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26 Nov 21:43

Book Review: Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

by Scott Alexander

I.

Medieval Icelandic crime victims would sell the right to pursue a perpetrator to the highest bidder. 18th century English justice replaced fines with criminals bribing prosecutors to drop cases. Somali judges compete on the free market; those who give bad verdicts get a reputation that drives away future customers.

“Anarcho-capitalism” evokes a dystopian cyberpunk future. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’ve always been anarcho-capitalist. Maybe a state-run legal system isn’t a fact of nature, but a historical oddity as contingent as collectivized farming or nationalized railroads. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, by anarcho-capitalist/legal scholar/medieval history buff David Friedman, successfully combines the author’s three special interests into a whirlwind tour of exotic law.

Law is a public good. Crime victims have little economic incentive to punish the perpetrator; if you burn my house down, jailing you won’t un-burn the house. If you steal my gold, I have some interest in catching you and taking it back, but no more than I do in catching some other poor shmuck and taking his gold. It’s only society as a whole that wants to make sure criminals are reliably punished and the innocent consistently safe. This is the classic situation where economists usually recommend government intervention.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Maybe you live in an area like Somalia or medieval Ireland without a strong centralized government. Maybe you live in a strato-klepto-kakocracy run by warlords who can’t even pronounce “jurisprudence”, let alone enforce it. Maybe you’re a despised minority group whom the State wants nothing to do with, or who wants nothing to do with the State.

Gypsies living scattered in foreign countries have generally wanted to run their own communities by their own rules. Nothing stops some of them from calling themselves a “legislature” or a “court” and claiming to make laws or pass sentences. But something does stop them from trying to enforce them: from the State’s point of view, a “court” that executes an offender is just a bunch of Gypsies who got together and committed murder. So the Vlach Rom – Romanian Gypsies – organize courts called kris which enforce their sentences with threat of banishment from the community.

Gypsies traditionally believe in marime, a sort of awful pollution that infects people who don’t follow the right rituals; anyone who interacts with polluted people will become polluted themselves. Kris courts can declare the worst offenders polluted, ensuring their speedy ostracization from Gypsy society. And since non-Gypsies are polluted by default, the possibility of ostracism and forced integration into non-Gypsy society will seem intolerable:

The effectiveness of that threat [of ostracism] depends on how easily the exiled gypsy can function outside of his community. The marimé rules (and similar rules in other societies) provide a mechanism for isolating the members of the community. Gaije, non-gypsies, do not know the marimé rules and so do not and cannot obey them. It follows that they are all polluted, unclean, carriers of a contagious disease, people whom no Rom in his right mind would willingly choose to associate with; when and if such association is unavoidable it must be taken with great care. The gypsy view of gaije, reinforced by the gaije view of gypsies as uneducated and illiterate thieves and swindlers, eliminates the exit option and so empowers the kris to enforce gypsy law by the threat of exclusion from the only tolerable human society.

This reminds me of The Use And Abuse Of Witchdoctors For Life: once your culture has a weird superstition, it can get plugged into various social needs to become a load-bearing part of the community structure.

Amish also live under the authority of a foreign culture and have settled on a similar system, with a twist. The basic unit of Amish society is the church congregation; Amish settlements big enough to support multiple churches will have many congregations mixed together. Each congregation will have its own rules, especially about which technologies their members are or aren’t allowed to use. Amish people who violate their congregation’s rules, either by using forbidden technology or by the usual litany of sins, are punished with public confession or temporary ostracism. Amish people who refuse to abide by lesser punishments are excommunicated, though they can be un-excommunicated if they change their minds and agree to follow the court’s orders.

Amish congregations are nominally democratic, but in practice Friedman calls them dictatorship-like because everyone votes the way the bishop wants. But they are a “competitive dictatorship”; since there are so many different congregations in the same town, an Amish family who doesn’t like their congregation’s leadership or legal system can move to another congregation and agree to be bound by their laws instead. This makes it a rare remaining example of a polycentric legal system outside anarcho-capitalist fantasies or Too Like The Lightning:

Such a system can be viewed as a competitive market for legal rules, constrained, like other competitive markets, to produce about the product that the customers want. Competitive dictatorship is the mechanism we routinely use to control hotels and restaurants; the customers have no vote on what color the walls are painted or what is on the menu, but an absolute vote on which one they patronize.

They do encounter the same problem as the Gypsies: can you just commit a crime, then accept your ostracism and integrate with another society somewhere else? The Amish have some internal mechanisms to prevent this: congregations are usually on good terms with each other, but if Congregation A accepts a member being shunned by Congregation B, then all of Congregation B’s members will shun all of Congregation A’s members. In practice, this makes it easy to switch rules as a member in good standing who honestly doesn’t like the laws, but hard to break the laws and get away with it.

Of course, you can still leave the Amish community and go join broader American society. But have you seen broader American society?

18th century England had a government, a court system, and some minimal law enforcement – but it really sucked. There were no public prosecutors; anyone who felt like it could bring a criminal to court and start prosecuting him, but if nobody felt like it then the crime remained unpunished. Prosecuting took a lot of time and money and was generally a thankless task. And the government didn’t want to go to the expense of imprisoning people, so they usually just hanged convicted offenders (if the crime seemed really bad) or pardoned them (if it didn’t seem to merit hanging). The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in as English civil society creates its own structures to work around these limitations.

Merchants, landowners, and other people with wealth banded together in mutual-protection-insurance-groups. Everyone in the group would pay a fixed amount yearly, and if one of them got robbed the group would use the money to hire a prosecutor to try the criminal. Group members would publish their names in the newspaper to help inform thieves whom it was a bad idea to rob. But this wasn’t about leaving poor people out to dry. The groups would also help indigents who couldn’t afford their own prosecutors, partly out of a desire to crack down on crime before it reached the point where it could inconvenience them. They wouldn’t help people who could have afforded insurance but declined anyway, though – otherwise there would be no incentive to buy in.

(if this sounds familiar, it’s from another, very different David Friedman book)

What about the lack of good punishments? Once a trial was underway, prosecutors would usually cut a deal: the offender would bribe the prosecutor with a certain amount, and the prosecutor would drop the case. The size of the bribe would vary based on how much the offender could pay, the extent of their crime, and the facts of the case (and therefore the likelihood of the magistrate choosing hanging vs. pardon). This not only helped tailor the punishment more precisely to the crime, but helped defer the cost of prosecution: victims (or their mutual-protection-insurance-groups) were incentivized to press charges because they could recoup their costs through the bribes paid to drop them:

What both modern and contemporary commentators seem to have missed is that, however corrupt such arrangements might be from a legal standpoint, they helped solve the fundamental problem of private prosecution. The possibility of compounding provided an incentive to prosecute-it converted the system into something more like a civil system, where a victim sues in the hope of collecting money damages. And while compounding might save the criminal from the noose, he did not get off scott free. He ended up paying, to the prosecutor, what was in effect a fine.

10th through 13th century Iceland was in the same position as the Vlach Rom: a legislature (the Althing), some courts, but no executive branch. Unlike the Rom, the Icelanders’ problem wasn’t foreign oppressors – it was that they were the Viking equivalent of those hard-core libertarians who live in compounds in Montana where the Feds can’t reach them. In this case “the Feds” were the forces of King Harald Fairhair, who had just taken over and centralized power in Norway. Some Norwegians decided they would rather live on a remote and frequently-exploding piece of rock on the edge of the world than be anyone’s subject: thus, medieval Iceland.

If an Icelander thought a crime had happened, they would go to court and plead the case themselves. If the court pronounced a guilty verdict, it would demand a penalty from the criminal. Usually this was a fine paid to the victim; even murders were punished with wergeld. If the criminal paid the fine voluntarily, all was well. If they refused – or didn’t even come to court – then the court could declare the criminal an outlaw, meaning it was legal to kill him and take his stuff. And:

One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right – the right to be reimbursed by the criminal – and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.

A second objection is that the rich (or powerful) could commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment against them. Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of the problems which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the thirteenth century. But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem. A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga that provides striking evidence of the stability of this system. Conflict between two groups has become so intense that open fighting threatens to break out in the middle of the court. A leader of one faction asks a benevolent neutral what he will do for them in case of a fight. He replies that if they are losing he will help them, and if they are winning he will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford! Even when the system seems so near to breaking down, it is still assumed that every enemy killed must eventually be paid for. The reason is obvious enough; each man killed will have friends and relations who are still neutral–and will remain neutral if and only if the killing is made up for by an appropriate wergeld.

I think this is asking: are we sure you can’t end up with outlaw cascades, where everyone just agrees to be outlaws together? Suppose Warren Buffett cuts off my arm. The court asks him to pay a fine, and he refuses, so the court declares him an outlaw and legally killable. I gather some of my friends to form a posse to kill him, but he hires a hundred bodyguards to resist me. There’s a fight, the bodyguards kill my friends, and the court fines the bodyguards. They don’t pay, so the court declares the bodyguards outlaws. I gather a thousand people to kill Buffett and/or his hundred bodyguards, and Buffett and his bodyguards pool their money to hire a whole force of mercenaries to resist us. The mercenaries kill lots of us, the court fines them, and the mercenaries don’t pay. Now the court declares the mercenaries outlaws. But it seems like at some point maybe more than half the population of Iceland will be outlaws, and then maybe they just have to declare a new legal system or something.

An Icelander might retort: why doesn’t that happen in modern America? A policeman catches you dealing drugs, so you offer the policeman $10,000 to let it pass. The policeman refuses because it’s illegal and he would get in trouble. Well, you say, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you got in trouble? The police would come after you? But police would hesitate to arrest a fellow officer, plus we’ve already established that they can be deflected with bribes. Sure, there’s a stable equilibrium where you arrest me right now. But there’s also a stable equilibrium where 51%+ of the nation’s police join our sordid bribery chain, accumulate more power than the law-abiding police, and end up as some weird mercenary army that takes over the country and rewrites the law to their own advantage.

This is a good place to remember that David Friedman is also the author of A Positive Account Of Property Rights, maybe the single most mind-opening essay I’ve ever read. No summary can do it justice, but the basic outline is that governmental “legitimacy” is the government’s position as a conspicuous Schelling point for everybody who wants to avoid civil war/the state of nature/a worse government. Once it’s common knowledge that a government is legitimate, everyone expects everyone else to enforce its rules, and so they’ll enforce its rules in turn until it becomes common knowledge that the government isn’t legitimate anymore. This works just as well in medieval Icelandic anarcho-capitalism as it does in modern America. Just because our government dresses all of its enforcers-of-state-sanctioned violence in snazzy uniforms and makes them work out of the same building doesn’t make the whole system any less of a mass hallucination.

II.

This book works well alongside James Scott’s Seeing Like A State and the whole discourse around cultural evolution.

In Seeing Like A State, ordinary people living their daily lives blunder into highly advanced systems for doing whatever it is they do. Primitive farmers will know every tiny detail about exactly when to plant which crops, and how to exploit microvariations in soil quality, and know ridiculous tricks like planting fish heads in the ground as fertilizer. Ordinary city-dwellers will organically build houses and stores and streets in exactly the right fractal patterns to maximize some measure of quality of life. Scott dubs this “metis”, an evolved intuitive sense of practical wisdom that often outperforms seemingly more scientific solutions.

Many of the societies Friedman profiles in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours seem to operate on metis. Most don’t know who developed their legal system; in a few of them, it is explicitly declared to have been the work of God. Most don’t really know why their legal system works – in some cases, Friedman only gives an economic analysis of why some rule might exist after admitting that previous scholarship (both modern academic, and within the society in question) has failed to come up with answers. And a lot of them are too brilliant, and need too many weird interlocking parts, to be the work of any single person.

“Cultural evolution” is the idea that cultures evolve in a way analogous to biological organisms. The definition gets kind of fuzzy – if I come up with a good idea and my culture adopts it, is that the result of “cultural evolution” or ordinary human ingenuity? `But a lot of people find the concept to have some value – and if it has any at all, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours has to include some of the best examples.

Friedman frames this in economic terms. Social “entrepreneurs” come up with some new system that solves a need, and it catches on by raising the utility of everyone involved. The mutual-protection-insurance-groups of 18th century England work this way: somebody invents them and offers the opportunity for other people to sign on, everyone who does ends up better off than the people who doesn’t, and they eventually reach fixation. Same with the criminal-prosecutor bribes; someone thinks it up, it leaves both sides better off, so everybody who hears about it does it. Viewed very optimistically, wherever there’s a problem in your culture, institutions to solve the problem will magically appear and spread until everybody does them.

Conflict is an especially fertile ground for cultural innovation. Friedman stresses how many legal systems, including advanced ones with lawyers and codes and everything, show signs of originating from feud systems, which might be the most basic form of law. They work like this: “If you offend me in some way, I will try to kill you”. A slightly more advanced version that takes account of possibly power differentials between offender and victim: “If you offend me in some way, everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”. This originally sounds unpromising, but it turns out that people really don’t want their family members murdered. So we end up with an even more advanced version: “If you offend me in some way, we had better find some way to arbitrate our dispute, or else everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”.

The Somali system seems to be somewhere around here: if two people have a dispute, they find a mutually agreeable judge to arbitrate; the judge will decide who’s in the wrong and what fine they need to pay to make it right. If someone refuses to go to the judge, or refuses to abide by the judge’s decision, then it’s family-member-killing time. Needless to say, Somali judges’ services remain popular. And since judges gain status by arbitrating, and since only judges who make widely-regarded-as-good decisions get invited to keep doing so, there’s economic pressure for the judges to make good decisions (which then go down as precedent and inspire future cases). It’s easy to see how something like this can turn into a perfectly respectable legal system where people totally forget that killing each other’s family members is even an option. Catch it at this last stage, and hear enough people admit they have no idea who “invented” their legal system, and it looks like it appeared by magic.

In fact, one of the most interesting things I got from this book is that all legal systems need a punishment of last resort – one that can be enforced whether or not the offender agrees with it – but these punishments practically never happen in real life. The Gypsies and Amish will ostracize members who defy the court – but since everyone lives in fear of ostracization, in real life they’ll just pay the fine or make their public confession or whatever. The English will hang criminals at the drop of a hat – but since the threat of hanging incentivizes them to bribe prosecutors, in reality few people will need to be hanged. The Icelandic courts could declare offenders outlaws who can be killed without repercussion – but the threat encourages Icelanders to pay the wergeld, and nobody has to get outlawed. The Somalis are ready to have murderous family feuds – but the possibility of such a feud keeps people willing to go to arbitration. Even our own legal system works like this. The police can physically drag you to jail, kicking and screaming. But more likely you’re going to plea bargain, or agree to community service, or at least be cooperative and polite while the police take you away. Plea bargains – which are easier for prosecutors, easier for defendants, and easier for taxpayers – seem like a good example of cultural evolution in action; once someone thought them up, there was no way they weren’t going to take over everything despite their very serious costs.

III.

Three other things worth noting about Legal Systems Very Different From Ours.

First, something kept seeming off about all the legal systems mentioned, which only clicked into place about halfway through: they really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime. A lot of them worked on a principle like: “If there’s a crime, we’ll call together a court made of all the town elders, plus at least three different religious leaders, plus the heads of the families of everybody involved, plus a representative of the Great King, plus nine different jurists from nine different universities, and all of them will meet on the Field Of Meeting, and a great tent will be erected, and…” The whole thing sounded like it might work as long as there was like one crime a year. Any more than that and none of the society’s officials would ever have time for anything else.

As weird as it is to punish murder with a fine, the fines these societies levied for murder sounded really high: the Islamic price was a hundred camels, the Irish price was seven female slaves. The average person wouldn’t have that many slaves or camels, so people in Arabia or Ireland would band together into clan/family-based blood-money-paying-groups that acted kind of like insurance companies. If a member got convicted of a crime, everyone else would come together to help them pony up the money. I assume this helped incentivize people’s families to discourage them from committing crimes. But it has the same feeling of nobody expecting very many crimes to be committed. How much of medieval Arabia’s GDP consisted of transfers of 100 camels from murderers to victims’ families?

One little-admitted but much-worried-about justification for mass incarceration in our society is the concern that some people are just so naturally violent that, left in the outside world, they would offend again and again until they died. The societies in this book didn’t seem to worry about this. If someone killed, their family would give up the relevant number of camels, and then everyone would be on their way. As far as I can tell, the Amish have no idea what to do about any crime more dire than using a telephone. Nobody used anything at all like incarceration. 18th century England occasionally sent prisoners somewhere horrible like America, but once the colonies revolted they experimented with jails, found them too expensive, and just sort of flailed around punishment-less until they finally discovered Australia.

There’s a lot of concern about police brutality, police racism, police failure-to-actually-control crime, et cetera. A few far-leftists have flirted with the idea of abolishing police, and the only way I can make sense of this is by analogy to something like Somali or Icelandic law. These were genuine community-based non-hierarchical legal systems. And, for the place and the time, they seem to have worked really well (Somaliland, which uses traditional Somali law, is doing way better than Somalia proper, whose law system is somewhat westernized). But I also know that it’s weirdly hard to get a good picture of how modern crime rates compare to ancient ones. On the one hand are statistics like the ones saying crime has increased by an order of magnitude since 1900 or so; on the other are findings like Steven Pinker’s that violence is constantly declining. Apply the “court made of town elders plus at least three different religious leaders plus…” to Baltimore, and the Field Of Meeting is going to get pretty crowded. On the other hand, in my past work with criminals I’ve been constantly surprised by how much role their families and their communities still play in their lives, and maybe a system that left legal enforcement up to them would do better than the overstretched and underperforming police.

(but what would the transfer process look like? Just cancel all funding for the Baltimore Police Department and hope for the best?)

Second, some complaints that are kind of unfair because they’re along the lines of “this book is too good”, but which probably need a mention.

Whenever I read a book by anyone other than David Friedman about a foreign culture, it sounds like “The X’wunda give their mother-in-law three cows every monsoon season, then pluck out their own eyes as a sacrifice to Humunga, the Volcano God”.

And whenever I read David Friedman, it sounds like “The X’wunda ensure positive-sum intergenerational trade by a market system in which everyone pays the efficient price for continued economic relationships with their spouse’s clan; they demonstrate their honesty with a costly signal of self-mutilation that creates common knowledge of belief in a faith whose priests are able to arbitrate financial disputes.”

This is great, and it’s important to fight the temptation to think of foreign cultures as completely ridiculous idiots who do stuff for no reason. But it all works out so neatly – and so much better than when anyone else treats the same topics – that I’m always nervous if I’m not familiar enough with the culture involved to know whether they’re being shoehorned into a mold that’s more rational-self-interest-maximizing than other anthropologists (or they themselves) would recognize.

And also, the cultural evolution idea is really optimistic. I’ve been trying to read a bit more about Marxism and Postmodernism lately, and they would be pretty skeptical about analyzing social systems by asking “What large-scale problem of human interaction is this system the exactly optimal solution for?”

Like, there’s a perspective where lots of countries have a King, because societies that have a single central nexus to their coordination structure are able to coordinate better than ones that don’t, and having them rule for life promotes long-term thinking, and them be hereditary provides a clear Schelling Point for secession disputes that prevents civil war and cleverly ensures that the previous ruler is incentivized to promote the peaceful transfer of power to the next one, and this is why constitutional monarchies have slightly higher yearly GDP growth than other forms of government.

And there’s another perspective where lots of countries have a King, because some guy seized so much power that he can live in a giant palace and order people around all day instead of doing work. And if anyone tries to prevent him from doing that, he can arrange to have that person beheaded.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is very much part of the first perspective. It’s a story of nations and legal systems evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all, and it presents strong evidence supporting that story. I can’t disagree with its evidence from within its narrative, but I still wonder how much to worry about this alternate way of looking at things.

Third, in all of the fretting about how terrible our government is, and trying to change our government to be less terrible, and trying to convince other people to go along with our terribleness-decreasing government change proposals – it’s important to keep on remembering the degree to which you can still pretty much do whatever you want.

In New York, Orthodox Jews with business disputes still bring them before a tribunal of rabbis, who judge them based on Jewish law. In Pennsylvania, the Amish live their own lives in their own way pretty much completely disconnected from US government decisions (although they needed a decent lobby group, the Amish Steering Committee, to work out a few special exemptions like from the draft). Socialists occasionally set up worker-owned companies run for the good of the proletariat, and they make products and earn money just like everyone else.

If you don’t like the government, you’re out of luck. But if you and your whole community don’t like the government, you can organize your own internal relations however you want. You can’t override existing laws – you’ll still have to pay taxes, and you can’t set up a bomb-making factory in your backyard. But you can add as many new laws as you want, enforced by threat of ostracism from your community, plus any other clever commitment mechanisms you can think of. There’s nothing stopping communities – a broad term covering anything from villages to church congregations to cults to political organizations to online message boards – from creating internal welfare systems to help their poorer members, taking a say in when their members marry or divorce, making home schools that educated their members’ children, demanding their members in business treat their employees or business partners a certain way, et cetera.

Right now doctors’ services are super-bloated and expensive because if a patient sues them they can be held liable for not filling out any of seven zillion forms or following any of twenty zillion best practices. But if the doctor only saw patients in their own community, and everyone in the community had mutual arbitration methods that worked better than the courts, maybe they could charge a fraction of the current price. This might not be illegal, as long as the community wasn’t based on a protected group like race or religion. There just aren’t many existing communities strong enough to make it work.

But some small seeds are starting to sprout. Social justice communities have sexual harassment policies much stronger than those of the country at large, and enforce them by ostracism and public shaming. Christians are trying to build the Benedict Option, an embedded society that works on Christian norms and rules. And there’s always the seasteading movement, currently led by – oh, that’s interesting – David Friedman’s son.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours hints that we could build something like Archipelago gradually, without anybody noticing. The Jews and Gypsies did something like it. So did the Amish. Maybe all we have to do is start threatening to feud against each other’s families, and utopia is right around the corner.

[Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is available for free online at this link]

26 Nov 15:55

Concept-Shaped Holes Can Be Impossible To Notice

by Scott Alexander

I.

When I wrote about my experiences doing psychotherapy with people, one commenter wondered if I might be schizoid:

There are a lot of schizoid people in the rationalist community from what I can tell. The basis of schizoid is not all the big bad symptoms you might read about. There are high functioning people with personality disorders all the time who are complex, polite and philosophical.

You will never see this description because mental health industries center entirely around people Failing At Life, aka “low-functioning”. As many radicals have noted, mental health tends to constitute itself mostly around “can’t hold a job” or “can’t hold a marriage”.

The only thing you need to be schizoid is to dislike contact with other egos, and to shave off the experience of those other egos ruthlessly before they can reach the fantasy world you retreat to.

It doesn’t mean you’re evil. It doesn’t mean you stalk people and plan to harm them. It doesn’t mean you’re over-reactive or even bizarrely delusional. You could call it a form of delusion, but really the basic descriptions of perception like top-down processing and culture could all be called delusional thinking if you want to be properly pointed about it. It’s schizoid. It’s often quite gentle. And I’ve noticed from interacting with various people in high IQ communities that if you have sufficiently high enough intelligence, despite the inherent defined tendency to retreat from reality, you can in fact become aware you have a personality disorder.

Anyway, my guess based on projection (I’ve never met you) is that people aren’t being emotional around you because you can’t be reached by them emotionally, and they know that on some level.

I feel like I experience emotions and genuine human connection. You would think that ‘not experiencing emotions or having genuine human connection’ is hard to miss. But then I think of the stories in What Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

In the first, Francis Galton discovered that some people didn’t have visual imagination. They couldn’t see anything in their “mind’s eye”, they couldn’t generate internal images. None of these people knew there was anything “wrong” with them. They just assumed that everyone who talked about having an imagination was being metaphorical, just using a really florid poetic way of describing that they remembered what something looked like.

In the second, a user on Quora described their experience with anosmia – not having a sense of smell. They didn’t realize there was anything wrong until college. Until then, “I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses.” Though they didn’t say so explicitly, it sounds like they thought smell was just a metaphorical way of saying something was disgusting or delightful.

And in the third – well, this is awkward – I went years without realizing I didn’t have any emotions. I was getting treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder with high dose SSRIs. When these work well they dull your depression and anxiety; when they work less well, they dull all your emotions. For me they worked less well, but I never realized it until I came off them after five years and was suddenly overwhelmed by emotions I’d almost forgotten it was possible to have. In the interim, I’d understood that getting a birthday present was a positive and desirable event, and said it made me “happy”, without realizing something was missing. This was particularly inexcusable since I’d felt the full range of emotions before I started the drugs, but I guess the hypothesis “I have stopped feeling emotions” is a hard one to consider and collect evidence for.

So if someone says I’m incapable of genuine human relationships – well, I should stress that I think my relationships are genuine. But if they weren’t, maybe I wouldn’t notice. There would be something I was capable of, I would call that “genuine human relationships” since it was my only example of the concept, and I would never have anything else to compare it to.

II.

This post isn’t about relationships. This post is about ideas.

In high school I took a sociology class, and the teacher talked about how modern society was atomized and there were no real community bonds and so on. And I thought this was dumb. I didn’t live in an atomized society! My family knew our next-door neighbors, and we’d even been over at their house once for dinner. There was a Community Center a few blocks away, and when I was a kid I would go there a couple of times a year for some kind of Neighborhood Art Night. Sometimes my mother volunteered at my school, and my dad was too busy to volunteer but probably would have if he could. We weren’t devoid of community at all.

And then three things happened. Number one, I read some good anthropology about primitive and medieval societies, which actually described pre-atomized life and the way that there was barely even an individual identity and the community determined everything you ever did. Number two, I spent a little time in an honest-to-goodness Third World village and saw a little of what life was like there. And number three, I got involved in some good subcultures – including Bay Area rationality – which were slightly but noticeably less atomized than the neighborhood where I grew up. I realized that I’d mistaken the existent-but-weak forms of community in my suburban neighborhood for the really-strong forms of community that people complaining about atomization say we’re missing, because I had so little experience with the latter I couldn’t even imagine them.

This is a similar error as the SSRI/emotions problem. People talk about emotions/community. I have something sort of similar occupying that space. So I reasonably assume it’s the same thing everyone is talking about.

I think I’ve figured out the whole “atomization” thing. But I’m not sure. What if there’s some real non-atomized community that even second-hand anthropology plus some good subcultures can’t point to? Am I just making the same mistake as I did as a high schooler, only one level higher?

Some of these same sociologists worry about advertising and consumerism. They think capitalism turns people into perfect consumers who overwork themselves at jobs they don’t like to buy products they don’t need. They think people’s entire identities revolve around brands and consumption.

And once again, I think: “Good thing this isn’t happening to me.” I don’t really watch TV and I tune out online ads. I buy things occasionally, usually things that I need or things that I occasionally enjoy. But I don’t own much “clutter”. And I don’t care about brands, except ones that really signal high quality.

Is this the same kind of mistake as “I met the neighbors once, so I’m not atomized”? I don’t know!

Either understanding “consumerism” was so easy for me that I got it immediately and effortlessly, and I live a charmed life that has prevented me from ever encountering that problem.

Or I have only a superficial fascimile of understanding it, and when I actually understand it, it’ll seem profound and important, the same way “atomization” did.

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.

III.

Last week, some people proposed it was useless to steelman/understand post-modernism. It was just people being stupid or having garbled thinking. Maybe. There are some post-modernists who even the other post-modernists say are probably just pulling it out of their asses.

But how would we know? There are concepts nobody gets on the first reading, concepts you have to have explained to you again and again until finally one of the explanations clicks and you can reconstruct it out of loose pieces in your own head.

And there are concept-shaped holes you don’t notice that you have. You can talk to an anosmic person about smell for years on end, and they’re still not going to realize they’ve got a big hole where that concept should be. You can give high-school me an entire class about atomization, and he can ace the relevant test, and he’s still not going to know what atomization is.

Put these together, and you have cause for concern. If you learn about something, and it seems trivial and boring, but lots of other people think it’s interesting and important – well, it could be so far beneath you that you’d internalized all its lessons already. Or it could be so far beyond you that you’re not even thinking on the same level as the people who talk about it.

I’m looking back on my book review of After Virtue, a seminal philosophy book which won a bunch of awards and recognition from important philosophers. My review was that it seemed very confused. It kept claiming to have an important insight, but every time it said it was going to reveal the important insight, it actually said a bunch of platitudes and unrelated tangents. This is a huge red flag. Which makes more sense – that I was the lone genius able to see that the emperor had no clothes and Alasdair MacIntyre is really dumb? Or that he’s saying something really hard to understand, and I haven’t understood it yet?

Maybe there are fields doing the intellectual equivalent of gaslighting, insisting they have really profound points when they’re just vapor. But err on the side of caution here. Most of us have some hard-won battles, like mine understanding atomization. Where after a lot of intellectual work, a concept that seemed stupid suddenly opens up and becomes important. Sometimes it’s about anarchism, or reactionary philosophy, or privilege, or religion as benevolent community-building institution. Erring too hard on the side of “that’s dumb, they’re probably just gaslighting” closes off those areas to you forever.

I don’t think it’s always worth delving deep into a seemingly-meaningless field to discover the hidden meaning. That rarely works – if you had the concepts you’d need to understand it right now, you would have done so already. But I think it’s worth leaving the possibility open, so that later if something clicks you’re not too embarrassed to return to it.

26 Nov 14:31

First Ever Anti-Aging Gene Discovered In a Secluded Amish Community

by EditorDavid
"This is one of the first clear-cut genetic mutations in human beings that acts upon aging and aging-related disease," Dr. Douglas Vaughan, a medical researcher at Northwestern University, told Newsweek. schwit1 quotes Science Alert: As far as we know, it looks like the only community in the world known to harbour it is an Old Order Amish community living in Indiana... Vaughan's team tested 177 people from the Amish community of Berne, Indiana, and found 43 people with one mutated SERPINE1 gene copy. Compared to the general Amish population, these 43 people had a 10 percent longer lifespan, and 10 percent longer telomeres (the DNA-protecting structures at the ends of our chromosomes that unravel when the cells reach the end of their lifespans). They also showed lower incidence of diabetes and lower insulin fasting levels. On top of that, the study showed a small indication of lower blood pressure and potentially more flexible blood vessels. "For the first time we are seeing a molecular marker of aging (telomere length), a metabolic marker of aging (fasting insulin levels) and a cardiovascular marker of aging (blood pressure and blood vessel stiffness) all tracking in the same direction in that these individuals were generally protected from age-related changes," said Vaughan. These people also had 50 percent lower PAI-1 levels than average. It's not known exactly how PAI-1 contributes to aging, but it does play a role in a process called cellular senescence. This is when cells are no longer able to replicate, so they just go dormant. This contributes to the effects of aging.

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25 Nov 21:33

Anésia # 370

by Will Tirando

20 Nov 00:54

Glitch: write fun small web projects instantly

I just wrote about Jupyter Notebooks which are a fun interactive way to write Python code. That reminded me I learned about Glitch recently, which I also love!! I built a small app to turn of twitter retweets with it. So!

Glitch is an easy way to make Javascript webapps. (javascript backend, javascript frontend)

The fun thing about glitch is:

  1. you start typing Javascript code into their web interface
  2. as soon as you type something, it automagically reloads the backend of your website with the new code. You don’t even have to save!! It autosaves.

So it’s like Heroku, but even more magical!! Coding like this (you type, and the code runs on the public internet immediately) just feels really fun to me.

It’s kind of like sshing into a server and editing PHP/HTML code on your server and having it instantly available, which I kind of also loved. Now we have “better deployment practices” than “just edit the code and it is instantly on the internet” but we are not talking about Serious Development Practices, we are talking about writing tiny programs for fun.

glitch has awesome example apps

Glitch seems like fun nice way to learn programming!

For example, there’s a space invaders game (code by Mary Rose Cook) at https://space-invaders.glitch.me/. The thing I love about this is that in just a few clicks I can

  1. click “remix this”
  2. start editing the code to make the boxes orange instead of black
  3. have my own space invaders game!! Mine is at http://julias-space-invaders.glitch.me/. (i just made very tiny edits to make it orange, nothing fancy)

They have tons of example apps that you can start from – for instance bots, games, and more.

awesome actually useful app: tweetstorms

The way I learned about Glitch was from this app which shows you tweetstorms from a given user: https://tweetstorms.glitch.me/.

For example, you can see @sarahmei’s tweetstorms at https://tweetstorms.glitch.me/sarahmei (she tweets a lot of good tweetstorms!).

my glitch app: turn off retweets

When I learned about Glitch I wanted to turn off retweets for everyone I follow on Twitter (I know you can do it in Tweetdeck!) and doing it manually was a pain – I had to do it one person at a time. So I wrote a tiny Glitch app to do it for me!

I liked that I didn’t have to set up a local development environment, I could just start typing and go!

Glitch only supports Javascript and I don’t really know Javascript that well (I think I’ve never written a Node program before), so the code isn’t awesome. But I had a really good time writing it – being able to type and just see my code running instantly was delightful. Here it is: https://turn-off-retweets.glitch.me/.

that’s all!

Using Glitch feels really fun and democratic. Usually if I want to fork someone’s web project and make changes I wouldn’t do it – I’d have to fork it, figure out hosting, set up a local dev environment or Heroku or whatever, install the dependencies, etc. I think tasks like installing node.js dependencies used to be interesting, like “cool i am learning something new” and now I just find them tedious.

So I love being able to just click “remix this!” and have my version on the internet instantly.

19 Nov 22:23

Em 10 anos robôs podem substituir 4 milhões de trabalhadores na GB

by noreply@blogger.com (Ronald Sanson Stresser Junior)



Um novo estudo sugere que até 4 milhões de trabalhadores humanos podem ser substituídos por robôs na próxima década - isso apenas na Grã-Bretanha... A questão é: podemos encontrar novos papéis para essas pessoas preencherem?

Robôs para os negócios

Os robôs podem substituir trabalhadores humanos em até 4 milhões de empregos, na Grã-Bretanha na próxima década, de acordo com um estudo conduzido pela empresa britânica de pesquisa de mercado YouGov, em nome da Royal Academy of the Arts. Isso representa 15% da força de trabalho no setor privado do país.

Os pesquisadores questionaram os líderes empresariais sobre como eles vêem a automação e a inteligência artificial afetando suas indústrias nos próximos anos. Mais de 20% dos empregadores em finanças, contabilidade, transporte e distribuição declararam que esperam que mais de 30% dos empregos no campo sejam automatizados até 2027.

Já vemos mais robôs entrando para a força de trabalho, em funções que vão desde trabalhos robóticos em construção até drones que podem fornecer suprimentos médicos vitais. A nova tecnologia está oferecendo benefícios para o mundo do trabalho que simplesmente não podem ser ignorados, mas é crucial que consideremos o impacto que ela terá sobre a sociedade como um todo.

Principalmente, as empresas têm de garantir que os milhões de trabalhadores que são substituídos por robôs e outros sistemas automatizados não serão deixados para trás.

Nós e as máquinas

Muitos robôs simplesmente estão melhor equipados para realizar tarefas menores do que os humanos. Eles não se aborrecem, eles podem ser projetados para um propósito específico, e se eles quebram, geralmente podem ser consertados com relativa facilidade. Nós simplesmente não podemos competir em condições equitativas - mas podemos trabalhar junto com nossos colegas sintéticos.

Os robôs podem aumentar a produtividade geral fazendo os trabalhos sujos, difíceis ou desagradáveis ​​que os trabalhadores humanos prefeririam evitar. Isso liberta essas pessoas para executar tarefas que exigem um nível de julgamento ou pensamento original de que um robô não seria capaz de fornecer. Muitos especialistas argumentam que podemos ter o melhor de ambos os mundos.

"O Reino Unido deve aproveitar ao máximo as oportunidades econômicas que as novas tecnologias oferecem", disse Frances O'Grady, secretário-geral da federação sindical nacional britânica do TUC, falando ao The Guardian. "Robôs e AI (Inteligência Artificial) podem nos permitir produzir mais por menos, aumentando a prosperidade nacional. Mas precisamos falar sobre quem se beneficia - e como os trabalhadores conseguem uma parcela justa".

Houve várias soluções diferentes delineadas em resposta a esse problema. Alguns argumentam que um imposto sobre os robôs é a melhor maneira de garantir que ninguém seja incapaz de se sustentar, enquanto outros sugerem que a renda básica universal se torne a norma.

A maior questão é a rapidez com que a automação será adotada. Se for um processo estável, será mais fácil relocar os trabalhadores humanos para outros papéis, para ajudar a tirar proveito do aumento da produtividade. Se for repentino, isso será muito mais difícil - e até 4 milhões de trabalhadores na Grã-Bretanha, e milhões de pessoas em todo o mundo, ficam amarrados a uma situação muito indesejável.


Fonte:  Science | The Guardian, RSA (tradução livre)

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“Desde que nacen, hay que dotar a los niños de tecnología” | Mamás y Papás | EL PAÍS

by brandizzi

Ángel-Pablo Avilés, o Angelucho, como se hace llamar, se ha convertido en el guardián de Internet. Compagina su trabajo de guardia civil con talleres de seguridad en la Red para todos los públicos. "Para estar seguro en Internet no hace falta ser informático", repite constantemente en sus clases ante la incredulidad de sus oyentes, que suelen creer que es algo que se escapa a su entendimiento. Por ello, Avilés centra sus charlas en casos prácticos y con un lenguaje no técnico, para llegar al mayor número de personas y, sobre todo, de padres, que tienen que afrontar una era en la que los niños y niñas ya nacen con un smartphone bajo el brazo.

MÁS INFORMACIÓN

"La vida real de los niños ahora es la vida virtual, y los padres deben aprender a adaptarse para no dejarles huérfanos en Internet", subraya Angelucho. Según él, si no se participa en la vida virtual del niño, le están dejando solo ante el peligro. A veces, avisa, los padres se olvidan de que entre su hijo y los riesgos no hay un dispositivo que lo proteja, sino que el niño o niña está en contacto directo con ellos. "Les estamos dando un Ferrari sin ni siquiera tener carnet, es decir, les damos un móvil de última generación sin que sepan usarlo de verdad", explica. Para enseñar tanto a los padres como a los niños a conducir este bólido con seguridad, el agente colabora con la Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) en su nueva campaña, que incluye una guía práctica y varios vídeos, algunos enfocados para adultos y otros para menores, que abordan los problemas más habituales.

El concepto de amistad ha cambiado radicalmente desde que Internet se ha adueñado de las relaciones personales. “En los talleres con los menores me presento como personas diferentes a mí y todos se echan a reír porque me ven y saben que es mentira, pero, en cambio, sí que se lo creen cuando conocen a alguien por Internet”, apunta el guardia civil. "Los niños hoy en día buscan el like por encima de todas las cosas y no les importa de dónde provenga". Por ello, tienden a aceptar en sus redes sociales a todo el que le mande una petición de amistad, sin importarle quién está detrás de la pantalla. Para el experto, esto es tremendamente peligroso porque es cuando los ciberdepredadores se aprovechan, recaban toda la información posible sobre el niño o niña y comienzan el acoso, tanto virtual, como en la vida real, ya que pueden llegar a conocer hasta dónde viven o a qué colegio van gracias a las imágenes o comentarios que cuelgan en sus redes. Ante esta problemática, denominada grooming, la AEPD ha creado este vídeo como parte de los nuevos recursos enfocados a menores para que aprendan a proteger sus datos:

Para que los niños y niñas no compartan demasiada información en sus redes sociales, es necesario practicar con el ejemplo. “Si alguien que no conoces te para por la calle y te pregunta cosas sobre tu vida íntima, te incomodas. Entonces, ¿por qué vas a estar compartiendo todos los detalles de tu rutina en las redes ante millones de desconocidos?”, ejemplifica. Avilés recomienda tener el perfil privado y solo aceptar a los amigos de verdad.

Ante la eterna duda de a qué edad hay que comprarles un móvil, Angelucho lo tiene claro: "Desde el momento en el que nacen hay que dotarlos de tecnología porque es la manera de normalizar las cosas". El experto añade: “Si tu hijo no la tiene, la va a buscar en otro sitio y no va a tener protección alguna. Es mejor que haya un clima de confianza y que recurra a los padres si le pasa algo en Internet”. Por ello, los adultos no deben sucumbir al miedo, sino que deben acompañar a los niños en su vida virtual, aunque esto no puede confundirse con controlarlos. Según Avilés, no es bueno espiarles o que detecten ese control parental porque tienen derecho a su privacidad. “La solución es integrarnos con ellos en su rutina tecnológica”.

El ciberacoso es otro de los riesgos más comunes en la infancia y adolescencia. Angelucho recomienda que lo primero que hay que hacer cuando tu hijo o hija lo sufre es decirle que no tiene la culpa, que solo está siendo la víctima. Después, se tendría que hablar con el centro educativo si sucede en el ámbito escolar, pero, si el acoso es muy grave, se podría incluso denunciarlo a la policía porque a partir de los 14 años hay medidas penales para los ciberacosadores. Por ello, este vídeo, que la AEPD ha realizado para ser visionado en las aulas, aborda esta situación:

Además, hay otros dos vídeos ilustrativos para las escuelas que tratan sobre el sexting (Un vídeo muy especial) o la dependencia tecnológica (Un crack del BMX). La AEPD considera que la distribución de estos materiales en los colegios es imprescindible para llegar a los más de ocho millones de alumnos escolarizados, por lo que solicita la colaboración de todos los actores implicados en la educación de los menores para que contribuyan a prevenir y concienciar de estos peligros. “Los vídeos responden a situaciones que todos tenemos presentes y donde los datos personales que los menores comparten en las redes sociales son claves para que puedan acontecer estos problemas”, declara Julián Prieto, responsable del Área de Menores de la Agencia.

Para los padres, la AEPD ha extraído de uno de los talleres impartidos por el guardia civil varios vídeos con temáticas concretas, a los que se puede acceder desde la web de la agencia de manera libre y según sus intereses o preocupaciones, como por ejemplo, cómo conseguir una contraseña segura o qué pasa con los depredadores en Internet.

Por último, la organización ha creado una nueva guía de Protección de datos en centros educativos. “Surge de la necesidad de dar respuesta a las dudas más habituales que plantean ante el Canal Joven de la organización, tanto centros docentes como profesores o las propias familias”, explica Prieto. También incluye un decálogo simplificado con los aspectos más relevantes para realizar un uso adecuado de los datos personales de los niños en los centros educativos.

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The Fungus That Turns Ants Into Zombies Is More Diabolical Than We Realized

by brandizzi
A dead spiny ant with fungal spores erupting out of its head. (Image: David Hughes/Penn State University)

Carpenter ants of the Brazilian rain forest have it rough. When one of these insects gets infected by a certain fungus, it turns into a so-called “zombie ant” and is no longer in control of its actions. Manipulated by the parasite, an infected ant will leave the cozy confines of its arboreal home and head to the forest floor—an area more suitable for fungal growth. After parking itself on the underside of a leaf, the zombified ant anchors itself into place by chomping down onto the foliage. This marks the victim’s final act. From here, the fungus continues to grow and fester inside the ant’s body, eventually piercing through the ant’s head and releasing its fungal spores. This entire process, from start to finish, can take upwards of ten agonizing days.

We’ve known about zombie ants for quite some time, but scientists have struggled to understand how the parasitic fungus, O. unilateralis (pronounced yu-ni-lat-er-al-iss), performs its puppeteering duties. This fungus is often referred to as a “brain parasite,” but new research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the brains of these zombie ants are left intact by the parasite, and that O. unilateralis is able to control the actions of its host by infiltrating and surrounding muscle fibers throughout the ant’s body. In effect, it’s converting an infected ant into an externalized version of itself. Zombie ants thus become part insect, part fungus. Awful, right?

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To make this discovery, the scientist who first uncovered the zombie ant fungus, David Hughes from Penn State, launched a multidisciplinary effort that involved an international team of entomologists, geneticists, computer scientists, and microbiologists. The point of the study was to look at the cellular interactions between O. unilateralis and the carpenter ant host Camponotus castaneus during a critical stage of the parasite’s life cycle—that phase when the ant anchors itself onto the bottom of leaf with its powerful mandibles.

Ants infected with late stage O. unilateralis infection. (Image: David Hughes/PLOS ONE)

“The fungus is known to secrete tissue-specific metabolites and cause changes in host gene expression as well as atrophy in the mandible muscles of its ant host,” said lead author Maridel Fredericksen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Basel Zoological Institute, Switzerland, in a statement. “The altered host behavior is an extended phenotype of the microbial parasite’s genes being expressed through the body of its host. But it’s unknown how the fungus coordinates these effects to manipulate the host’s behavior.”

By referring to the parasite’s “extended phenotype,” Fredericksen is referring to the way that O. unilateralis is able to hijack an external entity, in this case the carpenter ant, and make it a literal extension of its physical self.

For the study, the researchers infected carpenter ants with either O. unilateralis or a less threatening, non-zombifying fungal pathogen known as Beauveria bassiana, which served as the control. By comparing the two different fungi, the researchers were able to discern the specific physiological effects of O. unilateralis on the ants.

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Using electron microscopes, the researchers created 3D visualizations to determine location, abundance, and activity of the fungi inside the bodies of the ants. Slices of tissue were taken at a resolution of 50 nanometers, which were captured using a machine that could repeat the slicing and imaging process at a rate of 2,000 times over a 24-hour period. To parse this hideous amount of data, the researchers turned to artificial intelligence, whereby a machine-learning algorithm was taught to differentiate between fungal and ant cells. This allowed the researchers to determine how much of the insect was still ant, and how much of it was converted into the externalized fungus.

3D reconstruction of an ant mandible adductor muscle (red) surrounded by a network of fungal cells (yellow). (Image: Hughes Laboratory/Penn State)

The results were truly disturbing. Cells of O. unilateralis had proliferated throughout the entire ant’s body, from the head and thorax right down to the abdomen and legs. What’s more, these fungal cells were all interconnected, creating a kind of Borg-like, collective biological network that controlled the ants’ behavior.

“We found that a high percentage of the cells in a host were fungal cells,” said Hughes in a statement. “In essence, these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing.”

But most surprising of all, the fungus hadn’t infiltrated the carpenter ants’ brains.

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“Normally in animals, behavior is controlled by the brain sending signals to the muscles, but our results suggest that the parasite is controlling host behavior peripherally,” explained Hughes. “Almost like a puppeteer pulls the strings to make a marionette move, the fungus controls the ant’s muscles to manipulate the host’s legs and mandibles.”

As to how the fungus is able to navigate the ant towards the leaf, however, is still largely unknown. And in fact, that the fungus leaves the brain alone may provide a clue. Previous work showed that the fungus may be chemically altering the ants’ brains, leading Hughes’ team to speculate that the fungus needs to the ant to survive long enough to perform its final leaf-biting behavior. It’s also possible, however, that the fungus needs to leverage some of that existing ant brain power (and attendant sensorial capabilities) to “steer” the ant around the forest floor. Future research will be required to turn these theories into something more substantial.

“This is an excellent example of how interdisciplinary research can drive our knowledge forward,” Charissa de Bekker, an entomologist at the University of Central Florida not affiliated with the new study, told Gizmodo. “The researchers used cutting-edge techniques to finally confirm something that we thought to be true but weren’t sure about: that the fungus O. unilateralis does not invade or damage the brain.”

de Bekker says this work confirms that something much more intricate is going on, and that the fungus might be controlling the ant by secreting compounds that can work as neuromodulators. Data gleaned from the fungal genome points to this conclusion as well.

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“This means the fungus might produce a wealth of bioactive compounds that could be of interest in terms of novel drug discovery,” said de Bekker. “I am, thus, very excited about this work!”

An authority on the zombie ant fungus herself, de Bekker also released new research this week. Her new study, published in PLOS One and co-authored with David Hughes and others, looked into the molecular clock of the Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae fungus (a recently named species of the O. unilateralis complex) to see if the daily rhythms, and thus biological clocks, are an important aspect of the parasite-host interactions studied by biologists.

“In addition to confirming that the fungus indeed has a molecular clock, we found that this results in the daily oscillation of certain genes,” de Bekker told Gizmodo. “While some of them are active during the day-time, others are active during the night-time. Interestingly, we found that the fungus especially activates genes encoding for secreted proteins during the night-time. These are the compounds that possibly interact with the host’s brain! The fungus, therefore, does not just release bioactive compounds to manipulate behavior, but there seems to be a precise timing to it as well.”

There’s clearly still lots to learn about this insidious parasite and how it hijacks its insectoid hosts, but as these recent studies attest, we’re getting steadier closer to the answer—one that’s clearly disturbing in nature.

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[Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLOS One]

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