A human tribe is a Von Neumann probe

After thinking a while about why self-replicating robots do not exist (thanks, Casey: https://caseyhandmer.wordpress.com/2019/09/02/self-replicating-robots-do-not-exist/ ), we’re reminded that living things do this regularly. I’m tempted to write “a human is a von Neumann probe,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. A single human cannot reproduce, and even a pair would quickly run into survival problems unless they got lucky (and there’s some amount of genetic variety needed, with the minimum number of individuals being somewhere between 50 and 5,000 to ensure enough genetic diversity). The human is by default in society, usually a band or tribe in the past and now in cities. Our survival depends on it. This has enabled us to span from pole to pole with a vast array of lifestyles.

Even a band (10-50 people) enables specialization and folklore. A full tribe (made of several bands, enough for genetic diversity) is a self-contained unit of humanity. Enough to replicate and perpetuate neolithic technology, which includes domesticated animals, plants, spoken language, and perhaps even written language. An individual or family would have difficulty maintaining this, but a tribe should be capable of it. And with the tools of written technology, could maintain knowledge and learn between generations.

What’s interesting about neolithic technology versus later developments is that this is before humanity became dependent on vast trade routes and city-state social structures (although those did develop in that time). Still small enough to be self-contained within a tribe and replicated most places on Earth (with adaption). Other than biological materials (seeds, animals… which are reproducible and not a fundamentally limited geological resource), it is still really easy to bootstrap neolithic technology and could be done by a small group of people. The Bronze Age requires tin and bronze, which are very limited in geologic availability (requiring vast trade networks) and require more sophisticated processing.

My favorite exploration of Neolithic technology is the Primitive Technology Youtube channel. He bootstraps from nothing (no knives, etc, just himself in shorts) and has gotten extremely far in technology development. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P73REgj-3UE

No doubt his efforts rely on a lot of free time enabled by modern food distribution systems, but they all could be replicated by a tribe. He has made some interesting advances, such as a sort of centrifugal blower and the beginnings of a bootstrapping of iron technology using iron bacteria (found all over) instead of geographically limited iron ore. He also makes use of domesticated yams.

Now I’ve been thinking a lot about potatoes. They’re remarkably easy to grow and extremely efficient in area, store reasonably well, easy to propagate, etc. It really is a good choice if you had to pick one staple to survive on Mars with (hello, Matt Damon). But they were not introduced into the New World until the 1500s. Same with corn (maize), and a bunch of other things. Corn is a particularly efficient way of growing calories. A similar thing is true of other domesticated crops. …and animals, such as donkeys, horse, oxen, etc. Any neolithic tribe could’ve utilized these resources, but these resources weren’t all available until the modern era (i.e. starting in the 1500s). There’s some evidence that domestication of, say, potatoes, helped speed the industrial revolution due to their efficiency. You could say that it was these domestic plants and animals that enabled the industrial revolution as much as any other particular scientific, economic, etc advance.

Any of these could’ve been introduced to neolithic tribes 10,000 years ago or even earlier. Maybe 100,000 years ago. One could have taught them writing. A single tribe had enough resources to bootstrap these “technologies,” and their productivity would’ve been vastly improved. Unlike our heavy industry today, they do not require a vast, globe-spanning economy to replicate. They can be planted and replicated by a single, neolithic tribe to their great benefit. Self-contained, self-replicating… (or requiring just some assistance from people to replicate).

Domestic plants and animals are remarkable technologies. Seeds in particular… little, unassuming von Neumann machines. Iron bacteria could’ve bootstrapped the Iron Age 100,000 years earlier. Give a tractor to a neolithic tribe, and it would stop as soon as it ran out of gas. A steam tractor maybe could’ve lasted longer and maybe animal grease could serve as oil, but the industrial toolchain in order to maintain any such engine would be beyond a single tribe’s ability. But oxen or other beasts of burden? Easy to maintain and replicate in comparison. Even with some amount of semi-autonomous intelligence. There are your self-replicating robots!

This is the potential of biology in simplifying the technology bootstrap process. It’s unfortunate that biological processes tend to be so inefficient. Their relevance to bootstrapping a Mars civilization may be difficult to gauge relative to the more energy-efficient heavy machinery approach… Also, not only is it inefficient, it’s also only viable in a relatively narrow temperature and pressure range which mostly makes it irrelevant to space settlement…

…but perhaps this is worth another look. I think the fact that biology can play a part in bootstrapping is one of the most important arguments for (at least partial) terrraforming… if you can make Mars Earth-like enough for at least SOMETHING to grow, maybe we can use biology to help bootstrap human civilization there. If Mars is terraformed, then the basic human unit, the tribe, would be sufficient to replicate civilization given a continuity of knowledge of written language.

…but maybe something smaller than full terraforming is sufficient? Humans, even with just neolithic technology, are remarkably adaptable (if we can find an energy source). We can live indefinitely in the Arctic by harvesting animals (including fish, etc) using neolithic technology. Some humans live nearly their whole lives on the water using pre-modern tech. Perhaps with some clever new inventions that could be bootstrapped with neolithic-level-tech, there may be some future domesticated plants or animals (or other?) that enable humans to live on a partially terraformed Mars with something as small as a tribe. After all, we used animal intestines to produce the impermeable gas bags of the mighty zeppelins. What new domesticated life form might enable us to live on Mars with a much simpler bootstrap chain?

Can we harden living things for the Martian environment? I’m reminded that the Armstrong Limit of pressure is dictated by the boiling point of water at the human body temperature. Other living things, such as lizards (not to mention hardy plants), can still live and move with body temperatures low enough that Mars’ pressure at Hellas Basin would be high that water would not boil. There’s also the possibility of some sort of toughened skin designed to maintain internal pressure and temperature. Lichen or similar lifeforms may even be able to photosynthesize under Martian conditions: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20402583/

…so what is the REAL Martian potato? Could some domesticated lichen produce food and important chemicals for a growing Martian civilization? Maybe some sort of domesticated lichen that produces hydrogen peroxide? Could some sort of genetically modified reptile beasts of burden serve as our self-replicating robots? Could we grow tough membranes (with built-in molecular pressure pumps powered by photosynthesis) to make our pressurized cities? How can we simplify the industrial tool-chain so self-sufficiency becomes tractable?

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Chris Stelter

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6 Responses to A human tribe is a Von Neumann probe

  1. gbaikie says:

    You terraform Mars with water.
    Do terraform with saltwater or fresh water?
    What cheap water does Mars have?
    Does cold saltwater boil at lower temperature due to near vacuum conditions
    of Mars.
    In Moon vs Mars thing, the Moon lacks cheaper water- otherwise you could terraform the Moon with water- with domes which can withstand Mars like pressure.
    But eventually, the Moon will have cheaper water.
    But of course Mars has all CO2 for the plant food.
    So I tend to think you have plants in domes in the water and they are land plants.
    But maybe you have water plant life which survive exposure to low air pressure of Mars, so something like pond lily which has tough and waxy skin.
    If you put a fish and/or lily that grows up in open pond on Mars, does die, or somehow adapt to environment. Or do have to put a net at certain depth to block them from killing themselves.
    Another thing is how do keep CO2 and oxygen in water on Mars. It doesn’t seem be much problem if have dome in water. But what if no dome. Or would inch ice on top hold enough gases of the water? Or some sort of gel like film covering the surface- made from some life process.
    I tend to think of mainly having the water environment for humans, so they go “outside”- but not in air, but in water.
    Advantage of saltwater is you have less dense freshwater at the surface and with water getting salter with depth, it can be warmer and not rise to surface {ie solar pond}.
    Of course I don’t know how solar ponds work in low gravity Mars- it seems should about same as Earth gravity. But solar ponds are hot on Earth and not sure how the colder solar ponds would work.
    Anyhow Mars has 25 trillion ton of atmosphere, adding 10 trillion tons atmosphere not going help much, but added 1 trillion tons of water to Mars surface seems like it could be quite helpful.

  2. Cererean says:

    If Mars is partially terraformed – some liquid water, a 70mb CO2-dominant atmosphere, some oxygen – it becomes far, far easier to homestead. Adapted plants could be grown in the open air, or under unpressurised greenhouses. Oxygen for breathing could be extracted from the atmosphere (particularly if using greenhouses that would trap the oxygen produced). Excursions on the surface would require far simpler clothing to survive.

    Given access to a suitable (self-replicating) machine shop, a small tribe of under a thousand people could probably survive and thrive on such a world. Very steampunk, though. Maybe canals would be used for transportation, rather than railways…

  3. gbaikie says:

    “A single human cannot reproduce, and even a pair would quickly run into survival problems unless they got lucky (and there’s some amount of genetic variety needed, with the minimum number of individuals being somewhere between 50 and 5,000 to ensure enough genetic diversity). ”

    A single human lacking needed technology cannot reproduce and a single human could make genetic variety. Or single human from their own genetic material, could make dinosaurs or plants. But to make it easier/faster they can bring a wide variety of “proven” genetic code.
    It seems Martians will increase biodiversity by re-engineering extinct earth life- and not merely make dinosaurs. And will make life that didn’t exist on Earth, and improve life that once existed on Earth. Or make a lot of different kinds of “Martian potatoes”.

    But what Martian need is water and power. And could start with Martian water.
    To start a Mars settlement what is needed lots of cheap water. And what is more important than what kind of water {polluted water, saltwater, fresh water] is lots of it which can be extracted {and/or moved}. Though water in place and found, might be used in place. Or large amount of frozen ice is likely to water which is used in location it is at. Whereas liquid water since easier to transport could transported to a “better place”.
    Frozen ice can be sold as real estate, and bargain real estate could $1 million dollars per cubic km and has road to it. Or less than $1 million per km if extend some road to the 1 km cubic km of real estate.
    With liquid water, one increase Mars land surface estate value, making lake and land real estate near it has rights to certain amount of water from the lake. And/or you live within the lake- have some beach property and have a much or more real estate which covered by a lake.
    It would be nicer if lake didn’t stink or was polluted, or lakes which didn’t stink or was polluted “could” have a higher real estate value. But possible that stinking/polluted lake has as much value or have more value as non stinking/polluted/non saltwater lake.
    So frozen cubic km of ice {any kind of water] real estate has easy access to water. It also doesn’t have radiation problem unless ice is somehow “highly radioactive”. Or if had thorium which is radioactive, that not “highly radioactive”, but you do not want to drink water with thorium in it. But removing the thorium to make drinking water would be mining thorium and thorium is quite valuable on Mars {or on Earth}.
    So presence of thorium doesn’t make it inhabitable in terms radioactive- if you don’t consume it. And same goes with any polluted water- though if it’s volatile, not breathing air in contact with it could harder to avoid than not drinking it- so say radon could problem and it’s much radioactive than thorium. But thorium makes some Radium which can becomes radon. But radon is also general problem on Earth and it’s matter how much. As is a problem of lead posioning. But most pollution problem on Mars is rocket fuel, and mining that could also be valuable.
    But as guess the most valuable water on Mars could be hot water- whether naturally occurring or made.
    So the most valuable thing to sell on Mars is water. And in near term a significant value of water is it adds to real estate value. Without water, Mars real estate has very little value. Mars estate could have value if land location leads to cheap access to water.
    Or Mars settler might want Mars real estate if Mars settler can get water- from land, or have water delivered. And most expensive land on Earth, has water cheaply delivered.
    Most expensive land has water available and electrical power and sewage services, and having a lake allows all of this.
    Another cost of Mars is lack of pressure- a lake also gives a volume of space which pressure.
    The value of Mars is a much water it has, and it seems to me, Mars could have a large amount of water. And what is needed for Mars settlements is only finding the most available/accessible amount of water. And in terms size of reservoir of water, billions of tons is better than millions of tons. But a few million tons of hot water, probably more valuable than billions of tons of ice. But there other factors involved, but water seems to be primary driver.
    Now the Moon could be significant exporter of lunar water, and much later in time the Moon be a significant importer of water from Space.
    It doesn’t seem to me Mars will a significant exporter of H2O, rather it export stuff made by using water.
    An example is in near term {decades] the Moon might export 100,000 tons of lunar water, and could export much more than 100,000 tons of lunar LOX.
    This assuming the Moon has mineable water, but I assuming Mars has mineable water, also.
    And average price of 100,000 tons of lunar water exported could be about $200 to $400 per kg to wherever it’s delivered to. And of course the price lunar water must cheaper at lunar surface than price of lunar water wherever it’s delivered to {and delivered to could include Mars orbit.
    $200 per kg is $200,000 per ton and times 100,000 is $20 billion dollar gross price. And could assume 95% is to some Earth or Moon orbit.
    In first decade of mining lunar water, it’s unlikely that 10,000 tons of lunar rocket fuel
    will be made. Making just 1000 tons of rocket fuel per year requires a lot infrastructure. Mining 1000 tons of lunar water per year does NOT require much infrastructure, it’s the energy needed to split it into rocket fuel which is the limiting factor. With moon one going start with small amount electrical power and you going to have hard time building enough electrical power- roughly be doubling electrical output per year, but going need progressively more electrical for activity not related to splitting lunar water- perhaps it double every two years within next decade or so, and it’s this growth which “real” indicator of lunar economic growth, and eventually but could take several decades it will equal energy demand of lunar rocket fuel. And during real economic growth of the Moon, will be time when large part of lunar water will be exported and have much water mined than is used to make lunar rocket fuel, and lunar water at surface is about $100 or less and there $100 added or less to price to ship it off the Moon.
    And Mars water at Martian surface could be $1 per kg. It seems obvious that if Martians are going to return to Earth, they will bring Martian water for water use, during the trip to Earth, and they could bring more water than they need for radiation shielding. I wouldn’t call that an export of Martian water, though it could sold at Earth high orbit. And it seems most people are going to Mars rather leaving Mars- when talking about Mars settlements. But you could say you have empty seats and might want to fill them, but it seems you fill them with something other than water- something from Mars more valuable- if growing food, then food would be better. Or people going to Mars, don’t need to bring Earth food, they could use Mars food. But in early stages of Mars settlements, you probably can return something to Earth more valuable then food.

  4. Jardinero1 says:

    Nit picking. Potatoes and corn were developed as food crops in the New World and transplanted to the old world after the conquest. Potatoes were developed as a food crop in what is now Peru and corn in what is now Mexico. You say in the sixth paragraph, the opposite. I don’t think it changes the substance of your essay, but I felt compelled to correct the record.

  5. gbaikie says:

    “Now, a team of researchers has proposed a solution to this long-standing puzzle: A large iron meteor hurtled toward Earth and came just close enough to generate a tremendous shock wave. But the meteor then curved away from our planet without breaking up, its mass and momentum carrying it onward in its journey through space.”
    https://www.space.com/tunguska-meteor-impact-explained.html
    {linked from instapundit}
    Argument in article:
    –“An object that survived such a transit through the atmosphere could not have descended close enough to the surface for a sonic boom to do the kind of damage that was observed at Tunguska,” Boslough said.
    What’s more, the pattern of felled trees at the site is radial — emanating from a single point of tremendous energy release, he said. That’s something you’d expect to see after an explosion rather than a sonic boom–

    So, said velocity: about 72,000 km/h or 20 km/sec- which if they supposed is comet would be slow. Or NEOs will typically hit around 20 km. And if NEO one could still find it, if grazed Earth. Assume it’s a high inclination and has to cross Earth’s orbital path, and is NEO, and would be PHA.
    Anyhow looking for high inclination Earth crosser, PHA. 2020 BX12 is one. And it’s got a smaller moon: “The new radar images from Arecibo indicate that the moon is about 230 feet (70 meters) wide. That’s in contrast to the asteroid itself, which is about 540 feet (165 meters) wide” -https://earthsky.org/
    Not saying it was 2020 BX12, but if the moon or primary grazed Earth atmosphere, what happens?
    One might think Earth gravity is much stronger, but both are going fast in their orbit around the sun. Going thru Earth atmosphere would slow the one of them, but seems that if one slows down, they will fall towards each other {even though they are close to Earth’s much large gravity well- they wouldn’t slowing much relative to Earth- they both would be well above earth’s escape velocity]. Though if their orbital speeds increased, they would fly apart.
    Anyways I thinking of single rock, at high velocity relative to Earth, due to high inclination of orbit and cutting/grazing through chunk of upper atmosphere- and not need any lifting from atmosphere {and because massive, and traveling high velocity it couldn’t get much aerodynamic lift, anyhow}.

  6. Timothee McFlans says:

    Chris Stelter’s original post was 1196 words. Gbaikie’s replies totaled 1999 words. If anybody was curious.

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