against our own racists – where necessary.

Third, a new kind of international military and economic intervention will have to be invented – a kind of intervention that avoids the neocolonial traps of the recent past. The cases of Iraq, Syria and Libya demonstrate how the wrong sort of intervention (in Iraq and Libya) as well as non-intervention (in Syria, where, beneath the appearance of non-intervention, external powers such as Russia and Saudi Arabia are deeply involved) end up in the same deadlock.

Fourth, most important and most difficult of all, there is a need for radical economic change which would abolish the conditions that create refugees. Without a transformation in the workings of global capitalism, non-European refugees will soon be joined by migrants from Greece and other countries within the Union. When I was young, such an organised attempt at regulation was called communism. Maybe we should reinvent it. Maybe this is, in the long term, the only solution.

These approaches apply to more than the present crisis;

What are your thoughts?

Climate Change Will Replace Our World With Another

An interesting article from Wired discusses what impact climate change will have on our global ecosystems. While the planet is warming and sea levels are rising, mot all regions, species, and ecological areas are being impacted the same; across all biological kingdoms, there will be winners and losers — including among humans, of whom those in coastal, agricultural, and poor communities will be hit the hardest (though everyone will ultimately be affected in some negative way; it is only the severity that will vary).

Climate change will be the end of the world as we know it. But it also will be the beginning of another.

Mass extinctions will open ecological niches, and environmental changes will create new ones. New creatures will evolve to fill them, guided by unforeseen selection pressures. What this new world will look like, exactly, is impossible to predict, and humans aren’t guaranteed to survive in it. (And that’s if civilization somehow manages to survive the climate disasters coming its way in the meantime, from superstorms to sea level rise to agriculture-destroying droughts).

Among the changes will be “simpler” rainforests lacking the capacity to host complex ecosystems (and thus thousands of different wildlife); acidic oceans dominated by crustaceans, jellyfish, and smaller fish species; and — to take a much longer view — the rapid evolution of surviving species (including humans) into something more adapted to warmer temperatures.

The article concludes with a bittersweet message: it might be too late for the current planet we know, but there is still a chance we can mitigate the impact of the transition and ensure  that this new Earth, whatever it will look like, is a bit better. The science and resources are there, but the public and political will remains sorely lacking. If it is still difficult to muster up action, is there any chance we will learn our lesson once the worst changes are visible?

New Human Ancestor Discovered

From the New York Times.

The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage”, Dr. Berger said.

Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by “ritual” they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.

“It’s very, very fascinating”, said Ian Tattersall, an authority on human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not involved in the research. “No question there’s at least one new species here”, he added, “but there may be debate over the Homo designation, though the species is quite different from anything else we have seen”.

Learn more about this seminal finding from National Geographicwith which Berger is associated (apparently, he is quite a prominent and accomplished figure in his field).

How to Help Victims of the Refugee Crisis

For those of you as morally devastated by the migrant crisis as I am, The Independent has compiled a list of charities, humanitarian organizations, grassroots movements, and other ways in which you can help the thousands of refugees desperately fleeing sociopolitical disasters across Africa and the Middle East. See it here.

From donating funds to giving away well needed supplies to joining advocacy groups, there are plenty of options for those who may lack the time or resources.

Additionally, I recommend you check out U.S.-based CharityNavigator.comwhich can help you choose the reliable and effective charities to support. It also has a section dedicated to the Syrian crisis here, as well as another list of charities involved in the largely overlooked but equally catastrophic Yemen crisis (click here).

Do whatever you can, and remember that no amount of assistance is too small for a tragedy this desperate.

“What to the Slaves is Fourth of July?” has an excellent video of James Earl Jones reading one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. It was first given on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, in an address to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. Born into slavery, Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movie, and one of America’s most gifted writers and orators.

I think you will find Jones’ emotive and iconic voice to be a great fit for such a powerful and eloquent speech. You can read the transcript here. (Unfortunately, I cannot product the video here, so just click the first hyperlink to see if for yourself.)

China’s Ecological Apocalypse

An article from, obtained via the Daily Kosoffers an in-depth and sobering look at China’s impending environmental crisis, and the foreign business and corrupt government officials responsible. Written by Richard Smith of the London-based Institute for Policy Research and Development, it combines damning research with equally damning accounts from those having to live with the degradation of their air, land, water, and public health.

The following excerpted vignettes, courtesy of the Daily Kos, should alone be enough to arouse alarm and concern.

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word. . . . When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. . . .Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world.

But China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost. It’s difficult to grasp the demonic violence and wanton recklessness of China’s profit-driven assault on nature and on the Chinese themselves. Ten years ago, in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in March 2005, Pan Yue, China’s eloquent, young vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) told the magazine, “the Chinese miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Pan Yue added:

We are using too many raw materials to sustain [our] growth … Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently there [are] 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020 there will be 1.5 billion … but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years … Acid rain is falling on one third of Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner … Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health … In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

As the Daily Kos points out during its own assessment of the report, China’s government, let alone the foreign companies it colludes with, has done little to address the problem (setting aside minor “green” initiatives and official pronouncements).

Members get rich by corruption-generated loot provided by underlings, and security is generated by passing a portion of the loot to patrons.  And that loot is generated by exploiting the country — its natural resources and its people — through industry as thoroughly and harshly as possible.  There are no incentives for reining industry’s polluting ways in, or for environmental protection generally, amongst those in control in China, only incentives to loot.

These incentives have also led to the numerous bizarre construction projects in China – the building of ghost cities, modern airports for flights that don’t exist, intercity freeways for vehicular traffic that doesn’t exist, and so on – all designed to generate income and support existing networks of guanxi, and all of which encourage more environmental destruction.

Also as a result, with respect at least to the environment, China has no functioning regulatory state, legislature, or judiciary. The ruling class essentially is a mass of completely unregulated capitalist enterprises, a legion of polluters with absolutely no brakes.  And yet, the ruling class, the Communist Party members, live very well compared to the people they exploit.

And China’s people, the day-to-day workers, farmers and villagers?  They have no voice.  They live in the world created by the CCP members, and suffer.

At 45 pages, it is a long and often heartbreaking read, but it is well worth your time. Not only are over 1.5 billion lives — close to 17 percent of the world’s population — threatened by this crisis, but so are hundreds of millions more people around the world. An ecological disaster on this scale cannot be localized within any one country’s national borders. The world has practically exported all of its most hazardous and polluting industries to far-off places like China, failing to account for the bigger picture: the impact on the global climate, let alone the immediate effect on hundreds of millions of people.

When Mexicans Crossed the Border to Help Americans

And not just in terms of working millions of difficult, thankless, and necessary jobs, such as construction, farming, and caregiving. Amid yet another cycle of widespread anti-Mexican sentiment, with public perceptions of the country colored by the drug war and illegal immigration, the Washington Post reminds us that for all the acrimony and difficult historical relations, Mexico is a good neighbor to have.

The Mexican soldiers were on a relief mission to feed tens of thousands of homeless and hungry Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Setting up camp at a former Air Force base outside San Antonio, they distributed potable water, medical supplies and 7,000 hot meals a day for the next three weeks…

…The 45-vehicle convoy crossed the border at Laredo at dawn on Sept. 8 and arrived in San Antonio later that day. The only glitch was that the USDA would not allow the Mexicans to serve the beef they had brought because they couldn’t prove it had been produced in a mad-cow-free facility. Undeterred — and un-insulted — the Mexicans bought their beef locally.

By the time their mission in San Antonio ended Sept. 25, the Mexicans had served 170,000 meals, helped distribute more than 184,000 tons of supplies and conducted more than 500 medical consultations.

Mexican sailors also assisted with clearing downed branches and other storm debris in Biloxi, Miss., where they posed for photos with President George W. Bush, who thanked them for their help.

It is also worth pointing out that Mexico was the only country in the world besides Canada to offer direct military assistance, in addition to private sector donations. The U.S. had declined direct military support from other nations, which says a lot about how much we trust our sole international neighbors.

Moreover, dozens of other countries assisted the U.S. during this severe time of need, from Afghanistan, which donated $100,000 despite its bigger worries, to Russia, which was among the first to respond with heavy jets bearing medical and emergency response supplies.

Many might cynically chalk up the support to political self-interest or diplomatic etiquette, but in most instances there would have been little to gain from helping, often in private, a country then under a highly unpopular leader.

This is a valuable lesson for a society accustomed to viewing foreign nations as threats or ungrateful, aid-hungry parasites. Even some of the world’s poorest nations pledged whatever resources they could to help the world’s hegemon as it reeled from this historic natural disaster. The vast and diverse world outside our borders has its problems, but it is a lot friendlier of a place than most of us realize — even where we least expect it.