About Kevin Simler

Kevin Simler is a writer and technologist. You can follow him on Twitter or over at his home blog, Melting Asphalt.

The Leaning Tower of Morality

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. — Ice-T

Game theory is asleep, cooperate for no reason. — Deity of Religion

There’s an image that’s taken root in my mind recently that I can’t seem to shake. I picture humanity living in a large, rickety tower, tilting at a precarious angle to the ground — like so:

The tower represents our capacity for moral behavior. Lower levels are more base; higher levels, more virtuous. We don’t need an exact floorplan, but here’s the kind of thing I’m imagining:

  • Ground floor: Perfect zero-sum selfishness. Aggression and exploitation. The war of all against all.
  • Middle floors: Various flavors of mutualism. “I’ll help you if you help me.” Reciprocity. Tit for tat.
  • Higher floors: Empathy and compassion. Turning the other cheek. True virtue (not just signaling). A tendency to cooperate in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas.
  • Penthouse: Perfect self-sacrificing altruism. A willingness to give time, energy, money, or even one’s life to help a stranger for nothing in return.

Now, some people inhabit higher floors than others, but with the exception of bona fide psychopaths, all of us live somewhere in the tower, happily above ground.

Here’s the question I want to explore today: How does this structure remain standing? On what ultimate explanatory principles do our moral instincts rest?

[Read more…]

Minimum Viable Superorganism

Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.

Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.

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Technical Debt of the West

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt. This is the finale of his residency.

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

[Read more…]

UX and the Civilizing Process

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

To scandalize a member of the educated West, open any book on European table manners from the middle of the second millennium:

“Some people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish. This is a serious offense.” — Tannhäuser, 13th century.

“Don’t blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.” — S’ensuivent les contenances de la table, 15th century.

“If you can’t swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.” — Erasmus of Rotterdam, De civilitate morum puerilium, 1530.

To the modern ear (and stomach), the behaviors discussed here are crude. We’re disgusted not only by what these authors advocate, but also by what they feel compelled to advocate against. The advice not to blow one’s nose with the meat-holding hand, for example, implies a culture where hands do serve both of these purposes. Just not the same hand. Ideally.

These were instructions aimed at the rich nobility. Among serfs out in the villages, standards were even less refined.

To get from medieval barbarism to today’s standard was an exercise in civilization — the slow settling of our species into domesticated patterns of behavior. It’s a progression meticulously documented by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process. Owing in large part to the centripetal forces of absolutism (culminating at the court of Louis XIV), manners, and the sensibilities to go with them, were first cultivated, then standardized and distributed throughout Europe.

But the civilizing process isn’t just for people.

[Read more…]

Projected Presence

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. — Exodus 20:4-5.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. — P.T. Barnum.


I’ve always been puzzled by idolatry. From the Greek eidos (form or shape) + latreia (worship), idolatry suggests a mindset I find almost impossible to fathom.

How could a basalt statue, or a small wooden figurine, command such power and attention that it would come to be worshipped? What kind of human would “bow down” to such an artifact, or attempt to “serve” it? And how could the practice become so common, in the early-historic Levant, as to require a special injunction against it — in no less privileged a location than the Ten Commandments?

In his mind-rending epic The Origin of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes offers an answer to all of these questions. It’s an answer that’s hard to take seriously, but worth examining — if for no other purpose than to expand our hypothesis-space.

[Read more…]

Consciousness: An Outside View

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

How can ‘mere’ matter, properly configured, manage to be conscious? Are chimpanzees or elephants conscious? Can a computer be conscious?

Today we will answer none of these questions. In fact, we won’t even address them. These questions probe what David Chalmers calls, for good reason, the “hard problem” of consciousness. It’s a notion so slippery that some have spent their whole careers misunderstanding it, while others flirt with denying its very existence.

But ours is not to get mired in this debate. Instead, we’re going to do an end-run around the hard problem of consciousness by taking the “outside view.” Rather than asking about consciousness in the context of an individual mind, we’re going to step back and take a populations-eye view of it.

Enter here the field of epidemiology. Epi (upon) + demos (the people) + logos (study). The study of what is ‘upon’ the people.

Traditionally this has meant diseases — immunity, susceptibility, vectors, contagion, etc. But epidemiology can be used to study other things that live ‘upon’ the people. Dan Sperber, for example, uses the tools of epidemiology to study culture. In the broadest sense, it’s the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of certain conditions within a population.

So today we’re going to look at consciousness through the lens of epidemiology. [Read more…]

The Economics of Social Status

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics, a good is anything that “satisfies human wants and provides utility.” This includes not just tangible goods like gold, grain, and real estate, but also services (housecleaning, dentistry, etc.) as well as abstract goods like love, health, and social status.

As an economic good, social status is a lot like health. They’re both intangible and highly personal. In proper economic terms, they are private goods — rivalrous and mostly excludable. And the fact that they’re hard to measure doesn’t make them any less valuable — in fact we spend trillions of dollars a year in their pursuit (though they often elude us).

But status differs from health in one very important respect: It can be transacted — spent as well as earned. It’s not a terminal good, but rather an intermediate good that helps us acquire other things of value. For example, I can trade some of my status for money, favors, sex, or information — and vice versa.

Health, if it’s possible to spend at all (e.g. in pursuit of career success), is extremely illiquid. But as I will argue today, status is so liquid — so easy to transact, and in real time — that it plays a fundamental economic role in our day-to-day lives. [Read more…]

Honesty and the Human Body

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics and biology, honesty is understood in terms of signals.

Signals are anything used to communicate, to convey information. A price is a signal of value. Conspicuous consumption is a signal of wealth. A growl is a threat — and the growl’s depth is a signal of the size of the creature’s body cavity.

Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the world. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive.

The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals — the most honest ones — are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

This is the reason Apple retail stores are roomy and filled with helpful employees — it’s something their lower-margin competitors can’t afford. It’s also why species with good defense mechanisms (like skunks and coral snakes) evolve high-contrast colors. Unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal’s lunch.

Honesty is thus, in part, an economic proposition.
[Read more…]

Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups

Guest post by Kevin Simler, who works at Palantir, observes the startup scene, and writes at Melting Asphalt, about… well, go see for yourself.

In their natural habitats, social species organize into characteristic groups. Gazelles form herds, wolves form packs, and ants form colonies. Humans, in the same way, form tribes.

Of course, we’re pretty far removed from our natural habitat these days. But tribes are a large and fundamental part of our evolutionary heritage, and they have a corresponding influence on our mental and social lives. Organizing ourselves into tribes is one of the ways we manufacture normalcy. It helps our paleolithic minds perceive and act, more or less sensibly, in an increasingly complex modern world.

Humans also form kingdoms, nations, states, and civilizations, but those units of organizations aren’t as fundamental to our psychology. Statecraft is an esoteric enterprise; we spend most of our cycles processing social data at the tribal scale. Even Kissinger, for all his mastery of foreign relations, had to play tribe-level politics in the White House and State Department.
[Read more…]