In Scott Alexander’s famous essay, Meditations on Moloch, Scott cites many examples of how Moloch plays out in our world. One of them is about overpopulation. He mentions:
The Malthusian trap, at least at its extremely pure theoretical limits. Suppose you are one of the first rats introduced onto a pristine island. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life lounging about, eating, and composing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH).
You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen children. All of them have a dozen children, and so on. In a couple generations, the island has ten thousand rats and has reached its carrying capacity. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a certain percent of each new generation dies in order to keep the population steady at ten thousand.
A certain sect of rats abandons art in order to devote more of their time to scrounging for survival. Each generation, a bit less of this sect dies than members of the mainstream, until after a while, no rat composes any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go extinct within a few generations.
I want to talk about why a small population that engages in art is better than a large population that focuses on short run competition. Art exists for a reason. If art didn’t benefit a society, it would cease to exist, according to the Law Of Malthus. There are some who say that art may be useful now, perhaps it takes advantage of some inherent mental heuristics to make people feel a certain way that leads to a ritual-like state. However, evolution will select for people who do not have this subconscious ritual state of mind and art will cease to exist.
To those people, it must seem like there is a certain perfectly efficient organism, and the Law Of Malthus slowly makes humans more and more like this perfect organism. Eventually, all life will evolve into perfect machines. Of course, there will be some complexity. Chaotic variables can influence who gets which genes. Some sexual selection undermines the ability of a species to think or to fight. Costly signalling exists.
Yet evolution also favors diversity, this detraction from efficiency, for other reasons. As the world becomes more complex, societies will thrive by having different forms of people who think in different ways. Let’s suppose two warring groups of the same kind of people are fighting a costly battle of attrition. Both group A and group B could go on until the sun burns out, but neither is gaining ground. They are the same. If group A has one person that spends their time daydreaming about military strategy instead of fighting on the frontlines, they lose out in the short term. Group B has a small, one-member advantage in numbers, and begin to inch forward. This becomes moot when Group A, thanks to its daydreamer, begins using maneuver warfare to fight. Despite losing out to group B in the beginning, group A is able win because they had an individual that spent time thinking about a better way to do things. Now, one could argue that this doesn’t mean anything. At the end of the day, group B will begin using maneuver warfare as well. A small, creative and technologically advanced population can fight off a horde of illiterate fighters. There is at least some incentive for at least some people in society to be living comfortably. These people, free from backbreaking labor, will have time to think.
The war still exists, of course. There has been no change in fact that there is war itself. There has, however, been a change in the way the war is fought. Instead of fighting in direct head-to-head combat, the war has evolved to require more creative people. Creative people are expensive to educate and develop (even if you teach them well), so there won’t be a high population of creatives. This small group of creatives will be able to outmaneuver the largest forces of uneducated fighters through their use of better strategies and more efficient technologies. The world of art in each group would not die, but flourish. Art, literature, and philosophy all combine together in peoples’ minds to create new ways of seeing the world. In order to fight successfully, the creativity fostered by art is necessary. Of course, this does not ring true for art whose subject is so abstract as to not yield anything for anyone. Although art may not be strictly utilitarian, it has to serve the purpose of fostering idea combinations, putting people into a mental state of being “ready for war,” or anything else useful.
If one defines art as something which serves no purpose, of course Scott is right and art will cease to exist. But to serve a purpose does not make something less worthy of the title “Art.” If anything, having a purpose makes art more appealing to me. Not only does it serve some aesthetic sense, but it does it in a way that is meaningful.
If we imagine group A now fighting against a horde of fighters with absolutely no emotion (Which is to say, not the LessWrong view of rationalism), we won’t find that the emotional humans are any worse at fighting. In fact, as long as the emotions are in line with truth, we may see these humans as more rational (in the truly LessWrong sense of the word) and more successful as well. If emotions can be useful, is it really proper to say that art cannot?