Motherhood Issues

How many times have you heard new parents, their eyes bright with happy delerium (or perhaps just lack of sleep), insisting that you don’t know what love is until you first lay eyes on your baby? How many of you have reunited with old university buddies who have grown up and spawned, only to find that mouths which once argued about hyperspace and acid rain can’t seem to open now without veering into the realm of child-rearing? How many commercials have you seen that sell steel-belted radials by plunking a baby onto one? How many times has rational discourse been utterly short-circuited the moment someone cries “Please, someone think of the children!”? (I’ve noticed the aquarium industry is particularly fond of this latter strategy, whenever anyone suggests shutting down their captive whale displays.)

You know all this, of course. You know the wiring and the rationale behind it: the genes build us to protect the datastream. The only reason we exist is to replicate that information and keep it moving into the future. It’s a drive as old as life itself. But here’s the thing: rutting and reproduction are not the traits we choose to exhalt ourselves for. It’s not sprogs, but spirit, that casts us in God’s image. What separates us from the beasts of the field is our minds, our intellects. This, we insist, is what makes us truly human.

Which logically means that parents are less human than the rest of us.

Stick with me here. All of us are driven by brainstem imperatives. We are all compromised: none of us is a paragon of intellect or rationality. Still, some are more equal than others. There is a whole set of behavioral subroutines that never run until we’ve actually pupped, a whole series of sleeper programs that kick in on that fateful moment when we stare into our child’s eyes for the first time, hear the weird Middle-eastern Dylan riffs whining in our ears, and realise that holy shit, we’re Cylons.

That is the moment when everything changes. Our children become the most important thing in the world, the center of existence. We would save our own and let ten others die, if it came to that. The rational truth of the matter— that we have squeezed out one more large mammal in a population of 6.5 billion, which will in all likelihood accomplish nothing more than play video games, watch Inuit Idol, and live beyond its means until the ceiling crashes in— is something that simply doesn’t compute. We look into those bright and greedy eyes and see a world-class athlete, or a Nobel Prize-winner, or the next figurehead of global faux-democracy delivered unto us by Diebold and Halliburton.

We do not see the reality, because seeing reality would compromise genetic imperatives. We become lesser intellects. The parental subroutines kick in and we lose large chunks of the very spark that, by our own lights, makes us human.

So why not recognise that with a new political movement? Call it the “Free Agent Party”, and build its guiding principles along the sliding scale of intellectual impairment. Those shackled by addictions that skew the mind — whether pharmaceutically, religiously, or parentally induced — are treated the same way we treat those who have yet to reach the age of majority, and for pretty much the same reasons. Why do we deny driver’s licences and voting priveleges to the young? Why do we ban drunks from the driver’s seat? Because they are not ready. They are not competent to make reasonable decisions. Nobody questions this in today’s society. So tell me, how are offspring addicts any different?

I’m thinking of adding such a political movement to the noisy (and slightly satirical) background of an upcoming novel, but the more I think of it, the more it strikes me as an idea whose time has come. It’s a no-lose electoral platform as far as I can see.

Now go find me a campaign manager.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday May 22 2007at 08:05 am , filed under just putting it out there..., rant, sociobiology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

56 Responses to “Motherhood Issues”

  1. Sounds reasonable to me.

    But we might want to keep humanity around for a while, especialy if it actualy manages to get its collective shit together enough to realize the sort of things you’re saying. So how to continue breeding without the problems? What if we just took everyone’s semen and eggs, randomly paired them off (with genetic screening, of course), then randomly distributed the resulting children to would be parents? I’d like to see how the kin-selection drive deals with that mess!

  2. razorsmile sez: the fucking ducks that shit all over my neighbourhood do this far more dramatically. If I happen to stroll along the sidewalk, the childless ducks get out of my way. The ones with ducklings? They hiss and they stand their ground. Hell, they stalk towards me.

    As for political movements, good luck getting one started unless you’re married with 2.6 children; as far as the voting populace is concerned, anyone who doesn’t have kids and a wife (we’ll ignore the partriachal implications) couldn’t possibly be responsible enough to hold office.

    Funny. Saddam had kids. So does El Presidente.

    - insert anti-google-blogger slogan here

  3. AR said…

    But we might want to keep humanity around for a while,

    Oh, I’m not suggesting we do away with parents, any more than I’m suggesting we do away with children. We just restrict their access to society’s decisionmaking apparatus until their heads clear…

  4. I think this’d have a little more merit if there was any research into the effect that becoming a parent has on the brain. It’s easy to justify legally limiting someone who is inebriated, we know what alcohol does to the brain, and we know what sorts of situations result unfavourably under those conditions. Duplicate that for parenthood, and you might have some basis.

    While we’re at it, let’s stop the shitty parents from reproducing too. An equal force of good, and just about as probable in today’s world. :P

  5. Re: Dormant subroutines: This reminds me of my teenage and onwards years. How I stopped worrying about cooties and started loving females.

  6. i don’t agree that parents are irrational per se, rather they are still acting selfishly, but the perspective has shifted. it just appears that their actions are irrationally selfless and ultimately geared towards the survival and health of their offspring, but really they are only acting in the interest of maintaining stability of the new life they’ve been thrust into that requires care of not only themselves but their offspring. the irrationality of an individual’s actions makes the life of an individual with offspring easier.

    either way, i’m all for anything other than the two parties my country offers. Viva la FAP!

    (you need to work on the name, that acronym sucks)

  7. IOW, if you had made the argument that as enlightened, conscious human beings, having children, given the state of things, is an irrational action in and of itself, i would totally agree with you. those people need their head examined.

  8. I think you’re being entirely too generous, Peter.

    There’s plenty of people (IME, of course) that exhibit those same parental subroutines who have never spawned. I’ve met lots of adults who refuse to believe some of the horrific shit my oldest son has done simply because of his age.

    Your model also doesn’t explain adoptive parents. I feel much more “parental” towards my younger son (who is adopted, and has no genetic similarity to me) than to my older son (who does). I think your model could explain things if you include the transmission of genes and memes instead of relying solely on genes; my younger son (the “normal one”) is much more like me behaviorally than my older son.

    Or you could argue that memetic selection is a stand-in for genetic selection. Extended phenotype, and therefore potentially fooled. [shrug]

    I like the general concept. Isn’t there a “Kill yourself, save the planet” party? Oh, no, wait… they’re a church.

    Hey – then you could get separation of church and state ALONG with the bizarre political party…

  9. cow_2001 said

    This reminds me of my teenage and onwards years. How I stopped worrying about cooties and started loving females.

    Yes, well you’ve just kinda put your finger on the problem: if we ban parents because of impaired judgment, what do we do about the horny? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve made some very stupid decisions in the quest to get laid.

    But then, celibates are out too, because even though they aren’t having sex, assuming they’re not senescent they will at least be distracted mightily by unfulfilled urges. Oh, and the senescent — that’s another group we don’t want making too many decisions. Failing memories, Alzheimer’s, you name it.

    So the people who get the vote are nonparenting chemical castrati whose sex drives have all been hormonally suppressed. Oh, and we should suppress the survival instinct too, since any brainstem-equipped mammal is going to irrationally value its own life over the lives of others, even if those others are more important to the big picture…

    Okay, so that leaves potential suicides. Except, suicidal depression also impairs judgment. So that leaves… that leaves…

    You know something? We just gotta do away with this whole voting thing entirely…

  10. Steve said

    There’s plenty of people (IME, of course) that exhibit those same parental subroutines who have never spawned. I’ve met lots of adults who refuse to believe some of the horrific shit my oldest son has done simply because of his age… Your model also doesn’t explain adoptive parents.

    Remember that we’re talking a relative scale here. Most people go awww when they see a baby on a radial tire (or ewww when they see a baby under one), but their reaction pales compared to the intensity of most actual parents towards their real children. And as for adoptive parents, it’s well known that we can redirect our instincts (me, I’m utterly indifferent to children, but anyone who fucks with my cats is looking at a couple of shattered kneecaps and a steak knife through the eye) — but it’s also known that infanticide rates in adoptive and foster families are orders of magnitude greater than within blood-related ones (and no, I can’t cite the reference to that offhand. I once could. Sorry.). Like many other mammals, we’re much more likely to kill the offspring of others than of our own, even when we’ve brought them into our families.

    There are always exceptions — just as there are children of fifteen far wiser, far more responsible, than most adults of thirty-five. But we still don’t let those exceptional kids vote or drink, because it would just be an unworkable logistic pain to judge everyone case-by-case. So we lump everyone into groups, and we draw lines demarking one from another, and we hope we haven’t been too arbitrary in our tradeoff between fairness and convenience.

    And I can only hope that such lines can be reasonably drawn, and that those of us who are sexually active end up on a different side of it than those who have paid the long-term price for being sexually active. Otherwise we’d pretty much have to exclude everyone but these folks here.

  11. [Admission of guilt: My wife is 2 weeks from her due date. Take my comments with that in mind, please.]

    Maybe I’m overidentifying with Mr. Sarasti here, but what exactly is *wrong* with kin selection? Why is it better to allow my actions to be governed by bitter eunuchs with terminally frustrated genetic programming?

    Parents, at least, can trick their brainstems into making suboptimal decisions where personal well-being is concerned because of kin selection. What reason does a eunuch have to think of anyone but itself?

    (As an additional datapoint: almost all the parenting advice I hear that doesn’t come from Hollywood or someone trying to sell me something cautions me against falling into the “you-will-instantly-love-your-baby” trap. I’ll report back in 2+/-4 weeks, but from what I hear you have to get to know — and learn to like — your kid the same way you have to get to know/like anyone else, only you don’t have the option of politely asking them to leave your house.)

  12. Yeah, I do hope that I’m not giving offense to the breeders in the audience. I’ve just been thinking about the various brainstem imperatives that cloud rational judgment, and playing around with where the line — which already exists, mind you, although it’s drawn to exclude criminals and minors — might be moved. (It’s not the first time I’ve gone down this road. Back during the Clinton/Lewinski “scandal”, I suggested that since a) we don’t want a guy with his hand on the nuclear button being driven crazy by sexual frustration, and b) Clinton was a guy, the obvious solution would be to either keep a harem of hookers in the White House to allow the president to relieve himself, or that legislation be passed requiring all serving presidents to undergo temporary chemical castration during their term in office. For some reason, though, none of the local papers would print my letter.)

    But fraxas makes a good point: after all, from a purely rational basis, there’s no grounds for any imperatives whatsoever. Nothing matters. If you do away with self-preservation, or procreation, or the survival of the civilization (which is just as indefensible, but on a larger scale), well, nobody has anything to live for, do they?

    Still. Some people we disenfranchise. We exclude blocks of the population, and for reasons that could just as easily be applied to lots of other groups like, well (and there! on the TV! another of those disgusting, manipulative, shit-for-brains Huggies commercials!) — parents!

    But if no parents, then no oldsters either. And no horny people. And — well, I’m repeating myself now, so I’ll stop.

  13. No offense taken, certainly. I think my conclusion on the whole topic is that there’s no good conclusion to come to. There are no good answers Which, of course, just tells us we’re asking the wrong questions – rather than trying to organize our (dysfunctional, incompetent, terrified, irrational) selves into a functioning society, why not reengineer ourselves into things that *can* be put together into a society we want to live in? Or at the very least, reengineer ourselves so that the society we *can* build is the society we *want* to build. (you could make the argument that that’s been the aim of moral philosophy all along.)

    But really, as technology advances, we gain deeper insight into how exactly we function, and what the most effective ways to hack the brainstem are. Better Living Through Chemistry; Better Living Through Nanophysics.

    Transhumanism ahoy!

  14. I’ve met plenty of people whose decision-making skills are skewed by their love of their cats.

  15. Not “skewed”, Anthony. Enhanced. Intellects are enhanced by the love of cats.

    Really, I’d have thought such truths to be self-evident…

  16. Ah, I had forgotten you’re one of the legion of fur fiends. I haen’t seen much evidence of enhanced thinking in the cat owners I know. Really, when you’ve listened to an owner describing the problems he’s having with the noise from the automatic cat-litter tray you do wonder exacly which part of his brain is being improved.

    I was mocked by a cat slave for my decision to become a parent. My reply, “Darwin says ‘You Lose’”.

    p.s. Love all the books. Any chance of a UK publisher bringing them out over here?

  17. fraxas wonders

    why not reengineer ourselves into things that *can* be put together into a society we want to live in?

    The short answer may be: Because our brainstems would interpret that as a kind of suicide, and so we might recoil from such a prospect out of sheer instinctive self-preservation.

    But it’s only a short answer. I’m actually working on the long one for this keynote address at York next month.

  18. Anthony derided thusly:

    I was mocked by a cat slave for my decision to become a parent. My reply, “Darwin says ‘You Lose’”.

    And you’re right. By Darwinian standards, you are a success, and I am a pathetic loser.

    But here’s the thing about Darwinian processes: they almost always end in extinction. Everything from rape to sweet teeth reflects traits that were adaptive at some point in the past. But things change. The first shall come last. And if we do want to avoid extinction, we better start transcending natural selection before it does us in along with the other 95% of species that never made it this far.

    p.s. Love all the books. Any chance of a UK publisher bringing them out over here?

    UK publishers have occasionally nudged me on that score, but it turns out that Tor has all English-language rights (not just North American, as I’d dumbly assumed). David Hartwell told me once that he’d tried selling Starfish in the UK but couldn’t get anyone interested. Beyond that, I haven’t heard of any efforts by anyone at Tor to move my stuff over there.

    Of course, the fact that I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Tor never told me they’d sold Starfish to the Italians, either; first I heard was when the Italian editor approached me requesting an intro for the new edition. I actually sent an e-mail to Tor at that point, wondering if some dude was brazenly trying to scam me into endorsing a pirate edition; it never occured to me that Tor wouldn’t inform their author of such a sale, so, having heard nothing from them, I was naturally suspicious. But what I got back was a confirmation that a) yes, the deal was the real thing, and b) Tor was not contractually obligated to tell me anything it chose to do with my titles.

  19. Interesting.

    I am one of those breeders. And relax I’m not offended (I’ve referred to children as sperm and egg omelettes before).

    However, PW is spot on with this. Having a kid distorts your thinking, sometimes drastically. I like to think that I monitor my own sub-routines, but damn if I don’t let the little munchkin take top priority.

    With my wife, the subroutines have taken over. I’m not sure she’d pass your zombie detector these days Peter (and she wonders why I read these books on brain function, consciousness and your stuff).

    Anyway, any chance of getting their hands off the levers of power? Not too likely. But if someone could engineer a short term acting neurovirus that at least temporarily disables the subroutines, it could get interesting.

  20. @Peter – wasn’t it one of your characters who essentially said “At the end of the day, being too tolerant just means those who are intolerant will kick your ass anyway?” I want to say it was a short story…

    Oh, and while we’re talking about cat lovers (I wuv my widdle kitty-poo!) what about Toxoplasma gondii?

    And yeah, I agree that we’d consider it suicide. That’s been my biggest gripe with the Singularity-cliche of “uploading”. That’s not the same instance that’s running on the wetware. While something functionally identical to me may someday run on hardware, that’s not the instance that’s stuck in my grey matter.

  21. The thing with suicide is that you don’t really cause your own death so much as cause your own death sooner. Some people come to terms with this by what they leave behind, sometimes children, sometimes works. As some people are generally happy with the idea of death once they’ve done something that will last, could not that same mentality be applied to various forms of uplift?

    I’m reminded of Ghost in the Shell. Might Major Kusanagi still have opted for full brain replacement even if the setting equivalent of a soul did not exist? After all, if she was already willing to lay down her life in pursuit of her duties, why not lay down her life in the creation of something exactly like her but better at doing what is essentially the purpose of her life to begin with?

    I am also reminded of suicide bomber recruitment strategies. They apparently focus a lot on regarding the other members of the cause as brothers. It has been suggested that the success of these strategies is due to creation of kinship bonds where none existed naturally, apparently tricking the parts of people that let them sacrifice themselves for immediate family sacrifice themselves for people that are like family to them but who are not directly related.

    Of course, the general concept of altruism in like super-extended-kinship, except completely different in implementation: “I desire others to be well-off,” as opposed to “I desire these people to be well-off because they are my own flesh and blood. They are me, in a sense, and of course I want me to be well-off.”

  22. Okay, a few thoughts… not very developed, but I’ll put them out there for the sake of debate and in general to be a shit-disturber.

    First, and least important: the most virulent form of the effect Peter’s identified, in my opinion, is the challenge: “you don’t have kids do you?” This is used as an all-purpose dismissal of any point of view that contradicts that of the writer or speaker. Most often it is used in situations where the writer has some punitive notion in mind for dealing with a social issue, and the challenged person has proposed something more nuanced or less harsh. The idea is that unless one had experienced the cognitive distortion associated with parenthood, one cannot legitimately take part in a debate about X or Y (prison sentences for child-related offences, gay adoption, etc.) because, lacking children, one cannot comprehend the stakes at hand.

    Ironically, this debating tool is generally used to stifle actual debate. The argument is shut down entirely rather than advanced because the childless person is disqualified from even participating in the discussion, as though choosing to not have children (or not have them just yet) invalidates any child-related position. Of course many people choose not to have children, or choose to wait to have them, for very good, well thought out reasons, so this stratagem is essentially meaningless in rational terms. It is nonetheless often very effective. It has a lot in common with the “don’t you support our troops” ploy that permeates the (lack of real) debate about the war in Iraq.

    More importantly, though, what has been identified here is a flaw – or at least a weakness – in our age-based system of according or denying social privileges (I will not say rights because rights, by definition, are accorded to everyone irrespective of any mediating factor).

    As things stand now, we accord the privilege of voting based purely on age (okay, and citizenship, and in some places not being a felon, and other sundry details, but mostly on age).

    Peter is right in this: parenthood impairs rational cognition. So does horniness, as he points out. So do many things which we ALL experience. The way I see it, there is really no such thing as unimpaired cognition. We humans are constantly awash (a very literal image) in a sea of influences that affect our judgment one way or another, and there is no pristine state of rationality.

    What Peter’s observation raises as a real question is this: is our present system the most functional one we can devise, balancing individuated discrimination that is rationally connected to the privilege in question with economy in an optimal fashion?

    I would say that parents are effectively insane from the point of view of non-parents. But while this is a really good, dramatic example of a problem, it is only an example. We are all insane in our own ways and we must decide upon a way to allow or disallow certain forms of social participation based on these various impairments. Rationality is not absolute, it is relative only.

    So at heart I think the question is this: is age (our present system of categorization) the best or only way to do accord or deny social privilege? What other factors, if any, should be admitted into the calculation?

    And at the other end of the equation (let’s not forget) what social functions should be affected? Is it only the privilege of voting? As with parenthood (at the front end of the equation) this is a good, clear-cut example of a social privilege that might be dependent upon any number of factors, but of course there are others (drinking, driving, marrying, child-bearing, etc.)

    If the system of discrimination is to be rational, we can’t only think about the factors that affect our cognition, but how particular factors affect our cognition with respect to particular activities. There is really no one measure of cognitive function… that function will be distorted to a certain degree in relation to one type of thought and to a different degree (perhaps none at all) with respect to another area.

    Any thoughts?

    Nas

  23. Even if an unbiased person could be found, we certainly wouldn’t want them running anything, because perfect lack of bias is perfect lack of desire. What is really mean by non-biased is a minimal root mean square of differences in bias from everyone they’d presumably be making decisions for.

    I, for instance, am biased against the destruction of all life on Earth. Nonetheless, when selecting a supreme world dictator, this bias of mine would be a point in my favor.

  24. Ar,

    I agree, and I hope you see that I do. My point is precisely that there is no such thing as an unbiased person. It’s a fiction, maybe legally necessary, but a fiction nontheless. Maybe the root question is (as I think you hinted): what biases do we consider legitimate? How do we assess the optimal bias of the voter (or driver, or child-bearer, or what have you)? Maybe dispensing with the notion of an unbiased social participant is the first necessary step in getting to the core of the issue.

    Nas

  25. I’m gonna agree with Nas — and raise him one — and disagree with ar. Thusly:

    The idea is that unless one had experienced the cognitive distortion associated with parenthood, one cannot legitimately take part in a debate about X or Y (prison sentences for child-related offences, gay adoption, etc.) because, lacking children, one cannot comprehend the stakes at hand.

    And in fact, parenthood is but one example of this. Look at the victims-rights groups, and the politicos who pander to them. Their argument has a superficial appeal — give a voice to those most affected by the crime — but what it really comes down to is let legal policy be shaped by grief-stricken, bereaved, and enraged next-of-kin.

    And this is where I disagree with ar, when he says,

    Even if an unbiased person could be found, we certainly wouldn’t want them running anything, because perfect lack of bias is perfect lack of desire.

    How would you all react to the suggestion that a perfect lack of desire is exactly what we need? That having any personal stake in an outcome, by definition, introduces bias and compromises judgment? That the last people you want to make decisions are those with a stake in them, that the ideal arbiter is someone with no stake at all, someone who just doesn’t give a shit.

    Is this not, after all, the very basis of independent arbitration?

    I know, I know. It rankles: that we should take all the important decisions out of the hands of those most affected by them, and turn the reins over to bloodless indifference. I think it’s because we assume that decisions made without personal consequence are more likely to be slapdash and ill-considered, because it just doesn’t matter to the referee. But is there really any reason to equate dispassion with capriciousness? We may question the decisions of real referees at sporting events, but when was the last time anyone did that because they thought the referee wasn’t sufficiently invested in who won?

  26. Steve asked:

    Peter – wasn’t it one of your characters who essentially said “At the end of the day, being too tolerant just means those who are intolerant will kick your ass anyway?” I want to say it was a short story…

    Sounds like something I might say, but it doesn’t ring any bells. Must’ve been someone else.

    Oh, and while we’re talking about cat lovers (< nausea-inducing kittyspeak snipped>) what about Toxoplasma gondii?

    Oh, man, I was so far ahead of the curve on that. I mean, forget my newscrawl entry on the subject (scroll down to May 6 on the right-hand column) — I explicitly cited Toxoplasma genes as one of the ingredients of Guilt Trip back in Maelstrom: I even laid Achilles’ love of his cat Mandelbrot at the door of that parasite. Or hell, just go to the Maelstrom wing of rifters.com — make sure your browser’s set to allow pop-ups — and hang around on those pages for a while. Five, ten minutes should be more than enough. You’ll see just how prescient I was when the counterpropaganda from the Spartacus Society starts popping up…

    Now everybody’s talking about it. Man, I wuz robbed...

  27. ar remarked:

    I’m reminded of Ghost in the Shell. Might Major Kusanagi still have opted for full brain replacement even if the setting equivalent of a soul did not exist? After all, if she was already willing to lay down her life in pursuit of her duties, why not lay down her life in the creation of something exactly like her but better at doing what is essentially the purpose of her life to begin with?

    You know, for such a philosophy-and-dialog-heavy series that focuses so tightly on matters of sentience and identity — hell, the very title is a giveaway — I’m surprised they never explicitly addressed that. (Although I suppose you could argue that she made that decision at the end of the first movie; did her consciousness upload, or merely the behavioural algorithms?) If I had to guess, though, I’d say she would not have taken that option. The Major believes that things about her society are worth protecting, even at the cost of human lives (we can infer this from the line of work she’s in). There’d be little point in protecting something that contained no “ghosts” capable of experiencing it. Hence, she values the ghosts; her work is meaningless if they don’t exist.

    I am also reminded of suicide bomber recruitment strategies. They apparently focus a lot on regarding the other members of the cause as brothers. It has been suggested that the success of these strategies is due to creation of kinship bonds where none existed naturally, apparently tricking the parts of people that let them sacrifice themselves for immediate family sacrifice themselves for people that are like family to them but who are not directly related.

    I mumbled about that a little back in 2004 (again, scroll down to Aug 5 on the right-hand side). There’s even a link to a brief piece in Science on the subject.

  28. @nas:

    “The idea is that unless one had experienced the cognitive distortion associated with parenthood, one cannot legitimately take part in a debate about X or Y (prison sentences for child-related offences, gay adoption, etc.) because, lacking children, one cannot comprehend the stakes at hand.”

    But the whole presumption we’re working with (having kids fundamentally alters your worldview) legitimizes that claim of a lack of empathy. It’s always easier to empathize with those like you. (Which, in a not-quite gratuitous aside, is why I like the Rifters books so much. About the time you started to empathize with a character and turn them into a cartoon of themselves, they’d do something totally batshit insane.)

    Anyway, the argument is that those who are unable to empathize are fundamentally lacking pertinent information in the decision making process. I won’t say that I truly buy it – but it’s at least internally consistent, if you accept its premises.

  29. @nas Re: Age as granting of privileges. For all its faults, I really can’t think of another benchmark that I would suspect of having high correlations with the ability to (quasi-rationally) make decisions. Too many others have stealth variables (can you tell I did my statistics homework tonight?). For example, financial success is not necessarily (or even frequently) correlated to ability, but to a whole host of other traits. Do we even want to bring up Starship Troopers? (Of COURSE I mean the book, not that godawful excrement of a movie.)

  30. @Peter:
    I think you’re absolutely right; someone who has no stake in an issue would be the best arbiter. Barring a sudden glut in the supply of Buddhas, though…

    Creating impartiality has been tried before: That’s the whole idea behind the development of bureaucracy during the Enlightenment, isn’t it? I think you did a good job of demonstrating the inherent difficulty of engineering ourselves (whether through biotech or rules) to be non-biased in a world where Murphy’s Law/entropy rules.

    Even barring catastrophic failure like what happened to Achilles (or a bunch of neurons who actually follow the rules we give them), you have the twin problems of following the rules even when the rules violate the spirit of the rules and the everpresent danger of the system being gamed while still presenting the front of impartiality.

    That’s always been one of my problems with Fox News, really. Not thier political bent, but thier claim of being “fair and balanced” when they were anything but. I’d rather have them be quite open and obvious about thier bias so I can take that datum into consideration.

    It’s the second-best scenario of “You slice the cake, I’ll decide which half I get”, and I think it is the best we’ll get.

  31. Lemme weigh in on this one:

    How would you all react to the suggestion that a perfect lack of desire is exactly what we need? That having any personal stake in an outcome, by definition, introduces bias and compromises judgment? That the last people you want to make decisions are those with a stake in them, that the ideal arbiter is someone with no stake at all, someone who just doesn’t give a shit.

    Even if we could overcome the question of how to refrain from bias and still inject some form of end goal, this hypothetical doesn’tgiveashit would still need to have the bias of giving enough of a shit to do a good job. To care enough about their work that they will go through enough of the options, weigh enough evidence, factor in enough terms to come to a usable conclusion. If we were to give the doesn’tgiveashit the assignment of, say, halting global warming without crashing the economy, how do we make sure it doesn’t slack off and simply recommend wholesale slaughter, followed by a return to a fully agrarian economy (fertilized by the dead, of course), and call it a day? Or maybe it’d just think of something off the top of its head to get rid of the annoying questions.

    You’d still need biases, I think. Less tangible ones. That ever-slippery succubus of duty. And before you mention the ‘lawbreakers and their chemical chains, remember that they still possessed a baseline understanding of our version of the “greater good”, which was not installed by the Trip, but merely enthroned.

    Besides, there’s the fact I kinda like some forms of my slavery…

  32. Yeah, that’s probably where I got that from.

    What I meant about ghosts was them being non-transferable. So there is still sentience in humans and machines, but it’s stuck in whatever it started in. But then I realized that if this were the case, they might simply be able to copy the Major as often as they needed without having to get additional lesbian stripper ninjas to ghost-dub into the cyborgs to begin with.

    But supposing things work out in just such a way as to make my point: If ghosts existed, if they were non-transferable, and if in the process of making a superhuman cyborg a suitably competent and dedicated human had to die, would she have done it?

  33. Even if we could overcome the question of how to refrain from bias and still inject some form of end goal, this hypothetical doesn’tgiveashit would still need to have the bias of giving enough of a shit to do a good job.

    That’s what I was trying to say.

    Nothing correlates with health and happiness like income. I, therefore, believe that having children should have a minimum income requirement for both parents.

    Interestingly, the rich would probably raise as much of a fuss about that as anyone else; if you have to be middle class or higher to breed, the exploitable underclass would gradually vanish.

  34. peter watts sed: How would you all react to the suggestion that a perfect lack of desire is exactly what we need? That having any personal stake in an outcome, by definition, introduces bias and compromises judgment? That the last people you want to make decisions are those with a stake in them, that the ideal arbiter is someone with no stake at all, someone who just doesn’t give a shit.

    As long as no Black Swan events kick in to simplify :D the equation for our hypothetical cold arbiter.

    raymond sed: Even if we could overcome the question of how to refrain from bias and still inject some form of end goal, this hypothetical doesn’tgiveashit would still need to have the bias of giving enough of a shit to do a good job.

    Agreed. So here’s what I think:

    On the one hand, we have kin-selection, which can be tricked into imprinting beyond the genome. Suicide bombers, military units, Jesus Christ all confirm this.

    On the other hand, we have Pak Protectors, speculative but nonetheless pertinent to the discussion.

    So the solution isn’t altered conscience or lack of emotion; it’s a being that is incapable of putting any one (or one hundred or one million) people above the needs of the species (or the planet). It also would have to be utterly unassailable in a physical sense; the alternative is human hordes wanting their “free will” and “self-determination” back so they can make a mess of things all over again.

    Which brings us right back to the issue of a Yudkowski Event (what, you thought I was going to say the S-word? I don’t think so).

  35. Why assume that parenthood is the only thing that’ll have that effect? Sheer age can do it. I’ve noticed that as I passed the age of about 25, in addition to acquiring paternal feelings regardless of sprogged state (finding babies cute, for instance: mental illness, sure!) the thing bleeds into *other* relatives. e.g. I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t hesitate to die or suffer serious injury to save my sister’s life, for instance. This has obvious evolutionary advantages (`no, but for two brothers or eight cousins’) but is equally not a thing of reason.

    But I’ve never suffered from the misapprehension that humans are Things Of Pure Reason and that anything we do without reasoning it through first makes us somehow Less Human. We’re animals, dammit, and there are some things that all animals, hell, all *living things* spend a lot of effort on. One of them is sprogging.

    So personally I’d consider sprog-related feelings to be one of those things that ties humanity to the rest of life on Earth; a thing we share with everything else (or at least with everything else mammalian).

    And I’m afraid I don’t see what’s wrong with that. Indeed having fewer children will tend to intensify all this over evolutionary time, because individual children become more precious as you have fewer of them.

    — N, insane and proud of it


  36. And you’re right. By Darwinian standards, you are a success, and I am a pathetic loser.

    Yeah, but by Dawkinian standards you’re way ahead of most of us.


    And if we do want to avoid extinction, we better start transcending natural selection before it does us in along with the other 95% of species that never made it this far.

    It occurs to me that if we want to avoid extinction we’ll have to keep on having babies.

    It further occurs to me that yes, becoming a parent does link in a whole new set of libraries to our runtime, but these libraries include the routine that makes us look beyond our own selfish interests to those of our offspring.

    My (modest) counter-proposal: Only parents get to vote. The selfish childless have no stake in the ongoing future of humanity and therefore are not fit to make decisions that may impact that future.

    All I need now is a campaign manager. See you on the hustings.

  37. Children really are the best drug!

    Yup.

    huh. Don’t seem to have any else to say…
    ;)

  38. Hi there, im new to these threads. i have only been able to read half of this thread due to being at work so i dont know if this has been suggested but hearing is my opening salvo:

    a solution:

    donate your gametes!
    get someone else to have your kids!
    become a darwinian winner whilst maintaining high processor functions and rational decision making capabilities.

    i am seriously considering this myself after my folks asked me last week when i was going to have kids. The look on my face appernetly didnt bode well for our family’s genetic line.

    i also think that people in the proccess of getting married should be added to the list of the mentally impaired. I have observed a similar degradation of mental prowess in those in the lab where i work who are currently engaged. From nimble scientific athlete to lumbering mono-track zombies with a simple “will you….” or “i do”. the horror.

    someone also mentionned getting PW books in the UK. Whilst the majority i have bought have come from the states i definitely got hold of starfish in a uk bookstore. However it was a long time ago and i can remember if it was something like a science fiction import section in borders/waterstones etc

  39. It seems pretty much everyone here agrees with the basic premise that one’s thinking processes, one’s rationality, are negatively impacted by becoming a parent. In other words, parents are insane, probably temporarily.

    Thus, there is a cost of parenthood that is well-known already, but a connection between the effects of this cost and social decision-making has not been made in probably the minds of most (voting) people.

    So, as a short-term, possibly exploratory or experimental approach, I suggest an aggressive spreading of the meme “new parents are insane, and should not trust their own judgements on matters of greater importance than diaper purchases”. If this meme colonizes a significant fraction of the population, then the breeders may acknowledge their own unreasonableness and choose to abstain from the greater social decision-making process, i.e. voting.

    In support of the first part of the meme, some quotes from this comment thread:

    – N, insane and proud of it

    Children really are the best drug!

    Moving on…

    Even if we could overcome the question of how to refrain from bias and still inject some form of end goal, this hypothetical doesn’tgiveashit would still need to have the bias of giving enough of a shit to do a good job. To care enough about their work that they will go through enough of the options, weigh enough evidence, factor in enough terms to come to a usable conclusion.

    Incentive. If power is desireable for its own sake, then a condition of being the dontgiveashit global dictator comes from the demonstrated ability to achieve set goals. Obviously, we now have the problem of who decides those goals, but those goals could be up for review every so often once our dispassionate anti-dynasty gets rolling.

    To take the ‘solve global warming without trashing the economy’ example, well, the presented idea of ‘super agrarian regression!’ doesn’t work because it fails to achieve one of the stated goals – the economy would be trashed. So we pull some numbers out of the collective ass (e.g. no more than 2 degrees C global average temperature rise over the next 30 years, and the global economy’s growth rate cannot slow to less than 2% per year, or something) and then set up our hypothetical dontgiveashit dictator, and see what happens.

    Could this method produce worse results than the current systme?

    P.S. I think this is comment number 39 on this thread. PW, are you not pleased that you moved to a host that allows commenting, in contrast to the undetected seething, silent resentment at the old newscrawl site?

  40. #40!
    Revisiting my comment earlier, I do acknowledge that I consider my daughter my shot at genetic immortality, so I feel I have a incentive to see she does well.

    As to the wife and her ‘subroutines overrunning the buffer,’ I’ve been told that I’m easier to deal with because I can step back and say “Hmm.” T takes it as an indictment of her ability as a mother.

  41. If power is desireable for its own sake

    Big if. That assumes a bias towards power. Common enough biological imperative, we all know, but frankly I’d be more willing to entertain the notion of a chemically (or biologically) enforced bias towards completion and accuracy. Easier to keep track of.

  42. Steve points out:

    Anyway, the argument is that those who are unable to empathize are fundamentally lacking pertinent information in the decision making process.

    And Nick goes further:

    So personally I’d consider sprog-related feelings to be one of those things that ties humanity to the rest of life on Earth; a thing we share with everything else (or at least with everything else mammalian).

    And then anthony gets into the act with

    yes, becoming a parent does link in a whole new set of libraries to our runtime, but these libraries include the routine that makes us look beyond our own selfish interests to those of our offspring.

    But guys, there’s a huge difference between empathy for others and the sheer selfish desire to see your own genes propagate into the future. To me, the whole claim that only parents “have a stake in the future” is fallacious, hypocritical, and self-serving. We live on an overcrowded planet running on empty, with 6.5 billion other large mammals living way beyond their means; how does it show any sort of concern for life on earth to add to that burden? Seems to me a clearer demonstration of the bacterium’s drive to replicate, regardless of consequence. I would argue that those of us who had ourselves sterilised at the first opportunty are the ones who have taken the more action to protect the future.

  43. Raymond weighs in with,

    this hypothetical doesn’tgiveashit would still need to have the bias of giving enough of a shit to do a good job

    I don’t think I’d describe the desire to do a good job as a “bias”; being “biased towards the truth” is an oxymoron. The whole point of bias is that it skews you away from the truth. Not all motivators are biases.

    That said, though, I agree we’ve got a big problem when it comes to motivation. Financial, sexual, limbic-stim rewards are all very good (and powerful motivators), but then you need an unbiased way of meting them out (or withholding them) when your arbiter of truth makes a call — and that means that you have to have some kind of external yardstick against which to compare the arbiter’s judgment, in which case, why not refer to the yardstick at the outset?

    It’s a poser, all right. I’m just glad it’s buried so far down in the comment stream that nobody will ever see it.

  44. Nick pointed out

    Why assume that parenthood is the only thing that’ll have that effect? Sheer age can do it…

    Dude, read the upstream comments. Been there, done that, way early.

  45. The Mighty Brum grabs the bull by the balls with

    Obviously, we now have the problem of who decides those goals, but those goals could be up for review every so often once our dispassionate anti-dynasty gets rolling.

    Yeah, but who gets to be on the review panel? (One minor advantage of giving the nod to the voluntarily sterilised is that the opportunity for nepotism in such cases would be diminished.)

    It also occurs to me, too late, that what we’re really talking about here is another iteration of Heinleins civilian/citizen distinction — we’ve merely subbed “reproductive restraint” for “military service” as the criterion for establishing whether an individual is capable of putting group interest ahead of personal ones.

  46. Riffing on the suicide bombers observation and razorsmile’s thoughts upstream, why not just tweak the subroutines of our dear leaders to project that ol’ parental lovin’ on the folks that elected them?

    Vote for me and I’ll do everything in my power to protect and ensure the good life for you. Everyone else, well, best of luck to you.

    Maybe this could come in varying degrees of intensity as the onion layers are piled on. My voters = my children/cats. The rest of the country = the rest of my immediate family. Allies = close friends/extended family. Axis of Evildoers = that guy on the bus, yelling into his cell phone to the delight of his fellow passengers, “Yeah, hey, it’s me. I’m on the bus. THE BUS! …”

  47. The Great Optimist said:
    Yeah, but who gets to be on the review panel? (One minor advantage of giving the nod to the voluntarily sterilised is that the opportunity for nepotism in such cases would be diminished.)

    I was kinda thinking the dontgiveashit herself* would form the review panel, in a kind of introspection thing. I didn’t really think that through very far.

    As for nepotism, I think the literal definition of the term concerns nephews, which are not absent under our discussed system of voluntary individual sterilization – I fully intend to pass on my genes only indirectly via my sisters. My Y-chromosome is already taken care of in the form of my cousin’s son. But you did qualify your statement as “diminished” rather than “eliminated”.

    * I use the feminine** form for two reasons: hermaphrodites are usually refered to in this way, as are sterile workers of the various eusocial insects.

    ** when I checked dictionary.com for the correct spelling of “feminine” (I mistakenly tried “feminin”), the first advertisment was for “Learn Bulgarian for Free”. I am confused.

    Also, I’m unreasonably entertained by the continuing, vaguely-complimentary variations on my handle. Thanks.

  48. A bit off topic, but I can justify it by noting that working for someone else who can be ascribed responsibility fucks up your decision making ability.

    There’s a case hitting the headlines here in NZ right now, albeit and with a very low signal-to-noise ratio due to the hysterical coverage. A power company’s contractor shut down the power supply of a family who had not paid their bills (due to poverty). The mother of the household was very ill and her life depended on an oxygen machine. No power, no oxygen. This was pointed out to the contractor, who reportedly said that he was just doing his job and cut the power anyway. Two hours later the woman died. Supposedly, rather than calling an ambulance, the family sat around singing hymns.

    I say “reportedly” and “supposedly” because, as I said, there’s a lot of noise, not much else getting out at the moment.

    First, remember Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shocks experiment (ironically this is about a lack of electricity)? Second, well, we all know that religious mania tends to fuck up decision-making anyway…

    So we’re down to cat-loving childless atheists… damn, I was just about to type “aesthetes”. Maybe I should have.

  49. I’d love to take part in this debate (if you can call a bunch of people who are more or less agreeing with each other a debate), but I’m not going to read through all of it, and thus I’m not able to. Don’t get me wrong, I was just going to post something but then I saw Peter’s comment:

    Dude, read the upstream comments. Been there, done that, way early.

    Eeep.

    On second thought, I think i’ll comment anyway. I preface by saying I have nothing but respect for Peter Watts, his ownership and affection for a domestic cat notwithstanding.

    Anyway, onto the cynicism generica. I fear the argument that’s trying to be made is veering off into the realm of the tautology–and the solution is simlarly silly, and all the bio buzz words and hyphenated phrases can’t save it. As I see things, (ignoring the bewildering bout with intelligence being how we define our humanity) the point is that parents are inherently irrational because they have undergone a biological priorities re-assortment and thus are no longer able to judge a situation objectively. Or at least, less objectively than someone without kids. In other words…people who have priorities tend to have priorities and those priorities effect judgment. Groundbreaking, I know.

    The problem is that said irrational parents are in positions of power and making decisions that affect the lives of those who are rational.

    The solution is a sliding scale which determines how much power is to be allotted to a person, based on their ability to be rational as a result of their “addictions “(drugs, parenthood) or mind-bending beliefs (like religion, transhumanism, or rabid athiesm).

    Hopefully, once this “policy” has been established, we can finally make rational decisions and preserve the human race such that we will be able to keep certain groups from making decisions into the future! Glorious.

    I think what’s really being said is that people who are passionate about anything (addicted is the word Peter uses), be the passion biological or psychological, will be unable to make rational decisions. Sadly, this group of people extends to most of us, and not just people the author finds irritating. Consequently, the ethical problems of restricting the freedoms of people who are passionate notwithstanding, the list of people who we would forcibly remove from the democratic process would extend too far and thus remain non viable.

    The point I’m trying to make
    (in addition to the one in the previous paragraph of course) is that we’ve not yet come up with a definitive answer for what the purpose of our existence is (at least, I don’t think we’ve come up with it. You’d probably hear something if someone did figure out the big question, right?), and thus accusing someone of having incorrect priorities is ultimately a matter of opinion. Thus all this comes to is an argument for rule by a (supremely objective) computer based on a premise that isn’t verifiable.

    Forgive the ennui i suffer with regards to this sort of thing, but isn’t the internet rampant enough with solutions (that aren’t implementable) to arguments based on rhetoric and not solid premises? I know it’s fashionable to be angry and so on, but still. Why not turn your considerable intellect to other matters?

  50. One small adjustment to my earlier comment. While all of us, irrespective of condition or situation, are subject to a number of influences that affect our judgment (I won’t say *distort* our judment, since I repudiate the very notion of a pristine, rational, unaffected mode of judgment), there are categories into which these influences can be classed, and some such classifications are relevant. If we are talking primarily about the privilege of voting, then the capacity that is being affected is a relatively long-range opinion-forming capability that informs voting decisions, party allegiances, policy preferences, etc. This being the case, then some influences (like parenthood and religion) will have an effective influence because they are potent over a sufficient duration to correlate to voting preferences, while others (like horniness) are relatively short-term and aren’t like to affect voting patterns (barring a sufficiently hot & sexy candidate, whose very name on the ballot is likely to excite the phallus or the vagina… and how long has it been since we — in whatever country — had a candidate like that? Maybe Pierre Trudeau or John F. Kennedy in living memory). So if voting is our focus, then only some classes of influence are relevant while others just don’t matter. This is at least one discriminating factor that can separate relevant influences from irrelevant ones. As I say, this is just a footnote to my earlier comments, but one that I thought was significant enough to mention. And hey, speaking as a guy, when are we going to get a female politician who can sway our votes with her sex appeal? Trudeau and Kennedy are fine for the women among us, but I think the guys are getting short shrift. I’m tempted to vote with my hormones, but no one gives me the chance!

  51. Anonymous said some things that deserve a response:

    I’m not going to read through all of it, and thus I’m not able to. Don’t get me wrong, I was just going to post something but then I saw Peter’s comment: “Dude, read the upstream comments. Been there, done that, way early.

    Eeep.

    I hope that didn’t come across as rude; I am, frequently, but I like to think most of those times I intend to be. This particular comment was to my mind a gentle and friendly nudge that we’d already been down that road.

    Anyway, onto the cynicism generica. I fear the argument that’s trying to be made is veering off into the realm of the tautology—and the solution is simlarly silly, and all the bio buzz words and hyphenated phrases can’t save it…

    (snippage for space)

    I think what’s really being said is that people who are passionate about anything (addicted is the word Peter uses), be the passion biological or psychological, will be unable to make rational decisions. Sadly, this group of people extends to most of us, and not just people the author finds irritating. Consequently, the ethical problems of restricting the freedoms of people who are passionate notwithstanding, the list of people who we would forcibly remove from the democratic process would extend too far and thus remain non viable.

    Hmmm. Okay, I don’t want to provoke another eep here, but I’m going to risk it because you did after all say you hadn’t read through all the comments (I’ll grant that when we get up to the 50-mark, going through the whole lot of them might not be the most appetising prospect). But, er, been there. Very early in this thread I pointed out that the same arguments could be used to disenfranchise the old, the young, the horny, and pretty much anyone else you’d care to name. (Someone else went overboard and implied that one might also exclude those who really, really like cats, but I just thought that was in poor taste.)

    In any event, you may have missed that there was a certain modest-proposalyness in the original post itself. Not that I don’t frequently roll my eyes when I see yet another intelligent creature struck dumb by Breeder Brain (thanks again, Amy, for that wonderful phrase), but the tone of the piece was satirical. I’m not that blind to the slippery slope. In fact, if I have any cred as a writer at all, I like to think its because I get off on sliding down the thing to see where it leads…

  52. “genes build us to protect the datastream. The only reason we exist is to replicate that information and keep it moving into the future. It’s a drive as old as life itself. But here’s the thing: rutting and reproduction are not the traits we choose to exhalt ourselves for. It’s not sprogs, but spirit, that casts us in God’s image. What separates us from the beasts of the field is our minds, our intellects. This, we insist, is what makes us truly human.”

    Which logically means that parents are less human than the rest of us.

    I’m disappointed. I expect more from the writer of Blindsight and other great novels. It’s a good thing I read your fiction before reading this blog. :)

    You’ve said above that you’re being “somewhat satirical”, — I’d say thank God but I’m an atheist. However, I would have expected to see a bit more of a thorough analysis of your starting assumption — that what separates us from the beasts is not sprogs but spirit. Our minds, our intellects, are what makes us truly human. Parents are less human than non-parents because they are under the influence of sprog-induced insanity.

    Humans have defined themselves as different by nature of our intelligence and our mind. I grant you that. Humans have seen our rutting and procreating as bestial, low, mired in mindless flesh and hormones and all that icky stuff.

    You suggest that when we engage in those mindless Darwinian acts, we are following down a path dictated to us by our genes, our hormones and a Darwinian need to survive. Parents are stupified by these influences, biased, less rational, less intelligent and so, you conclude, they should not be responsible for rational decisions…

    But is that the case?

    We may value spirit over flesh — doing so has a long history in Western thought, and it is a core part of patriarchy’s dismissal of women, but that creates this dichotomy between flesh and spirit or mind that I don’t know if I accept.

    As to the second assumption — that parents are less rational, more biased, less able to use rational judgement, duped as they are by hormones and the parental experience — recent research has suggested quite the opposite. What recent neuroscience research has shown is that the brain improves in many ways as a result of parenthood — for both men and women, but certainly women’s brains improve in functionality, in the ability to multi-task, to learn, to solve problems, to be more empathetic, altruistic.

    You should be aware of this research — even I, breeder female that I am, busy with the mindless demands of motherhood, have read these reports between diaper changes, feedings and interrupted sleep . . .

    I admit that it’s easy to lament parenthood when the fatigue sets in, when the loss of personal freedom seems onerous, when you’d just like to take off and spend the day at the beach instead of working to pay bills or looking after offspring. And sure, I’ve seen quite a few parental types who make even me shiver in their cooing adoration of their offspring.

    But I truly pity the childless — by choice or accident. I do think that being a parent can make you a better human. It won’t necessarily make you a better person — I’ve seen more than my share of selfish self-centered idiots who had children as those who had none.

    I became a mother, a parent, and I changed as a person. I became responsible for someone’s care other than myself — not a pet cat, or a fish, or even a lover. I became responsible for the very life of another human. I watched my son grow up and I understood in a profound way so much more about what it means to be human than I ever knew before I had children. This insight makes me view humanity in a different light altogether, and the care I feel for children — all children — makes me look at adults differently.

    I am different — I would say better — from way back when all I had was this or that idealistic theory of this or that phenomenon based on years of developmental psych and sociology and political theory courses at university.

  53. Hi Elizabeth. Welcome to the party. Didn’t think anyone was still hanging around down here,

    Elizabeth said…

    I’m disappointed. I expect more from the writer of Blindsight and other great novels. It’s a good thing I read your fiction before reading this blog. :)

    Well, Blindsight took me years to write. These crawl entries I generally dash off at two in the morning. If the crawl doesn’t suffer in comparison there’s something seriously wrong somewhere…

    You suggest that when we engage in those mindless Darwinian acts, we are following down a path dictated to us by our genes, our hormones and a Darwinian need to survive. Parents are stupified by these influences, biased, less rational, less intelligent and so, you conclude, they should not be responsible for rational decisions…

    But is that the case?

    I’m hoping you read through the comments — I’m thinking especially the ones where I took the argument to its logical conclusion and said we shouldn’t allow horny people, old people, young people, suicidal people, or people with strong survival instincts to vote for exactly the same reason? ‘Cause that might have saved you some aggro

    We may value spirit over flesh — doing so has a long history in Western thought, and it is a core part of patriarchy’s dismissal of women, but that creates this dichotomy between flesh and spirit or mind that I don’t know if I accept.

    Ohhkay, that’s not really where I was going with this. I tend to lump “women”, “patriarchy” and any other ethnic, gender-based, religious, or societal elements you’d care to name into a bigger box called “Humanity”, and then dismiss it all in one go. I find it saves time.

    As to the second assumption — that parents are less rational, more biased, less able to use rational judgment, duped as they are by hormones and the parental experience — recent research has suggested quite the opposite. What recent neuroscience research has shown is that the brain improves in many ways as a result of parenthood — for both men and women, but certainly women’s brains improve in functionality, in the ability to multi-task, to learn, to solve problems, to be more empathetic, altruistic.

    You should be aware of this research —

    I should. I’m way behind on my reading. Got the references handy?

    Although I gotta say, I’m inherently skeptical of any studies that purport to show true altruism on a population level (as opposed to isolated outliers who tend to get weeded out when they give their life-jackets to complete strangers on the Titanic). Usually there are kin involved. I’m guessing (although I’m happy to be proven wrong if the papers show otherwise) that what you’re really saying is that the brain becomes more effective at parenting skills, which only makes sense.

    I admit that it’s easy to lament parenthood when the fatigue sets in, when the loss of personal freedom seems onerous, when you’d just like to take off and spend the day at the beach instead of working to pay bills or looking after offspring. And sure, I’ve seen quite a few parental types who make even me shiver in their cooing adoration of their offspring.

    I’ve met one or two who even go on, I kid you not, about how good their baby’s shit smells. Just their own baby’s shit, mind you; competitor children tended to drive them up the wall. All of which is pretty much what you’d expect after 3.5 billion years of natural selection…

    But I truly pity the childless — by choice or accident. I do think that being a parent can make you a better human. It won’t necessarily make you a better person — I’ve seen more than my share of selfish self-centered idiots who had children as those who had none.

    With me, as you might guess, it’s by choice. I got a vasectomy as soon as they’d let me. And while there are certainly many grounds on which I should be pitied, I don’t think my childlessness is one of them. By lacking dependents I have retained independence. For example, I have been able to walk away from whore-science gigs — I can, in effect, afford to behave ethically — where others, with mouths and college funds to feed, have had no choice but to eat the shit, feed the system, and cash the paycheck. I am freer, socially. I get out more. I leave a much smaller ecological footprint, which puts the lie to those who would claim that breeders are somehow better environmental stewards by virtue of having a genetic “investment in the future”. I look younger than most folks my age, and while I am relatively poor the light has not gone out of my eyes, and I think that not having to shoulder the burden of parental responsibility may have something to do with that.

    In Darwinian terms I am a pathetic loser, of course, but then again, my genes aren’t so special that the future won’t be able to muddle through without them.

    I became a mother, a parent, and I changed as a person. I became responsible for someone’s care other than myself — not a pet cat, or a fish, or even a lover. I became responsible for the very life of another human. I watched my son grow up and I understood in a profound way so much more about what it means to be human than I ever knew before I had children. This insight makes me view humanity in a different light altogether, and the care I feel for children — all children — makes me look at adults differently.

    All children? Okay, here’s the $64K question: you can save your own child from a burning house, or you can save two of someone else’s kids and leave yours to die. What do you do? Now, check out these so-called “brain-damaged” individuals, who would sacrifice their own children to save others (here’s my posting on it). That‘s altruism. And we pathologise it.

    I am different — I would say better — from way back when all I had was this or that idealistic theory of this or that phenomenon based on years of developmental psych and sociology and political theory courses at university.

    What you’re doing here, Elizabeth, is trivializing empirical research and elevating your own feeling: “years of developmental psyche and sociology” are somehow less reliable than your own gut. (Stephen Colbert would be proud.) But that’s the whole point: of course you feel like a better person for having reproduced, for pretty much the same reason that sex is so enjoyable. If people didn’t find the subjective experience rewarding, they wouldn’t have kids and that bloodline would die out (as mine is about to). But those subjective feelings, for all their heartfelt sincerity, are not evidence of a superior moral or ethical state; they are evidence only of natural selection in action, of the genes taking back control from the neocortex. It’s not bad, by any means, any more than it’s good. It’s natural. But it’s not rational.

    I get the sense — from your failure to note the obvious self-parodying tone I took with my own argument further up the comment stream, from the kinda nonsequiter rant against my use of the term “subroutines” on your blog, as well as your posting right here — that as a parent, you’re feeling a bit insulted, personally. And you know, there could be some truth in that interpretation. I know and adore loads of breeders (and some of ‘em even adore me back), and there’s a modest-proposal quality to my posting and its comments that should really get me off the hook — but yeah, sometimes the child-obsessed do drive me up the wall, and there was an element of sincere snarkery in this post. Fair enough. I’ll even cop to the belief that my own fanatical devotion to felines is probably a fucked-up parental instinct of some sort, rewired during the course of an unhappy childhood. My attitude to cats is even less rational than your attitude to kids, because the circuitry is warped. Guilty. As I say, none of us are paragons of rationality. We all do irrational things, and (again, as I’ve already pointed out) if you take my rant to its logical endpoint, only those guys with the damaged prefrontal cortices should be allowed to call the shots. (This might actually not be a half-bad idea, now that I think about it…) I don’t have breeder blind spots, but I got my own. Point ‘em out, and I’ll shrug and concede: what can you do? We’re human.

    But do I believe that parents are somehow on a higher plane than the rest of us? Just because you feel like a better person?

    Not until you show me the data.

  54. Hi, Peter. Thanks for replying.

    Someone linked to your blog entry over at Asimov’s and so that’s how I found your blog. I didn’t realize the thread was long dead until I posted.

    I did read through all the posts. I’m assuming that you agree with part of your “modest proposal” despite the fact you take it to the extreme later. I mean, why spend the time and energy to write a post if there isn’t a degree of commitment to the thesis?

    I think what bothered me the most about your post was the way it was so sweeping in its condemnation of the mental capacity and morality of us breeders. Of course I was insulted, even if you did mean it in a half-joking manner — did you expect otherwise or do you think that all your readers share your dislike of procreation and sprogs (or crotchdrippings, as someone who did like your post called them, sprogs being too refined a term)?

    I just plain reject your thesis. In my view, far too many parents fail to look with awe at their offspring the way you so despise. I worked for a while with developmentally delayed children under 5 whose cognitive and speech delays were due to abuse (sexual and physical) and neglect. Let me tell ya, those parents were not mooing over their crotchdrippings, although a few were dripping other bodily fluids over them. Then there were those who beat them or locked them out of the house overnight so they could sleep in peace or party. One forced her child to eat cans of sauerkraut until she vomited as a routine punishment for transgressions. So I’ve seen the parents who do not fit your category and the consequences for their sprogs. I only wish those parents had never reproduced or had some parental subroutine to kick in and make them see their child with awe.

    I didn’t say that having children always makes one a better person. I’m far too aware of the bad parents to make such a mistake.

    I don’t believe there are “parental subroutines” that kick in when birth occurs. If there were, we’d never have to push motherhood the way our culture does, we’d never have to write books on how to do it, or extol the virtues of parenthood or prescribe antidepressants to new mothers and force fathers to pay child support. We do. That tends to negate the idea that parenthood is some kind of genetic imperative with forces beyond our control that enslaves us, rendering us less rational and less human.

    Some people improve as a result of becoming a parent and being a parent does change the brain and mind. With others, not so much. I’d even go so far as to suggest that some non-breeders, like you for example, are actually worthwhile to society as a whole. :) I mean, you write well. When you’re dust, I expect that Blindsight will stick around for quite some time and so, you’ll have a degree of immortality and have made a contribution beyond that which the rest of the breeding world gets to make. You’re not a total write off, even if you are a Darwinian failure. :)

    I agree that some parents are pains in the arses, obnoxious, etc. I wish I could bleach my mind of some of the ones who parented my clients in the play therapy group.

    But I put it to you that some non-breeders are self-centered self-absorbed wankers who have no stake in the future, their genome already extinct. Really, they shouldn’t be making any political decisions and certainly no decisions for anyone except themselves, and certainly nothing beyond what manner of personal indulgence they wish to experience.

    But seriously, you think you’re superior to us breeders because your status as a non-breeder means you are beholden to no-one and therefore are free to act ethically. You may be free, but there is nothing to suggest that you do act more ethically than I, a breeder. Besides, ultimately, even us breeders have choices and are responsible for the ones we make. Can’t blame having kids for the bad decisions we breeders make. But equally, the sterile-by-choice have only themselves to blame if they look back and see a life lived with no contribution to the future.

    One thing I will grant you — as a result of your status as a non-breeder whose genome is already extinct and who has no stake in the future, you are ultimately of little consequence to anyone beyond yourself.

    Luckily, you write great books. :)

    Oh, and the reference to brain plasticity and parenthood — Michael M. Merzenich’s (and colleagues) work has been cited in a number of recent articles such as this one published in The Guardian Online: (broken up into two lines because I don’t know how to format a link)

    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/
    uk_news/story/0,6903,1686984,00.html”

  55. I did read through all the posts. I’m assuming that you agree with part of your “modest proposal” despite the fact you take it to the extreme later. I mean, why spend the time and energy to write a post if there isn’t a degree of commitment to the thesis?

    For largely reactionary purposes: reproductive restraint is still considered so anomalous in this society that the childless are frequently put on the defensive by default in social situations. We are pitied (as you pity us), and patronized. This was, to at least some extent, taste-of-your-own-medicine time. (And I gather you didn’t like it much, given your reaction both here and on your own blog. You guys are hardly the victims hereabouts: referring to parents as “the new chopped liver” on the basis of one tongue-in-cheek posting is like the Religious Right describing US Christians as a persecuted minority every time someone questions the existence of Jerry Falwell’s God.) (Also, speaking of reactionary, I also kinda bristle when you pull that whole Patriarchy shtick on me. Because, you know. Not me,)

    I think what bothered me the most about your post was the way it was so sweeping in its condemnation of the mental capacity and morality of us breeders. Of course I was insulted, even if you did mean it in a half-joking manner — did you expect otherwise or do you think that all your readers share your dislike of procreation and sprogs (or crotchdrippings, as someone who did like your post called them, sprogs being too refined a term)?

    I dunno. Were you offended by Swift’s original “Modest Proposal”? Or how about my own “Vampire Domestication” slideshow, in which my pharmawhore narrator smarmily dismisses “motherhood issues” and the death of an autistic child in his defense of the resurrection of vampires for profit? Take offense at satire, you’re one step closer to banning satire, to banning any commentary that someone somehow might take offense at. Natural selection has fine-tuned you to be especially sensitive to perceived threats to your offspring, so you’re less likely to laugh at jokes about parenthood than you would be to laugh at jokes about, for example, Gianists or New-Agers — and even so, I bet you don’t want to step onto that slope.

    I just plain reject your thesis. In my view, far too many parents fail to look with awe at their offspring the way you so despise. I worked for a while with developmentally delayed children under 5 whose cognitive and speech delays were due to abuse (sexual and physical) and neglect. Let me tell ya, those parents were not mooing over their crotchdrippings, although a few were dripping other bodily fluids over them. Then there were those who beat them or locked them out of the house overnight so they could sleep in peace or party. One forced her child to eat cans of sauerkraut until she vomited as a routine punishment for transgressions. So I’ve seen the parents who do not fit your category and the consequences for their sprogs. I only wish those parents had never reproduced or had some parental subroutine to kick in and make them see their child with awe.

    You’ll get no contest from me there (well, except for the thesis-rejection part). But I know you’ve got a better grasp of evolutionary theory than that — you are, after all, a working scientist. So you must know that the whole point of natural selection is that it acts on variability within populations, that populations are heterogeneous — and that, therefore, citing horrific anecdotes about abusive parents is not a compelling rejoinder. The fact is, by far most parents are not like that; if they were, we’d be extinct. If I make a blanket statement that humans are tetrapod mammals, I’m not disagreeing with you when you tell me about all the amputees you’ve met.

    I don’t believe there are “parental subroutines” that kick in when birth occurs. If there were, we’d never have to push motherhood the way our culture does, we’d never have to write books on how to do it, or extol the virtues of parenthood or prescribe antidepressants to new mothers and force fathers to pay child support. We do. That tends to negate the idea that parenthood is some kind of genetic imperative with forces beyond our control that enslaves us, rendering us less rational and less human.

    Riiiiight. And there’s no sexual instinct either, because if we were really biologically programmed to enjoy sex, we’d never have to push it the way our culture does. We’d never have to associate sex with happiness or make beer and car commercials in which sexy people behaved in sexually provocative ways — I mean, come on, Elizabeth. The impulses predate the society; our society reflects those impulses, it doesn’t create them. You’re spouting pure fallacy — and I bet that if someone fed you the same faulty logic in a context that didn’t involve kids, you’d be the first to recognize that.

    Some people improve as a result of becoming a parent and being a parent does change the brain and mind. With others, not so much. I’d even go so far as to suggest that some non-breeders, like you for example, are actually worthwhile to society as a whole. :)

    I would jump in and agree with that. And while I would also concede your point that parenthood did make you a “better” person by both your standards and mine, I’d also suggest that you don’t have experience with those of us who mature without becoming parents. I’d argue that I, too, have become a better person over time; I’m less of a jerk than I was at eighteen, less judgmental than I was at twenty-five (you can stop snickering now). I can see where other viewpoints come from in a way I couldn’t when I was younger, and I can respect them more on that account (except for religious beliefs, oddly, which over time I have come to regard as increasingly silly, childish, and utterly devoid of explanatory power — and yet even there, I know and cherish many people with religious beliefs, my own dad among them.)

    I mean, you write well.

    Thank you for that. But remember also that there are those who find my writing utterly repellant, who seem to think that because I describe extensive sexual violence on unwilling victims that I must somehow be in favor of it (oddly, nobody makes that mistake when I bestow the same level of loving detail onto descriptions of environmental refugees being burned alive. It makes me wonder whether the objectors are really upset about what I’ve written, or what they’re feeling in response.) They are offended by something you find laudible.

    But I put it to you that some non-breeders are self-centered self-absorbed wankers who have no stake in the future, their genome already extinct.

    Most of them are, I’d guess. Most breeders too. Most people, really. Nasty little critters.

    But seriously, you think you’re superior to us breeders because your status as a non-breeder means you are beholden to no-one and therefore are free to act ethically.

    Nah, that was point/counterpoint. You say that Breeders are superior because they have a stake in the future, I point out that Barrens in general are more likely to be able to solve life-boat-ethics problems because whatever investment they do have will be less focused on any particular child. I think it’s pretty clear to all concerned — and intentionally so — that my original ban-the-vote-for-parents posting leads to banning the vote to pretty much every other group too. Hence the satire.

    But you know, maybe that’s why I wrote it in the first place: not to drag you breeders down beneath us, but to drag you down to the same level. It is so common in this world to elevate reproduction to the level of sainthood; so rarely does anyone admit that it’s just another bit of biology. No better, no worse, not deserving of disdain but certainly not worthy of the sanctification that is so frequently accorded it. Maybe that was what drove me; to knock the smug and sanctimonious stuffing out of a societal attitude that says we’re better than you because you’ll never know what it’s like to have a life growing inside you.

    You may be free, but there is nothing to suggest that you do act more ethically than I, a breeder. Besides, ultimately, even us breeders have choices and are responsible for the ones we make.

    And speaking of ethics and choices, I note that you never answered my thought-experiment question about whether you’d save one child or two.

    Can’t blame having kids for the bad decisions we breeders make. But equally, the sterile-by-choice have only themselves to blame if they look back and see a life lived with no contribution to the future.

    Personally, I’m more worried about looking back at the wreckage of our social safety net and having no kids to take care of me in my old age. But then again, they probably wouldn’t even if I’d had them. Not if I brought them up right, anyway.

    One thing I will grant you — as a result of your status as a non-breeder whose genome is already extinct and who has no stake in the future, you are ultimately of little consequence to anyone beyond yourself.

    Luckily, you write great books. :)

    Which, as you pointed out, means that my nongenetic information may persist intact, and have a greater impact on future generations, than your genetic information (which gets diluted by 50% each time around the circle). (Not that I think it will, mind you. I expect to die in utter obscurity. But the advance of my nongenetic information is that if it does survive, it doesn’t get sliced and diced with each print run.)

    Oh, and the reference to brain plasticity and parenthood — Michael M. Merzenich’s (and colleagues) work has been cited in a number of recent articles such as this one published in The Guardian Online:

    Thank you: I have bookmarked that and will check it out more thoroughly when I have the time. Judging by the first scan, though, it might be worth a blog entry in its own right…

  56. PKoyGe Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!