Gene Expression

Seed is asking which invention I’d uninvent. My reflexive response is atomic weapons. I want to emphasize weapons because I think nuclear energy is going to be important, just as James Lovelock does. But if I was God who could change the world by fiat, well, atomic weapons would probably be it. Now, I say this with the convinction that I suspect more lives would be lost between 1945-2000 than in the “atomic age.” I think convential wars would be more brutal and more frequent than under the specter of the nuclear apocolypse. But, I suspect in my lifetime some idiotic small banana republic will blow up another worthless banana republic, and that’s going to cause problems.

But since Evolgen already said nuclear weapons, I will say that television is my runner up.


  1. #1 John Wilkins
    May 5, 2006

    Gunpowder. It’s killed more than al lthe other weapons combined, and it’s contributed to the discovery of other explosives and imperialist policies by technologically advanced nations over those who just can’t afford it. Leave the nukular power in place; it can be useful. Gunpowder has no useful role at all but in dealing death.

  2. #2 Jason Malloy
    May 5, 2006

    In the long run I’d say A-bombs will have actually saved more lives (Ending WWII, Cold War stalemate, etc.). Even assuming we haven’t seen the worst, it’s hard to believe the human toll could ever even begin to approach that of Communism. So I’m going with that one. With, ironically, maybe the Abrahamic faith as a runner-up. Nah, chattel slavery.

    Or, if we’re implying more tangible inventions, maybe distilled beverages – assuming drunkenness has caused a lot of suffering without giving much back in return (unlike the car deathtrap).

    I assume I’m overlooking something really obvious though. Jared Diamond has argued that agriculture is the invention with the biggest human toll, but this is basically Luddite, which is short-sighted.

    btw – television has been a total net positive.

  3. #3 John Lynch
    May 5, 2006

    Wilkins, gunpowder is pre-last century … pay attention ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. #4 Jason Malloy
    May 5, 2006

    My comment hasn’t showed up yet, but John’s qualification already invalidates it. So I’m going with the Segway.

  5. #5 Roman Werpachowski
    May 6, 2006

    John, one cannot have nuclear weapons without conventional explosives!

  6. #6 Matt McIntosh
    May 6, 2006

    You’re right in your assessment of what life would have been like absent nukes, which is why I’m puzzled as to why you’d still remove them from history. Even assuming your gut is correct about the future, do you really think that the hypothetical use of a nuke on a small country is going to be worse than, say, a potential full blown war with the Soviets would have been? I don’t.

  7. #7 Dan Dare
    May 6, 2006

    Well I’d uninvent that machine that lets phone advertisers scan through lists of phone numbers automatically. IMHO the telephone advertisement is the worst invention of the last or arguably any other century.

    You always know when you are about to be subjected to a new campaign. You get random phone calls at odd hours of the day, with nobody on the other end when you answer; This is when their computers are sniffing out automatically what times of the day you are reachable. Then a few days later they start targetting you with actual advertisements.

    It ought to be a hanging offense. It’s worse than spam email. I can delete most spam without wasting time reading it. But a phone call always has to be answered because you never know when it might be something important.


  8. #8 Dan Dare
    May 6, 2006

    Oh and by the way, I would never give up atomic weapons. You never know when you might encounter a hostile alien species. It’s a big and potentially dangerous universe out there.

  9. #9 razib
    May 6, 2006

    re: atomic weapons and lives, i think if i was god and could run a simulation of the 20th century, atomic weapons would result in a median value of fewer lives lost, but i think the variance would be greater. so, a-weapons might have resulted in fewer lives lost in our universe, but i assume in some universes it resulted in destruction of civilization. and i think in the future it might result in the same thing, as t approaches infinite we’re toast as long as we stay overgrown apes. which is why i think post-humanism is the main way our species consciousness can be projected into the future (i guess space colonization could do it too).

    oh, and dan, i think that any alien species that contacts us will be able to swat us aside if it wants to. i doubt nuclear weapons will do much (after all, they can simply send comets [fixed typo, wuz comments] or asteroids swing toward earth).

  10. #10 Alex
    May 6, 2006

    Surely if they send comments we can just block their IP address?

  11. #11 razib
    May 6, 2006

    to be more precise, imagine a graph with axes,

    y axis – mortality due to war
    x axis – year

    you have f(x) which plots the number who die due to war every year. in the case of nuclear weapons i believe that over a short interval the integral of f(x) would on average be smaller, but, i suspect that the modal value on y would be far higher for the nuclear scenario than the convential one. and, evaluated over the whole interval of the x axis the integral of the nuclear f(x) might be higher because of a extent of the modal value.

  12. #12 Boknekht
    May 6, 2006

    War plane bombardment can be pretty destructive too.

    I wonder if having a brighter world population would mean more nukes, as almost any country could then produce them?

  13. #13 Dan Dare
    May 6, 2006

    Razib, I’m thinking mainly that as we start to explore space ourselves, we are more likely to encounter other species of a hostile disposition.

    When I refer to “atomic weapons”, I am including even more advanced concepts than 20th century bombs – Though I wouldn’t give up the bombs either. “Nuke them from orbit” is still a worthwhile option to keep in mind.

  14. #14 Bob Hawkins
    May 6, 2006


  15. #15 Jesse M.
    May 10, 2006

    Dan, given the timescales of evolution relative to the timescales of civilization, if there are alien intelligences out there it’s extremely unlikely their civilization began around the same time as ours, far more likely that they’d be be millions or billions of years older. And in any case, any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel will probably have already passed some sort of technological singularity (see ) and thus be run by superintelligent AIs rather than biological critters like ourselves (our civilization probably will be too by the end of this century).

  16. #16 michael vassar
    May 10, 2006

    I am ambivalent on TV. It’s awful for most, but sadly, for many people it’s all they have.
    Nukes we agree completely on.
    I agree with Dan that telephone advertisements should be illegal.
    For worst invention though… How about taxible income withholding? Fiat currency? Lots of Libertarian possibilities.

  17. #17 Dan Dare
    May 11, 2006

    Jesse M, its a valid point. But I’d still rather have nukes on call, rather than not have them if you suddenly found you needed them.

    We can’t assume all civilizations decide to go out and explore space. Some might be perfectly happy spending the rest of eternity playing video games. Some humans might be too. It’s arguable that cyberspace could be far more interesting than real space – just boring stars and dead planets. In cyber you could have endless magical worlds.

    What if we came across a planet where a Matrix-like AI had taken over and then not bothered to expand any further. If we suddenly appeared on the scene, we might give it dangerous ideas. I vote for nuking it from orbit. Or at least being ready to at the first sign of trouble. In an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities. Better to be prepared.

  18. #18 Boknekht
    May 11, 2006

    “In an infinite universe there are infinite possibilities.”

    That may seem to be the case but i doubt that it is so. How likely is it that we, or any alien civilization, we be able to achieve the speed of light for space travel/exploration. And, even at the speed of light, over dozens, or thousands perhaps, of light-years, you’ve really only traveled a short distance in the universe. I profoundly doubt that any aliens could ever overcome or bypass the laws of physics. We won’t be meeting any aliens, & they won’t be metting us, not even if we survive ’til the sun dies(5 billion yrs?).

    We need a capability of going billions or trillions(or greater even) of times beyond the speed of light to really “get out anywhere” in this great universe, don’t ya think?

  19. #19 Axolotl
    May 12, 2006

    How do you get rid of an invention without removing all associated developments?

    No alcohol means no early antiseptics, and no further development of medicine (too many patients would die just in the hospital)

    No television means no modern computers – since the concept of a monitor wouldn’t exist

    No gunpowder means that early settlers of the Americas (for one example) wouldn’t be able to hunt, leading to a much higher incidence of failure. It also might prevent the development of rocketry and space travel, since these things started with gunpowder. That deletes satellites and efficient, cheap transcontinental communication from the historical record.

    Everything effects everything else. Unless you were speaking of uninventing these things right at this moment, with their history intact. I think someone would just reinvent them though.

  20. #20 Dan Dare
    May 12, 2006


    You can get up to a few percent of the speed of light using a nuclear-fusion powered rocket. And there may be ways of improving on that. (Fusion ramrockets, antimatter, etc). That allows you to cross typical interstellar distances in our galaxy in around a century or less.

    Then the only problem is to extend the human lifespan to a few thousand years or more to make it worthwhile. Of course you can send robots out to scout out ahead of you, and prepare for your arrival.

    There are of the order of 10ยนยน stars in our galaxy. That ought to keep us busy for a while. At an average expansion rate of 1% of speed of light, our species could fill the galaxy in ~10 million years. This is a short time in astronomical or evolutionary timescales. If transhumanism makes it possible for me to live long enough, I plan to explore the galaxy. I would really love to see the giant black hole said to reside at the centre of the Milky Way (Saggitarius A*). Perhaps I will send you a video. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    To cross the much bigger distances between galaxies (~million light years) would require some combination of extreme relativistic velocities and extremely long lifespans.

    I am assuming no faster-than-light travel.

  21. #21 Dan Dare
    May 14, 2006

    Uh oh. I just realized I misspelt Sagittarius A*.

    To make up for my error, here is a nice slideshow.

    Also this is the best image I have yet seen of the central region.

New comments have been disabled.