Helpless Individuals

When you con­sider that our group­ing in­stincts are op­ti­mized for 50-per­son hunter-gath­erer bands where ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one else, it be­gins to seem mirac­u­lous that mod­ern-day large in­sti­tu­tions sur­vive at all.

Well—there are gov­ern­ments with spe­cial­ized mil­i­taries and po­lice, which can ex­tract taxes. That’s a non-an­ces­tral idiom which dates back to the in­ven­tion of seden­tary agri­cul­ture and ex­tractible sur­pluses; hu­man­ity is still strug­gling to deal with it.

There are cor­po­ra­tions in which the flow of money is con­trol­led by cen­tral­ized man­age­ment, a non-an­ces­tral idiom dat­ing back to the in­ven­tion of large-scale trade and pro­fes­sional spe­cial­iza­tion.

And in a world with large pop­u­la­tions and close con­tact, memes evolve far more viru­lent than the av­er­age case of the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment; memes that wield threats of damna­tion, promises of heaven, and pro­fes­sional priest classes to trans­mit them.

But by and large, the an­swer to the ques­tion “How do large in­sti­tu­tions sur­vive?” is “They don’t!” The vast ma­jor­ity of large mod­ern-day in­sti­tu­tions—some of them ex­tremely vi­tal to the func­tion­ing of our com­plex civ­i­liza­tion—sim­ply fail to ex­ist in the first place.

I first re­al­ized this as a re­sult of grasp­ing how Science gets funded: namely, not by in­di­vi­d­ual dona­tions.

Science tra­di­tion­ally gets funded by gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, and large foun­da­tions. I’ve had the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover first­hand that it’s amaz­ingly difficult to raise money for Science from in­di­vi­d­u­als. Not un­less it’s sci­ence about a dis­ease with grue­some vic­tims, and maybe not even then.

Why? Peo­ple are, in fact, proso­cial; they give money to, say, puppy pounds. Science is one of the great so­cial in­ter­ests, and peo­ple are even widely aware of this—why not Science, then?

Any par­tic­u­lar sci­ence pro­ject—say, study­ing the ge­net­ics of try­pan­otol­er­ance in cat­tle—is not a good emo­tional fit for in­di­vi­d­ual char­ity. Science has a long time hori­zon that re­quires con­tinual sup­port. The in­terim or even fi­nal press re­leases may not sound all that emo­tion­ally arous­ing. You can’t vol­un­teer; it’s a job for spe­cial­ists. Be­ing shown a pic­ture of the sci­en­tist you’re sup­port­ing at or some­what be­low the mar­ket price for their salary, lacks the im­pact of be­ing shown the wide-eyed puppy that you helped usher to a new home. You don’t get the im­me­di­ate feed­back and the sense of im­me­di­ate ac­com­plish­ment that’s re­quired to keep an in­di­vi­d­ual spend­ing their own money.

Iron­i­cally, I fi­nally re­al­ized this, not from my own work, but from think­ing “Why don’t Seth Roberts’s read­ers come to­gether to sup­port ex­per­i­men­tal tests of Roberts’s hy­poth­e­sis about obe­sity? Why aren’t in­di­vi­d­ual philan­thropists pay­ing to test Bus­sard’s poly­well fu­sor?” Th­ese are ex­am­ples of ob­vi­ously ridicu­lously un­der­funded sci­ence, with ap­pli­ca­tions (if true) that would be rele­vant to many, many in­di­vi­d­u­als. That was when it oc­curred to me that, in full gen­er­al­ity, Science is not a good emo­tional fit for peo­ple spend­ing their own money.

In fact very few things are, with the in­di­vi­d­u­als we have now. It seems to me that this is key to un­der­stand­ing how the world works the way it does—why so many in­di­vi­d­ual in­ter­ests are poorly pro­tected—why 200 mil­lion adult Amer­i­cans have such tremen­dous trou­ble su­per­vis­ing the 535 mem­bers of Congress, for ex­am­ple.

So how does Science ac­tu­ally get funded? By gov­ern­ments that think they ought to spend some amount of money on Science, with leg­is­la­tures or ex­ec­u­tives de­cid­ing to do so—it’s not quite their own money they’re spend­ing. Suffi­ciently large cor­po­ra­tions de­cide to throw some amount of money at blue-sky R&D. Large grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions built around af­fec­tive death spirals may look at sci­ence that suits their ideals. Large pri­vate foun­da­tions, based on money block-al­lo­cated by wealthy in­di­vi­d­u­als to their rep­u­ta­tions, spend money on Science which promises to sound very char­i­ta­ble, sort of like al­lo­cat­ing money to or­ches­tras or mod­ern art. And then the in­di­vi­d­ual sci­en­tists (or in­di­vi­d­ual sci­en­tific task-forces) fight it out for con­trol of that pre-al­lo­cated money sup­ply, given into the hands of grant com­mit­tee mem­bers who seem like the sort of peo­ple who ought to be judg­ing sci­en­tists.

You rarely see a sci­en­tific pro­ject mak­ing a di­rect bid for some por­tion of so­ciety’s re­source flow; rather, it first gets al­lo­cated to Science, and then sci­en­tists fight over who ac­tu­ally gets it. Even the ex­cep­tions to this rule are more likely to be driven by poli­ti­ci­ans (moon­shot) or mil­i­tary pur­poses (Man­hat­tan pro­ject) than by the ap­peal of sci­en­tists to the pub­lic.

Now I’m sure that if the gen­eral pub­lic were in the habit of fund­ing par­tic­u­lar sci­ence by in­di­vi­d­ual dona­tions, a whole lotta money would be wasted on e.g. quan­tum gib­ber­ish—as­sum­ing that the gen­eral pub­lic some­how ac­quired the habit of fund­ing sci­ence with­out chang­ing any other facts about the peo­ple or the so­ciety.

But it’s still an in­ter­est­ing point that Science man­ages to sur­vive not be­cause it is in our col­lec­tive in­di­vi­d­ual in­ter­est to see Science get done, but rather, be­cause Science has fas­tened it­self as a par­a­site onto the few forms of large or­ga­ni­za­tion that can ex­ist in our world. There are plenty of other pro­jects that sim­ply fail to ex­ist in the first place.

It seems to me that mod­ern hu­man­ity man­ages to put forth very lit­tle in the way of co­or­di­nated effort to serve col­lec­tive in­di­vi­d­ual in­ter­ests. It’s just too non-an­ces­tral a prob­lem when you scale to more than 50 peo­ple. There are only big tax­ers, big traders, su­per­me­mes, oc­ca­sional in­di­vi­d­u­als of great power; and a few other or­ga­ni­za­tions, like Science, that can fas­ten par­a­siti­cally onto them.