Review: Critical Mass – How One Thing Leads to Another

I don’t just read fiction and, while I get much of my science and other information from the net (it’s more current, up to date and is presented in more easily digestible chunksfor a mere dilettante such as myself. Sometimes though it is nice to get a nice big book on a deep subject and to alternate between going ‘Aha! Of course!’ and looking like a dog that’s been shown a card trick. Critical Mass is great for both.
This book is about the how and why of things in society and it is also a history of the attempts that humanity has made to understand the how and why of things is society from the mechanistic, clockwork, perfectionist views of the renaissance and The New Science to the more loose and chaotic scientific ideas of today, from computer models to physical studies, from dubious philosophising to evolutionary psychology and game theory.

What is fascinating in particular, especially to a militant atheist such as myself, is how the understanding of science – even in completely unrelated fields to sociology or psychology – has lead to understanding in the realm of human social interaction. Things I already knew about and considered important to the ‘deep’ questions were spelled out more clearly in this book and I came to understand more completely how these ideas had come about.

Take the motions of molecules in a gas, for example. Each molecule is moving randomly from moment to moment, we can’t possibly predict or measure the movement of every molecule in that gas cloud and yet we can predict very accurately the action of the gas cloud as a whole. In a balloon it will apply pressure, which we can measure, in an open space the cloud of gas will dissipate. Where we can’t predict to actions of an individual molecule we can predict the actions of the whole. A breakthrough in physical science that has since had a profound effect on understanding social interactions in humanity (though we’re yet to reach the fictional heights of understanding set out by Hari Seldon and Psychohistory in Asimov’s Foundation series – though we can hold out hope). Emergent order – order from chaos – is another important innovation in understanding, whether it be the spontaneous arising of order resulting in stellar formation or abiogenesis, or whether it arise in interactions between people trying to enter and exit a train, or forming a queue.

I got lost in the sections on economics, which are as much voodoo nonsense to me now as they were before but I was brought back to attention by the fairly in depth discussion of The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the extensions upon that psychological exercise. For those of you who don’t know what that is it runs something like this…

Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act?” – Wikipedia 

Each ‘player’ is trying to maximise their own outcome, to get the best benefit for themselves. This basically outlines the whole basis of society in a simple, reduced circumstance, boiling it down to the essentials, selfishness versus altruism, cooperation versus independence. By being selfish and betraying the other person you maximise your potential gain, but at the other person’s expense and considerable risk to yourself. By being altruistic you stand to lose everything but you also minimise the overall risk to both of you.Long studies using ’rounds’ of the dilemma have shown that the highest scoring overall strategy is ‘tit for tat’ with the occasional forgiving moment where you let bygones be bygones and give your opposite number another chance. This sort of thing really makes you think and demonstrates, in a more easily comprehensible form, why cooperation is – generally speaking – the better survival strategy.

If you have an interest in science and history this is definitely a good book to read, in the league of Guns Germs & Steel though slightly less readable than that book. The writing style in Critical Mass is dry (not that surprising considering the content) but veers between engaging and impenetrable somewhat unpredictably, still, its a great resource and a good reference for argument or inspiration.

Score: 4/5


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