Updated: Jan 12, 2022
In terms of universal time and space, an individual person is truly small. This is made clear to me when standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or other amazing wonders of the world. But even the Grand Canyon is small in universal time and space. Have you ever thought about our scale? That is, how to connect the dots from our small self to the almost infinite universal time and space?
This article shows how time and space (or, what I call "size") matter greatly when considering scale. Humanity’s very survival and the ecological domination of our mother planet is a function of our scale and the impact of our evolution. Closer to home, understanding scale is important to our individual success.
First, we will define a few key points related to time and size. Along the way, we will drill deeper into those points, proceeding from the small to the large, or from the individual to their universe. I will conclude with how you can use this scale knowledge to drive your own success. Following the article's conclusion, there are several notes and resources available for more information.
The following “Four Scale” model describes four time and size-based scales that define humanity. These scales are being presented in terms of:
Time - from a single lifetime or to life across eons, and
Size of the human tribe - from a single person or to all of humanity.
Human beings are fragile, they die either from old age or accident.
Human tribes are resilient, they work together to protect themselves and are predatory to most other species and “out-group” tribes.
The human species is antifragile, the human genome via evolutionary biology (natural selection) adapts, grows, strengthens, and connects humans through space and time.
Humanity, as part of the solar system, is fragile. The sun will ultimately supernova and destroy resident human life. (1)
Please note - classification schemes like this lack nuance and depth. Next, I will add some needed context.
Think of these four segments as descriptive stops along a multidimensional continuum.
1 - Human Beings Scale
The 1st scale is at the individual human level. This scale is fragile when separate from other humans. Individual humans may easily die from predation, disease, or a whole manner of causes. In fact, humans are among the most fragile of all mammalian species. Resilience is gained by working together, as in a division of labor. I am partial to David Ricardo’s "Comparative Advantage" concept. (On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.) Comparative Advantage suggests people work together across tribes (e.g., countries) based on the relative strength of tribal resources (e.g., unskilled labor, skilled labor, and capital). Our ability to work in groups to solve common economic or other social problems leads to the 2nd scale. By the way, in this article, I use the word “tribe.” I am using tribe in the general sense of all forms of human groupings. E.g., countries, teams, families, cities, political parties, affiliated groups, etc.
2 - Human Tribe Scale
As per the 2nd scale and as a result of the 3rd scale, our evolutionary biology is geared toward tribal survival. Our brain evolved to tag sensory information with emotions resulting from neurotransmitter interactions across our neural synapses. (See our Brain Model for more information) In general, the human species is the most tribal species, in terms of size and organization. Tribalism can be good, as it enables us to work together to form cities, companies, or to collaborate to solve common problems (like finding a vaccine for COVID-19). The second scale has enabled the average lifetime of humans to more than double over a 200 year period since the 1800s. The dark side of tribalism relates to racism, misogyny, and any negative “out-grouping” resulting in social injustice or another disadvantage. Also, as described in the movie The Matrix (2), even “good” tribalism can grow to a negative outcome as resources are consumed.
Please note, the 3rd and 4th scales are relatively fixed human dimensions, meaning, individual humans have less control over (or perception of) the evolutionary process or the end of the world. Though, as we will see, humans find ways to compensate for this fixed scale nature, especially on the 3rd scale. See Carlo Rovelli’s 9/4/20 note below, regarding the fixed nature of time and our scale.
3 - Human Species Scale
Per the 3rd scale and the antifragile nature of the human species: Evolutionary information gets passed along over time and is the evolving (adapting) store of species information. It is the trial and error nature of evolution as posited by Charles Darwin that creates an antifragile human species. As per this article, "antifragile" is defined as life's processes that gain from volatility. N.N. Taleb coined the term AntiFragile. As related to evolution, life’s volatility is captured in the human genome via mutations associated with evolutionary processes. Natural selection is the process of updating the successful results in terms of genetic material being passed to our children. In fact, as Richard Dawkins suggests in his book, The Selfish Gene, the gene itself is the source of evolutionary motivation, the human is merely a host.
Specific to the 3rd scale, evolution and religion are connected in that religion creates a multigenerational guide to managing certain long-term risks. In effect, religion documents “what works” to live a “good” life. Or, in terms of the gene, religion suggests behaviors of the human host that will enable the human to live long enough to reproduce its genes and to provide an environment suitable for the survival of our genetic children. The longer the religion has been around, generally, the better the advice (think of the Lindy effect). This evolution and the religious connection were manifest by Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Bible (and as described in Boles’ eponymous Jefferson biography). Also, it was mentioned by NN Taleb in Skin In The Game:
“....religion exists to enforce tail risk management across generations, as its binary and unconditional rules are easy to teach and enforce. We have survived in spite of tail risks; our survival cannot be that random.”
For a brief discussion about the potential conflict between the 2nd and 3rd scales, please see my 11/14/20 notes, “2nd scale blessing / 3rd scale curse paradox.”
4 - Humanity Scale
The 4th scale relates to entropy. Entropy always wins, or, as JM Keynes said:
“In the long run, we are all dead.”
In the case of the universe, the long run is really long! Entropy itself is resident in each scale, as entropy is the balancing factor to all living systems. One could argue, in terms of entropy and life:
“The purpose of life is to fight the inexorable march of entropy”
In the case of the 4th scale, this is “big entropy” as related to impacting our entire host planet. Also, according to Rovelli, time is the dimension along which entropy grows. Up until recently in human time, we do not typically think much about the 4th scale. However, with the increasing existential threat from our environmental neglect, 4th scale sensitivity can be found in laws and international agreements meant to decrease carbon emissions and other significant threats to our planet.
As a concluding thought, generally, humans do not scale consistently.
Scale transformations demonstrate very different resilience levels. (as shown in the Four Scale model)
Within groups that are experiencing a scale transformation, individual humans scale in different ways. (See Note (3))
As such, to increase our resilience, we are best served by 1) being part of a tribe as per the second scale and 2) by observing certain religious beliefs passed down via the 3rd scale.
I do discuss an approach for "tribal engagement" in our article Success Pillars - a life journey foundation. This article describes an approach to build skills and abilities useful to a tribe, like a company, ("preparation") and encourages the pursuit of tribes best suited to make use of those skills ("opportunity"). I also discuss adaptability as a very important part of pursuing or changing tribes over time. (i.e., scale transformation). In our article Convex career choices, we discuss the antifragile concept to get the most out of our careers. We show how you may be able to use 3rd scale concepts in our 2nd scale lives.
Finally, the 4th scale is becoming more real. Unfortunately, our lack of perception (also known as "salience") of the 4th scale has potentially accelerated its scale transition. It has become necessary in recent times to protect our host planet from an existential environmental threat. On our current carbon-producing pace, the 4th scale transition is likely to precede the extinguishment of the sun.
(1) Another way to think about this, is in terms of entropy. These scales are how humans fight entropy by increasing structures that counter the effect of universal disorder (defined as entropy). Notice that in the final scaling step humans lose to entropy, but our nature is to fight entropy along the way. Keep in mind, entropy in nature is a one-way street. That is: ΔS >= 0.
(2) In the fiction screenplay The Matrix, written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the character Mr. Smith comments on the nature of the human species:
Agent Smith: “I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”
While this characterization is not flattering, one cannot help but find it as a uniquely human perspective, different from other mammalian species. We are the only tribal species that continuously expands to dominate a domain.
(3) As pointed out by Reichenbach in The Direction Of Time,
“Opening the window has increased the entropy, although no macroscopic change occurs for the gas; and the entropy of the total system is larger than the sum of the entropies of the two individual systems. This paradox of normalization, also called the Gibbs's paradox, is inherent in the use of an absolute entropy for Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics.”
“Opening the window” is a scale transformation metaphor. I take this as evidence that human scaling, while related to the uniqueness of humans, is embedded in universal physics as found in the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy).
“The entropy of the whole is not the sum of the entropy of the parts.”
A common scaling approach is to use Fibonacci numbers as the scaling coefficient. This creates a consistent proportional growth rate (about 60%) as the scaling estimator. Recall, a Fibonacci sequence rule is to grow by adding the last 2 numbers in a sequence.
This relates to spirals and other self-similar growth phenomena. This has very practical applications, for example, to estimate the level of effort in systems development.
Also, note, Fibonacci numbers are products of Pascal’s Triangle is related to binomial coefficients of binomial expansions. (See Pascal's Triangle excel file at the bottom of this article)
“We think of it in terms of concepts that are meaningful for us, that emerge at a certain scale.” - Carlo Rovelli, The Order Of Time
“The variable 'time' is one of many variables that describe the world. It is one of the variables of the gravitational field (chapter 4): at our scale, we do not register quantum fluctuations (chapter 5), hence it is possible to think of spacetime as determined, as Einstein's great mollusk; at our scale, the movements of the mollusk are small and can be overlooked. Hence we can think of spacetime as being as rigid as a table. This table has dimensions: the one that we call space, and the one along which entropy grows, called time.” - Carlo Rovelli, The Order Of Time
Example of the 2nd scale of human resilience:
“The Clintons had power, the Livingstons had numbers, and the Schuylers had Hamilton.”
- Written by Lomask, Aaron Burr’s biographer and cited in Ron Chernow's biography Alexander Hamilton
In many ways, Alexander Hamilton represented anti tribalism. One who is most focused on meritocracy to drive success. His childhood was notably marked by a lack of tribal influence. Hamilton’s natural autodidactic tendencies were certainly enabled by his childhood experience.
Although he did marry into the Schuyler family, so even Hamilton appreciated the value of tribal alignment and protection.
Perhaps people didn't like Hamilton because of his anti-tribal ways. It rubbed them the wrong way owing to people's natural (i.e., Neurotransmitter concentrations) tribal proclivity.
In Dean Buonomano’s book, Your Brain Is A Time Machine, he sites a paradox between living more in the present v. using “mental time travel” to help solve problems that help one elongate their lives:
“As emphasized in Eastern philosophies, traveling to the past or future can preclude us from embracing the here and now as a primary source of happiness and joy. Daniel Everett alludes to this: ‘The Pirahã (an isolated Amazonian tribe) simply make the immediate their focus of concentration, and thereby, at a single stroke, they eliminate huge sources of worry, fear, and despair that plague so many of us in Western societies.’ But if living in the present provides a more carefree life, it also provides much less of it (the Pirahã’s average life span is around forty-five years, not taking into account infant mortality). Ensuring a continuous supply of food, providing permanent shelter, engaging in scientific and artistic endeavors, and preventing and curing diseases all require vast amounts of foresight and planning. And therein lies the paradox of mental time travel: it seems to be both the solution and the cause of all our troubles.”
In my opinion, the paradox can be solved based on which resilience scale one is trying to optimize. On the second scale, for the western world, mental time travel is a blessing, For the 3rd scale, it is more of a curse as maximizing in the second scale reduces the diversity of evolutionary information provided to the third scale. Practically, mental time travel can help extend life. But I do wonder if there's a practical limit, once most dangers have been eliminated, it will be our body’s physical existence limit that will end life.
To take the 2nd scale blessing / 3rd scale curse paradox a step further: Think of a genetic mutation as a way for the genome to provide itself test results. That is, genetic mutations that persist in the human host phenotype are kept and mutations occurring in hosts that die are retired. To the genome, a mutation is a piece of valuable information to be read and acted upon. As humans increase resiliency in the second scale, we are actually decreasing the availability of mutation-based information to the third scale. To a human, a mutation is a disease to be cured. It is like we are in conflict with our own genome! It would seem in the end, our genome will likely resolve this paradox in its favor. Especially given humans are mere host “survival machines” for the gene. But I do wonder what the unintended consequences of reduced genomic information maybe? Given the slow nature of genetic evolution, humans may not realize the impact until it is too late to act.
It seems the measurement of “happiness” is focused more on living in the present. Also, I think of Iain McGilchrist and his Master and his Emissary metaphor, where the master is likely to focus on the 3rd resilience scale. Also, I think of Einstein’s quote: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Einstein may consider solving for the 3rd scale of resilience as a way to optimize the gift. Or, at least, not to solely focus on 2nd scale resilience and ignore the 3rd scale.
"This is that the basic unit of natural selection is best regarded not as the species, nor as the population, nor even as the individual, but as some small unit of genetic material which it is convenient to label the gene. The cornerstone of the argument, as given earlier, was the assumption that genes are potentially immortal, while bodies and all other higher units are temporary."
This puts a finer point on the species scale. The human species antifragile nature occurs because of the immortality of the gene. The human species is a host for the immortal genome.
Richard Dawkins also makes the case that tribalism associated with the 2nd scale is to support our genome. Human beings as “survival machines” will create tribes to optimize the 3rd scale or the immortality of their genes.
“If animals live together in groups their genes must get more benefit out of the association than they put in.”
While I think my earlier reference to the neurotransmitter mechanism for tribalism is correct, this is the “how“ and the genomic explanation is the “why.”