The Third Pile of Stuff

Tree chimeras, sock shortages, and natural deselection

The Tree of Forty Fruit

The tree of forty fruit in bloom.
Source: Sam Van Aken

Plants are very unlike people.1 For example, if I wanted to be 7 feet tall, I would be ill-advised to cut off my legs and replace them with those of an NBA player. And don’t even think about getting “eagle eye” vision by implanting a pair of eagle eyes. But grafting bits of different trees together is comparatively no big deal.

Leveraging this unique property of trees, artist Sam Van Aken has been successful in creating the Tree of Forty Fruit. It’s a tree with—you guessed it—forty different types of fruit-bearing branches grafted onto it.

Van Aken began this project in 2008, when he rescued from insolvency an orchard containing many rare and near-extinct stone fruit trees. Over the next five years, he grafted buds from the different varieties onto a stock tree. The result: a tree with many multicolored springtime blooms that produces a variety of almonds, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums from July through October.

Since creating the first hybrid tree, Van Acken has gone on to grow many more. There are currently plans to open an orchard of 50 of them on New York’s Governor’s Island. Of course, if you’ve got some land and 5 years of time on your hands, you could make one yourself.

Too Few Socks: a Sign of Living Thoughtlessly

A number of mismatched socks hanging from a line.
Source: Nick Page, a man who apparently owns no matched pairs of socks.

I enjoy Gwern Branwen’s essays, and Im introducing them starting with this one about socks. I’ll wager that nobody reading this newsletter has ever followed the musing “Why am I always low on socks?” to such an extreme.

Gwern argues that the not-enough-socks problem is just one example of a common error we all make. In the case of socks, there’s really not much difference between owning 20 pairs and 19 pairs. And there’s not much difference between 19 and 18, and so on. There’s no blaring alarm point where you know to buy more socks. You just remain in the habit of using whatever socks are available, likely suffering too few socks or socks with holes instead of just buying some more.2

We bring this lack of mindfulness to most activities most of the time. And it makes sense—why would you consciously think about buying the optimal number of socks at the optimal time on a daily basis? But this lack of mindfulness eventually catches up to us.

It may not seem important to think about socks at any particular moment, and socks are probably not the most pressing thing at this instant for me either, compared to tasks like ‘write an essay’ or ‘exercise’ or ‘answer emails’. But if it is better to wear socks than not, and one does not wish to go barefoot for the rest of one’s life, then it must be optimal at some moment to think about socks. Perhaps a few months from now when one’s ‘sockpile’ has worn down, during downtime, but there must be one.

Similarly, one could scoff at all of the necessities of life like getting groceries, or filing a tax return, or getting life insurance: surely at that instant there is always something more important one could be working on doing, like getting a college degree or founding a startup? But this argument must have some flaw or by induction you would never do them and so you would starve to death while being audited by the IRS and your heirs are rendered homeless.

There are many areas of our lives where we remain on autopilot because we receive no signal from the environment to make adjustments—or not one strong enough to notice. This leads not only to sub-optimal conditions (my socks have holes), but in aggregate can create catastrophic cascading system failures.3 E.g., my socks have holes AND my shoes have holes AND I’m stuck outdoors on a guided tour of Yellowstone National Park during a surprise unseasonable blizzard.4

The solution is to force ourselves out of inertia and into greater mindfulness. Put “count good socks, buy more if needed” on the calendar at a reasonable repeating interval. Identify routines that might be improved with a little more exploration and a little less exploitation. Write checklists. Point and call. Ask “Why?” five times. Automate/outsource things that you never remember to do.

What’s some little thing that you’ve thoughtlessly let slide for too long? How will you force yourself to fix it?

Evidence for the Dystopia of Dunces?

Scene from the introduction to the film Idiocracy, featuring the highly fertile Clevon with an IQ of 84.
Source: Idiocracy

A recent paper from the University of East Anglia took a look at natural selection effects among two generations of roughly 410k ethnically European Britons. Their conclusion?

Consistently over time, polygenic scores associated with lower (higher) earnings, education and health are selected for (against).

If you’re like me, you’ve got the intro to Idiocracy playing in your head right now.

The selection effects were strongest in those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The effects are also particularly strong among the youngest mothers, where mental disorders like ADHD and major depressive syndrome are positively selected for among the youngest third of mothers but against in the oldest two-thirds. Basically: almost any hereditary condition you wouldn’t want you or your children to have is positively selected for among the people in lowest classes having kids early in life.

If such a trend continues long enough…

Existing evidence on human natural selection has led some to “biocosmic pessimism,” including speculation that the Fermi paradox may be resolved by dysgenic selection among alien species (Sarraf, Feltham, and others 2019).

…maybe we haven’t found intelligent extraterrestrial life because they all became stupid?

I’m hopeful that enough smart people continue to come into existence that we can avoid the Idiocracy scenario and instead settle on a luxurious Wall-E style eternal space cruise.

Wall-E the trash robot finds himself onboard a space ship filled with morbidly obese humans in floating lounge chairs.
Source: Wall-E

It’s not clear to me that these effects are genetic. It’s entirely possible that poor health and socioeconomic outcomes are passed down through shared environment as much as genes. If you grow up without resources, education, and proper health care, then it should be no wonder if you turn out poor, ignorant, and sick. And it’s not as if someone in the lower classes can simply choose to mate with someone in the higher classes if nobody in the higher classes will have them—mate selection effects are at play, as shown by the opposite traits selected for among more affluent Britons.5 I wouldn’t be surprised if, like most things, there is a mix of genetics and environment.

  1. Just establishing this fact, in case you hadn’t noticed. ↩︎

  2. And when I say You, I mean I. ↩︎

  3. I.e., the Swiss cheese problem. Each individual slice of Swiss cheese has holes distributed at random, and all are stacked together in random order. Normally what could fall through one hole gets caught be another slice. You only have a problem when holes in every slice line up. ↩︎

  4. Yes, that happened to me. Miraculously I’ve still got all my toes. ↩︎

  5. Over enough generations, would we get Morlocks and Eloi? ↩︎