On Reflection

From 'Permian-Triassic Boundary Outcrop'. Photo by
Allosauroid Enthusiast.

252 million years ago a chain of events produced the so called Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event — a catastrophe that affected so deeply the terrestrial ecosystem that it is conjectured “it took some 10 million years for Earth to recover” from it. Nevertheless, the Earth ultimately did recover from it, which led to so big a change in natural history that scientists had to clearly separate what was before from what followed — the Paleozoic (“Old Life”) from the Mesozoic (the “Middle Life”). Among the many important questions that raise when considering so catastrophic an event, some that I feel are particularly intriguing are:

  • Q1: Was there any “common reasons” behind the P–Tr extinction event? In other words—were there “common triggers” causing such a widespread correlated failure?
  • Q2: What was the key ingredient — the key defensive strategies that is — that made it possible for the Earth to survive in spite of so harsh a blow?

In order to attempt to formulate an answer to the above questions, now I recall the following facts:

  • F1: “Mineralised skeletons confer protection against predators” (Wood 2018, Knoll 2003)
  • F2: “Skeleton formation requires more than the ability to precipitate minerals; precipitation must be carried out in a controlled fashion in specific biological environments” (Knoll 2003).
  • F3: “The extinction primarily affected organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons, especially those reliant on ambient CO2 levels to produce their skeletons” (Wikipedia 2021).

The three facts tell us, respectively, that:

  • One of nature's many independent evolutionary paths was particularly successful (F1) and thus became widespread.
  • Regrettably, the adoption of the solution implied a strong dependence on predefined and stable environmental conditions (F2).
  • A correlation exists between the class of species that adopted the solution and that of the species that were affected most by the P–Tr extinction event (F3).

A similar scenario can be drawn for very different stages. For instance, in computer systems, we could imagine that

  • A certain solution becomes widespread (for instance a memory technology, a software library, a programming language, an operating system, or a search engine).
  • The solution introduces a weakness: for instance, a dependence on a hidden assumption, or a “bug” depending on certain subtle and very rare environmental conditions.
  • The weakness translates into a common trigger, a single-point-of-multiple-failures. One or a few events could “ignite” the weakness and hit hard on all the systems that made use of the solution.

What can we conclude from the above facts and analogies? That solutions that (appear to) work well in the “common case” are those that widespread more. Regrettably, this decreases disparity, namely inter-species diversity. Species that externally appear considerably different from each other in fact share a common trait — a common design template. This means that whenever the “common case” is replaced by the very rare and very dangerous “Black Swan”, a large portion of the ecosystem is jeopardized. In fact, the rarest the exceptional condition, the more widespread is the template and the larger the share of species that will be affected.

This provides some elements towards an answer to question Q1: yes, there were common triggers that ultimately produced the P–Tr extinction event by increasing the diffusion of the same “recipes” thus paving the way to large amounts of correlated failures. On the other hand, the Earth did survive the Great Dying and other extinction events. Why? My guess, which also constitutes a tentative answer to question Q2, is that Nature introduces systemic thresholds that make sure that disparity never goes beyond some minimum. The key ingredient to guarantee this is diversity: it is not by chance that mutation is an intrinsic method in genetic evolution. Mutation and possibly other mechanisms make sure that, at any point in time, not all of the species share the same design templates. In turn, this guarantees that, at any point in time, not all the species share the same fate.

The major lesson we need to learn from all this is that diversity is an essential ingredient to resilience. Spread the use of a “general solution,” and you will bring down diversity, thus decreasing the chance that the ecosystem will be able to withstand the Black Swan when it will show up.

And if the general solution has not been tested for long-term side effects, the black swan may show up much sooner than expected.

Relying on a general solution may not be the right solution. Picture from the Vergilius Vaticanus (c. 400), Public Domain, Link

By avoiding a single, global strategy, even when that strategy proves wrong or counter-productive, still the damage will not be global and full. The few that did not comply will be able to pass through the sieves of the Black Swan with limited damage.

References


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Names are very important, because they are compact representations of concepts. When I say “this is a car”, I am appointing an object with a number of properties — the properties expected of a car: a device that is able to move and transport me and a few other passengers from places to places; a device with certain requirements, certain properties, and certain features. When I get the most of the expected features from a certain device, and those features correspond to those of a car, I call it a car. Also, the car can be in different states (e.g. “broken car” refers to a car that has lost certain key features) etc.; let us not over-complicate the matter.

Therefore, a name is also a mental construct. If we are told “this is a car”, in our minds name and physical entity are expected to match.

But the association between name and physical entity may be false. I can say “democracy” and mean “oligarchy” (see Hobbes' fictitious institutions); I can say “car” and mean something else. As Descartes suggested in his Method, it can be useful to imagine of an “evil spirit” that plays with us and our perception of things; in this case, by using deceitful names. We should always ask ourselves: “What if what I'm told is a car, in fact it is not?” “Do I have an immediate proof that what stands in front of me is actually a car?” “If my choices depend on the nature of what stands in front of me, could anyone be trying to sell me for a car something that it is not?”

The term “pacco” (“the package”) is used in Italian to represent the well-know trick of selling someone a spam — a good that does not match what is expected. The Italian comedy movie “Pacco, doppio pacco e contropaccotto” is an interesting reflection on that trick.

That's what a name can be — a nice-looking package that might or might not correspond to its label. I think we should all ask ourselves “Am I being sold the wrong package here? What actually lies inside of it?”

And if someone finds it unnecessary or even stupid, I think we should ask ourselves why and be twice as wary.

It's all tied together, yessire, with a pretty bow!

Playbill for the movie “Pacco, doppio pacco e contropaccotto”. Instead of the expected goods, the package actually contains... a prick.

Color-blind minds

“[...] the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.” (Descartes' “Method”, Part I, Incipit)

I once was riding my bike and fell from it. Apparently, the obstacle I hit was right in front of me; and yet, I did not see it. Perhaps my eyes did see it, though not my mind. Perception had not been followed by apperception, and I paid the price of my mistake by breaking an arm and some teeth.

I am the first to admit it — I erred. Though I am painfully aware of my error. And from the moment I erred, I started trying as much as I could not to forsake my ability to reason by consciously or unconsciously denying the facts that gather in front of me ever again.

The opposite error is also possible — as we all know full well. Certain elements of our physical experience are perceived as “larger than life”, to the point that we consider them as undeniable truths.

In retrospection, the way human beings process information is very much based on filtering mechanisms: possibly because of the overwhelming amount of facts our minds have to process, consciously or unconsciously we classify facts into predefined classes. Certain elements are simply sifted out; others are marked as of low-relevance. Others, on the contrary, end up into high-relevance “bins” and are regarded as nearly self-evident. What is both surprising and appalling is that the Method used to classify elements of our experience often has nothing to do with a rational and unprejudiced assessment of all the elements at our disposal.

And yet, one great gift has been granted to all of us: doubt. First and foremost, self-doubt: are we sifting out certain elements? Why? Are we over-weighing certain other elements? Why? What happens to my current mental construction if I allow all the elements to be equalized? And what happens if I slowly change my “inner” classification of facts? As in image processing, by highlighting certain “bands” I can highlight certain properties; in some cases, those properties might correspond to physical truths — for instance, it is possible to detect the presence of clouds in a satellite image by carefully adjusting bands. Descartes was possibly the first to put on the foreground the importance of this wonderful gift.


The evil within is more difficult to see than the evil without, they use to say. And yet seeing evil and recognizing it as such — after a healthy application of self-doubt — is very important if we want to promptly act against it for the common good, be it one's inner evil or the one that we encounter in our daily lives. Therefore, I cannot conceal a worrisome phenomenon that I clearly perceive in front of me even after a reiterated application of the self-doubt principle. What I see is a systematic abandoning of those very principles I have been referring to in the present discussion. I see a humanity that takes decisions by the very same predefined classifications of what is “right” and therefore “true”. I see color-blind minds — minds of people who have no doubts.

And I'm very scared of this.


By Eidon (Eidon@tutanota.com), 2021-07-05.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.