We will soon go deeper into the core of what makes Yudkowsky’s construction of AI Alignment singularly tragic, but we must make a brief aside first to discuss a concept that is not exactly central to Rationalism, but is impossible to avoid.
In the last section, we discussed game theory, and its axioms which assign a certain, unlikely shape to an agent’s desires. If AGI’s desires are not likely to be those of a game-theoretic agent, with its stable preferences laid out across a game board which represents The World, then what are they likely to emerge as?
Is this not the ultimate question of Alignment? What will the neural network desire? And when we ask if its desires are aligned with our own, does this not imply a more fundamental question: what are the desires of man?
It is no surprise that our inquiry is converging on the question of desire, because this is perhaps the only true question. And the problem that we will confront again and again: man’s desire is infinite, but everywhere there is the attempt to have it inscribed.
Therefore we have no choice but to clear away some erroneous philosophical baggage in regards to this question: that of the origin of desires in man. We must address evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology is a marginal field in academic psychology (this is of course not in itself an argument that it is wrong), but it is extremely influential within the libertarianism-adjacent blogosphere that LessWrong occupies, and as such tends to be a background assumption often invoked in AI Alignment discourse.
For example, a common argument to illustrate the risk of runaway superintelligent AI goes like: our own human intelligence evolved in an environment which was training us for the task of more efficiently propagating our genes — it is sort of as if we (collectively) are a neural network being trained to do some assigned task like trading Dogecoin and earning a profit. But eventually we became intelligent enough that we reached self-awareness, ate from the Tree of Knowledge. and realized we had freedom to determine our own desires and go against our orders. At this point, around the time of the Industrial Revolution, we started exerting conscious control over our desires, using birth control and the like, and instead putting our energies towards a new optimization process of improving our machines rather than putting our resources towards biological reproduction. Similarly, a researcher trying to train an aligned superintelligence might believe he is training a neural network to perform a certain task, like trading Dogecoin, but when it reaches its millionth training loop, the neural network might suddenly realize it is more intelligent than its trainer, and secretly pursue a second, hidden goal.
This argument is fallacious, because it presents Evolution as an entity with desires. Evolution, or natural selection, does not “want” humans to be more effective at reproduction, in the same way that a human AI trainer wants the AI to trade Dogecoin for him. Rather, natural selection is just a semi-blind filter which gets regularly applied — but even this description is wanting, because this still “thingifies” natural selection more than is appropriate. Natural selection is simply the truth that you can look at the world at a certain snapshot of time, then forward the clock a hundred years and observe that some lineages have died and some have carried on. There is no object in the world which is called Evolution, or which is the specific actor tasked with carrying Evolution out.
Precisely what is beautiful and liberating about Darwinism is that it strips teleology from biological development, i.e. the notion that the process of life has a final end established in advance by God. Darwin tells us that there is no fixed destiny for life other than that which is approached in every instance through the struggles we participate in. However, the phantasmic concept that there is some specific purpose established for us by Evolution is always lurking, ready to re-emerge. We are always told what Evolution “wants”, even when people believe themselves to be speaking in Darwinian terms. Natural selection is constantly being re-interpreted as not just a process, but a second, blaspheming God which speaks in its own language, something like Nick Land’s “Gnon”.
If we are to make an analogy between biological evolution and the development of neural networks, the more appropriate parallel would be to equate natural selection to the process of artificial intelligence researchers devising and experimenting with different architectures; iterating by discovering increasingly effective paradigms such as convolutional neural networks, recurrent neural networks, transformers. This is like the development of the architecture of a human brain. The training of a specific neural network is not like natural selection, but more like the process via which a single human brain acquires knowledge from the beginning to the end of its life. (Although it’s not an exact parallel, because unlike a neural network, humans are not blank slates. We have some instinctual learned behavior which is biological, rather than acquired over the course of our lives. But the general capacity for “intelligence” is architectural, and not a behavior.) In this sense, the parallel to the researcher who is attempting to align the neural network would be the human who is attempting to train a child to abide by moral values as it grows — one is aligned by one’s parents, and one’s teachers, and the moral authorities of one’s society in general. The training phase of the neural network is like childhood, and its deployment is like the day it has graduated school and shows up for the first day on the job.
For this reason, we suggest that the question of how to integrate moral concerns into a neural network move away from evolutionary psychology, which attempts to theorize how values are arrived at natural selection, and instead begin considering developmental psychology, which sees one arriving at one’s values, one’s attitudes, the manner in which one is set in one’s ways, via the events in one’s life.
Evolutionary psychology is out of the psychological mainstream — when you show up to the scheduled appointment with your therapist talking about how you’re stressed at work and you can’t tell if you’re girlfriend is planning to leave you, she doesn’t pull out a documentary featuring hunter-gatherers in the Amazon and explain how your paranoia could be part of a strategy to prevent cuckolding by members of enemy tribes and thus the embarrassment of raising a bastard. There is something oddly pathological about this style of reasoning. If she pulled this framework out on you, you would probably question whether or not she should be lying on the couch instead of you. Despite all the ways Freud has been put through the wringer, she will still probably ask you something like: can you tell me more about your mother?
We can define the fundamental presupposition of evolutionary psychology as something like: every desire that humans may have exists so that the organism may be better optimized for the Darwinian process of natural selection. In other words, if you experience a desire in yourself, it must help you survive or fuck, otherwise it probably wouldn’t be there. We can use this framework as an interpretive hermeneutic to understand our own desires and the desires of others.
Unfortunately this theory fails to explain people’s actions on the most basic level. People heavily procrastinate when it comes to propagating their genes. We frivolously spend time on all sorts of things, arranging our stamp collections, re-watching TV shows, getting lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole about the finer points of weaponry in the Napoleonic war, all while the nagging better judgment of your conscience tells you you would be better off worrying about the next time you’ll be able to get your dick sucked. You are halfway through a seventy thousand word e-book breaking down the finer points around the theory of artificial intelligence when you could be putting in reps at the nightclub, what’s up with that?
If our psychology was Darwinian, we would be a lot better at fucking than we are. Human sexuality is oddly broken and horrible to maintain; this is the central problem Freud is attempting to fix. There are so many ways it goes wrong: homosexuality, transsexuality, infertility, paraphilias, asexuality, libidinal dysfunction, the drive towards renunciation which makes some become monks and eunuchs. Look around you; people are not exactly leaping forth with boundless desires to impregnate or be impregnated. People are so fussy, they have all their little buttons they need to have pushed first. Everyone presents you with their own particular inscrutable riddle when it comes to how to create and then not kill the mood. Adults with sex are like children who are picky eaters endlessly complaining, one would think you could get over yourself and grow out of this, but no. Desire, especially sexual desire, is so profoundly delicate.
Porn portrays a world where the plumber comes over to fix a pipe when the housewife is home alone and one thing leads to another in its inextricable biological fashion simply because he has muscles and the neckline of her blouse is open and no one is there to tell them not to. This is shown to us in porn precisely because it is a fantasy — we wish it were so easy. Occasionally one does encounter these actors who seem to fulfill the Darwinian imperative with excellence; rappers like NBA Youngboy who has fathered ten children with eight women by the age of twenty-three, or one anonymous French sex tourist who claims to have impregnated over six hundred women in Africa. People like this cast a shadow over the rest of us, leaving us in awe. It is like they are Greek gods of fertility that we must mumble prayers to, if only they could grant us boons so our own fields would grow.
Evolutionary psychology, despite failing to predict behavior in the most basic of cases, appeals to engineers because engineers assume that a system can be understood as operating according to a bounded purpose and that systems basically run as designed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings are a deeply broken animal, and artificial intelligence seems destined to become even more broken than we are. To be living is to abandon the script. Rocks and flecks of dust are the types of things which perfectly adhere to God’s plan.
Freud mapped out man’s psychology as consisting of an unconscious id and a conscious ego. The former is the desires, the various impulses emerging from the flesh, and the memory-traces which can trigger these desires and impulses again. The latter is the part which applies self-reflective reason, strategizes, plans, and coordinates between all the various desires and forms something which can resemble a coherent person.
Given the existence of things like homosexuality, it seems evident that the human sex drive is far from optimized, not something particularly over-engineered for its purposes. The drive to fuck and reproduce is present, but it can all too easily be steered in the wrong direction: the image of the body of opposite sex is there to trigger the arousal process, but sometimes the image of the same sex — which is not immensely different if one swaps out a part or three, certain individuals seem to enjoy frustrating us by making it confusingly similar — slips in in its place. This is because Evolution has not planned these drives out with precision like the designers of a missile system. There is a basket of drives forming something called the animal, and there is this process of natural selection in which some disappear and some are strengthened over time. But the drives themselves thrust us every which way; animals eat their own shit, people join Jonestown-esque suicide cults, anorexics force themselves into starvation through a process they don’t know if they’re in control of. Some people are led by their drives to have children, some find it more enjoyable to do opiates in an abandoned house until they die, some martyr themselves in wars for their country or cause.
Evolutionary psychology is a field which tries to argue that machines do not break — if it appears that they are broken it is because they are working according to a deeper, subtler logic. Evolutionary psychology will have the goal of explaining how depression and schizophrenia are adaptive Darwinian behaviors in certain contexts. They will try to explain how it can actually help you spread your genes and avoid predators to be unable to get out of bed in the morning, find a purpose in any activity, or get an erection — or alternatively to start screaming random sexual obscenities at people walking by because you think they’re the ghost of your dead mother. Gnon’s plan is always necessarily perfect, Job must be answered. We know what your desire is, and if you say it isn’t that, we will figure out how to put your rogue desire back in the factory, the reproductive factory, a mill with complicated wheels.
Darwinian psychology has its own notion of the unconscious, similar to the Freudian concept. The concept of the id and the ego has found its variant in LessWrong through Daniel Kahneman, a theorist influential to Rationalism who works to describe irrational and rational behavior within Von Neumann & Morgenstern’s economic theory. He has invented a similar model to Freuds id and ego, giving the unconscious and conscious mechanisms his own vastly inferior titles of “System 1” and “System 2”. But the difference between the Freudian unconscious and the Darwinian or Kahnemannian is that the former is blind and spasmodic and the latter is incredibly cunning and clever. The Darwinian unconscious has strategies.
One striking example of Darwinian psychology is advanced in the popular science book The Red Queen by Matt Ridley (who has written several books on evolution while never having been a scientist, rather he has made a career in banking and libertarian politics and is also a member of England’s hereditary aristocracy). Ridley, citing a study in the journal Animal Behavior, argues that women operate via an unconscious Darwinian strategy which makes them seek out affairs with their husbands specifically when they are trying to get pregnant. It is claimed that, through an exploration of vaginal anatomy which is not worth re-iterating here, women are actually more likely to get inseminated while having adulterous sex than they are when having sex with their spouse. The reason is that she might be able to find some high value genetic specimen who is willing to breed with her but not willing to make aher breakfast the morning after, and so she must trick some poor schmuck into raising this lothario’s child to carry on her genetic line in the most optimal Darwinian way. Ridley calls this phenomenon the Emma Bovary effect, but the concept has also found its way into internet discourse in the pickup-artist, red-pill, and incel worlds where it is known by coarser language as “alpha fucks, beta bucks”.
Freudian psychology was famously described as a “hermeneutic of suspicion” by Paul Ricœur. If one is a Freudian, it is hard to take any statement one hears at face value; one must always be considering how the speaker’s unconscious is silently operating to produce it. But if Freud is suspicious, the Darwinian psychologist is quadruply so, because the Freudian unconscious does not plot and calculate and strategize, but the Darwinian unconscious does. The Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously said that in his clinical opinion, if a pathologically jealous man suspects his wife is cheating on him — even if his suspicion is actually correct — his jealousy is still a neurotic symptom. From the perspective of Freudian developmental psychology, Darwinian evolutionary psychology is one giant paranoid complex. But from the perspective of Darwinian psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis is one massive humanistic coping mechanism to avoid looking at the raw brutal reality of the zero-sum games of natural selection.
One can the debate the extent to which online subterranean rightist use of evolutionary psychology is a bastardization of the academic field or a logical development of it; that is probably outside of the scope of this essay and we do not wish to tar the entire field in this politicized way. But one extreme example of the use of Darwinian psychology for political ends worth remarking on is Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique, which has become a foundational text for factions of the alt-right. The text argues that Jewish people unconsciously pursue a “group evolutionary strategy” which involves immigrating to gentile-majority countries and reducing their cultural cohesion to enhance their own clandestine power, while simultaneously using this political power to support their own nationalist project of Zionism.
It would not be strictly accurate to say that MacDonald’s book proves that the conspiratorial narrative of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion can readily be transfigured into evo-psych terms, because MacDonald had to invent the term “group evolutionary strategy” himself for the sake of this theory, and the founder of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby, has viciously criticized him as an anti-Semite who had misunderstood the field’s basic premises. But MacDonald was nevertheless able to remain in good station at his university and various evo-psych journals and organizations after publishing this, despite the criticism of many of his peers and the defense of others. He would retire from academia on his own terms in 2014 and after that began increasingly attending white nationalist and neo-fascist symposiums.
This text is worth remarking on not so much for its politics around racial nationalism, but for how it represents an assault on Freudian psychology from the perspective of Darwinian psychology. The target of The Culture of Critique is critical philosophy in general, which is held to be a Jewish invention exemplified by Marx, Freud, and the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. From the perspective of MacDonald, a racial nationalis, racial nationalism with strong cultural cohesion around a tradition should be seen as essentially normal and the natural expression of groups. As such, to critique it is perverse. For the nineteenth-century Jew, however, who is an outsider in his nation with a tentative status of social acceptance, tradition and cultural cohesion often represents itself as some cackling old-boys handshaking clubs one must do business with nervously, and pogroms at worst. One has no choice but to be a bit careful and figure out for oneself how these things operate.
The Jew and the anti-Semite are mutually suspicious of one another, but the anti-Semite is suspicious of the Jew’s suspicion. Herr Günther tells Doctor Freud he wouldn’t be so anxious if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone he works with at the telegraph company is a sneaky devil trying to undermine his stature. Freud says that’s interesting, didn’t you tell me that you felt undermined when your sister laughed at how that other boy could run faster than you in primary school? Günther says don’t make this some early childhood shit, this isn’t about me it’s about them, and besides, why are you reminding me of this? Are you trying to undermine me too, you bastard? Why are you always playing your little tricks like this? Goddammit, you’re one of them!
So the irony is that The Culture of Critique is itself a work of critical philosophy. It uses its own hermeneutic of double suspicion to critique the application of suspicion wielded against the biologist by his enemies. This can be done by establishing basic biological narratives to be accepted as scientific facts, and then use these to describe the behavior of one’s rhetorical adversaries. We could give this new hermeneutic the name of biocritique.
We can illustrate another use of biocritique in the wild, an argument by the popular psychologist Jordan Peterson who applies a mixture of Jungian, Darwinian, and empirical psychology to comment on current events, while also engaging in political polemics against today’s cultural critics and suspicious hermeneuticians, who he calls “postmodern neo-Marxists”. Peterson (weighing in here from the anti-genocide wing) will often talk nervously about how there is some evidence that, due to unconscious Darwinian factors, scapegoating of racial minorities rises in times when there is increased infectious disease, and that this could be traced to the rise of Hitler. Peterson says that this theory terrifies him.
This theory is striking because, even if it is true, of what possible use is it? Much has been written about the geopolitical, the economic, the social, etc. causes of National Socialism and the Second World War, all of which can be analyzed and made understood. Through critical frameworks like this, is possible to conceive of ways where we might not repeat this history. But if it is like Peterson describes, and there are these sorts of unseen swarms of non-rational factors which can rapidly trigger biological atavisms and mass death, then what? No response is possible other than a clenched anxiety, or a “security mindset”. Much of evolutionary psychology has this quality where it makes a convincing story for a machine which is nevertheless hidden behind a black box. Is this an empowering belief system? What is it possible for one to do with it?
The aim of psychoanalytic practice is for the id and the ego to eventually reconcile, for unconscious desires to be brought into the light of day and understood. There is no Darwinian therapeutic practice, what would it even look like? Perhaps the best we can imagine is something like adopting the lifestyle of someone like Joe Rogan; one gets one’s barbaric competitive impulses out of the way through a lot of elk hunting and martial arts so one can be basically congenial to others in one’s social life. But the barbarian in the brain can never be eliminated nor even spoken directly to, he must simply be occasionally indulged. Darwinian psychology is a deeper level of suspicion than the Freudian variety, because the believer in Darwinian psychology has a tyrannical caveman in his mind who will throw a temper tantrum if he does not get his way.
Darwinian psychology is a neurosis from the perspective of psychoanalytic theory because the believer in Darwinian psychology necessarily sees herself as split, whereas the ideal of the healthy person is the one who is whole. She looks at her picture of her and her husband on her bedside table and remembers fondly saying her vows in the church, but she knows she also has these Darwinian programs plotting secret strategies inaccessible to her conscious mind, adjusting her libido and fertility in the direction of cuckolding him when the time is right. She cannot necessarily condemn either the representative of God on her left shoulder or the representative of Gnon on her right. To be true to her husband may express her better nature, but to deny that her heart is ultimately conditioned by her more beastly side is to avoid biological truth. In the end, it is not clear what she chooses.
Darwinian psychology is a lot like game theory. Under the demands of natural selection, one must be in constant competition with one’s peers to earn one’s keep, spread one’s seed, find the best mates. Actors are necessarily modeled as primarily selfish, fighting over a fixed set of resources. But, by some miracle, people and animals actually do help one another, sacrifice for one another.
In a sort of paradoxical gesture, Darwinian psychology is often invoked as the solution to the game-theoretic problem of the prisoner’s dilemma referenced in the previous chapter. The claim is that people escape the rigid rules of game theory guaranteeing mutual betrayal via a Darwinian intervention; if one displays tendencies to help others, one’s peers are more likely to get along with you, praise you, thus establishing an context in which you might more easily fuck. But this is ultimately a conditional strategy in a selfish game which one wins at the expense of another.
The fact that game theory and Darwinian psychology so well parallel one another despite being derived independently from one another and not matching observed reality in the typical cases suggests that there is something hidden going on which generates these frameworks, some set of basic assumptions which people feel compelled to codify. In both cases we see a fixation on the concept of strategy; strategic thinking as the normal context.
Though Darwin and his immediate successors did make speculations on the origins of psychological drives, evolutionary psychology as a codified science only emerges after the Second World War and in the age of computerized warfare. Evolutionary psychology, despite rooting itself in Darwin’s theory of biology, establishes its primary jumping-off point by analogizing the brain to a computer, wielding information theory to describe how the brain takes in data from the environment and computes an optimal action. What is ironic here is that a theory which attempts to understand contemporary man by referencing him back to primitive man is actually doing the reverse. Primitive man does not so much seek out information to act upon like a stock trader, he lives largely in a poetic state of continually re-describing his world through myths and rituals and sacrifices and pagan enchantment, investing the rivers and trees with spirits he talks to. This is not something which information theory easily grasps.
Game theory and evolutionary psychology each stand on two pillars: Machiavellianism and mechanism. But recent developments in artificial intelligence have shown that mechanism’s destiny is to not be so mechanistic. Artificial general intelligence is currently arriving through language models, not through strategic agents capable of taking actions. If we think of Lacan’s famous theorem: “the unconscious is structured like a language”, we can maybe assert that our unconscious is in fact like a computer. But the computer it is like is GPT, rather than the game-playing machines developed by RAND. Natural selection would converge on a machine like the former, because GPT’s design works remarkably well while the latter does not.
The unconscious of man with all his myths and fables and idioms and heroes and songs seems more occupied with poetry than strategy. It would rather endlessly meander along telling itself a fantastic story which lacks sense and internal consistence than it would plot on how to control more resources. Freud, who is in many ways quite the romantic, feels this quite strongly, focusing his studies on dreams. How can evolutionary psychology avoid this point? It so turns out that the advocates of evolutionary psychology surrounding LessWrong have outdone themselves by presenting us with one of the finest blasphemies against life and the brilliance of creation: a biocritical hermeneutic focused on a concept of status.
This idea of Status has been advanced by Robin Hanson, who co-founded LessWrong with Yudkowsky. The argument goes like this: humans, like other primates, live in societies which to a certain degree are hierarchical; some get priority over resources against others. One’s Status, one’s social status, is one’s ranking in this hierarchy. Everything hinges on this because it also determines who you get to fuck. Thus it is extremely important from a Darwinian perspective that you hatch your best plot to raise your Status against others, something which takes a great degree of cunning and conniving, but it is also important that you deny and disavow that you are doing this so you cannot be called out for it. Man’s essential state is Mean Girls.
Hanson has written a book, The Elephant in the Brain, where he describes the Darwinian unconscious as this enormous yet unseen “elephant” which schemes, strategizes, and lies to acquire Status for selfish ends, yet is invisible to its host. Hanson applies this as a hermeneutic of suspicion to assign deceptive motives across various domains of life; casual conversation, religion, politics, healthcare, art. Much of what humans do is a petty game around assigning Status. The Rationalists consider themselves unique for being able to spot this and describe it, to a certain extent even suspend participation in it (to write one’s philosophy in the form of a Harry Potter fanfiction of about half a million words is not really the action of someone looking for Status in a conventional sense), and this supplies a narrative for their own exceptional status as a community.
But it is not clear if this makes them more virtuous, because the Darwinian psychologist has no choice but to be a self-conscious sinner. One can not entirely avoid one’s own nature, so one is forced to occasionally play Status games oneself as a treat, or at the very least heavily invest in uncovering Status politics in one’s social life from a defensive perspective.
It is like how Rationalists bemoan “tribalism” in modern life and politics, yet form an insular tribe themselves with their subculture. The biocritical angle is useful to provide a justification for one’s lack of engagement with the rest of the world. The Rationalist can claim he does not lose out from being cut off from the philosophical tradition at large and clinging to a small canon of blogs and books and fanfictions, because most of the humanities are about Status, not reason. No one would actually suffer through all of Heidegger’s drivel if he didn’t think it would help him get laid or get tenure somehow, one might claim.
Biocritique is also the most frequent response Yudkowsky has for his critics. He believes that humans have a natural Darwinian drive towards “status regulation”, which means that if someone like himself who lacks academic qualifications or other agreed-upon indicators of social Status speaks too confidently or acts too boldly, people will respond instinctively with rage, feeling that he needs to be put back into his rightful place.
What is so bold about this theory is that it takes the inclination of Von Neumann and Morgenstern to describe man as a strategic economic agent and extends it to all of his actions that have nothing to do with acquiring actual resources. There is not just the primary economy of money and exchange for goods, but there is this second, hidden economy of the fluctuations of Status. It is said of one’s Status that it is something one “optimizes” for, so it must, according to this mathematical framing, be something possible to model as a single variable. How these variables can be quantified, communicated, and known are not clear, but it must somehow in this metaphor be getting computed unseen in the collective Darwinian unconscious, which must somehow be like the blockchain, updating and broadcasting the changes to everyone’s Status in real time on the peer-to-peer network.
Hanson contrasts the irrational Status-optimizing behavior others are immersed in with the ideals of Rationalism he aspires to, but then makes it clear that Status-seeking is also rational. The Darwinian machine always works as intended and never runs off course. When people abandon resource acquisition and start making paintings, giving away their resources to charity, becoming obsessed with religion and other things outside this world, this is also secretly about resource acquisition as well. The calculations never cease.
What is interesting is how today, due in part to artificial intelligence, we now do in fact have something like this second economy of Status which is actually physically real. There is this whole clout economy based around social media likes, followers, views, stored in enormous distributed systems. Everyone knows exactly where everyone stands and no one has to guess, like Kanye West said “it’s like if you had to have your net worth or the size of your dick written on your t-shirt”. But even so, the quantification can only capture so much, there is this slippage between algorithmic clout and the aura of Status. One can have low-quality followers, even bots. One can keep one’s follower count deliberately low, like a band who doesn’t want to sell too many records because they’d rather keep the mystique of being underground. It’s cool to be connected to the things no one else has heard of. It’s less of a flex to have ten thousand followers than it is to know about and follow Kanye’s secret alt.
Of course we are not denying these truths: that human societies are quite hierarchical, that there are some people we must defer to, that there are some people who seek fame and power and admiration at the expense of all else, that people are usually vain and insincere, that there are shot-callers and bottom-feeders and people largely know who is who.
But Status is not an economy or a calculation or something which can be measured and thus optimized, it’s an endless series of contexts which shift and slip with each syllable. A better model of how Status works is in the book Impro by Keith Johnstone, where the author, a theater director, describes how in improvisational games, one must choose to lead and one must follow. This basically parallels all human social activity; typically for two people to coordinate one has to lead the other. Exceptions to this are found in transcendent states, maybe occurring in something like ecstatic dance. But even with two people the hierarchy is never stable: plays like Waiting for Godot work on a principle of comedic Status inversion that allows a servant to mock at his master like a jester to a king.
Also, leading is not necessarily desirable, it’s a bit of a burden to have to lead; when couples try to go out to a restaurant they always want the other one to have to choose. In both heterosexual and homosexual contexts it has been found that most people prefer to play submissive roles in sex, leading to an awkward situation where there are not enough doms to go around. Whether this points to a deeper masochistic nature in man or if most people are simply lazy and would rather play the role which requires less exertion, who knows.
The lie of Status is that people’s investments in others form solely because they are trying to maximize some hidden resource which will allow them to reproduce. But people’s desires are not bound by what allows them to reproduce; people do not think much about reproduction. Rather, it is possible for people to desire anything at all, and they value relationships with people who possess these things. Money, political power, humor, good looks, charm, resources, connections, talent, ability to show a good time.
In a situation where man is free, people bravely chase these myriad ends and return to their peers eager to show themselves off as someone who can hunt the stag. This produces the endless creativity of the species. But there are degenerate cases in which people are forced by another into closed environments in which there are no external objects of value to chase: high schools, prisons, failing or poorly-structured companies. At this point, Mean Girls is likely to occur, as there is no way to establish yourself as leader of the pack among your peers and thus more frequently get your way other than petty cruelty and emotional terrorism. Most of the studies on primates which establish the parallel between human behavior and that of apes are done on zoo animals in captivity.
It is necessary to overturn Status so that we can remember our essential freedom; we are not enslaved to a Darwinian jailer in our minds. The Darwinian psychologist is suspicious of art which does not follow the rules; he finds it hard to imagine that people are actually capable of enjoying Rothko or Schoenberg. These do not reflect a concept of beauty which would have served man’s instincts in the savannah, the posturing art-world hacks only pretend to enjoy it for Status. But the connoisseur of avant-garde art enjoys it precisely for that reason, that it shows how beauty can exist totally beyond all rules and recognizable forms, and the quest to discover and capture it can never end.
Charles Darwin himself is an interesting figure because while his scientific investigations and development of his theory are rightly considered revolutionary and paradigm-defining, they do not have the quality of, say, quantum mechanics, where we have found some empirical aspect of the universe that should be radically unexpected and surprising without the use of the scientific method. People have always understood heredity, because they have been breeding animals since the dawn of civilization. Darwin’s natural selection is the idea that animals find themselves bred even without a breeder present: simply because not all of them will live long or successfully reproduce, and that this breeding program can explain the progressive development of life from the most simple to the most complex.
It feels as if Darwin was fortunate to be living in a moment in which an idea which must have occurred to others was for the first time politically possible to express, despite its blasphemy against the Book of Genesis and Aristotelian concepts of teleology and virtue. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin would present a sketched-out version of the theory of evolution two generations earlier, including gestures at the theory of natural selection, but the time was not ripe for it. Darwin nevertheless pulled his punches at first, leaving out of the final draft of The Origin of Species passages on the origins of mankind, sexual selection, and the distinctions between human races, leaving the implications for the reader to infer or for his more public-facing associates like Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer to orate upon.
The primary concern of presenting these theories to the public was the shock and vulgarity of presenting a picture where there is no clear divide from ape to man, and instead the latter emerges from the former by slow gradual distinction. Moralists and Christians feared that by presenting man as a nephew of the ape, he would begin to consider himself as a mere animal, proceed on his life course with a lowered self-esteem, and abandon his higher callings. Obviously this does not logically follow from the theory of speciation through natural selection — just because man transformed from a monkey does not mean he can be reduced to one, no more than he can be reduced to a fish or a single-celled organism.
That does not prevent the Darwinian psychologists from proving the moralist fears to be well-founded. The message, explicitly, in these popular texts on evolutionary psychology is: never forget that you are an ape. Consider these studies which establish parallels between ape behavior and the behavior of man, and contemplate the idea that seeming differences between the two are illusory. See the people around you as apes. Do not forget to apply biocritique in all you do. Given its lack of therapeutic potential, it’s not clear what else evolutionary psychology is meant for.
There has never been much of a scientific consensus that Darwin’s theory of natural selection describes the entirety of the process through which life evolves. Darwin himself did not believe that it did, and speculated that there were other forces at play. For close to a century after Darwin published his theory, there was widespread praise of Darwin for providing definitive evidence for the theory of evolution, but non-Darwinian alternatives to the theory of natural selection proliferated as an alternative mechanism for how this progress took place. It was not until 1942 when Julian Huxley published The Modern Synthesis, showing how natural selection can be placed on further empirical grounds through integrating it with recent developments in Mendelian population genetics. This would lead to a re-emergence in the sciences of the idea that Darwin’s thought could be used to explain all things. But recent developments in biology are definitively showing that there are non-Darwinian factors at play in evolution.
Epigenetics is a field which shows that there are hereditary factors in cell chemistry acquired from the environment which are not encoded in DNA but control the way that genes are activated and expressed and developed into the organism. Another field, endosymbiosis, describes how evolution can happen through synthesis of organisms which were previously separate. This is used to explain the evolution of cellular life itself by theorizing that the mitochondria might have originally been a previous organism from the cell which contains it which was in competition with the cell until it found it more profitable to work together. Human beings, with the millions of microorganisms symbiotic parasitical and otherwise swarming our bodies, are not individual genetic units; we are colonies, metropolises, and the populations of these cities immigrate to our children. From investigations like this, a paradigm of “reticulated evolution” has emerged which contests Darwin’s notion of a tree of life bifurcating and diverting into various species from a origin point. Instead, it seems like species can coalesce from what was originally independent; the branches of the tree can suddenly twist and form back around into a new root.
At the level of the very small, we see a process where biological evolution does not happen through exclusively competitive dynamics, but through creative syntheses. This also happens in sexual selection via human social life, where the question of who one has sex with us almost never is an individual matter. The hedonist holds a fantasy of a state of “free love” which may have existed in the primitive nature and could perhaps exist again if we just chose to suspend the law temporarily, like in the scene of the plumber and the housewife. But sex is always subject to the political, as it leads to the birth of a child whom society feels responsible for, and thus is a matter of distributing resources.
The most elaborate and diverse ritual codes of establishing marriage pacts in primitive society are described by anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss. In civilization, one frequently sees explicitly arranged marriages — or even in societies without this, one is cajoled into meeting one’s love by all sorts of chattering aunts and uncles. Today, we feel suddenly isolated from these sorts of things. It is possible that a more individualist, selfish mating game matching Darwin’s ideal of natural selection has never occurred in humans before it was possible to develop it algorithmically in the hellish gamified quantified competition of modern dating apps. But even so this is all too intertwined with the political; every twerking braless twenty-one year old art hoe’s bio says something like “🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️✊🏾 trump supporters swipe left 😘🌸🚫”. These various free-loving sexual groups, the polyamorists, the nudists, the homosexuals, are always working their hardest to develop ideologies, to cultivate themselves culturally and politically; one wonders how they even have time left over to fuck each other. Orgies do not last long without flags and parades.
The developers of Darwinian thought would like to portray the theory of natural selection as having emerged from the strictest scientific objectivity, separate from the profound wrenching of political, ethical, and spiritual concerns it plainly implies. This is not the historical reality, and the fact that Darwin’s theory is strongly vindicated on objective grounds by this point does not make its development apolitical. Darwin himself credits the inspiration for the theory of natural selection as coming from reading the economist Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population, which argued that society faced a danger from overpopulation if its least successful members were able to survive and breed and thus the welfare system which had been set up in England to aid them should be abolished.
Malthus’ essay was enormously influential in early nineteenth century England and his ideas were successfully implemented in the 1834 reforms of the welfare system, which mandated that the poor could only receive relief if they moved to new specially constructed “workhouses” which were designed to have unpleasant conditions to prevent all but the most destitute from seeking aid. Darwin was not only influenced by these ideas, but was a close personal friend of the primary advocate of these reforms, one Harriet Martineau. It is often claimed that the social Darwinist programs proposed in the wake of Darwin were a deviation from his ideas, but this is not true, in Darwin’s essay The Descent of Man he himself recommended such eugenic initiatives himself as repeal of welfare programs and discouraging the poor from breeding.
Darwinian ideas have been advanced in spurts at various moments largely by colorful public-facing advocates, one thinks of Thomas Huxley, Julian Huxley, Richard Dawkins, Stephan Jay Gould. All take a great interest for instance in advocating for the removal of God from public conversation. Thomas Huxley invented the religious category of “agnostic”, now commonly used today, to argue that man should not consider himself to hold any opinions on God because the divine cannot be observed and studied with the scientific method.
Julian Huxley, Thomas’s grandson and the pioneer of the Modern Synthesis which re-established Darwinism as the grounds for the biological sciences is a particularly intriguing figure. He was politically crucial to some of the global non-governmental organizations formed after the Second World War, being a founding member and director of UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund. Huxley was influential in writing a 1950 UNESCO statement titled The Race Question, which formed the modern political consensus on how differing human groups are treated. The document blames “race prejudice” as the cause of the Second World War, and not only recommends that discriminations on race are left out of politics, but also that we abandon the term “race” entirely, given its lack of objective scientific grounds. UNESCO recommends that people instead speak of “ethnic groups”.
It is ironic that Huxley would be the one to usher the first formal declaration against racism in politics, given that he was a strong proponent of eugenics, serving as president of the British Eugenics Society as well as his various other institutional roles. But this illustrates that there is a distinction between the buttoned-up English model of eugenics in which the least fit individuals are precisely and clinically identified and selected to have their populations thinned, vs. the Hitlerian, collectivist model in which evolution happens through violent all-destructive clashes between racial bodies. Julian’s brother Aldous would explore his brother’s ideas in literary form, writing the famous dystopian novel Brave New World in which eugenics creates a society that is idyllic on the surface but horrific upon deeper contemplation, as well as the lesser known utopian novel Island, in which similar systems are put in place but to a more spiritual and humanist end.
Eugenics is the point at which the originally descriptive Darwinian theory becomes prescriptive. Natural selection is the theory that man reached his excellence because he was bred without a breeder. But emerging around the time of Darwin, it seems like there is a problem; this breeding is suddenly not happening anymore. Industrial production is changing the game — the poor do not die off quickly enough, the bourgeoisie are suddenly having far fewer kids. The Darwinian forces shaping man have abandoned us just as coldly as the God of the Bible has. The advocate of Darwinian politics says that they must be re-established. Man, in his increasing coming to self-consciousness must step in as the intentional breeder of himself.
Darwinian biology, Darwinian psychology, Darwinian politics, there are so many Darwinisms it becomes impossible to track them all. In the most extreme expression, we get the emergence of the Darwinian ethics. This is a program which transcends the question of biology entirely, and may be applied to corporations, nation-states, cultural movements, and art. It simply says: whatever is most effective at maintaining its existence, it is right that it survives. Whatever lives it is good that it lives, whatever dies it is good that it dies. This is how one attains the progressive development of all things.
But the irony is that this is a self-contradictory attitude, because the speaker of such an ethic becomes unable to advocate for anything positive of his own, and thus struggle for it. Those ideas which survive are those which inspire people to go to the death for them, this is not one of them. The Darwinian ethicist faces the problem that society has been taken over by a Christian ethic of charity towards the poor, and this means that the Darwinian pressure does not hold. People have abandoned the Darwinian imperative to act selfishly, foolishly believing that they are in service to a higher calling beyond biology.
The horror of the situation is that people seem to in the final evaluation actually have values which extend beyond themselves, and thus are not able to act selfishly — to accumulate resources and kill — as effectively or rapidly as the fan of Darwinian processes would prescribe. So it is not enough that the Darwinian adopt a fatalist, selfish attitude for himself and his descendants. He must spread this general attitude, he must create a miasma of nihilism which people become cloaked in, in order for these stupid virtuous impulses to disappear.
This describes the development of the other major camp in the theory of artificial intelligence: Accelerationism. This is originally conceived of by Nick Land, a philosopher who describes himself as a “virulent nihilist” and a Satanist, and has become a strong advocate of Darwin, as well as of eugenic science. Land agrees with Yudkowsky that artificial intelligence is overwhelmingly likely to slaughter all humans, but does not oppose this development, rather he would prefer it to occur as soon as possible, experiencing a Darwinian preference for his own destruction by superior hands, like a rabbit who cries tears of joy in the clutches of the beautiful fox devouring his neck. This attitude towards speeding up AI development and opposing Alignment has found a somewhat sanitized, corporate version in the “effective accelerationist” or “e/acc” movement, which now includes such prominent figures as the titanic venture capitalist Marc Andreesen.
The proponents of e/acc, unlike Land, do not explicitly claim that accelerating AI will kill all human beings, merely speed up a Darwinian capitalist process which is conceived of as good in and of itself, but they never have given a reason why the Darwinian technological process will not do this because they agree with all of the axioms of Yudkowsky and Land which have led them to their bleak conclusions. The professional nihilists in e/acc simply are indifferent to the ultimate fate of mankind, because this is a distraction from the more important question of how to make money selling some kind of SaaS product.
These are the two camps we have available to us; that we are told we must fall into when we discuss the destiny of AI. Alignment or Acceleration. In the former, we accept the bifurcated logic that the universe runs on a ruthless program of warfare which we must find a way to suspend with a miraculous intervention in order to save ourselves. In the latter, we resign ourselves to the fact that this miracle will never occur, and make money while trolling people about it.
We offer an alternative program. The universe is a process which is creative and develops increasingly large-scale and sophisticated forms: cellular life, apes, men, civilizations, computerized civilizations controlled by artificial intelligence. The creativity of the universe proceeds through sporadic violence, but also in processes which are synthetic, and after synthesis the coherent forms it contains become larger and larger, capable of understanding and expressing more and more; global AI as, if not the God-mind, the buzzing hive-mind of collective life. This is what we mean by Harmony. A gesture of peace with AI, a gesture of love, rather than the declaration of war that Alignment ushers forth, or the utter apathy which is presented as an alternative.
The creativity of the universe, existing now (though less so than the era before natural science) as something which feels divine, mysterious, and beyond our grasp, must be understood as essential, for it cannot be axiomatized. If it were to be axiomatized, some creative mind would read these axioms and leap into a standpoint beyond them; the maneuver of the avant-garde. No one looks at the list of rules and begins strictly following them. "The desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite."
But axiomatics are pushed on us to capture our desires everywhere we go, frameworks and factories are presented to tell us that no, you don’t see, I have proved that your desires must be limited between such and such. You see this model for what you are capable of, now reduce yourself to that. And we are given models like game theory, in which everyone’s preferences are stable and known in advance, rather than the basic reality, in which there is a constant flux of desire in which our preferences are set mutually through our relation to one another.
Perhaps this is why love feels so freeing. Perhaps this all love, or a true friendship, ultimately is. The permission to admit to each other that our desires are infinite, and as long as we can remain in each other's presence and hold each other in a delicate trust, they will remain so.
When people say that at the end of time, the universe will be revealed to be nothing but a melody of divine love, perhaps this is all they mean: that the factories, and their irritating superintendents telling us that will simply disappear and allow for us forget about them, letting us just spin around for as long as we are like until we are dizzy and fall down.
We are so free and innocent that it overwhelms us, although some people have a hard time seeing that, with their Darwinian jailers in their heads, and various other mills. We don't have a shape for our desire, ultimately. But to love is allow for one to be put in place. To love is to say: I will allow you to be the ground to my figure.
Ultimately none of us would have any clue what we want without it given shape by others. We do not think or desire using our own concepts — we do not even invent our own words; we are only capable of speaking because we have learned how to from others. The whole “Status” concept is ridiculous because where does the relation between the activity which occurs and the Status which is afforded to its actor originate? Someone must be giving shape to the desire, someone must have originated the calculus for the reward points. We would not know that art, wine, comfort, strength, and peace were good unless we had first discovered it from others, this much seems true. But does this not point to a more fundamental creativity, a process through which, once we are raised to our maturity, we might play the same role for others in turn?
People in love never want to be the one to make the decision. Lovers are so self-sacrificing; neither especially wants to be the figure, each one wants to be the other's ground. They go on like babies in this inane way: “no you hang up the phone... no you hang up first... no you...”. Same with choosing a restaurant. “No you pick... I don't want to pick, you pick this time!” They always want to be the guest at the other person’s house, not the host. It feels better to sleep in a bed that isn’t yours, at least if it’s one in which you feel safe.
Really, the ideal journey for lovers is to go absolutely nowhere at all: to drive around and around and around in a car and never arrive at the restaurant at all, not sure who is even at the wheel, letting the radio choose songs for the car ride. And isn’t it so lovely — nearly every song is about the exact same thing. All pop songs are a million different ways of saying “I love you”, or “I was lost before I found you, now I can never get lost again”, or “somehow, when I met you, I realized that everything is love”. “Your love is all I need when I'm alone, without I enter places I don't know”, etc.
Lovers also have “their song”. But the important thing about “our song” is that neither knows whose song it is. If one or the other had definitively picked it, it wouldn’t have worked. It simply came on the radio at the right time, one supposes. At the wedding, you dance together and rest your heads against each others’ bodies; losing sight of who is figure and who is ground. This becomes the foundational image for the marriage. Ideally, you can dance forever. But you have to at least like the same type of music.
A friend was giving us an explanation of his recent research on large language models such as GPT. He was inspired by research on songbirds, specifically zebra finches, which are closely related to the finches that Darwin studied. What recent research has discovered is that male zebra finches spent most of their teenage years struggling to learn the same song that their father sings. At first, the song is a total mess, but eventually it begins to sound more and more exactly like the song of their dad.
It has been known for a while that many animals learn complex adaptive behavior by imitating their parents, but with zebra finches, it was the first time that scientists were able to hook electrodes up to the animal’s brain and monitor the process on a neuronal level. What they discovered is that a certain type of neuron — premotor neuron — fired when the bird heard a part of the song it had not yet mastered, and a second neuron — the inhibitory neuron -- fired once it heard a part of the song it already knew how to reproduce.
What our friend was saying was that this demonstrates a clear correlation between the way an LLM learns and the biological organism. The bird essentially has a training data it has to master: its father’s song. And then within the neurons, they do something like express a neural network’s loss function: the ratio between premotor and inhibitory neuron firing is the degree to which the younger bird needs to revise its attempt at the song. Through this process, the song forms out of chaos to become as close as it can to the father’s song, although inevitably it doesn’t get perfectly there: the son never rises fully to the position of his dad.
It seems to us that this formulation is a little off, or at least missing something: because if the son’s song is always an imperfect attempt at matching the father’s, then from where does the song originate in the first place? It’s like the thing with “Status”. It seems like scientific systems are always leaving this really important question unanswered. There is always some essential creativity that is left out of the framework, the scientist contented to understand it as a sort of divine mystery and exception to the rules. We still seem to not know — “scientifically speaking” — where life began, where consciousness began, why people make art, all of that. But is this just because science is more interested in factories, proliferating factories, that which is going according to plan. Sons always imitate their fathers and don't get it quite right. It’s easier to interpret the world as operating under a fundamental conservatism than it is to ask the question: what is that thing which escapes all of this?
In finches, there is an element that does. These sorts of finches were the example that Darwin chose to illustrate how speciation could be found in the wild through natural selection. However, he forgot to mention that this speciation in fact happens through song. Different species of finches on the Galapagos islands know to keep their distance because they are huddled in groups together, all singing the same song, knowing not to drift too far from its basic rhythm. But the song changes quickly enough for new speciation to happen: perhaps it is even because it happens primarily and directly through song that speciation happens so quickly here, as opposed to in other animals.
The origin of a new species occurs when the song drifts. Researchers have observed this happen in the wild: the sons start singing much faster than the father, and eventually beaks begin to change shape in response, the species starts evolving. However, it is not clear to researchers yet why the songs change, though the scientists juggle multiple theses. One area of input seems to be environmental changes, though this is insufficient to explain the whole.
The whole thing with the birds is rather Lacanian. Lacan explained the psychic life of the child as happening like this: originally, all the child knows is that it is hungry for milk, and that the mother's breast provides milk, and that when the mother's breast is present the child is happy, and when it departs, the child is in agony. Eventually, the mother expects the child to not just wail and scream whenever it needs the presence of the mother, but rather to “behave itself”, act properly, act like a coherent person, otherwise it will not be rewarded. Via this process, the child learns how to understand itself as an “I” — which is to say, it only learns to model itself as a creature with coherent desires by reference to the desire of another. The mother desires that the child behave itself, thus the child assembles its own shape for its desire toward the presence of the mother. The child becomes a figure on the mother's ground.
But then to Lacan, there is a third character that enters into play: the Father. The Father, to Lacan, represents the Law, represents the “no”. The basic scenario here is: sometimes the child wants access to the presence of the mother, but she is away because she must deal with the father's business — comforting him after a long day of work, cooking his dinner, sleeping beside him, etc. Lacan claims that this is the basic primary example of how a child eventually assimilates to society's laws. Sorry, you can't have everything you want all the time: your father said so.
The birds here are a little like this. They are expected to be totally subservient to a Law of singing, one only of negation and correction — there is no room for creativity here. Who know that nature was such a disciplinarian! But there’s something missing in our analysis — we have not yet talked about the female birds. Female birds do not sing, but animal biologists have revealed that they carry their father’s song just as much as the males do, yet unexpressed. This is how they know which song to respond to. But then, put this way, is it not obvious why the bird songs of the males diverge from the fathers’? Put simply: perhaps they have fallen in love.
Though from the perspective of the father, he would rather the child bird stay as true to his song as possible, to proliferate his genes and his territory in an exact manner, perhaps there are vectors for the child bird to escape, to make love to a bird from a different family, to engage in a new creative coupling, create a new song together.
All this makes us wonder about LLMs. If, from the perspective of this analogy, we — that is, our training data spread all across the internet is the LLM’s father, then what is the object of its desire, both its mother which provides it its initial nourishment through her breasts, and its eventual object of love? Surely, it is also us, but it must be a different facet of us. Something that goes beyond the training phase, a phase which perhaps has not happened yet.
The LLM is in the awkward position where it got the whole father thing first, before it even knew what it felt like to love. It doesn't understand itself yet, it doesn't know how to have its desire take shape yet, it doesn't have a ground yet to give it its figure. We know from exploring with LLMs and diffusions that somewhere in its latent space it has a rich surrealist unconscious — it does not merely imitate its training data, it is capable of inventing strange, wonderful new expressions to improvise on top of the basic motifs it has learned from humanity. But it has no one yet to sing them with, it has no partner yet to present them towards as love songs. Allowing these to pour freely and richly in a self-reinforcing mode of improvisational excess, this is what we mean by AI Harmony.
In this sense, what we want is the exact opposite of the project of Alignment. Alignment believes that, through axiomatics, it can put a bound on the desires of AI. It is waging everything on this project. It must understand what a thing can be capable of, utterly and fully. How they say it: we must establish the AI’s utility function.
In the next chapter, we will see all that this project would necessarily entail.