Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of beating hearts

I can trace the beginning of the road leading towards my current political views to studying human physiology, sometime around 1988. At that time I was cramming for an exam in physiology in my medical school, and I read about the risk of cardiac death as a function of the variability of heart rate. To my surprise, the less variable your heart rate, the higher your risk of suddenly dropping dead. It seemed like a paradox that order, a steady, unchanging heartbeat, i seen mostly in patients suffering from heart failure, while chaotic variations in heart rate are typical of the healthy young.

It may be strange to see political lessons in cardiac physiology - still, the juxtaposition of death and order on the one hand, and chaos and life on the other hand, is quite stark and it stayed in the background of my thoughts ever since. And as I observed success and failure in various domains, I noticed that there are those amazing analogies between the way the sino-atrial node and e.g. the internet are built.

Let me give you a bit of background on the physiology of heart rhythm. The SA node is the natural pacemaker of the heart. It integrates inputs from multiple sources (vagal nerve, sympathetic innervation, various hormonal influences) and consists of a network of cells which exhibit spontaneous cyclic depolarization, which is the source of the rhythm. Individual cells differ in their tendency to depolarize, the beat frequency they collectively produce is the outcome of an interaction between multiple, individual, independent oscillators, which are capable of partially substituting for each other. There is no master rhythm cell, the buck doesn't stop in any particular place, and the rhythm is therefore quite chaotic - it exhibits spontaneous minor and major variations stemming from multiple influences and multiple independent decisions - and this is precisely why the heart mostly keeps on beating, reasonably well adjusting to various conditions. Yet, as the heart is stressed, the SA cells start dancing to a single tune - some cells are eliminated from the decision-making, only a subset of similar cells can continue to function, and the heart settles on a much more rigid, usually faster rhythm. This is bad: instead of a graded, appropriate response to stimuli the heart my exhibit sudden, catastrophic changes in rhythm, including the deadly ventricular fibrillation.

A very similar pattern is observed whenever a network of independently interacting, redundant elements (SA cells, internet routers, stock market traders) changes into a strict hierarchy, or a group of identically-reacting ones (stressed SA cells, rule-bound administrators). The wisdom of crowds is lost, information bottlenecks appear at the top, feedback loops are weakened. A strict hierarchy by definition is not redundant and this is why when a hierarchy fails, it fails catastrophically. Any network that is dependent on a single master node to function (whether we are talking about a central air transport hub or a dictator) will be only as reliable as the master node.

Examples of highly successful redundant networks abound: the social construction of science is one. Every successful market (i.e. efficiently transforming inputs into outputs) is one. Reducing the redundancy and degrees of freedom in such networks very reliably degrades their performance, in Soviet Russia 90 years ago, and in the USA today. When everybody runs the same operating system, one virus brings everyone down. When everybody eats potatoes, the blight can kill millions. I could spend a long time listing examples of the success of network redundancy and the dangers of centralization but it is hard to come up with examples of the opposite.

This observation may be uncontroversial among network engineers but most humans resist it fiercely in the social and especially political realm. Especially under stress, most people respond by closing ranks, demanding unity, and conformism. A crazy patchwork of security agencies coagulates into Homeland Security: previously, for something bad to happen, every one of the overlapping agencies had to drop the ball, now, it takes only one point of failure. In response to economic disturbances politicians demand more centralized control of the economy, and the masses applaud. This is not a random development but rather a predilection ingrained since our evolutionary past spent in small tribes continually engaged in mortal combat against other tribes, and to an almost identical degree, within the tribe, where loyalty to the group and obedience to a single focal figure of authority was frequently indispensable for survival.

I am probably deficient in the neural hardware that subserves this predilection: I could never generate much enthusiasm for "our" soccer team, I would feel weirded-out by the sight of my compatriots singing the national anthem with their hands over their heart, there is not a single politician that I ever unequivocally admired. I am very loyal to my family and friends, the people I know personally, but I am calmly dispassionate when thinking about groups of strangers. Did you note that I haven't yet used the word "we"? I almost never think as a group member, even when I analyze groups that are outside groups to which I belong.

This may be one of the reasons why my political views, developed via very circuitous route from cardiac physiology, put me in a very small minority, known as market anarchists. We (yes, we) agree that what is good for the reliable functioning of the heart, the discovery of scientific truths, the internet, and the trading of pork bellies, should be also good for governance. Unfortunately, the ability to dispassionately extrapolate from analysis of the SA node to looking at elections is very uncommon. Almost everybody gets bogged down emotionally, fearful of the power vacuum, always yearning for a father figure at the helm of the tribe. Others are entangled in their hubris, imagining the very smart regulations they would impose to bring order to the world. There are probably too few market anarchists in the whole world to fill a soccer stadium, much less create a viable stateless society. And thus we end up with a world where the most important, life-and-death issues like war, peace, and economic prosperity are controlled by territorial monopolies consisting of narcissistic thugs self-selecting into "public service", and the willingly ignorant masses they control.

In the next post in the series I will consider the situations where pluralistic governance could plausibly take hold, and what are the meta-ethical conclusions of cardiac physiology.

1 comment:

  1. Ecology teaches the same lesson. In ecosystems of low redundancy, a loss of a keystone species may wipe out every other species (like the potato famine). However, excessive diversity may also result in an untenable environment for the individual. Within the human distal gut (the most diverse biome on the planet), there is an ever-present flux of bacterial species gaining ground and being wiped out. Interestingly, a few key species tend to maintain dominance regardless of the circumstances. It seems natural selection favors some degree of hierarchy.