Dumbledore's Army

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It is weird and it’s extra-weird that everywhere from Carthage to Greece to China failed to use an efficient system for writing numbers. It’s not like there was just one outlier which kept a traditional system. 

And I wonder if the use of traditional systems for writing delayed the development of calculus and advanced mathematics too.

Epistemic status: thinking out loud

My most-puzzling why-did-this-take-so-long example is the base-ten system for writing numbers, using zero*. Wikipedia tells me this was invented in India in the 7th century AD and spread gradually into Europe after that. But this seems to be millennia late. There were plenty of highly organised empires trying to administer everything from military logistics to tax systems to pyramid-building with Roman numerals or worse. See here for the Babylonian version, for example. 

So far as I can tell, once you have writing and some basic concept of writing-down-numbers (I can't describe Roman numerals as mathematical notation), there are no further pre-requisites for the invention of zero. And the existence of the abacus, possibly invented as far back c2,700 BC, presumably helped. And yet, we have circa 3,400 years from inventing the abacus to figuring out how to write down a numerical system that actually made sense. 

Why not?! Looking at your list of factors 1. Total number of researchers. 3,400 years times every civilisation across Eurasia that needed to administer a large polity or project. The number of person-hours of people calculating stuff must have been astronomical. 2. Speed of research. OK, this is before the printing press, but still. 3,400 years is an excessive delay. 3 size of opportunity. Just huge. 4 social barriers - I don't think many civilisation treated math as a controversial topic.


*It doesn't have to be base-10, a base-12 or -20 or whatever system would work fine too. Just not freaking Roman numerals!

WEIRD = Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic 

Typo: “A counter-terrorism analyst is prlike it'ivy to a lot of secret information throughout the course of their job.”

Someone has actually written up a scientific paper discussing the hypothesis that the PETM or other events in the geologic record was caused by a prior industrial civilisation. (If you're one of the authors, I apologise for telling you something you already know, but if you're not, I thought you might be interested.) The short version is that there's no smoking gun, but they can't rule it out either. 

One item the authors don't go into, which I think is relevant, is the question of whether there are missing fossil fuels. Google tells me that pretty much all existing fossil fuels were formed at least 65 million years ago, which I think makes it unlikely that the PETM 55mya was a previous industrial civilisation, because they'd have burned those fuels instead of leaving them for us to find. But I have zero geological expertise, so someone who knows better than me might be able to pick holes in that argument.

This seems like a good situation to try re-writing some incentives. Are there any lawyers who can comment on whether the FDA could be sued for wrongful death if any baby did starve? Are any rationalists members of parents’ groups who could be persuaded to attempt such a lawsuit? This seems like the sort of situation where loudly and publicly threatening to sue the FDA and cause them massive bad publicity might actually cause a change in policy - the FDA probably prefers changing policy to being sued, even if the lawsuit’s odds of success are only 50:50.

I’d second Peter McCluskey‘s suggestion of fertile soil. So far as I know, the clearest case is the Chaco Canyon civilisation where pollen studies have proved that what is now an inhospitable desert in Nevada used to be a green and pleasant land before the civilisation destroyed itself through deforestation making them unable to keep their topsoil. (And wow, they destroyed it so thoroughly that the place is still desert centuries later.) 

I‘m also leaning towards the idea that at least some other ancient civilisations destroyed themselves in a similar way [1] including the Indus Valley civilisation. Not quite exactly the same thing, but the case of Easter Island cutting down all their trees is a similar case of self-inflicted environmental damage causing permanent harm to the civilisation. (Disclaimer, I’m not a historian or archaeologist.)

And like him, I’m not very reassured by the recent record. There are non-civilisation-collapsing examples of similar phenomena from the 1930s Dust Bowl in the US prairies to the current ongoing desertification of the Sahel ie expansion of the Sahara caused mostly by over-grazing. And the inadequate response to climate change [2] suggests that even the most developed countries haven’t become a lot wiser with modern tech.

Having said all that, I agree with the point that so far everyone has been wrong to worry that we will run out of guano / whale oil / peat / coal /oil / potash / insert resource here. But we seem to be a lot better at finding a technological replacement for [specific valuable resource] than we are at mitigating complex externalities with long-term effects.


[1] Basically any civ where the current explanation for their collapse is given as ‘climate change’— that’s the archaeologist equivalent of shrugging and saying ‘they weren’t destroyed by invasion so we dunno’.

[2] with a partial exception for Europe 

Thanks, I hadn't seen that before, and now I have a new concept to play with :-) 

I think the UK and other Western European countries have relatively little direct rent-seeking behaviour, but I agree with your hypothesis for any country that doesn’t have a strong anti-corruption culture. (Here, the rent-seeking goes more through political parties rather than non-political bureaucracies.) And I think the analogy with education is a very good one.

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