Getting to the frontiers of human knowledge

Those who have what it takes to meet the future have curiosity, a fundamental belief in progress, and a desire to make the world a better place.  This enterprise requires that our collective knowledge be always increasing, to enable us to continue solving the problems that we encounter.  (We need our collective wisdom to increase also, but that is a different problem.)  Is it possible for humanity’s collective knowledge to increase indefinitely?  Or are there human limitations that we will run into?

To expand the frontiers of human knowledge, some person or persons have to get there, and then go into new territory.  But we all start out life the same, with no knowledge (beyond our instincts, that is).  From that point, knowledge always has to build on prior knowledge; each of us is limited by this fundamental fact.  Picture then, knowledge, as concentric areas to be covered:

We go through our primary and secondary school years, and (the top students anyway) come out with a somewhat similar depth of general knowledge.  Once in high school, there is some specialization, depicted where the blue area does not cover all possible subjects any longer.

Of course there are individual differences in ability and curiosity, the willingness to study things of interest outside of school, etc.  Those factors make a difference, but we are still limited by the number of hours in a day.

Once in college, we start to specialize more heavily, focusing on our major subject area.  A century ago, a person with a college background could hope to push the boundaries of human knowledge.  They were not out of reach, for someone who was intelligent and determined.

Today, 4 years of college is considered a bare minimum for many fields of employment, and yet not everyone is able (money aside) to handle the intellectual rigors of college.  Additionally, the frontier of human knowledge has moved out considerably:

The need to get to an ever-more-distant frontier in the same amount of time has forced people to specialize more and sooner (or stay in school even longer).  (I attempted to make the areas in light blue the same, to emphasize that the intellectual ground covered in the same amount of time is somewhat constant.)  So to get to the frontier now means getting less general education, as a tradeoff.

This has implications.  First we are seeing more mistakes being published, because researchers are simply not sufficiently cross-educated in some area.  A typical example is the physicist or medical researcher who does not have enough background in statistics to properly analyze their own experimental results.  They could consult with a statistician, but they may not even realize the need.

Claims to have discovered something novel now get published because neither the researcher nor the reviewers have a broad enough background to recognize a result from a neighboring field.  And there is an increase in claims that findings in one field apply to another (such as physicists claiming a result from their field applies to, say, systems theory), where a basic background in the other field would have been sufficient to reveal the finding as a well-known truth in the other field.  Reviewers who are sufficiently expert to review new ideas from the frontier of one field cannot be expected to be experts in every other field.

These happenings suggest that we are indeed reaching a point where human limitations are coming into play.

See here for the other issues science is having today.


Youthful rebellion bad for young people

We start life with nothing but our instincts.  So when we are teenagers, why do we think we know it all?  Because everything we’re learning at that age is new to us, so it must be new, period.  When we’re in our 20’s, we think we’re going to show the older people at work a thing or two.  (In fairness, when it comes to technology, we do master it better when we are young.)  Teens and young adults are more likely to be idealistic and see the world in all-or-nothing terms.  Therefore, big problems have easy solutions that older people just can’t see.  But in reality, it takes decades to develop nuanced ways of seeing the world (if that happens at all), and to acquire real wisdom.  Young people necessarily have some learning to do before they truly know it all.

This leads to a great irony:  Just when we are getting started in the adult world, we make decisions regarding our education, career, love life, etc., that will affect us for the rest of our days, in ways we cannot foresee when we are only 20.  When we finally (hopefully) acquire the requisite wisdom, we’re too old to re-do the important choices of life.

All this has been the case for as long as there have been young people.  But today, this predicament is compounded.  We live in a youth-oriented culture:  activities and ways of life that are most celebrated are those most do-able by young people.  (Old age is only celebrated if old people are taking their Viagra.)  We are immersed in a happiness-oriented culture.  Now that most Westerner’s basic physical needs are well-met, our focus is on keeping ourselves entertained, only working as much as is needed to fund our desires.  (I’m not suggesting we all become dull, obsessive worker bees.  I’m saying that life needs balance, meaning and purpose.  The continual pursuit of pleasure as a lifestyle lacks those things.  There are still plenty of worthy goals to work towards, where each of us could play a part.)

In the 1960’s youthful rebellion took on a life of its own, which meant rejecting tradition and all adult advice on how to best live life.   Today, it is sheer blasphemy even to suggest that young people might not know the best paths to take in life in order to find the greatest happiness.  Yet every indication, from happiness surveys to the relative brevity of today’s relationships, to overall mental and physical health levels, to the fact that more people are living alone than ever before, is that happiness is in decline.  This wouldn’t be the case if people were finding improved ways to do life.

Mature adults advising and even constraining young people to follow certain paths was not a cruel conspiracy to deprive yet another generation of happiness.  It was an attempt (sometimes mis-handled, but almost always sincere) to guide young people down paths toward greater satisfaction and away from common mistakes.

The inability to redo important parts of life makes it doubly crucial that the major choices we make be made wisely.  And young people should not have to figure things out from scratch with every generation.  But that cannot happen without input from those of older generations.  We can fix this problem and save a lot of heartache, but only by un-enshrining youthful rebellion.


To the ladies of Hollywood:

We all know that Harvey Weinstein is not the only rapist/harasser in Hollywood. Powerful people have always had powerful appetites, and always will. And as long as Hollywood offers easy money for those who can provide entertainment to the entertainment-hungry masses, powerful people will flock there to attempt to grab their piece of the pie. Hollywood culture could theoretically change, but it would require a change in the fundamental nature of powerful people. I’m not holding my breath for that one.

Therefore, for your safety (physical and emotional), leave Hollywood. Leave the entertainment industry altogether. You do not need to place yourself at risk for my mere entertainment.

I realize this may mean less money, influence, and fame for you. If you need those things for yourself, then you have to decide what your are going to do. But don’t remain in Hollywood for me.

I also realize this may not be an incredibly popular position to take, as our culture is clearly addicted to its entertainment, in which attractive women feature prominently. Men who are not powerful (the vast majority) still want to vicariously experience as much sex as possible. But if the men of this country value the safety of women over their own instinctual desires, then they are welcome to join me.

Are you really helping?

Good people care about those in need. So when need arises suddenly, good people share the basics: food, shelter, clothing and medical care. This kind of aid is relatively easy to provide, is direct, and people are nearly always ready to accept it. Call this first-order aid. There will always be a need for this type of aid, because some needs arise due to natural disasters or people being mistreated by their governments, for instance.

The next logical step after providing first-order aid is to help the recipients become responsible for meeting their own needs. If they are accustomed to doing this, and have the technology and resources, this will happen on its own. (Otherwise, this will be problematic.) Instead of giving men fish, it will involve teaching them to fish, build their own homes, produce their own medicines, and in general, raising them up to where they can provide their own first-order aid the next time a sudden or severe need arises. Call this stage, where those in need are helped to take responsibility for themselves, second-order aid. Thus the goals of second-order aid are to reduce the need for outside first-order aid, and to grow people in maturity and responsibility.

Beyond second-order aid is the need to strategize how to avoid crises in the first place, and to figure out how to most effectively render second-order aid. This is third-order aid.

A few observations, in no particular order:

– First-order aid is appropriate immediately after a crisis, but should not be the long-term solution to the problem of need. Simply handing out the basic needs on a continual basis is what we do for our pets and livestock. With people, we can expect more because they can do better. It is actually a moral disservice to them to leave them with only first-order aid.

– There are many reasons why some needy people/nations/societies never progress beyond merely receiving first-order aid (and no, I can’t solve these problems):

Someone (such as their own government) may be subjugating them, stealing and selling donated food or medicine, and so on.

Those needing help may have cultural norms that prevent them from lifting themselves up, or allowing an outsider to help them. They may not even see their need as anything unusual to be escaped, or they may reject technology.

Dependence is easier than independence: It takes less effort, less maturity, and can be less stressful for the one needing the aid. (And handouts are demonstrably good for buying for votes.)

– Although I wish it were not so, there are charitable organizations and government agencies, who, in order to ensure their own survival, intentionally fail to provide higher orders of help to those they serve. It is only human nature that this happens, but an incalculable disservice to those in need.

– The only thing worse than an arrogant needy person (or group) is the person who judges you for pointing out that there should be a wiser way of helping people.

– The real and present danger of charities that take money (and governments that redistribute tax revenue as welfare) is that people will feel that once they have donated (or paid their taxes), their obligation to help the less fortunate is done. This allows the need to persist, because contributors are not watching how the money is being used.

– Whether it’s getting people to vote for higher taxes to fund welfare or just getting people to contribute, the emotional appeal is quite effective. Just remember that the most successful emotional manipulation ends with the voter/contributor believing that he made up his mind on his own. (The right way to persuade someone is to appeal to their intellect, and trust that they will do the right thing.) Manipulation is coercion through deception.

It pains us to see images of people lacking basic necessities.  It should pain us more to see people never trained in helping themselves, or worse yet, refusing to learn to take care of themselves.  Beyond that, we should detect that something bigger is wrong when the same crisis repeats, such that first-order help is continually needed.


It is difficult to track the number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment that have surfaced this year.  Perhaps not all the claims are true; it is possible that an unscrupulous person has falsely accused someone in order to ruin them.  However, there have been many credible accusations and many admissions of guilt.

There is something deeper going on here though.  Our culture has made the discovery that powerful people have powerful appetites for sex.  This fact was not lost on previous generations.  Customs from a century ago (chaperones for young couples, protecting the less assertive from the more aggressive, not leaving females alone with unfamiliar males) prove that they knew it long before we rediscovered it.

That means it was forgotten.

I realize it is modern day blasphemy to suggest that there is anything bad about the sexual revolution.  Ostensibly, it was to provide more sex for everyone.  But as anyone who has looked into the matter from a sociological perspective knows, it had the opposite effect:  The best and most frequent sex is still that between two happily married people.  Today, we have more singleness, shorter marriages, and less sex overall.

So if powerful men have always had powerful urges, why blame the sexual revolution for today’s problems?  In bygone days, all men were expected to control themselves.  They didn’t all succeed, but the expectation was there.  The sexual revolution taught the opposite, namely that no self-control was needed.  But when, in one generation, society tears down boundaries that have been in place for hundreds of years, it is difficult to simultaneously get across the idea that there are still boundaries out there somewhere.  Naturally, powerful men will be the last ones to admit that any boundaries still exist.

The sexual revolution spread so rapidly in part because of movies, television and print media (I’m thinking of you, Cosmopolitan and Redbook).  The people behind the media act as if they are pro-woman, yet they shelter abusers, and actually do more to turn women into sex objects than any other influence in our society.  When men (and women) attend movies featuring nudity, view similar shows in their living rooms, and see magazines in every checkout aisle and on every coffee table that portray women as being concerned solely about sex and their outward appearance, what other idea could men possibly get?

Did it really take from the 1960’s until 2017 for our society to figure out that the boundaries had been moved recklessly?  Did it require three generations and untold amounts of emotional pain to figure out that some measure of restraint is actually good?  Those responsible for the sexual revolution and those carrying it forward  today owe the rest of us an accounting for the damage they have caused.  I’m not arguing that we return to an era where the matter couldn’t be discussed at all.  Rather, the discussion needs to be more open than ever, and focused on where a reasonable set of boundaries should be for the benefit of everyone—women first.

Eugenics, Part II

(This is the second of two posts on early 20th century American books that prominently featured pro-eugenic points of view.  No one must forget that the United States also had its share of eugenics proponents in that period.  The first post is here.)

Figure 1 – Title Page

The Science of Life is a large work (1480 pages) from 1934 (the American printing), by several well-known authors.  (See Figure 1.)  H. G. Wells is of course the English author of The War of the Worlds, as well as many other fiction and non-fiction works.  G. P. Wells was his son.  Julian Huxley was an English evolutionary biologist and influential author.

Their work is an in-depth look at what was known about biology and evolution at that time, in language understandable by most people.  As with The Laws of Life, the authors take the reader on a grand tour, and in the last part, turn to the implications of evolution for humanity.  After reviewing humanity’s profligate use of natural resources and discussing population growth, they turn to eugenics (see Figure 2)*:

“Certain types, it seems natural to assume, will breed more abundantly than others.  The most vital issue from the point of human biology is the question of what types will breed most, whether they will be the types most helpful in the progressive development of the world community and, if not, what measures are possible, advisable and desirable to replace nature’s method of selection-by-killing by an alternative method of selective reproduction—Eugenics: that is to say, the preferential breeding of the best.”

By page 1470 (see Figure 3), there is no hesitation in referring to those with mental challenges as “defectives”, as if they were mere machines rolling off an assembly line.  And it is here that the lament begins:

Figure 2

“Apart from this traceable (and easily controllable) increase of idiots and imbeciles, there is very little evidence that any change in the average human being is now going on.”

Of course, this “control” that we could have comes from sterilization, as described at the end of page 1469 (Figure 2).

But from their perspective, there is hope.  As the authors continue,

“In a little while, it may be possible to handle these issues with exacter definition and much more confidence.  All those who have had experience of birth-control work in the slums seem to be convinced that there is a residuum, above the level of the definable ‘defective,’ which is too stupid or shiftless or both to profit by existing birh-control methods.  These ‘unteachables’ constitute pockets of evil germ-plasm responsible for a large amount of vice, disease, defect and pauperism.”

And so their true view of much of humanity comes out.  But the eugenicist must be careful:

“But the problem of their elimination is a very subtle one, and there must be no suspicion of harshness or brutality in its solution.”

Figure 3

Finally, in a display of combined arrogance and eloquence surpassing any I have ever seen, we have the following description of the unwashed masses our three authors despise:

“There will certainly remain a considerable proportion of mankind, incapable it seems of being very much educated, incapable of broad understandings and co-operative enterprise, incapable of conscious helpful participation in the adventure of the race, and yet as reproductive as any other element in the world community.  For a number of generations, at any rate, a dead-weight of the dull, silly, under-developed, weak and aimless will have to be carried by the guiding wills and intelligences of mankind.  There seems to be no way of getting rid of them.  The panics and preferences of these relatively uneducatable minds, their flat and foolish tastes, their perversities and compensatory loyalties, their dull, gregarious resistances to comprehensive efforts, their outbreak of resentment at any too lucid revelation of their inferiority, will be a drag, and perhaps a very heavy drag on the adaptation of institutions to modern needs…”

Figure 4

And there you have it:  much of humanity is simply not up to their standards.  But note that there is no love, no care, no thought of helping people.  Their only solution is to slowly (or otherwise) eliminate the unfit.  Man is nothing more than livestock to them.  It is no wonder that this attitude could degenerate into the Nazi Holocaust that followed shortly.

No doubt the authors believed that once a utopia had been established, there would only be one class of people: the upper class.  But arrogance would still be around, as evidenced by the authors themselves.  So you can be assured that even in this envisioned world which had been put back onto a path of progress, those with an IQ of 140 would still look down on those with an IQ of 120.

*Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the Wikipedia page for this book (, last accessed 7/11/2017) makes absolutely no mention of eugenics nor the authors’ enthusiasm for it.

Lest We Forget

The Laws of Life

Figure 1 – Title plate

If we know anything of twentieth  century history, we know of the Second World War, Nazi Germany, and eugenics.  But what we have forgotten (and what some actually deny) is that eugenics was once a hot topic among the intellectual elites in the United States and Europe in general.  Prior to World War II, it was quite fashionable to believe that the application of evolutionary principles to human breeding would be the savior of the human race.  In its absence, man would be fated to make the same mistakes indefinitely, continue to make war, and generally fail to progress as he could.

Then World War II and the Holocaust happened, and eugenics got its deservedly negative reputation.  It faded from the textbooks, but not entirely from the discourse of Western civilization.  Lest we forget its vision, philosophy and attitude when it started out, I wish to display what the books of the early twentieth century presented.

First, from 1922, The Laws of Life, by William M. Goldsmith (available on Amazon as original copies or even as reprints!)  See Figure 1.

The focus of the book is life, evolution and genetics, with the latter parts of the book discussing how these laws must be applied to human breeding for the betterment of those yet to be born.

The Laws of Life - page 409

Figure 2 – page 409

Outside of Nazi Germany, there was less talk of eliminating any of the currently living.  Rather the focus was the on the eugenic alternatives of sterilization of the “unfit”, and the encouraged reproduction of the “fit”.  This was necessary, because, as Goldsmith complains (Figure 2):

“Contrast, if you will, the low rate of reproduction of the superior classes in America with the overproduction of children by the inferior classes whose mental and moral standing are often nearer that of the brute than that of civilized man.  These feeble-minded, vicious, and diseased individuals are competing with intellectual man for supremacy in the perpetuation of human characteristics.”

In eugenic thinking, there is no love for humanity, no care for the less fortunate, no thought of helping anyone to rise up, and no consideration for the possibility of educating and leading people.  Just a heartless view of people as animals to be managed.

The tie to evolution is clearly made in the following passage (Figure 3), which he quotes from Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin:

“The belief that man has been slowly developed from some ape-like progenitor came towards the close of the last century [i.e., the close of the 1800’s] to be nearly universally held by thoughtful persons; this belief gave rise to a new hope that this upward march of mankind might be continued in the future; and out of this new hope sprang the eugenic ideal.”

 Of course, this is all in the best interests of future people.  For, as he quotes:

“Progress on eugenic lines will make mankind become continually nobler, happier and healthier…”

And so as with other eugenicists, his hope for man’s future is tied to this central idea.

In the second installment, I will show a more extreme example by a trio of authors more well known than Goldsmith.