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The Half-Life of Facts

The Half-Life of Facts by Samual Arbesman presents an interesting framework for thinking about the updating of our knowledge. He argues there is structure in the time it takes for facts to become outdated. Just like the half-life of uranium, facts become superseded by other facts at a predictable rate.

Read: 1x | First: December 2020

This book got recommended on the Clearer Thinking podcast with Spencer Greenberg. It got introduced as interesting, though not always as sound as presented (i.e. there is more nuance than fitted on the pages).

I enjoyed the book, it helped me think more clearly, and it’s a quick read for those interested in how knowledge develops.

I wrote at the start of the book: “We know 1% of infinity, and that 1% is always getting bigger.

Chapter 1 – The Half-life of Facts

“Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: we can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned.”

Arbesman is using facts in a common-sense way in the book. Things we know to be true (at this moment), as close to ‘ground’ truth as we can currently get.

Mesofacts are facts that change at middle timescale (a few years). Examples are number of chemicals, height of Mount Everest (see chapter 8), height of tallest skyscraper.

Chapter 2 – The Pace of Discovery

We can now measure the speed of discoveries (scientometrics) and in many cases the number of papers published in a field doubles every X years, which showcases exponential (vs linear) growth.

Although, possibly, discoveries are getting harder to make, there are so many more scientists, the speed of discovery is still accelerating.

Chapter 3 – The Asymptote of Truth

Knowledge in a field can also decay exponentially, shrinking by a constant fraction.”

This (and much of this chapter) is based on citations of scientific papers and the decline in that of older papers.

It’s not that when a new theory is brought forth, or an older fact is contradicted, what was previously known is simply a waste, and we must start from scratch. Rather, the accumulation of knowledge can then lead us to a fuller and more accurate picture of the world around us.”

We are currently in the ‘long-tail of discovery’, and by that the author means we may not get block-buster discoveries, but we are ever refining and better understanding and improving them.

Chapter 4 – Moore’s Law of Everything

Processing power grows every year at a constant rate rather than by a constant amount.”

The amount of information we can send to others has grown exponentially, how awesome is that.

This chapter also introduces the idea of several S-curves making up an exponential curve.

Technology, in its broadest sense, is the process by which we modify nature to meet our needs and wants.” and “Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains; engineering is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff of the world to make new things.”

About life expectancy, this chapter mentions Aubrey de Grey from Ending Aging.

Knowledge grows through cumulating, “as there is more technological or scientific knowledge on which to grow, new technologies increase the speed at which they grow.”

This process closely matches population growth. An interesting idea is how this will develop, as population growth slows/stops. Will our interconnectedness still provide us with enough momentum or will the half-life of facts start to grow larger?

Chapter 5 – The Spread of Facts

Knowledge spread slower than we think/hope. Like the idea that spinach has a lot of iron, which isn’t true (but the story about why also is wrong, and that meme has spread even slower).

Information spreads via social networks (and thus also moves in bubbles), and between different networks (e.g. geographies).

The most important ties are thus medium ties, not strong ones (have the same knowledge) nor weak ones (whom you don’t speak to often).

Sometimes errors spread further and quicker because the story is more compelling than the truth/fact. E.g. a frog in a slowly heated to boiling pot will not jump out (wrong!).

Facts do not spread instantaneously, even with modern technology. They weave their way through social networks in mathematically predictable ways.”

To prevent spreading misinformation, have a certain vigilance about what you hear.

Chapter 6 – Hidden Knowledge

Knowledge can be hidden in one domain, and be useful in another domain. So combining domains and ‘throwing people at the problem’ are valid strategies for unearthing facts.

This also holds true for knowledge in the public domain that is lost over time. So ideas, proposed back in the day, were not ‘ripe’ for that time, but could be tested/used/validated now.

Innocentive is mentioned, a crowdsourcing centre for ideas. With the premise being “a long tail of expertise – everyday people in large numbers – has a greater chance of solving a problem than do the experts.”

A cummulative meta-analysis tries to include all trials (not only the latest ones) as to find statistical significance early on. (see page 109)

Another project mentioned is CoPub Discovery (but doesn’t seem to be active anymore?), a paper search engine that matches based on co-occurrence of (similar) words in papers.

Mendeley is a tool that helps with citing papers and saving references to them. And to find related papers.

DEVONthink might also be a good tool to find hidden connections, Mac/iOS only.

… facts are seldom lost. And as long as knowledge is preserved, we have the raw materials for unearthing hidden knowledge.”

Chapter 7 – Fact Phase Transition

At certain thresholds there can be a state change, think water to ice. The changes might themselves not have accelerated, but the end product is very different than X iterations before.

This type of thinking is usually applied to physics but also applies to facts (e.g. number of exoplanets found). And by using this, you can predict (approximately) when we will have an answer about fact/question X.

We are always on the edge of chaos, always learning new things (at least in dynamic societies) and our knowledge (facts) change all the time. Or in other words, we’re always in a critical state.

Chapter 8 – Mount Everest and the Discovery of Error

The height of Mount Everest is a meso-fact (see above), it changes over time as we were getting better at measuring and still changes as the earth is changing.

Revolutions in science have often been preceded by revolutions in measurement.” – Sinan Aral

We have improved our measurements of many things, and by that also our understanding of the world. As we get better at measurements (e.g. brain scans in real-time at more detail) we will continue to learn more.

Error can be measured in two ways, precision (10x same error) and accuracy (10x error around the centre).

Then the book discussed a topic I want to dive deeper into next year, p-values and statistics. This quote from John Maynerd Smith summarizes what we now do “Statistics is the science that lets you do twenty experiments a year and publish one false result in Nature.”

What is important is the discriminating power of a study, of how much it changes our prior to posterior probability of X being true.

Some factors that help falsehoods become significant results:

  • smaller studies
  • smaller effect size
  • more tested hypotheses
  • flexibility in study design, definitions, outcomes, analytical model
  • financial incentives
  • hotter field

I can confidently say that most of these apply to the study of psychedelics for therapy. And one of the things that should (continue to) happen is replication, to be damn sure that something really work.

Only through replication can science be the truly error-correcting enterprise that it is supposed to be.”

This all being said, Arbesman notes that science is not broken. It isn’t perfect, but still moves forward.

One interesting way of looking at this is to make the distinction between the core and the frontier. The former is relatively stable and fixed, the latter is more fluid and full or error. Slowly facts from the frontier make it into the core.

There is a sifting and filtering process that moves knowledge from the frontier to the relatively compact and tiny core of knowledge. We should enjoy this process, rather than despair.”

Chapter 9 – The Human Side of Facts

There is a human side to updating facts. Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational is mentioned here.

… shifting baseline syndrome… refers to how we become used to whatever state of affairs is true when we are born, or when we first look at a situation.”

An interesting way of defining technology is as “anything that was invented after you were born” – Alan Kay

As facts change, our understanding of them changes slower. I think this matches with the concept of memes, they are similar to genes in many ways, but one way they are different is that it needs to be both transmitted and then received/processed/saved (and then transmitted again).

The beliefs that we have (currently) can prevent us from updating to a newer and better view of reality. Daniel Kahneman referred to this as theory-induced blindness.

Changes in facts thus also follow the phase change bursts and relatively stable periods. I think this can be true, but don’t know if this applies to all fields and institutions (i.e. if a company has good systems they could possibly have continuous change? Netflix maybe?).

The model proposed by Thomas Kuhn about science progressing one funeral at a time doesn’t seem to hold up. Young scientists are just a likely as older ones to accept/reject new ideas.

One thing that could be useful is to stop remembering facts (as we’ve all done to some degree I think) and retrieve (the latest and updated) facts when we need them.

Paradoxically, by not relying on our memories, we become more likely to be up-to-date in our facts, because the newest knowledge is more likely to be online than in our own heads.”

Chapter 10 – At the Edge of What We Know

Science requires an idea to be refutable. It is not good enough for a concept to seem compelling; it must have the potential for a new fact to come along and render it false.”

Are we in an exponential curve or ‘just’ a logistic curve? Some things point towards ever accelerating (e.g. knowledge spreads faster). Other things point towards a slowdown (e.g. population growth is slowing down dramatically).

Facts don’t change arbitrarily. Even though knowledge changes, the astounding thing is that it changes in a regular manner; facts have a half-life and obey mathematical rules. Once we recognize this, we’ll be ready to live in the rapidly changing world around us.”


Humankind by Rutger Bregman is an enlightening book on how we humans are kinder and more cooperative than we believe. The media, bad scientists (read: some of the key studies I studied in intro psychology), and our own distorted perspective has messed us up, let’s repair that.

Btw the book is published in Dutch too, De Meeste Mensen Deugen (but I found the English audiobook first, so yeah).

Here are some key takeaways from the book:

  • The psychology experiments like Stanford Prison were very much forced and can be better seen as theatre than actual humans doing bad things
  • If you don’t make those extreme situations (US prison), you get people just hanging out and being nice (Norway prison)
  • That is also the way to fix things, not by responding in kind (eye for an eye), but by responding with kindness
  • We aren’t that cutthroat, we lend people tools, pass along the salt, help a friend. In that way we are communists (social capitalists, or whatever you want to call it)
  • Kids left alone without supervision will behave like a team, not like Lord of The Flies (book)
  • We believe that we are good right (I hope so), so does everyone else. We may be selfish, but inherently you can say that people aren’t ‘evil’ in the comic-book or D&D way
  • The book presents evidence that counteracts a lot of what Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now) says about ancient civilizations (less murder and mayhem than commonly believed)
  • Other reviewers do point out that Bregman is putting forth his own thesis in this book, so he might be cherrypicking the evidence too. Anyways, we humans – not that murderous (you know, like the rest of the animal kingdom)
  • Being faced with having to kill someone, most people chicken out. Soldiers don’t shoot. But the bad thing is that ‘the system’ finds ways to get around this (drones, decimation, etc)
  • Some cool examples include that of a ‘vrije school’ and medical company in The Netherlands, but I haven’t looked them up yet

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is a surprisingly original book about the near future. In the book, Harari describes current trends and extrapolates them forward to a future that is likely to arrive. As Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” it’s good to see that much of the predictions in the book are based on current events/technology.

The book fits nicely between Sapiens and Homo Deus. It’s true that there is some overlap between the books, but still 21 Lessons was refreshing.

See my notes below, also see these good reviews from a friend on Goodreads and Steve Glaveski on Medium.

Chapter 1 – Disillusionment
Simple stories win over statistics (i.e. even if you base your arguments on statistics and rationality, tell a frikkin’ story)
AI will enable some humans to get ahead of others (this theme comes back several times), they will be enhanced with features like tracking health (now) and better knowledge (now – internet, future – more direct connections to digital info via AI assistants/implants/smart glasses/or other things we haven’t thought about before).

Chapter 2 – Work
jobs will also be taken by the algorithms. From driving (trucks) to art, in many cases, no humans will be needed in the future. Of course, we will need some, to make and upgrade the algorithms, but many (see the middle of America) will not have anything productive to do.

In chess, creativity is already being seen as the domain of AI. To check if someone is cheating in a human-only tournament, they check if a person isn’t being more creative than usual, how crazy is that eh

“In human-only chess tournaments, judges are constantly on the lookout for players who try to cheat by secretly getting help from computers. One of the ways to catch cheats is to monitor the level of originality players display. If they play an exceptionally creative move, the judges will often suspect that this cannot possibly be a human move – it must be a computer move. At least in chess, creativity is already the trademark of computers rather than humans!”

This is bad – we will have to figure out what to do (UBI, find meaningful things to do). This is good – nobody dreams to become a cashier, we have better things to do.

As an alternative to UBI (universal basic income), Harari mentions UBS (universal basic services), something that is already (partially) what the European/Dutch system looks like. But, the money that Google-eske companies will make with 3d printing something, won’t find its way to the person in Bangladesh without a job.

Chapter 3 – Liberty
Truth is what the first result in Google is (or what Alexa tells you when you ask a question). Liberty, as discussed in this chapter, is a slippery concept and something that needs to be defended. Algorithms can both be better (possibly no/less discrimination) and worse (algorithm bias, says no but humans don’t understand why (black boxes)).

Chapter 4 – Equality
Those who own the data – own the future.
(link to health care data and why that is valuable?)

Chapter 5 – Community
Digital tools make it easier to connect (online) and more difficult to connect (with the person sitting next to you).

Chapter 6 – Civilization
We are one world now, if we like it or not.

People care more about their enemies than allies (and so do countries).

Chapter 7 – Nationalism
Patriotism can be good, just imagine if we would still be mini-kingdoms fighting with the one 20km down the road. But ultra-nationalism is bad. We should/can be proud of a unique culture, not a supreme nation.

Environmentalism is also part of this chapter (as nationalists don’t seem to care about it). Some conventional mechanisms may help (reduce), but innovation is needed (clean meat is given as an example).

We need to have a global ecology, economy, and science. Not global governance, but indeed more focus on global issues/impact.

Chapter 8 – Religion
Religion doesn’t have much to say about the problems we’re facing nowadays.

Chapter 9 – Immigration
Don’t tolerate intolerance, let everyone else who comes, become ‘us’.

Harari also reflects on racism and culturalism. On this subject, it does make me think of correlational research that implies causation (e.g. your genes predicting educational outcomes) which may be just correlational (e.g. people with these genes have been living in poverty for generations).

Chapter 10 – Terrorism
“Terrorists are masters of mind control.”

Terrorism works because of the terror and subsequent overreaction it creates.
This can (partly) be combatted by 1) clandestine actions against terrorists, 2) media should keep things in perspective (good luck with that), 3) your perspective. I think that the three parts here miss a crucial fourth, improving the conditions in the places of origin of terrorism. But how.

Chapter 11 – War
The battle field is moving from physical to informational. From factories to energy grids.

Chapter 12 – Humility
Be humble, help others, you (your culture) is not the center of the universe.

Chapter 13 – God
Morality is about reducing suffering, no myths required. Secularism (as defined by Harari) is about a commitment to truth, versus belief.

Without (or even with?) a God, we are the ones responsible.

Chapter 14 – Secularism
“[S]ecularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans.”

It’s all bottom-up, not top-down.

Chapter 15 – Ignorance
We know very little, alone. We know a lot, together. We think we know a lot, that is the knowledge illusion (book). Our best ability is maybe not rationality (of which we have surprisingly little), but large scale cooperation (which religion, for better or worse, does enable – as does (good) nationalism).

Companies and religions are based on stories, not facts. This is called branding.

Chapter 16 – Justice
Can we grapple with knowing about the other side of the world, and our impact from our actions there? The answer is, probably no. Is buying a t-shirt from a Bangladeshi sweatshop bad? Or is it good when done in conjunction with calls for better living standards? Wicked problems.

Chapter 17 – Post-Truth
Fake news isn’t new (it’s on steroids now, but not new).

“Therefore instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognise it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction. Don’t expect perfection. One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world, and think in absolute terms of pristine purity versus satanic evil. No politician tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but some politicians are still far better than others.”

Chapter 18 – Science Fiction
Science Fiction FTW, but should do a better job of describing the (near) future.

Chapter 19 – Education
People need to learn how to make sense of information, not get more info that they can find on Wikipedia.

Four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Adaptability is what we need in the future, not a specific set of skills (Taken would be no movie if they had a killer drone available).

When do stories work? When we ask people to make a sacrifice for it. (me) This is something that Effective Altruism may learn from.

Chapter 20 – Meaning
Top-down (God?) or bottom-up (liberalism) or just without meaning (Buddism). But even those who claim to be the nicest, do fight wars with their neighbours or countrymen.

Chapter 21 – Meditation
Suffering happens in the mind. So learn to know your mind better.

See Sam Harris’ Waking Up and read the Stoics (e.g. Meditations).

Rationality From AI to Zombies

Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky is a huge tome that covers everything from heuristics to Bayes theorem. Its main goal is to give the reader a better/modern understanding of rationality and the tools one needs to have in their toolkit.

It can be found (as the original books and posts) here.

The book was quite the journey and over the coming months I plan to go back to the individual posts to put concepts in Obsidian and make notes here.

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in how we think, as opposed to a random error or one that’s merely caused by our ignorance. Whereas statistical bias skews a sample so that it less closely resembles a larger population, cognitive biases skew our thinking so that it less accurately tracks the truth (or less reliably serves our other goals)… Like statistical biases, cognitive biases can distort our view of reality, they can’t always be fixed by just gathering more data, and their effects can add up over time. But when the miscalibrated measuring instrument you’re trying to fix is you, debiasing is a unique challenge.”

The goal of the text is teaching (tools of) rationality, talking about biases that we have is the first step/part of it.

With biases, you may still experience them, even if you know beforehand that you have them. On the other hand, you can also over correct. So it’s always difficult/challenging to assess correctly.

  • base neglect bias: ignoring how many of X (and Y) there are (e.g. a shy person is more likely a sales person than a librarian because there are more of the former)
  • sunk cost fallacy: not ignoring the costs that we made before at the moment of evaluation (of future costs/benefits)

“The map is not the territory.”

We don’t clearly adjust our spending/giving based on the scope. We have scope insensitivity.

“The usual finding is that exponential increases in scope create linear increases in willingness-to-pay—perhaps corresponding to the linear time for our eyes to glaze over the zeroes; this small amount of affect is added, not multiplied, with the prototype affect. This hypothesis is known as “valuation by prototype.””

“An alternative hypothesis is “purchase of moral satisfaction.” People spend enough money to create a warm glow in themselves, a sense of having done their duty.”

Or in other words, we care about people/animals, but really don’t see that 10X more saved is 10X better. A good lesson for effective altruism (communication). Focus on the prototype in communication, whilst still ruthlessly strive for the best solution.

(study linked)

We should have rationality dojos says Yudkowski. There are now some places devoted to this. But like my weightlifting, I like to learn from the best, practice much alone. And yes, I do recognize that you need to test things in the real world and talk to others. But I think that learning from Dawkins, Dennett, and Deutsch, isn’t that bad either.

The availability heuristic is judging the frequency or probability of an event by the ease with which examples of the event come to mind.”

This is how terrorism and fear of flying (vs driving) works.

Related is absurdity bias, if something hasn’t happened (in a long time) we also can’t image it happening now.


River Out of Eden

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) gives an overview of our understanding of evolution. It explains deep concepts in understandable ways. Dawkins is a master in communication, and by using the ‘river out of Eden’ as an analogy, he presents evolution as a forwards flow of information. And although the book (and Dawkins in general) is a refutation of God-made creation(ism), it does the heavy lifting with explanation, not with conflict.


The ability to self-replicate is the (proximate?) cause for Darwinian selection, and the life we know on this world.

Chapter 1 – The Digital River

Real ancestors (vs myths/(religious) cults) hold the key to understanding life.

Ancestors are rare, descendants are common.”

Fun fact, not one of our ancestors died in infancy.

All organisms contain successful genes. Genes that have what it takes to become ancestors (to reproduce, leave kids behind). Genes to survive and reproduce.

Good genes cause success. Not the other way around (behaviour/lifetime doesn’t influence genes).

Every generation is a filter, only the successful genes get through. Some animals are sterile (worker ants), but they contain the genes that can also be passed along (the environment ‘chooses’ who becomes a reproducer or sterile worker). Thus they assist ‘their genes’ through the transgenerational sieve.

Genes are also not influenced by sex. Their effects are blended, but the genes are digital (yes/no, not analoge (radio frequency)).

The river analogy can be seen as genes travelling together on a stream. Those that cooperate well together, say in a body of an animal, form different branches/rivers. Speciation is the term for two rivers splitting. They will not join again.

The separation can be a geographical separation (both adapting to different environments over thousands/millions of years).

The number of species is estimated at 30 million (in 1994, now 2-10 million estimated to live), and if 99% has already gone extinct before now, the total branches/rivers (including those dried up) is 3 billion.

The separation of species (e.g. dinosaurs and mammals) may look significant, but it’s not. It was just another small river, branching from another. Only over long-history-time it looks significant.

The great animal groups are more similar in building blocks than we thought before. The genetic code is a dictionary with 64 words (from 4 letters) mapped on 21 words from another language (amino acids (20) plus punctuation mark). The chance of that is 1 in a million (x5). Or in other words, all life originates from a single ancestor.

So if you put on your molecular lens, all animals (and plants) are quite closely related.

DNA is digital, nerve cells are a mix of digital and analogue. The pulse (yes/no, action potential) is digital. But the rate of pulses is analogue.

This complex set of genes (and the instructions they give) are held together in a body (e.g. a polar bear). The number of cells of a polar bear are about 9 million million. And the complexity doesn’t stop there, each cell has a complex interior structure of folded membranes too.

Enzymes are the catalysts in a cell. Which genes in a cell are turned on, is determined by the chemicals already present in a cell. Bootstrapping is the term Dawkins uses for explaining how these processes start/interact. (do read the book or a whole book on this topic to get a better understanding of this).

[T]he genes that survive in the river will be the ones that are good at surviving in the average environment of the species, and perhaps the most important aspect of this average environment is the other genes of the species; the other genes with which a gene is likely to have to share a body; the other genes that swim through geological time in the same river.”

Chapter 2 – All Africa and Her Progenies

(cultural relativism bad)

Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results [make testable predictions]. Myths and faiths are not and do not.

If we go back far enough in time, we are all cousins. If you go back to Roman times, the people there are either all our ancestors or ancestors of none (their line died out). Go further back and we’re all connected to the first replicator.

The changes in DNA can be measured with a molecular-clock (hypothesis, still somewhat controversial). The clock rate between species (and possibly time periods in history) may be different.

To find our common ancestor, we can look at mitochondrial DNA (because that doesn’t get mixed during sex, only that of the mother is passed along). Two million years ago is the moment of our mitochondrial (female line) ancestor (or as late as 250.000 years ago), probably in Africa.

Mithochondria are the powerhouses of our cells. If we look at their origins, they were bacteria (2 billion years ago).

… if all the mitochondria in a single human body were laid end to end, they would girdle the Earth not once but two thousand times.”

Chapter 3 – Do Good by Stealth

Creationists say something like “this is so beautifully designed, and it would be useless if it missed X (of X Y Z) function, God must have made this all in one go.” or as Dawkins puts it “… cannot have evolved by gradual stages, because the intermediate, half-formed stages could not have been good for anything.”

This chapter does away with those conceptions.

A proto-eye can already see (e.g. light and dark). Birds are fooled by red spots that their kin normally have. If you present a supernormal stimulus, they go crazy for it (as do humans, think adult movies).

Douglas Hofstadter (yes of Gödel Escher Bach) called the inflexible, mindless automatism that some (all?) animals exhibit (and bees in particular in this case) ‘sphexish’.

Many things we humans make also work when a part stops working (e.g. even a plane flies with one fewer engine). Something that breaks if it misses one part is called brittle (robust or antifragile could be the opposite?).

Eyes are useful in a gradient (analog) kind of way, you can vaguely see what is far away, and clearly see what is close. They have evolved between 40 and 60 times, with at least 9 different design principles.

Computer simulations show that an eye can be evolved (gradually) in about half a million years.

Do good by stealth. A key feature of evolution is its gradualness.” It may sometimes go quickly (e.g. meteor strike), but is almost always gradual.

The rest of the chapter describes the evolution of the dance of bees and some very clever experiments to test this.

Chapter 4 – God’s Utility Function

“Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

As humans we (think) we have a purpose, a goal, a consciousness. We plan for the future, look ahead, look back. But nature lacks this, nature just is. Evolution doesn’t have a plan. Evolution doesn’t answer the ‘what is it for’ question.

Only through Darwinian natural selection does evolution happen. There is no grand design or purpose. If we see that, it’s just an illusion left by the former.

Dawkins takes inspiration from Darwins Dangerous Idea (link if read). He uses the follow two terms:

  • Reverse engineering: making the assumption that there is an intelligent and economical reason for something being there (as outcome)
  • Utility function: that which is maximized

By watching the behavior of individuals throughout their lives, you should be able to reverse engineer their utility functions.”

There can be multiple things (utilities) that an organism (or organization for that matter) is optimising for. In the end, for us living things, it comes down to DNA survival.

Dawkins then explains the sex ratio and why a 50:50 division is optimal.

Beauty (e.g. peacock’s tail) is also explained by this utility. It isn’t directly useful for getting food, but displays evolutionary strength and over evolution it is selected for. Beauty has no virtue in itself, but the genetic competition makes sure it exists.

Evolution doesn’t have a ‘cooperative restraint’ in it. We can’t all just say, let’s not spend so much resources on beauty (or growing taller as a tree). Heck, the outcomes of this race could even mean the extinction of your species (e.g. all the beautiful birds get eaten by predators).

About old age and dying, Dawkins repeats some things I know about genes that optimise for reproduction, may be harmful if you’re older. They will not be filtered out (because with them, you can still get kids when you’re young).

About happiness. “Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything.”

If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.”

Chapter 5 – The Replication Bomb

We are probably somewhere in space-time that can be called an information or ‘replication bomb’. Because life consists of replicators. And these replicators can lead to exponential growth.

This growth can only go on for so long, until more resources are acquired.

Dawkins then explains the start of this process, where self-replication differs from crystals (something building on itself, but not self-replicating).

The halfs need to split and then both sides need to be able to grow the other side again. DNA has four ‘letters’ that make this possible.

The copying isn’t perfect and because of how molecules can be folded, there is open-ended variety next to heredity.

Dawkins then describes several thresholds that a planetary replication bomb could/should pass:

  1. Replicator Threshold: self-copying system, with occasional random mistakes in copying. This leads to a mixed population with competition for scares resources.
  2. Phenotype Threshold: replicators survive because of causal effects on phenotype (parts of animals/plants that genes can influence).
    1. He has written more about this in The Extended Phenotype
  3. Replicator Team Threshold: working together in cells (eukaryotic cells is those in our body, otherwise bacterial cells which are the forerunners of them).
    1. Darwinian selection still chooses among rival genes, but the genes that are favored are those that prosper in the presence of other genes that are simultaneously being favored in one another’s presence.”
  4. Many-Cells Threshold: many cells working together to form a larger (emergent?) system (and that makes it different from crystals which is just molecules times X)
  5. High-Speed Information-Processing Threshold: neurons (at least on earth). This system needs sense organs, brains, and memory.
  6. Consciousness Threshold: humans, maybe other animals
  7. Language Threshold: networking system by which brains exchange information with sufficient intimacy to allow the development of a cooperative technology.
  8. Cooperative Technology Threshold: the meme, a river of culture
  9. Radio Threshold: sending out signals to outer space
  10. Space Travel Threshold: sending more than radio waves

Alright, that’s that.

How The Mind Works

How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker presents his enlightening views on how the mind works. Even though the book dates back to 1997, the ideas are still relevant as ever and most of the (neuro)science is alike to what we think now.

Going by my own memory, the book argues that we learn from combining smaller pieces into larger structures. At least, that is what works on the computational/neuron level. But, the same also goes for learning bigger concepts and also how smaller modules led us learn/enjoy other (more complex) things (like music).

He ends the book with something I don’t fully grog yet, that we are not made to understand consciousness. That from our perspective we can’t really. I do get this if we are talking about an intuitive psychologist (just you and me), but we (humanity) also get/compute prime numbers into the millions. So couldn’t we also figure this out by writing stuff down and learning from the work of others? Time will tell.

Chapter 1-3 Basic brain structures

Chapter 4 Abstract mental processes

Chapter 5 Ideas (see, going up each time)

Chapter 6-7 Emotions, reasoning, friendship

Chapter 8 Art, music, humour

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great short (3.5h) introduction to astrophysics. It touches upon the size of the universe, the elements and where they originate from, and gives us humans a somewhat larger perspective.

One thing that was interesting/new to me was that the rate at which stars move away from us (making our ‘reachable’ universe (imagined as an inflating balloon) smaller, is quite slow. At a few stars per year (of the billions).


Antifragile by Nassim Taleb is quite an interesting book. Read a long time ago, summary to be made (will probably read again now in May 2020)

Antifragile – systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failure

The main idea of the book is presented above. Some other concepts I’ve put in Obsidian (Zettelkasten) so I can find them connected to other things.

Here is a more generic summary:

  • Lindy effect: things (non-alive) that have survived to this day, will survive longer than a thing that is younger (e.g. a book that is in print for long, will probably outlive a newer book)
  • Barbell strategy: strategy that focusses on two extremes, from finance, can also be applied to personal goals or work goals (very high and very low risk)
  • Via negativa: what to avoid/not do (e.g. see a doctor for small ails)
  • Skin in the game: need to take a risk (personally) to do something (Taleb argues that otherwise you won’t have the right incentive)
  • Green Lumber Fallacy: understanding the wrong thing, or not understanding/knowing about the underlying/practical considerations
  • Also lots of talk about concave and convex relationships versus them being linear. This could also explain second order effects as sometimes only one more thing needs to happen before the graph shoots up versus trickles up

More reviews

  • Astral Codex Ten
    • positive but notes that it’s much crammed into one concept
    • “… getting your predictions right was less important than calculating payoffs right. For example, if some very smart scientists tell you that there’s an 80% chance the coronavirus won’t be a big deal, you thank them for their contribution and then prepare for the coronavirus anyway. In the world where they were right, you’ve lost some small amount of preparation money; in the world where they were wrong, you’ve saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The Dragons of Eden

The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan is a book that takes a look at another topic than he normally does (Astronomy). This book is about life, intelligence, evolution, and sometimes, of course, wanders back into space.

From the Wiki

“The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence is a 1977 book by Carl Sagan, in which the author combines the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and computer science to give a perspective on how human intelligence may have evolved.”

I really enjoyed this book, but it was the most ‘outdated’ one I read. This is partly because it was written in 1977, partly because I think our theories about space are more cumulative and those in other fields sometimes overwrite/change the narrative more wholly in other fields (e.g. psychology). Still, a very good book.

Furthermore, it shows his general interest in science and love for learning more. In the book, he also argues for a balance between our ‘left’ and ‘right’ side of our brain. He says that we should need both sides. With perfect rationality, you can’t be creative (make bold conjectures). Without reason, only trusting your gut, you won’t test any of your theories (experimentation).

“Sagan discusses the search for a quantitative means of measuring intelligence. He argues that the brain to body mass ratio is an extremely good correlative indicator for intelligence, with humans having the highest ratio and dolphins the second highest, though he views the trend as breaking down at smaller scales, with some small animals (ants in particular) placing disproportionately high on the list. Other topics mentioned include the evolution of the brain (with emphasis on the function of the neocortex in humans), the evolutionary purpose of sleep and dreams, demonstration of sign language abilities by chimps and the purpose of mankind’s innate fears and myths. The title “The Dragons of Eden” is borrowed from the notion that man’s early struggle for survival in the face of predators, and in particular a fear of reptiles, may have led to cultural beliefs and myths about dragons.”

Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan is another look at our galaxy. This time a bit different from Cosmos. More focus on the other planets (and what we can learn from studying them).

From the wiki:

“The first part of the book examines the claims made throughout history that Earth and the human species are unique. Sagan proposes two reasons for the persistence of the idea of a geocentric, or Earth-centered universe: human pride in our existence, and the threat of torturing those who dissented from it, particularly during the time of the Roman Inquisition. However, he also admits that the scientific tools to prove the Earth orbited the Sun were (until the last few hundred years) not accurate enough to measure effects such as parallax, making it difficult for astronomers to prove that the geocentric theory was false.

I guess there is some overlap (and difference of opinion) with David Deutsch. We are not unique in place or time. But we are unique in being (as far as we know) the only species that reflects on our being here.

After saying that we have gained humility from understanding that we are not literally the center of the universe, Sagan embarks on an exploration of the entire Solar System. He begins with an account of the Voyager program, in which Sagan was a participating scientist. He describes the difficulty of working with the low light levels at distant planets, and the mechanical and computer problems which beset the twin spacecraft as they aged, and which could not always be diagnosed and fixed remotely. Sagan then examines each one of the major planets, as well as some of the moons—including Titan, Triton, and Miranda—focusing on whether life is possible at the frontiers of the Solar System.

Sagan argues that studying other planets provides context for understanding the Earth—and protecting humanity’s only home planet from environmental catastrophe. He believes that NASA’s decision to cut back exploration of the Moon after the Apollo program was a short-sighted decision, despite its expense and declining popularity among the American public. Sagan says future exploration of space should focus on ways to protect Earth and to extend human habitation beyond it. The book was published the same year comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, an event Sagan uses to highlight the danger Earth faces from the occasional asteroid or comet large enough to cause substantial damage if it were to hit Earth. He says we need the political will to track large extraterrestrial objects, or we risk losing everything. Sagan argues that in order to save the human race, space colonization and terraforming should be utilized.

Also see End Times for more about asteroids etc.

Later in the book, Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, challenges readers to pick one of the other planetary dots photographed and featured in the book, and imagine that there are inhabitants on that world who believe that the universe was created solely for themselves. She shared Sagan’s belief that humans are not as important as they think they are.”