Cheaters!

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

No, the title does not refer to fast felines. I’m talking about the humans of modernity, who I characterized as “rule breakers” in the last post. The context was in considering an encounter between a speeding vehicle and a deer, concluding that the deer did nothing wrong by wandering onto a road, and does not deserve a death penalty. The road is in the wrong, by being there. The car is “wrong” by being—contextually speaking—an impossibly fast instrument of death. And, of course, the humans did something wrong by operating so far out of line with what the rest of the community of life is prepared to handle by the rules of evolution and of living on this planet.

Sometimes, an old-timer will say something like: If man was made to fly [or swim, etc.], God would have made him with wings [or gills, etc.]. Aha, the modern human will say: but God gave us big brains so we can engineer wings [scuba equipment, etc.]—never asking whether it will do net good or net harm to the community of life. This is what I mean by cheating.

The cheating characterization came to me through a simultaneous consideration of imagination and the dice game Farkle. House guests in September introduced us to this game. Pointless curiosity and old habit led me to explore the probabilities of various rolls. After performing a few calculations, I also looked online, finding a page that presented all the odds. But noticing a few glaring mistakes, I dug in to do the job right.

On the plus side, the set of possibilities is finite and thus probabilities are exactly calculable as integer ratios. On the downside, combinatorics are tricky and subtle. For instance, the probability of getting exactly one pair when rolling a six-pack of six-sided dice (not a scoring roll in the game, but illustrative here) and no larger runs in the remaining dice is calculated as follows. Skip the next paragraph if uninterested in the computation details.

The pair can be composed of ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, or sixes: six choices. Because we stipulate that no other multiplicities are allowed, we can say that the remaining four dice must distribute among the five numbers not comprising the pair, with no repeats. We have four places for 5 possible choices, which means one of the five available numbers will not be represented in the set, and thus five ways to accomplish this (e.g., if accompanying a pair of twos, the four others will represent all but one of the five remaining numbers). In math speak, this is the combinatoric (5,1), or “five, choose one,” and is computed as a ratio of factorials. Multiplying the number of pair possibilities by remaining set options yields 30 possible sets of upward-facing value combinations. But we’re not done! There are lots of different arrangements of these six dice. Think of it as rolling each die in sequence, one after another. The sequence can go lots of ways, even for the same set of values: 5, 3, 2, 1, 2, 4 or 2, 3, 2, 1, 5, 4, for instance. In principle, there are 6-factorial (6! = 6×5×4×3×2×1 = 720) ways to arrange six dice. Think of this as: 6 possible selections for the first, but having used that one, 5 possibilities for the second, etc. Yet in this case, since we have a pair, we cannot distinguish between 5, 3, 2, 1, 2, 4 and 5, 3, 2, 1, 2, 4 even if the actual dice bearing 2 were swapped. So the 720 calculation double-counts the unique arrangements, leaving 360 distinct ways to order each of the 30 sets. 30 sets times 360 arrangements is 10,800 possible single-pair rolls out of 66 = 46,656 possibilities, giving a 23% chance of seeing a single pair and nothing else.

The point is, one must keep track of not only all the ways the thing you want can happen, but all the ways the parts you don’t want or care about can materialize—involving subtle considerations. This connects to the idea of imagination. In a recent post, I commented:

The easy part is imagining the one way something might go right—it’s a much bigger challenge to conjure the myriad possible failure modes. I am no longer very impressed by the more pervasive, facile sort of imagination (one might say that this garden variety imagination lacks imagination).

I had Farkle in mind when I wrote this. Imagine that your goal is to roll six sixes. There is only one way to do this out of the 66 = 46,656 possibilities. The outcome is fully specified, and no variations in arrangement are discernible. It does not stretch the imagination to visualize six sixes on the table, but it’s a bigger mental leap to picture the multitude of ways not to get six sixes.

Let’s say you can imagine a Martian colony under a dome, growing potatoes, extracting trace moisture from the soils, aggressively recycling air and water, gathering solar energy, using Martian minerals to construct things you need, and whatever else. Congratulations: didn’t take long, did it? This is like rolling all sixes: everything has to go right. There’s only one way for everything to go right. It’s easy to imagine it.

It’s far harder to imagine the multiple ways each system might fail—many of which could simply be beyond creative awareness. Just taking the dome itself: it may get a broken or cracked panel, constituting a pressure breach; the caulking might deteriorate in the cosmic ray flux; the structure might get buried in dust and block out essential light; a door might slam somewhere and make a pressure bump that pops out a panel. For every possibility that comes to mind, how many are not remotely considered? Now multiply by the other systems and the ways they might fail. On the whole, the number of ways such an enterprise might fail is staggering, while the number of ways it might succeed pales in comparison. And even if the basic idea were to be realized, some other unconsidered factor—like radiation exposure, for instance—might render the whole idea caput.

[Note: I realize that I’m dangerously close to the entropy-adjacent notion that if something can go wrong, it will.  There ought to be a law about that!]

Where’s the Cheater?

So here’s where the cheating comes in. A reaction to the paragraph above might be: yes, this is called engineering—anticipating failure modes and mitigating them in advance. Doing hard things is not unknown to us! I truly understand. I have myself designed, built, and successfully deployed a diverse array of novel instruments. It is the rare reader who has done more in this line, I would venture.

It occurred to me that if I were to use the dice analogy to argue that a narrow path to success is much easier to imagine than all the failure modes, the modernity booster might counter with something to the effect that we can “engineer” success by simply turning each die up to a six after rolling: just don’t let it be anything else!  More elaborate schemes might use loaded dice and/or magnetic manipulation.

I even tried it: I can “roll” six sixes every time, if I set my mind to it, and carry out the manual correction procedure after the roll. I can win every time! I have not yet tried this technique in a setting where I’m playing the game with others. How do you think they would react?

Cheater!  You can’t do that! What the hell are you thinking? Ha ha—very funny.

Echoing David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, it’s a fine line between cheating and clever.

Is it Cheating?

Is every human innovation a form of cheating? Isn’t that coming it a bit high? For sure, it is. It would not do to rob every creature of the “tricks” it has learned to advantage its survival. So when does it go too far?

Evolution also plays the odds, rolling the dice via mutations. Here, too, there are more ways to fail than to succeed. Most mutations do not confer an advantage, and often do quite the opposite. But relentless selection acts to preserve the advantages and discard debilitating disadvantages, producing something that works in the long run. The process is slow, and all life is in it together, co-evolving new traits in response to developments elsewhere.

My previous post implied that hurtling down a road in a deadly hunk of metal is “against the rules,” as the victim creature has no evolutionary context for this sudden development—no time to genetically react. We’re manipulating our dice to yield all sixes and the others in the game evidently don’t stand a chance.

Example

While we cheat nature using fences, guns, dams, tractors, pesticides, chainsaws, excavators, and much else, I’ll just cover one seemingly innocuous example here in order to give a flavor.

Humans are not the only creatures who enjoy honey produced by bees. Bees understand that their winter food is a hot commodity, and therefore prefer to locate nests in deep recesses with small entrances to make their goods less accessible and easier to defend. They can sting to ward off bandits, and even kill if they land enough stings. They patrol their nest area looking for trouble, and use chemical communication to rally the troops if a threat arises (after first “bumping” the intruder as fair warning).

If a bear, honey badger, human, or other critter wants the goods, they have to be prepared to pay the price. Evolution has worked to keep the bees viable against such threats, so that they can survive winters on well-protected honey stores.

But what do modern humans do, and how might a panel of bees, bears, badgers, and others from the woodland realm judge us? Well, we:

  1. Build nest boxes that seem sealed and sturdy, with small, defensible entrances—but in fact are easily disassembled and accessed by us. Cheaters!
  2. Provision modular frames spaced just so that comb is laid out regularly and tightly, but easily extractable and thus accessible to creatures much larger than the bee-space between the combs. Cheaters!
  3. Insert a grid that bees can get through but not the queen so that upper chambers will hold pure honey, and no nasty, crunchy brood. Cheaters!
  4. Periodically inspect and crush queen cells so the colony will not reproduce and split, keeping all the bees in a servile state. Cheaters!
  5. Use smoke during inspections and harvest to defeat chemical communication and send the bees into panic about possibly abandoning ship. Cheaters!
  6. Wear smooth white clothing that looks nothing like a bear’s hide to suppress stinging behavior. Cheaters!
  7. Wear mesh around the face, as bees are smart enough to target the face—perhaps guided by exhalation. Cheaters!
  8. Manipulate the reproduction process to produce less aggressive bee slaves that give us more of what we want—while making them more vulnerable to mites and disease. Would we think it’s okay to do this to human slaves? Cheaters!

Basically, we contrive to suffer zero personal harm, while inflicting nothing but losses on the bees’ side of the ledger. Scoreboard: humans 1000, bees 0. All animals have their tricks, and such things contribute to the evolution of defenses in plants and other animals. Humans have learned to outstrip the usual rules in such short order that nature does not stand a chance. When scaled to the full enterprise, this approach spells failure via over-exploitation and collapse of biodiversity—to the detriment of all life, including humans. Break the rules that the rest of the living world plays by, and expect the game to end badly, with hard feelings all around.

Accept Our Greatness?

Mirroring the attitude of someone who is committed to human supremacy—the idea that we could realize our “rightful” place as masters of the universe (or Earth, at least)—then it would seem that all is fair. Evolution produced us, after all. We’re still natural outcomes of this world. Too bad for the others who were not clever enough to engage in the arms race and compete with us at our own new game under rules that relentlessly favor ourselves. Sucks to be the losers. If other creatures can’t get with the program, there’s no place for them in the world we’re creating. Lasers or losers—that seems to be the way of it.

The problem with this attitude is that it’s doomed to fail. The myth is that we have transcended natural limits and can be our own thing: engineering what we need as we need it. Popular sci-fi visions of the future are artificial worlds of our making. That’s fantasy—or at least something whose longevity lacks proof. It’s the narrow “imagination” of things going the one right way, with little awareness of the harder and more likely realities.  We need biodiversity for our own survival. We’re part of a living community. That is our context. The left brain is mistaken to think that it can ignore context, interrelationship, and the undefinable. Hubris doesn’t win, in the end.

New Rules

Firstly, this is not a game. I won’t pretend that a clever set of rules satisfying the pedantic mind is the way to go. Attempts to construct black-and-white rules would only dissolve in bickering, and thus constitute a waste of time. When I speak of rules, I mean more the spirit of engagement rather than technical definitions for the rigid mind. While not reducing the problem to an artificially tidy rule-based solution, I can start to feel out some of the relevant contours.

For any action we contemplate, we can ask: is the rest of the community of life capable of absorbing or adapting to this thing, without running some species into the ground or seriously compromising interrelationships we don’t even understand? As we appear to be initiating a sixth mass extinction, it seems we have ample evidence that the current scheme is not working. It’s way over the line. We’re cheating, big time, and seeing the outcomes all around. Cheaters only cheat themselves, when all is said and done.

It would serve us to better understand the spirit of the rules by which the rest of the community of life plays, and work our way into compliant behaviors. Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael offers some insights here. Other species keep to their own, take only what they need to survive, exist in approximate balance with the surrounding ecology, and do not wage war on other species—even direct competitors. Perhaps it’s a live-and-let-live approach, with more cooperation than our economist-programmed personas are prepared to see. Just remember: the market and its proponents do not have our long-term best interests in mind, and will tolerate all manner of cheating—no matter the “externalized” cost to the planet.

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