There is a short story I want to write, but likely never will, that goes something like this. The story begins soon after Copernicus drops the heliocentric model, right at the point when the tide is turning and people are starting to believe that the earth is no longer at the center of the universe. There is a cabal of thinkers who just flat out refuse to even consider the possibility that the geocentric model is false, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. As the heliocentric model becomes more and more widely accepted, they are forced to go underground, resulting in the formation of a secret society called the Order of the Phoenix, the name being as a reference to the notion that the geocentric model will rise again (hmmm I have the vague notion that this name has been used before in some other work of fiction ;). Within a few decades, they have to admit defeat on the geocentric model, however this doesn’t end the Order but simply forces an evolution in their philosophy. Motivated by the Christian idea that Man is made in the image of God, they come to believe that any scientific knowledge which doesn’t regard humanity as central to the cosmos is fundamentally flawed and deeply confused. This belief provides a new mission for the Order — the creation of a new form of science in which the ultimate significance of mankind is axiomatic; the objective pursuit of truth is only useful insofar as it serves to uphold the exalted position of Man.
The enigmatic figure of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), writing as “the unknown philosopher”, was an early leader of the Order of the Phoenix. He encapsulates the philosophy of the Order in the following passage (the only source I can find is The Occult by Colin Wilson):
“It is perhaps this wrong connection of ideas which has led men to the still false notion that they are not worthy of their creator's regard. They have believed themselves to be obeying the dictates of humility when they have denied that the earth and all the universe exist only on man’s account, on the ground that the admission of such an idea would be only conceit. But they have not been afraid of the laziness and cowardice which are the inevitable result of this affected modesty. The present-day avoidance of the belief that we are the highest in the universe is the reason that we have not the courage to work to justify that title, that the duties springing from it seem too laborious, and that we would rather abdicate position than realize them in all their consequences. Where is the pilot that will guide us between these hidden reefs of conceit and false humility?"
(The Martinist order and their form of esoteric christian mysticism are probably the closest existing analogue to something like the Order of the Phoenix in that they were a secret order with a philosophical bent towards the glorification and redemption of Man. Although this passage was written during Saint Martin’s lifetime over 200 years ago, it feels like his point is even more valid today — have we not developed a secular worldview that sees Man as accidental and insignificant, a creature not worthy of its position? Does this not create a nihilistic tone throughout our culture that disposes us towards laziness and cowardice as Saint Martin suggests? I wonder if there is not some desperate need for humanity to forge a new exalted conception of itself, one that sees us as “the highest in the universe”, but is also consistent with our current scientific knowledge. David Deutsch probably comes closest to such a philosophy in his book The Beginning of Infinity)
Around the turn of the 18th century (early 1700s), the Order of the Phoenix gains enough size and power to launch a secret scientific community dedicated to its own brand of human-centric science. The community is structured in a unique manner. The majority of Phoenix scientists are instructed to remain as unaware as possible of mainstream scientific developments. These scientists (usually regarded as alchemists in the wider world) form a truly independent branch of science with its own norms, conventions, methods, and theories. The remaining Phoenix scientists form a special leadership group which are allowed to stay abreast of scientific developments in mainstream science and Phoenix science (many of these individuals are in fact notable mainstream scientists). For these Phoenix scientists, mainstream science functions as a kind of theoretical control group, one which only the Order has access to. For example, if the Phoenixes develop a theory and mainstream science develops the same theory then they have an extra piece of evidence for the truth of theory; if mainstream science develops a theory and Phoenix science contradicts the theory then that may indicate that one or both of the theories is false. While taking care to keep Phoenix science independent and separate, the Order strategically uses this information to aid Phoenix science (e.g. advising a Phoenix scientist to disregard a theory or perform a particular experiment) and help it progress at a faster rate. The members of the leadership group are also able to borrow new results and theories from Phoenix science and bring them to the mainstream, thereby enhancing their renown as scientists and bringing more covert power to the Order. Importantly, mainstream science is also able to function as a kind of meta-scientific control for Phoenix science; comparison of differing norms, philosophies, and organizational structures between the two communities allows the Order to glean valuable information about how these factors affect the dynamics of knowledge growth over the course of decades and centuries.
One plot point in the story is that the Order of the Phoenix develops the theory of evolution before Darwin, but chooses not to publicize because it is another blow to their human-centric philosophy. Although they try desperately to disprove it, eventually they have to admit that all the evidence supports the theory of evolution; still they reserve judgement, believing (hoping) that future evidence will overturn it and return Homo sapiens to their rightful position. After the theory of evolution starts to become more widely accepted, the Order of the Phoenix undergoes another shift in their philosophy. Their reasons for seeing humanity as central to the universe start to become less religious (humans are special because God made us special) and more mystical and spiritual — the Order develops various forms of contemplative practice that purport to reveal experiential proof of Man’s cosmic significance.
Fast forward to the atomic age — the Order sees our ability to harness the power of the atom as proof that they were right all along about Man’s central role in the universe. Stephen Hawking said that, “humans are just a chemical cum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star on the outskirts of a typical galaxy.” Phoenixes demonstrate the falsehood of this statement (literally the antithesis of their philosophy) by pointing to the fact that there only two ways in which transmutation (the conversion of one element into another) can occur — in stars by stellar nucleosynthesis or by humans who have understood the process and recreated it (see the aforementioned The Beginning of Infinity for discussion on the significance of this fact).
Recent developments in gene editing and AI have caused another dramatic shift in the philosophy of the Order. They have reached the conclusion that our current technological trajectory will result in either irreversible genetic damage or obsoletion and extinction. To avoid these outcomes, the Order has determined that mainstream science and technology must be destroyed, and that Phoenix science must take its rightful place as the only valid form of science. Many Phoenixes occupy powerful leadership positions in politics, business, and science; coordinating in secrecy, the Order launches a covert assault on science and technology (this is the true cause behind the Great Stagnation).
How deterministic is evolution? Is evolution a historically contingent stochastic process in which idiosyncratic events (eg. the order of appearance of random mutations or rare environmental perturbations like asteroid impacts) dominate the path of change or does the existence of constraints at multiple levels (e.g. molecular, cellular, developmental, morphological, ecological) create attractors in the evolutionary landscape that provide a strong degree of predictability? This question (and its many variants and subquestions) is one of the most fundamental questions in biology, and it’s not hard to see why — the ability to predict evolution with a high degree of accuracy would be incredibly useful in fighting a global viral pandemic (to take a completely random example) or a variety of other biomedical applications.
Biologists have come up with a number of ways to study the predictability and contingency of evolution.
“On the experimental side, several designs have been employed, mostly using microbes, including “parallel replay experiments,” in which initially identical populations are followed as they evolve in identical environments, and “historical difference experiments,” in which previously diverged populations evolve under identical conditions”
Another way to study these questions is to investigate convergent evolution across the biological world — how common is it, under what conditions does it occur, and what can it tell us about evolutionary predictability writ large. All of these methods are imperfect (as are all methods), but they don’t really tell us much about questions of predictability at cosmological timescales. It’s one thing to ask about the predictability of more local events (what is the likelihood that antibiotic resistance will evolve to a specific drug in the next 10 years?), but it’s an entirely different question to ask about the predictability of evolution over billions of years; in the latter case, you need to consider the likelihood of one-off events like the endosymbiotic event that gave rise to the eukaryotic cell or whatever the hell happened that led to the evolution of a warm-blooded, hairless biped with advanced intelligence. Stephen Jay Gould’s famous Replaying the Tape of Life thought experiment captures the essence of the question: if we rewound the clock and replayed the history of life on Earth, would something like humans evolve again? Or would the earth be populated with an intelligent reptilian humanoid species, perhaps evolved from velociraptors (which is something that people have seriously suggested because raptors were highly social group predators, bipedal, and possessed a high brain/body size ratio)? And if it is shown to be highly probable that a humanoid species with advanced intelligence would evolve (whether it is mammalian, reptilian, or avian), does this tell us that there are certain attractor states that evolution finds its way too regardless of the starting point?
The evidence we collect from microbial evolution experiments and comparative biology only indirectly bear on these questions of evolutionary predictability at the largest scales. There is really only one way in which we can directly study these questions — by studying alien life. For example, suppose we studied the history of evolution on thousands of other planets and found that intelligent bipedal species with manipulative appendages and excellent vision (like the Greys) are fairly common across the universe; this would lend credence to the idea that the course of evolution is largely predictable at planetary scales.
So as it stands now (i.e. no knowledge of an alien biosphere, but maybe that’s what THEY WANT YOU TO BELIEVE) we have what I would call an N=1 problem — we only know of evolution on one planet and therefore we have nothing to compare and contrast with. Even the discovery of one alien biosphere (i.e. doubling our sample size to N=2) would provide an almost unimaginable wealth of information for biology.
I wonder: in what other domains do we have a N=1 problem? Is it possible for us to create another N and thus benefit that in the same way that biology would benefit from the discovery of an alien biosphere?
The origin of human language is a N=1 problem. The numerous fascinating questions surrounding the origin of language (the who, what, when, where, why and how) can only be indirectly studied by looking at the fossil record, archaeological evidence, contemporary language diversity, studies of human language acquisition, or cross-species comparative approaches.
In fact, the dearth of direct empirical evidence has led many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study. Notably, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any existing or future debates on the origin of human language in 1866, a prohibition which remained influential across much of the Western world until late in the twentieth century (see the Origin of Language wikipedia page).
Possibilities, practicalities, and ethics be damned — let’s imagine what we might do to study the origin of human language in a perfect world. The best way would be to time travel back in time and observe it first hand. In lieu of that, we might try to catch an alien species at the precipice of evolving language and discreetly study them for a (very) extended period of time; though we might learn something about the general principles of language evolution, this method would have the drawback of not necessarily telling us about how language evolved in our own species.
A third method, a wildly unethical one, would be to take a group of children away from their parents at birth, put them on an isolated island (under the care of adults that are careful to never use language around them), and then discreetly observe them over a (very) extended period of time to see if and how they develop language. This isn’t exactly an N=2 in that we wouldn’t be entirely recreating the conditions of our original evolution of language (obviously we’ve evolved a considerable amount since language first came on the scene), but it’s probably the best we could realistically do and we would surely learn a ton about language, psychology, and cultural evolution.
Though not that extreme, there actually is a recent example of something that approaches a N=2 for the origin of language.
“Before the 1970s, there was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Deaf people were largely isolated from each other and mostly used simple home sign systems and gestures ('mímicas') to communicate with their families and friends. The conditions necessary for a language to arise occurred in 1977, when a center for special education established a program initially attended by 50 deaf children.
In 1980, a vocational school for deaf adolescents was opened in the area of Managua of Villa Libertad. By 1983, there were over 400 deaf students enrolled in the two schools. Initially, the language program emphasized spoken Spanish and lipreading, and the use of signs by teachers was limited to fingerspelling (using simple signs to sign the alphabet). The program achieved little success, with most students failing to grasp the concept of Spanish words.
The children remained linguistically disconnected from their teachers, but the schoolyard, the street, and the school bus provided fertile ground for them to communicate with one another. By combining gestures and elements of their home-sign systems, a pidgin-like form and a creole-like language rapidly emerged — they were creating their own language. The "first-stage" pidgin has been called Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense (LSN) and is still used by many who attended the school at the time.
Staff at the school, unaware of the development of this new language, saw the children's gesturing as mime and a failure to acquire Spanish. Unable to understand what the children were saying, they asked for outside help. In June 1986, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education contacted Judy Kegl, an American Sign Language linguist from MIT. As Kegl and other researchers began to analyze the language, they noticed that the young children had taken the pidgin-like form of the older children to a higher level of complexity, with verb agreement and other conventions of grammar. The more complex sign language is now known as Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN).”
“ISN offers a rare opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. Before ISN, studies of the early development of languages had focused on creoles, which develop from the mixture of two (or more) distinct communities of fluent speakers. In contrast, ISN was developed by a group of young people with only non-conventional home sign systems and gesture.”
Some linguists see what happened in Managua as proof that language acquisition is hard-wired inside the human brain. "The Nicaraguan case is absolutely unique in history," Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, maintains "We've been able to see how it is that children—not adults—generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail. And it's the only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air.”
Nicaraguan Sign Language provides a real-world example (i.e. not involving aliens or time travel) of how science can benefit from the independent rebirth of a complex collective phenomenon such as language. Maybe by now readers have surmised where I am going with all of this given the short story sketch in part I: can Science go from N=1 to N=2? Can we create an independent branch of science, isolated from the mainstream, something akin to what the Order of the Phoenix did in the short story sketch?
This is what Dr. Dario Krpan (full disclosure — he is a collaborator of mine) has suggested in his 2020 paper, “Unburdening the Shoulders of Giants: A Quest for Disconnected Academic Psychology”. The motivation is simple, it’s basically just evolution by natural selection — the more diversity in ideas, hypotheses, experiments, methods, general approaches, etc. (what we may call “knowledge diversity”) that we have in science, the faster our progress can be (just as greater diversity in the gene pool = greater the potential for adaptation). There are many factors limiting knowledge diversity — the structure of a scientific field (e.g. professional and sociological factors), its norms (particularly surrounding publication and peer review), and previous theories (some of which are wrong, particularly in psychology). Consider the following (from another essay I am currently writing, citations available upon request):
Imagine the situation faced by a young researcher (perhaps a grad student, or PhD just hired for their first faculty position) who wishes to do research that will increase knowledge diversity in a field, perhaps by studying an uncommon topic or using a rare experimental technique. This young researcher will know that their future prospects for employment crucially depend on applying for and receiving funding and publishing numerous papers in prestigious journals (the so-called “publish or perish” culture of modern academia) (Nicholas et al., 2017). In this context, it becomes challenging to try an unusual method or attempt to develop a new method as this may take longer and have a less certain payoff than using a well-established method. Young researchers may also be discouraged from pursuing uncommon or controversial topics because it could harm their future career prospects by making it more difficult to obtain funding or publish their work (Kempner, 2008; Lombardo & Emiah, 2014; Väliverronenn & Saikkonen, 2020). “Star” researchers can have a substantial influence on what kind of research gets funded and published in particular field, either indirectly (their ideas may loom large or they are collaborators with editor or grant reviewers) or directly (they exhibit a degree of Homophilous bias and serve as editors of journals or grant reviewers) (Azoulay et al., 2019; Azoulay, Zivin & Wang, 2010; Gerow et. al, 2018; Travis & Collins, 1991); a young researcher may be (subtly or not-so-subtly) influenced to do work that accords with the ideas of star researchers in their field.
So how can we compensate for these limiting factors and improve knowledge diversity? Dr. Krpan says: let’s have some people do psychology research that is explicitly disconnected from the theories, structures, and norms of traditional academic psychology. These disconnected psychologists should be explicitly encouraged not to build off previous theory — this is the “unburdening the shoulders of giants” referred to in title of the article.
In order to provide a fuller picture of why something like disconnected psychology is needed and what it might look like, I present a few selected sections from the article below.
“This premise (note: referring to limited knowledge diversity) can be supported by arguments on many different levels. For example, it has been acknowledged that APA style, on which psychologists widely rely when writing psychological sources of knowledge, is not just a set of explicit guidelines for presenting information (Budge & Katz, 1995; Madigan, Johnson, & Linton, 1995). In fact, APA style is itself an epistemology that enforces certain values and beliefs regarding psychology as a discipline and reflects its conventions. Moreover, the peer-review process is also guided by various biases and epistemological beliefs of the reviewers and may therefore propel research trajectories that are in line with these biases and beliefs (Blackburn & Hakel, 2006; Pier et al., 2018; Simon & Fyfe, 1994; Suls & Martin, 2009). Indeed, if psychology generally functions as other sciences, then it may be dominated by a group of highly influential psychological scientists who propel their own ideas and ideas of their collaborators but make it more difficult for other opposing or different ideas to enter the field, either directly or indirectly, by creating conventions that are unfavorable to such ideas (Azoulay, Fons-Rosen, & Graff Zivin, 2019).
…In the early days of psychology, before the onset of the information age spawned by technological advancements, psychologists were generally forced to work more independently because they did not have access to an extensive “knowledge” network consisting of many psychological sources (Leahey, 1987, 1994). Independently developing new methodologies, theories, approaches, and so forth, was therefore a necessity. The advent of the Internet and the explosion of information led to a substantial increase in the number of citations per article that has been more dramatic in psychology than in other sciences, such as physics (Adair & Vohra, 2003; Sigal & Pettit, 2012). Referencing is undoubtedly useful when it comes to connecting various sources of psychological knowledge and understanding how theories, methodological approaches, and empirical findings are related. However, it also forces psychologists to develop their ideas in relation to other published research and theories, to fill in “gaps” in the literature, or to work on research topics that are highly cited to increase their scientific reputation and/or chances of tenure (e.g., Anderson et al., 2019; Moher et al., 2018; Safer & Tang, 2009). Overall, such practices decrease the likelihood of developing as many diverse theories, methodologies, and approaches that are substantially different from each other as possible.”
“In connected psychology, scholars need to connect their work to other work that has been done in the discipline (e.g., their domain of research or other domains of research). Their application of psychological method needs to be informed by previous work in the discipline, and they need to follow certain reporting and writing conventions. By being connected to a field consisting of other psychologists from their domain of research, connected psychological scientists to some degree operate according to the field’s norms, conventions, trends, or principles.
In contrast, in disconnected psychology, there is no attempt to connect the work of different psychologists. The only requirement is that they ground their work on psychological method, but how they interpret and develop this method is up to them. Their work evolves in line with their own experiences, observations, past ideas, and so forth, and not in relation to other psychologists and the conventions, epistemology, or assumptions these psychologists share. Overall, it can be said that in disconnected psychology, psychologists themselves are a field; each establishes his or her own norms, conventions, and principles over time and may develop one or more research agendas or programs across a lifetime. A critic may object that disconnected psychology cannot be classified as psychological science. However, if psychological method is what defines psychology as a science, then whoever adheres to this method is a psychological scientist, even if he or she chooses to do this without connecting to a field consisting of other psychological scientists and adhering to norms and principles that emerged among them (i.e., without adhering to connected psychology). Adherence to norms, rules, principles, or conventions cannot constitute psychological science because no one can objectively prove that some specific norms or conventions that emerged within the field can lead to greater discoveries via psychological method than some other possible existing principles that a psychologist can develop individually or that may have emerged in the field under other circumstances.”
There is a lot to unpack here, however my focus is not on the details and merits of disconnected psychology itself (a discussion for another time, read the paper if you are interested), but rather the idea of having a N=2 for a particular branch of science. Just as the Order of the Phoenix was able to use mainstream science as a kind of theoretical and meta-scientific control for Phoenix science, disconnected psychology (or something like it) could function in much the same way for normal, “connected” psychology and science at large.
Erik Hoel anticipates that a new political divide will emerge in the coming years — “Ups” vs. “Downs” (one wonders why he didn’t call it Tops vs. Bottoms but I digress).
There are two camps, or reactions, to the beginnings of this new transplanetary fleet, as well as the more local activity that will occur on the Moon and in low-Earth orbit in the next decade. These two camps will eventually become entrenched political positions over the issue. You’re an “Up” if you think that human civilization should move to other planets. You’re a “Down” if you believe the money that goes toward space exploration and colonization is simply better used here on Earth. This goes especially for privately-funded missions, which Downs view as gross extravaganzas. Being a Down is not an intrinsically luddite position: you can be an advocate for effective altruism, an old-fashioned proponent for charity, or think all the money should be diverted to combat climate change as an immediate existential threat.
He also predicts that we will have a rapidly growing Mars colony by 2050
By 2050 there will be an established and growing civilian presence on Mars—a city on the Red Planet. Founded by a joint-company consortium in terms of the actual ships and structures, it will also have NASA and other national space programs’ support. The whole world will watch in excitement and its development will be covered closely by Earth press, though there is already early controversy over the privatized nature of it.
Hoel is an Up and so am I.
I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m an Up. And not because I’m enamored of billionaires, but because I think the long future of humanity is galaxy-wide, and quite frankly we need to seize the opportunity to expand while the technological and cultural window is open. It may not always be. This is a notion of destiny that goes beyond mere utilitarian reasoning. I’m an Up because I dream of space.
I’ll add one more reason for being an Up — colonizing Mars represents a singular opportunity for renewal and rebirth of human culture, politics, and science, one that is simply not possible on the ol’ pale blue dot. Although our first instinct will be to simply import all of our old institutions, customs, and values into the Martian environment, doing so would be a colossal mistake — (1) because it wouldn’t work, and (2) because we would be missing a golden opportunity to experiment with nearly every aspect of society. It is inevitable that Martian culture will diverge from Earth culture due to founder effects and random drift, the question is whether we will encourage this divergence and see it as a learning opportunity or fight it and see every difference between Earth and Martian culture as a problem that needs to be rectified. In other words, we need to recognize that the colonization of Mars is a N=2 event for all of human society and treat it as such.
In the scientific domain, the creation of the Martian scientific community could provide some of the N=2 benefits that were discussed above for disconnected psychology or the hypothetical Phoenix science. In the best case scenario, we allow Martian science (and science education) to develop its own philosophy, norms, and organizational structures (100% random funding? Anonymous publication? Scientific “monasteries” with celibacy vows?). Through comparison with Earth science and large-scale quasi-experiments, we could gain valuable meta-scientific knowledge which could be improved both scientific communities in tandem (none of this is to say the interpretation of results and application will be easy). Ideally, we can learn how to set up both scientific communities so that they compensate for each other’s weaknesses and blind spots.
Even aside from any N=2 effects, it is likely that the Martian scientific community will be unusually creative and productive, at least at first. Fresh scientific teams (defined by the fraction of team members that have not collaborated previously with other team members) are associated with greater multidisciplinarity and originality (as defined by disruption — “A larger disruption of a paper reflects that more of the paper’s citing papers cite it but none of its references, corresponding to higher originality”). Similarly, smaller scientific teams, “have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones.” We can imagine that Martian science harness could these effects on a more global scale, and that synergy between large, old Earth science and small, fresh Martian science will lead to greater overall scientific progress.
On the other hand, it bears mentioning that this whole experiment with Martian culture and science could end horribly — I know there are science fiction stories where Martians become too different from Earthlings and conflict ensues. It’s not hard to imagine how this ends in “planetism” and an eventual war between Earth and Mars. All I have to say is — guys, can we just not do this? Please? It’s just so fucking predictable.
OK this all sounds great, but disconnected psychology seems a little far-fetched and who knows when we will actually make it to Mars — what can we do in the meantime? Simple: create new scientific institutions that function outside of the traditional structures of modern science (e.g. universities, large government organizations like NSF). This is easier said than done of course, but it may not be as difficult as it once was. Frustration with the incompetence of our current institutions is mounting and there is a growing recognition that we need new ways of funding, organizing, and publishing scientific research. I believe we are in the nascent stages of an institutional cambrian explosion — new organizational life forms such as Fast Grants, New Science, Altos Labs, Seeds of Science (a completely shameless plug), Longevity Impetus Grants, and Octopus may one day be regarded as the intrepid ancestors that gave rise to entire phylums of descendants, on this planet and throughout the galaxy.