Links and Comments: The Game of Life; Authoritarianism; Conservatives and the Feudal System

NYT, from last week’s Tuesday Science section: The Lasting Lessons of John Conway’s Game of Life. (Print title: “Life, In All Its Glory” with subtitle “Fifty year on, a game still offers lessons about simplicity, complexity and uncertain.”)

The article marks the passing of mathematician John Conway, who famously developed the “game of life” way back in 1970. I’ve heard about it for years, and consider it exhibit A in any matter in which someone claims, for example, I can’t imagine how the eye could have evolved on its own, therefore God.

The game of life shows how very simple iterative rules can quickly give rise to impressively complex results… results that give the impression of being… designed.

The game is played on a grid on which squares can be black or white. I’ll just copy from this NYT article:

The game was simple: Place any configuration of cells on a grid, then watch what transpires according to three rules that dictate how the system plays out.

Birth rule: An empty, or “dead,” cell with precisely three “live” neighbors (full cells) becomes live.

Death rule: A live cell with zero or one neighbors dies of isolation; a live cell with four or more neighbors dies of overcrowding.

Survival rule: A live cell with two or three neighbors remains alive.

With each iteration, some cells live, some die and “Life-forms” evolve, one generation to the next.

Starting with simple configurations one can quickly develop patterns that seem to move, intact, across the screen, or playing board, patterns that give the impression of life, of birth and death. And that’s just from three rules.

The article has testimonials about the game’s impact the implications from Brian Eno, Daniel Dennett, Rudy Rucker, Stephen Wolfram, and others.

(And of course this theme is explored in detail in a couple of Richard Dawkins’ books, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable.)


Not coincidentally, this New Yorker article, Three Mathematicians We Lost in 2020, has more about Conway (and about Ronald Graham and Freeman Dyson).


In the current New Yorker (the Jan 4 & 11 issue) the lead “Talk of the Town” piece, is “Fault Lines” by Alan Gopnik. A Google search turns it up as What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy, subtitled “The interesting question is not what causes authoritarianism but what has ever suspended it.”

The gist of his essay is that American’s current slide towards authoritarianism isn’t an exceptional circumstance that needs to be explained. It’s democracy that’s the exceptional circumstance.

Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

With discussion of past episodes in American history about Goldwater, the crazy things people have believed, conspiracy thinking, and so on.

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy — that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate. …

Ezra Klein makes very similar points (about how the electoral college favors farmland states, about redistricting) in his Why We’re Polarized.

The irony is that all the MAGA cultists are pining for the opposite of what the founders thought they were creating in America. Trump’s supporters don’t want democracy (increasingly this seems to be true for the Republican establishment as well) they want to win, at any cost, never mind hum-drum democracy.


This resonates with some very high-level observations about science fiction and fantasy. It’s been noted many times how most fantasy is set in an imaginary past that is more feudal than republican or democratic. Even in much of science fiction, imagining future societies in which iniquities have been eliminated and some kind of social utopia has been achieved (as in, say, Star Trek TOS) is rare.


So this connects with some passages I copied out of a Fb post a while back… well, five weeks back. They’re talking about Gene Wolfe, one of most literary and complex of fantasy (and science fiction) writers, who was also a devout Catholic, and (so), was conservative. The point here is the claim about how conservatives love the feudal system (which dovetails with the discussion about about the continual slide to authoritarianism).

Rick Norwood
Gene Wolfe was a conservative. I don’t remember him writing about C. S. Lewis, but I’ll bet he read and approved of Lewis’s views on The Great Chain of Being. I love Lewis’s fantasy, but what I can accept in fantasy I cannot accept in reality. Lewis, for example, rejected Einstein’s theory of relativity on the grounds that a being light years tall could wiggle his little toe by an effort of will, and human will was not limited by the speed of light.

James Pepe
Much as I love Gene Wolfe’s fiction, the quote above is utter bollocks. Conservatives love the feudal system because everybody knew their place. And, of course, Tolkien, Lewis, and Wolfe all imagined that their place would be higher than surf. The big problem with all hierarchies is that people who could make great mathematicians or poets or philosophers were, if born a serf, doomed to illiteracy, and never able to make a contribution. The huge progress of the human race in the age of enlightenment is due in large part because enlightenment allow people of “low” birth to contribute to progress. Of course, what I see as progress, Wolfe would not.

Micah Ingle
Plenty of criticism of the enlightenment/modernity to be made from a non-conservative POV of course

Rick Norwood
Hard to see how. We live longer, healthier lives, have far more freedom, have access to all human art and knowledge in a way undreamed of in the Good Old Days. What are your criticism of modernity?

I think I missed something between the first two quotes. I’m on Norwood’s side, about modernity. And all those feudal fantasy novels are about wizard and knights, not the ignorant who drudged in the fields and lived short lives, and knew their place.

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