Go to the profile of Rick Webb  by Rick Webb

I’ve been reading a lot about robots lately. When I read about robots, and the future, I can’t help but think about it in economic terms. And that inevitably turns my mind to the branch of economics called post-scarcity economics. Traditional economics, of course, deals with the efficient allocation of inherently scarce materials. Post-scarcity economics deals with the economics of economies that are no longer constrained by scarcity of materials — food, energy, shelter, etc.

The thing that never sits quite right with post-scarcity economics, though, at least the very little that I’ve read, is that it’s always sort of an all or nothing affair: you either don’t have enough of anything or you have enough of everything. Thinking of this as a mental exercise is kind of fun, I think, but in reality it seems to me that getting from point A — a scarcity economy — to point B — post-scarcity — is going to be a long, complicated journey as some things become more abundant in some places, while other things are still scarce.

What is needed is some sort of interim—or proto-post scarcity economics.

More and more I find myself thinking we are, as a race, constrained by the economic models we have. We have capitalism, of course, the proverbial worst model except for every other one that dominates much of our planet right now. It’s definitely a scarcity-based system. Then we have the centrally planned systems of Communism and Marxism, not particularly effective, as it turns out. We have European-style socialist capitalism, but that’s still capitalism, and scarcity-based, albeit with a much more robust safety net than we have here in the US. Some Americans seem to think that a robust safety net somehow nullifies the distributed planning of capitalism. I’ll listen to them again when our schools are decent and our life span starts increasing again magically.

The key here, to me, is to start thinking about how economics would work when we decouple labor from reward. Does that make a system inherently communist? I don’t think it does. People work. They get paid. It is market driven, and not centrally planned. In reality, the market already basically dictates this, for who can claim that a Wall Street banker works more than a teacher? The only thing we really need to do is take this to a logical extreme: that people can still get paid doing zero work. This fear seems to be at the heart of most people who say that Europe is communist: if we give people so much welfare, some of them might stop working! Quelle Horreur!

It seems to me that with the rise of machines and robotics, advances in mining technology, energy technology (both fracking and green energy technologies), the obesity epidemic in the US, etc., that there are plenty of reasons to believe that we may be at the beginnings of a post-scarcity economy. We have a surplus, no doubt. Of course, we still have legions of people in the world that are starving, and even people still here at home. But we actually have the capacity to feed them, to feed everyone, even now, even if we don’t have the will. It’s not a matter of scarcity; it’s a matter of the organization of labor and capital.

Take a mental journey for a moment with me: what if, one day, technology reaches the point that a small number of humans — say, 10 million — can produce all of the food, shelter, and energy that the race needs. This doesn’t seem like insanely wishful thinking, given current trends. There’s no rational reason why the advances in robotics, factories, energy and agriculture couldn’t continue unabated for long periods of time. Of course, I’m not saying they will, but rather, they could.

So, then, take that journey. What, then, of labor? In today’s terms, a ‘healthy’ economy now is one at or near full employment. A healthy economy now is one where everyone has a job. But in our mental exercise, those jobs are actually unrelated to a healthy economy, at least from strict economic terms. Everyone’s fed and housed and tons of people simply don’t need to work. Right now, we have them working making shit we don’t need. Is that any better than them not working?

I give you we’re in some fringe areas of economics here, but I have always wondered: is there any economic proof that we need full employment to reach full satisfaction of needs? To my knowledge, there isn’t. There’s a body of economics that goes into standards of living, and the increased standard of living. And here we get to our shitty world of unabated consumerism, Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption and George Bataille’s accursed share — the inevitable destiny of all economies to eventually produce more than they need, and, thus, waste it.

Seems to me that if we could think beyond capitalism and think of a new model, we could break out of this pointless cycle of more and more consumption of shit we don’t need and model things in another way.

Yes yes, of course. We all know that. The problem seems to me that the minute we leave capitalism behind, we only look at the past alternatives of communism, marxism and pure socialism and pooh-pooh them. Few people seem to be able to look beyond capitalism without regressing to the other failed economic models of the early 20th century as if they are the only alternate possibilities for man.

Yet there have been some other attempts to leave capitalism behind that attempt to also leave the baggage of communism, marxism, and socialism behind. The most notable is participatory economics or parecon. This is a worthwhile attempt, I think, but to me, it doesn’t quite pass the smell test of being sufficiently un-communist, what with its worker’s councils and lack of any sort of ruling class. All very un-American, and in any case, a bit preoccupied with “workers” and “individual need” to really work in any post-scarcity economy where the very concept of a laborer is iffy. When you start thinking this way you start getting into the dodgy world of heterodox economics and, well, that’s a world of a lot of crackpots. Some good ideas, sure, but a lot of crackpots, and more to the point, it’s a world devoid of empirical research, which is a serious problem. Economics is really at its worst when it’s just making up theories. It’s a lot more noble when there’s some real data to back it up.

Parecon does have some awesome concepts, though, by the way. I don’t hate it completely. I especially like that people’s say over any issue is proportional to the amount that issue affects them. It also has some states’ rights-ish aura similar to “laws being made at the level closest to those affected.” It’s a worthy school of thought to consider when looking for a pure alternative to capitalism in a vacuum, though probably not very practical in reality for reasons similar to communism (despite not being centrally planned, it still very much hinges on some third party deciding the relative worth of each job — a messy business). More to the point, it doesn’t help us in thinking about our mental picture: a world where a small number of people can produce enough for everyone.

Then I got to thinking. Screw the dodgy world of heterodox economics. Let’s go full-on fantastical and look at sci-fi. There IS actually a model out there that deals fairly realistically with a post-scarcity economy. Not only that, it actually takes into account the difficulties of migrating from a capitalist society to a post-scarcity society incrementally. It’s not just a theory in a vacuum.

It’s called Star Trek.

Stay with me here.

Star Trek and Economics

The Previous Theories

When looking at the economics of Star Trek, there have been three broad approaches in the past:

  1. Trying to shoehorn Star Trek’s economics into the model of parecon. This is problematic because of the obviously hierarchical society of Starfleet, with Admirals, captains, commanders, chancellors, governors and whatnot, and the clear existence of a relatively strong Federation president, who is democratically elected. Plus we never once see a labor meeting, and it’s pretty obvious personal freedom and enrichment are important to society.
  2. Calling the Federation Communist, based on comments from Kirk in Star Trek IV on not having any money in the future and Picard’s speech about the economics of the federation being significantly different than 21st-century economics and people pursuing personal enrichment rather than the accumulation of wealth. The problem with this definition is it’s lazy — just because they don’t pursue the accumulation of wealth, it does not mean the Federation is communistic. There is obviously, still private property in the Federation: most obviously Joseph Sisko’s restaurant in New Orleans and Chateau Picard, evidencing that not just small possessions are allowed but that the land itself is still privately owned. One could argue that these aren’t really Sisko and Picard’s to own, but they are routinely referred to as “his” restaurant and vineyard so we gotta go with Occam’s Razor here and assume they do, in fact, own them.
  3. A sort of guessing game based on the various mentions of Federation Credits and trying to glean knowledge of the system from every single mention of money or payments within the series. This is always a pain in the ass, especially given the original series sometimes did things that were pretty out there according to later firmly established canon, and later firmly rejected by Roddenberry himself before his death. Additionally, many of the assumptions about Federation Credits seem iffy: are they really currency? Do they have to be? Are they scrip? Rations? We simply don’t know. And in any case, trying to define the entire economy of the Federation — and perhaps even learning something from it — should be more than a matter of resolving obscure trivia references (though of course, it’s fun).

None of them seem correct. None of them seem realistic. And yes, let’s go for realistic here, why not?

Let’s take a different approach here.

What we know

Let’s start with the facts.

The Federation is clearly not a centrally planned economy, and therefore obviously not communist. Individual freedom of choice is very obvious. Everyone chooses their careers, and there are many mentions of this throughout the series — witness every single time someone waxes nostalgic about why they chose to enter Starfleet. Witness Bashir going on about why he wanted to be a doctor instead of a tennis player. Witness Wesley dropping out of Starfleet. Witness Vash being an archeologist and Kasidy Yates being a cargo ship captain.

Private ownership still exists — the biggest examples, to me, are Sisko’s restaurant and Chateau Picard, but many other examples abound from all the trinkets everyone owns in their quarters. Crusher’s family owns a (haunted) cottage on some old-Scottish settlement planet. The Maquis routinely refer to “our land,” which they presumably owned, and while an individual tribe may have collectively owned the land through a corporation, like the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, or through a co-op, they clearly “owned” the land, just like anyone else owned land, while the Federation was the superseding government that could give that territory away to another sovereign party, much like the ceding of the Sudetenland or Guam. Any alternative situation (the government owning the land and renting it to the settlers?) is never alluded to and in any case the words stated (“our land”) clearly indicate private ownership is still very much part of the cultural zeitgeist. Then we have JJ Abram’s Star Trek and it’s pretty unlikely that, what? The Federation owned that shack Kirk grew up in, that sweet Corvette or that roadhouse bar? Those items sure looked privately owned. Some spaceships were privately owned. Finally, let’s not forget Star Trek: Generations when Kirk says in the Nexus “This is my house. I sold it years ago.”

Next: The Federation is not true post-scarcity economyfamines routinely still exist, transportation lines are vital in moving goods within the Federation. Transportation is a whole gray area in most post-scarcity economic works, at least the few I’ve read. The Federation might have enough food, but at any time some planet may well be starving or in need of medicine that needs to come from somewhere else.

It seems pretty clear cut that jobs are optional. They explicitly state on many occasions that the Federation is based on a philosophy of self improvement and cultural enrichment, and in any case we sure do run into a lot of “artists” in the Federation. I particularly love those hippies in TOS. The Federation seems a bit like Williamsburg — a lot of artists who don’t need to work. Or maybe more like the UK at the height of its social programs supporting artists. Let a million JK Rowlings bloom. It’s a bit weird, to me, that we’ve never seen people who sit around and literally do nothing, but then why would we? And, of course, we’ve certainly seen more than a few societies that are all chilled out and not doing much (Risa, etc).

Next: The Federation doesn’t use money. This is basically absolute. Kirk says it in Star Trek IV. Picard says it several times. Quark mocks it to RomRoddenberry put it down as a hard and fast rule. No theory of Star Trek economics can be real while ignoring this fact. It has to be addressed. It is the basis of all confusion and, honestly, interest in figuring it out at all.

Money still exists, so do banks. Crusher buys fabric at Farpoint. DS9 makes mention of theBank of Bolias, on a Federation planet. Nog loans Jake latinum.

We also know there exists such a thing as the Federation Credit. This presumably causes some confusion since they are routinely referred to as a form of money (Kirk mentions that the Federation has invested 122,200 credits in Spock), and things are purchased for credits (Uhura buys a tribble, Quark occasionally accepts them at his bar).

This would seem to be a giant contradiction to the lack of existence of money. We’ll get to that in a bit.

There is still a ruling class, or classes — it is not perfectly egalitarian in a communist manner. We have admirals and presidents and governors and colony leaders. There is enlisted personnel in Starfleet and officers. Some are elected, some are appointed. Some Federation members were even hereditary nobilities.

There is still commerce (and even Vulcan commerce), tradetrading vessels, and, we can assume, corporations, in some form (though this may not be 100% definite — Dytallix is mined for the Federation. It isn’t 100% clear it is in the Federation).

Some thought exercises

Let’s do a couple thought exercises.

First: if you eat a meal at Sisko’s Creole Kitchen, do you pay? It seems almost definite that you don’t pay. If you paid, with anything, including Federation Credits, that would be money. You could barter, but it seems if the entire economy was a barter economy, we’d hear it. No, it seems almost certain that you go to eat at Sisko’s, you don’t pay, and Joseph Sisko doesn’t pay for his supplies, and his suppliers probably don’t pay for theirs.

Next: Can everyone have anything? Anything at all? Is the Federation a perfect post-scarcity society? The answer seems almost certainly no. If you went to a replicator, or a dealer, or the Utopia Planatia Fleet Yards and asked for 10 million star ships, the answer would be no. More concretely, when the Borg attacked, and during the Dominion War, the Federation suffered from a serious starship shortage.

Next: Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman, and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek.

A Theory of Star Trek Economics

I believe the federation is a proto-post scarcity society evolved from democratic capitalism. It is, essentially, European socialist capitalism vastly expanded to the point where no one has to work unless they want to.

It is massively productive and efficient, allowing for the effective decoupling of labor and salary for the vast majority (but not all) of economic activity. The amount of welfare benefits available to all citizens is in excess of the needs of the citizens. Therefore, money is irrelevant to the lives of the citizenry, whether it exists or not. Resources are still accounted for and allocated in some manner, presumably by the amount of energy required to produce them (say Joules). And they are indeed credited to and debited from each citizen’s “account.” However, the average citizen doesn’t even notice it, though the government does, and again, it is not measured in currency units — definitely not Federation Credits. There is some level of scarcity — the Federation cannot manufacture a million starships, for example. This massive accounting is done by the Federation government in the background (witness the authority of the Federation President over planetary power supplies).

Because the welfare benefit is so large, and social pressure is so strong against conspicuous consumption, the average citizen never pays any attention to the amounts allocated to them, because it’s perpetually more than they need. But if they go crazy and try and purchase, say, 10 planets or 100 starships, the system simply says “no.”

Citizens have no financial need to work, as their benefits are more than enough to provide a comfortable life, and there is, clearly, universal health care and education. The Federation has clearly taken the plunge to the other side of people’s fears about European socialist capitalism: yes, some people might not work. So What? Good for them. We think most still will.

However, if they so choose they can also get a job. Many people do so for personal enrichment, societal pressure or through a desire to promote social welfare. Are those jobs paid? I would assume that yes, those jobs are “paid,” in the sense that your energy allocation is increased in the system, though, again, your allocation is large enough that you wouldn’t even really notice it. Why do I say this? The big challenge here is how does society get someone to do the menial jobs that cannot be done in an automated manner. Why would anyone? There are really only two options: there is some small, incremental increase in your hypothetical maximum consumption, thus appealing to the subconscious in some primal way, or massive societal pressure has ennobled those jobs in a way that we don’t these days. I opt for the former since it grounds everything in market economics, albeit on a bordering-on-infinitesimal manner, and that stands to reason since that’s how people talk in Star Trek. They talk about individual fulfillment, buying, selling, etc. No one was ever guilt-tripped into joining Starfleet, save by maybe their family.

There is almost zero mention of central planning. It’s a capitalistic society, its benefits are just through the roof. Also, market economics = crowdsourced. That is, it’s not centrally planned. It’s democratic. It’s the only mechanism we know of to allocate resources that isn’t centrally planned. The alternative is that all allocations are done algorithmically through a computer and the economy is completely decoupled from market forces, but that’s still basically central planning, and infinitely more complex than assuming there is still some semblance of market underpinning, much like we stayed on the gold standard for far longer than we needed to and we still have pennies even though we don’t need them. It’s a vestige of the past. It’s the constitutional monarchy.

Either way, presumably, you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough. Some people might care, some people might still care about wealth, such as Carter Winston. More power to them. They can go try and be “rich” in some non-Federation-issued currency. But most people just don’t care. After all, if you were effectively “wealthy” why would you take a job to become wealthy? It pretty much becomes the least likely reason to take a job.

So, behind the scenes there is a massive internal accounting and calculation going on — the economics still happen. They just aren’t based on a currency unit, and people don’t acquire things based upon a currency value. People just acquire things from replicators, from restaurants such as Sisko’s or coffee shops like Cosimo’s, or, presumably, get larger things from dealerships or (more likely) factories. This could still be called “buying,” as a throwback.

Two points here: first, the accounting is done in energy units, so that there is no need for currency. And why not? Resource allocation is mainly about energy anyhow, doubly so if it’s only robots building most things. And secondly, if you never had money, never saw it, and it didn’t physically exist to measure things, you’d pretty much tell people, like a certain 20th-century oceanographer, that you don’t have money in the 24th century, regardless of some automated accounting. This jibes with Federation people knowing what money is — because other societies have it — but saying they don’t use it. Because they don’t.

However, you could still buy and sell things. You could take a thing from a replicator and go to someone else and “buy” something else with it. Why couldn’t you? It’s a free society. It is essentially barter. Kirk may well have sold his house for a year’s supply of Romulan ale.

Or Federation Credits.

It is tempting to argue here that the massive accounting system uses a unit called the Federation Credit, but i don’t believe that’s the case. If it were, the credit would be too much like money because a) accounting is done in it, b) it is issued by a governing body (like a fiat currency) and c) it is fungible, i.e. you can already buy things with it and if you could buy things with it AND a and b were true, it would pretty much be a currency. This would fly in the face of Roddenberry’s absolute diktat that the Federation has no currency.

I’m gonna make a bold new theory here. Federation Units are “Federation” the same way that American Cheese is American. It is simply descriptive. Currency was invented long before capitalism as a means to disintermediate trades: you wanted my grain, I didn’t want your cows, I wanted farmer Ted’s grapes. Rather than make every trade a 3, 4 or 5-way trade, we made a little certificate we all agreed was worth something to us and us only. This need would still occasionally crop up in the Federation, even without money. I believe the Federation Unit is a private currency, developed by third parties to facilitate complex trades or trades outside the Federation. I believe that the Federation Unit is not actually underwritten or issued by the Federation. I think it is more akin to the Calgary Dollar or the Chiemgauer. Or bitcoin. This would solve so many problems. It would make it unequivocally true that the Federation doesn’t use money. It would give people a unit to use as a reference when they say things are expensive. It would be a thing citizens could acquire, if they wanted to, through barter originally, then allowing them to use them to purchase things (like Tribbles or Holosuites) from people who elected to take them, since taking them is optional (witness Quark’s vacillations on whether he accepts them or not). It would make a nice proxy for talking about investment levels, such as when Kirk said how much the Federation had invested in Spock.

Foreign Reserves

Additionally, I believe that the Federation acts like any current sovereign nation state and holds foreign reserves of currencies of other nations. It’s assumed that not all foreign trade is done through barter. The federation itself probably holds foreign reserves in foreign currency just as China holds US dollars and England keeps a reserve of Euros. Sisko at one point tells Quark he could have charged rent for the bar, but he chose not to. Presumably, that would have been paid in latinum. Presumably, the Federation would have just held onto it as foreign reserves. All evidence, in fact, points to the fact that the Federation operates as a nation and uses foreign reserves exactly as we do now. The Chinese government holds US Dollars but you don’t hear a Chinese person say “we use dollars.” This is a bit confusing by the episode in which the Federation offers 1.5 million Federation Credits for use of the Barzanian wormhole, but it doesn’t have to be contradictory. Federation Credits had value to the Barzanians, so the Federation could simply procure them from the issuer with its foreign reserves of other currencies at market rate.

The Individual Can Have Money

An individual of the Federation can procure latinum by barter for goods, labor or, presumably Federation Credits if they had them. I assume that there’s probably some black market value for Federation Credits just like any other currency, sovereign issued or not (you can buy aLewes Pound on eBay right now for $7.98). Perhaps it is more legitimate and the Units are traded on a commodities exchange. It really doesn’t matter. As a Federation Citizen, I can have gold pressed latinum, Federation Credits, FrangsDarseksIsiksLeks, or Quatloos in my wallet. I can have a wallet. I can buy things with Self Sealing Stem Bolts if I want. But none of that is in conflict with the fact that the Federation has no unit of currency, has no money, and my society is predominantly concerned with societal good and self-improvement.

Then there’s the matter of Quark’s bar. What’s up with that? He never seems to charge anyone for drinks but is obsessed with money, and you can buy holosuites in latinum or Federation Credits, and you can bet on the Dabo table with Latinum. At first, I thought there was a whole complex thing where Quark doesn’t charge Starfleet personnel because he made the mental calculation it was cheaper to give them drinks for free and keep accepting free rent from Sisko, but then I realized that doesn’t really work because he charges them for the Holosuites and Dabo tables. Then I realized: Quark’s is like any other casino. The drinks are free: they are a loss leader against the higher profits of the Dabo Table and Holosuites.

The Proto Post-Scarcity Economy

The thing I love most about this theory is that it seems plausible for our future. Tom Paris said that a new world economy takes shape in the 22nd century. That might be a smidge optimistic but we already have a world economy, in one sense, so the new one could be something only incrementally different from this one. Money went the way of the dinosaur, he said, and Ft. Knox was turned into a museum. Most of us are already off the gold standard, and it’s certainly not inconceivable in another 180 years we don’t use paper money at all, and a single currency has dominated the planet — the Dollar is already close — and it slowly fades into the background.

From there, perhaps a cultural shift takes place as we realize that “everyone in a job” isn’t the same as a full economy, and we start to look for models beyond capitalism that aren’t all communist hoo-ha.

I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It’s real. It’s a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else. Scarcity still exists to some extent, but society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. The frustrating thing is that we pretty much do that now, we just don’t allocate properly. And allocating properly cannot be done via central planning.

The only real “out there” requirement in all of this is a governmental layer higher than the nation, and indeed, higher than the planet. This doesn’t seem insane, I suppose, if we were to suddenly find ourselves not alone in the universe. And indeed we already have some measure of international government now. Moreover, the Federation clearly adheres to the “laws made as close to home as possible” routine, since as far as we can tell the Federation president really only has authority over Starfleet, Foreign Relations and power allocation and accounting. Virtually every other law we encounter in the Federation happens at the individual planet or colony level.

It’s interesting to me because these are things we’re going to have to reckon with, I believe, in my lifetime. If robots do all the dirty work, and the US is hugely rich, does every single person really need a job? Are we going to let all of that money pile up in the 0.1% ruling elite, or can it be distributed to everyone? Does wealth being distributed to the people in an equal manner mean communism absolutely? Of course, it doesn’t. The US isn’t communist. The UK isn’t communist. Denmark isn’t communist. What happens when the surplus is more than enough?

Go to the profile of Rick Webb

Rick Webb

author, @agencythebook@mannupbook. writing an ad economics book. reformed angel investor, record label owner, native alaskan. co-founded @barbariangroup.


Experiment Reaffirms Quantum Weirdness




Physicists are closing the door on an intriguing loophole around the quantum phenomenon Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”


By Natalie Wolchover
February 7, 2017

There might be no getting around what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” With an experiment described today in Physical Review Letters — a feat that involved harnessing starlight to control measurements of particles shot between buildings in Vienna — some of the world’s leading cosmologists and quantum physicists are closing the door on an intriguing alternative to “quantum entanglement.”
“Technically, this experiment is truly impressive,” said Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva who has studied this loophole around entanglement.

According to standard quantum theory, particles have no definite states, only relative probabilities of being one thing or another — at least, until they are measured, when they seem to suddenly roll the dice and jump into formation. Stranger still, when two particles interact, they can become “entangled,” shedding their individual probabilities and becoming components of a more complicated probability function that describes both particles together. This function might specify that two entangled photons are polarized in perpendicular directions, with some probability that photon A is vertically polarized and photon B is horizontally polarized, and some chance of the opposite. The two photons can travel light-years apart, but they remain linked: Measure photon A to be vertically polarized, and photon B instantaneously becomes horizontally polarized, even though B’s state was unspecified a moment earlier and no signal has had time to travel between them. This is the “spooky action” that Einstein was famously skeptical about in his arguments against the completeness of quantum mechanics in the 1930s and ’40s…


But given the choice between quantum entanglement and super-determinism, most scientists favor entanglement — and with it, freedom. “If the correlations are indeed set [at the Big Bang], everything is preordained,” Larsson said. “I find it a boring worldview. I cannot believe this would be true.”

This article was reprinted on



‘Digital Alchemist’ Seeks Rules of Emergence

Computational physicist Sharon Glotzer is uncovering the rules by which complex collective phenomena emerge from simple building blocks.

By Natalie Wolchover
March 8, 2017

Sharon Glotzer has made a number of career-shifting discoveries, each one the kind “that completely changes the way you look at the world,” she said, “and causes you to say, ‘Wow, I need to follow this.’”

A theoretical soft condensed matter physicist by training who now heads a thriving 33-person research group spanning three departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”

Glotzer is searching for the fundamental principles that govern how macroscopic properties emerge from microscopic interactions and arrangements. One big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when she was a young researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She and her team developed some of the earliest and best computer simulations of liquids approaching the transition into glass, a common yet mysterious phase of matter in which atoms are stuck in place, but not crystallized. The simulations revealed strings of fast-moving atoms that glide through the otherwise frustrated material like a conga line. Similar flow patterns were later also observed in granular systems, crowds and traffic jams. The findings demonstrated the ability of simulations to illuminate emergent phenomena.

A more recent “wow” moment occurred in 2009 when Glotzer and her group at Michigan discovered that entropy, a concept commonly conflated with disorder, can actually organize things. Their simulations showed that entropy drives simple pyramidal shapes called tetrahedra to spontaneously assemble into a quasicrystal — a spatial pattern so complex that it never exactly repeats. The discovery was the first indication of the powerful, paradoxical role that entropy plays in the emergence of complexity and order.

Lately, Glotzer and company have been engaged in what she calls “digital alchemy.” Let’s say a materials scientist wants to create a specific structure or material. Glotzer’s team can reverse-engineer the shape of the microscopic building blocks that will assemble themselves into the desired form. It’s like whipping up gold from scratch ­­­— only in modern times, the coveted substance might be a colloidal crystal or macromolecular assembly.

Glotzer ultimately seeks the rules that govern emergence in general: a single framework for describing self-assembling quasicrystals, crystallizing proteins, or living cells that spontaneously arise from simple precursors. She discussed her eureka-studded path with Quanta Magazine in February; a condensed and edited version of the interview follows.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 462, 773-777, copyright (2009)



QUANTA MAGAZINE: Tell me about your famous 2009 Nature paper that linked self-assembly with entropy….



Gaia Vince discovers that analyzing the genetics of ancient humans means changing ideas about our evolution.

The Rock of Gibraltar appears out of the plane window as an immense limestone monolith sharply rearing up from the base of Spain into the Mediterranean. One of the ancient Pillars of Hercules, it marked the end of the Earth in classical times. Greek sailors didn’t go past it. Atlantis, the unknown, lay beyond.

In summer 2016, Gibraltar is in the throes of a 21st-century identity crisis: geographically a part of Spain, politically a part of Britain; now torn, post Brexit, between its colonial and European Union ties. For such a small area – less than seven square kilometers – Gibraltar is home to an extraordinarily diverse human population. It has been home to people of all types over the millennia, including early Europeans at the edge of their world, Phoenicians seeking spiritual support before venturing into the Atlantic, and Carthaginians arriving in a new world from Africa.

But I’ve come to see who was living here even further back, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower and the climate was swinging in and out of ice ages. It was a tough time to be alive and the period saw the species that could, such as birds, migrate south to warmer climes, amid plenty of local extinctions. Among the large mammal species struggling to survive were lions, wolves and at least two types of human: our own ‘modern human’ ancestors, and the last remaining populations of our cousins, the Neanderthals.

By understanding more about these prehistoric people, we can learn about who we are as a species today. Our ancestors’ experiences shaped us, and they may still hold answers to some of our current health problems, from diabetes to depression.

Everyone of European descent has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup

I’m picked up outside my hotel by archaeologists Clive and Geraldine Finlayson, in a car that itself looks fairly ancient. Typical for this crowded little peninsula, they are of diverse origins – he, pale-skinned and sandy-haired, can trace his ancestry back to Scotland; she, olive-skinned and dark-haired, from the Genoese refugees escaping Napoleon’s purges. How different we humans can look from each other. And yet the people whose home I am about to visit truly were of a different race.

We don’t know how many species of humans there have been, how many different races of people, but the evidence suggests that around 600,000 years ago one species emerged in Africa that used fire, made simple tools from stones and animal bones, and hunted big animals in large cooperative groups. And 500,000 years ago, these humans, known as Homo heidelbergensis, began to take advantage of fluctuating climate changes that regularly greened the African continent, and spread into Europe and beyond.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

By 300,000 years ago, though, migration into Europe had stopped, perhaps because a severe ice age had created an impenetrable desert across the Sahara, sealing off the Africans from the other tribes. This geographic separation enabled genetic differences to evolve, eventually resulting in different races, although they were still the same species and would prove able to have fertile offspring together. The race left behind in Africa would become Homo sapiens sapiens, or ‘modern humans’; those who evolved adaptations to the cooler European north would become Neanderthals, Denisovans and others whom we can now only glimpse with genetics.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago. These Africans encountered Neanderthals and, on several occasions, had children with them. We know this because human DNA has been found in the genomes of Neanderthals, and because everyone alive today of European descent – including me – has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup. Could it be that their genes, adapted to the northerly environment, provided a selective advantage to our ancestors as well?

After driving through narrow tunnels on a road that skirts the cliff face, we pull up at a military checkpoint. Clive shows the guard our accreditation and we’re waved through to park inside. Safety helmets on to protect from rockslides, we leave the car and continue on foot under a low rock arch. A series of metal steps leads steeply down the cliff to a narrow shingle beach, 60 meters below. The tide is lapping the pebbles and our feet must negotiate the unstable larger rocks to find a dry path.

I’ve been concentrating so hard on keeping my footing that it is something of a shock to look up and suddenly face a gaping absence in the rock wall. We have reached Gorham’s Cave, a great teardrop-shaped cavern that disappears into the white cliff face and, upon entering, seems to grow in height and space. This vast, cathedral-like structure, with a roof that soars high into the interior, was used by Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years. Scientists believe it was their last refuge. When Neanderthals disappeared from here, some 32,000 years ago, we became the sole inheritors of our continent.

I pause, perched on a rock inside the entrance, in order to consider this – people not so different from myself once sat here, facing the Mediterranean and Africa beyond. Before I arrived in Gibraltar, I used a commercial genome-testing service to analyze my ancestry. From the vial of saliva I sent them, they determined that 1 percent of my DNA is Neanderthal. I don’t know what health advantages or risks these genes have given me – testing companies are no longer allowed to provide this level of detail – but it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes. Sitting in this ancient home, knowing none of them survived to today, is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable we are – it could so easily have been a Neanderthal woman sitting here wondering about her extinct human cousins.

Gorham’s Cave seems an oddly inaccessible place for a home. But Clive, who has been meticulously exploring the cave for 25 years, explains that the view was very different back then. With the sea levels so much lower, vast hunting plains stretched far out to sea, letting people higher on the rock spot prey and signal to each other. In front of me would have been fields of grassy dunes and lakes – wetlands that were home to birds, grazing deer and other animals. Further around the peninsula to my right, where the dunes gave way to shoreline, would have been clam colonies and mounds of flint. It was idyllic, Clive says. The line of neighboring caves here probably had the highest concentration of Neanderthals living anywhere on Earth. “It was like Neanderthal City,” he adds.

Deep inside the cave, Clive’s team of archaeologists have found the remains of fires. Further back are chambers where the inhabitants could have slept protected from hyenas, lions, leopards and other predators. “They ate shellfish, pine seeds, plants and olives. They hunted big game and also birds. There was plenty of fresh water from the springs that still exist under what is now seabed,” Clive says. “They had spare time to sit and think – they weren’t just surviving.”

He and Geraldine have uncovered remarkable evidence of Neanderthal culture in the cave, including the first example of Neanderthal artwork. The ‘hashtag’, a deliberately carved rock engraving, is possibly evidence of the first steps towards writing. Other signs of symbolic or ritualistic behavior, such as the indication that Neanderthals were making and wearing black feather capes or headdresses as well as warm clothes, all point to a social life not so different to the one our African ancestors were experiencing.

Clive shows me a variety of worked stones, bone and antler. I pick up a flint blade and hold it in my hand, marveling at how the same technology is being passed between people biologically and culturally linked but separated by tens of thousands of years. Other sites in Europe have uncovered Neanderthal-made necklaces of strung eagle talons dating back 130,000 years, little ochre clamshell compacts presumably for adornment, and burial sites for their dead.

These people evolved outside of Africa but clearly had advanced culture and the capability to survive in a hostile environment. “Consider modern humans were in the Middle East perhaps 70,000 years ago, and reached Australia more than 50,000 years ago,” says Clive. “Why did it take them so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.”

© Tom Sewell

But by 39,000 years ago, Neanderthals were struggling. Genetically they had low diversity because of inbreeding and they were reduced to very low numbers, partly because an extreme and rapid change of climate was pushing them out of many of their former habitats. A lot of the forested areas they depended on were disappearing and, while they were intelligent enough to adapt their tools and technology, their bodies were unable to adapt to the hunting techniques required for the new climate and landscapes.

“In parts of Europe, the landscape changed in a generation from thick forest to a plain without a single tree,” Clive says. “Our ancestors, who were used to hunting in bigger groups on the plains, could adapt easily: instead of wildebeest they had reindeer, but effectively the way of capturing them was the same. But Neanderthals were forest people.

“It could’ve gone the other way – if instead the climate had got wetter and warmer, we might be Neanderthals today discussing the demise of modern humans.”

Although the Neanderthals, like the Denisovans and other races we are yet to identify, died out, their genetic legacy lives on in people of European and Asian descent. Between 1 and 4 per cent of our DNA is of Neanderthal origins, but we don’t all carry the same genes, so across the population around 20 per cent of the Neanderthal genome is still being passed on. That’s an extraordinary amount, leading researchers to suspect that Neanderthal genes must be advantageous for survival in Europe.

Interbreeding across different races of human would have helped accelerate the accumulation of useful genes for the environment, a process that would have taken much longer to occur through evolution by natural selection. Neanderthal tweaks to our immune system, for example, may have boosted our survival in new lands, just as we prime our immune system with travel vaccines today. Many of the genes are associated with keratin, the protein in skin and hair, including some that are linked to corns and others that play a role in pigmentation – Neanderthals were redheads, apparently. Perhaps these visible variants were considered appealing by our ancestors and sexually selected for, or perhaps a tougher skin offered some advantage in the colder, darker European environment.

Some Neanderthal genes, however, appear to be a disadvantage, for instance making us more prone to diseases like Crohn’s, urinary tract disorders and type 2 diabetes, and to depression. Others change the way we metabolize fats, risking obesity, or even make us more likely to become addicted to smoking. None of these genes are a direct cause of these complicated conditions, but they are contributory risk factors, so how did they survive selection for a thousand generations?

‘Why did it take [humans] so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.’

It’s likely that for much of the time since our sexual encounters with Neanderthals, these genes were useful. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, for example, or early farmers, we would have faced times of near starvation interspersed with periods of gorging. Genes that now pose a risk of diabetes may have helped us to cope with starvation, but our new lifestyles of continual gorging on plentiful, high-calorie food now reveal harmful side-effects. Perhaps it is because of such latent disadvantages that Neanderthal DNA is very slowly now being deselected from the human genome.

While I can (sort of) blame my Neanderthal ancestry for everything from mood disorders to being greedy, another archaic human race passed on genes that help modern Melanesians, such as people in Papua New Guinea, survive different conditions. Around the time that the ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians were getting friendly with Neanderthals, the ancestors of Melanesians were having sex with Denisovans, about whom we know very little. Their surviving genes, however, may help modern-day Melanesians to live at altitude by changing the way their bodies react to low levels of oxygen. Some geneticists suspect that other, yet-to-be-discovered archaic races may have influenced the genes of other human populations across the world.

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

I am a Londoner, but I’m a little darker than many Englishwomen because my father is originally from Eastern Europe. We are attuned to such slight differences in skin color, face shape, hair and a host of other less obvious features encountered across different parts of the world. However, there has been no interbreeding with other human races for at least 32,000 years. Even though I look very different from a Han Chinese or Bantu person, we are actually remarkably similar genetically. There is far less genetic difference between any two humans than there is between two chimpanzees, for example.

The reason for our similarity is the population bottlenecks we faced as a species, during which our numbers dropped as low as a few hundred families and we came close to extinction. As a result, we are too homogeneous to have separated into different races. Nevertheless, variety has emerged through populations being separated geographically – and culturally, in some cases – over thousands of years. The greatest distinctions occur in isolated populations where small genetic and cultural changes become exaggerated, and there have been many of them over the 50,000 years since my ancestors made the journey out of Africa towards Europe.

According to the analysis of my genome, my haplogroup is H4a. Haplogroups describe the mutations on our mitochondrial DNA, passed down through the maternal line, and can theoretically be used to trace a migratory path all the way back to Africa. H4a is a group shared by people in Europe, unsurprisingly, and western Asia. It is, the genome-testing company assures me, the same as Warren Buffet’s. So what journey did my ancestors take that would result in these mutations and give me typically European features?

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

“I was dumped by helicopter in the wilderness with two other people, a Russian and an indigenous Yukaghir man, with our dogs, our guns, our traps, a little food and a little tea. There we had to survive and get food and furs in the coldest place on Earth where humans live naturally – minus 60 degrees.”

Eske Willerslev lived for six months as a trapper in Siberia in his 20s. Separately, his identical twin brother Rane did the same. When they were teenagers, their father had regularly left them in Lapland to survive alone in the wilderness for a couple of weeks, fostering a passion for the remote tundra and the people who live there, and they went on increasingly lengthy expeditions. But surviving practically alone was very different. “It was a childhood dream, but it was the toughest thing I have ever done,” Eske admits.

These experiences affected the twins deeply, and both have been driven towards a deeper understanding of how the challenge of survival has forged us as humans over the past 50,000 years. It led Eske into the science of genetics, and to pioneering the new field of ancient DNA sequencing. Now director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Eske has sequenced the world’s oldest genome (a 700,000-year-old horse) and was the first to sequence the genome of an ancient human, a 4,000-year-old Saqqaq man from Greenland. Since then, he has gone on to sequence yet more ancient humans and, in doing so, has fundamentally changed our understanding of early human migration through Europe and beyond. If anyone can unpick my origins, it is surely Eske.

First, though, I go to meet his twin Rane, who studied humanities, went into cultural anthropology and is now a professor at Aarhus University. He’s not convinced that his brother’s genetic approach can reveal all the answers to my questions: “There exists an uneasy relationship between biology and culture,” he tells me. “Natural scientists claim they can reveal what sort of people moved around, and they are not interested in having their models challenged. But this cannot tell you anything about what people thought or what their culture was.”

To put this point to Eske, I visit him in his delightful museum office, opposite a petite moated castle and in the grounds of the botanic gardens – there could scarcely be a more idyllic place for a scientist to work. Greeting him for the first time, just hours after meeting Rane, is disconcerting. Identical twins are genetically and physically almost exactly the same – looking back, many years from now, at DNA left by the brothers, it would be all but impossible to tell them apart or even to realize that there were two of them.

Eske tells me that he is increasingly working with archaeologists to gain additional cultural perspective, but that genetic analysis can answer questions that nothing else can. “You find cultural objects in certain places and the fundamental question is: Does that mean people who made it were actually there or that it was traded? And, if you find very similar cultural objects, does that mean there was parallel or convergent cultural evolution in the two places, or does that mean there was contact?” he explains.

“For example, one theory says the very first people crossing into the Americas were not Native Americans but Europeans crossing the Atlantic, because the stone tools thousands of years ago in America are similar to stone tools in Europe at the same time. Only when we did the genetic testing could we see it was convergent evolution, because the guys carrying and using those tools have nothing to do with Europeans. They were Native Americans. So the genetics, in terms of migrations, is by far the most powerful tool we have available now to determine: was it people moving around or was it culture moving around? And this is really fundamental.”

What Eske went on to discover about Native American origins rewrote our understanding completely. It had been thought that they were simply descendants of East Asians who had crossed the Bering Strait. In 2013, however, Eske sequenced the genome of a 24,000-year-old boy discovered in central Siberia, and found a missing link between ancient Europeans and East Asians, the descendants of whom would go on to populate America. Native Americans can thus trace their roots back to Europe as well as East Asia.

And what about my ancestors? I show Eske the H4a haplotype analyzed by the sequencing company and tell him it means I’m European. He laughs derisively. “You could be and you could be from somewhere else,” he says. “The problem with the gene-sequencing tests is that you can’t look at a population and work back to see when mutation arose with much accuracy – the error bars are huge and it involves lots of assumptions about mutation rates.

“This is why ancient genetics and ancient genomics are so powerful – you can look at an individual and say, ‘Now we know we are 5,000 years ago, how did it look? Did they have this gene or not?’”

The things that we thought we understood about Europeans are coming unstuck as we examine the genes of more ancient people. For example, it was generally accepted that pale skin evolved so we could get more vitamin D after moving north to where there was little sun and people had to cover up against the cold. But it turns out that it was the Yamnaya people from much further south, tall and brown-eyed, who brought pale skins to Europe. Northern Europeans before then were dark-skinned and got plenty of vitamin D from eating fish.

It is the same with lactose tolerance. Around 90 per cent of Europeans have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest milk into adulthood, and scientists had assumed that this gene evolved in farmers in northern Europe, giving them an additional food supply to help survive the long winters. But Eske’s research using the genomes of hundreds of Bronze Age people, who lived after the advent of farming, has cast doubt on this theory too: “We found that the genetic trait was almost non-existent in the European population. This trait only became abundant in the northern European population within the last 2,000 years,” he says.

It turns out that lactose tolerance genes were also introduced by the Yamnaya. “They had a slightly higher tolerance to milk than the European farmers and must have introduced it to the European gene pool. Maybe there was a disaster around 2,000 years ago that caused a population bottleneck and allowed the gene to take off. The Viking sagas talk about the sun becoming black – a major volcanic eruption – that could have caused a massive drop in population size, which could have been where some of that stock takes off with lactose.”

While ancient genomics can help satisfy curiosity about our origins, its real value may be in trying to unpick some of the different health risks in different populations. Even when lifestyle and social factors are taken into account, some groups are at significantly higher risk of diseases such as diabetes or HIV, while other groups seem more resistant. Understanding why could help us prevent and treat these diseases more effectively.

It had been thought that resistance to infections like measles, influenza and so on arrived once we changed our culture and started farming, living in close proximity with other people and with animals. Farming started earlier in Europe, which was thought to be why we have disease resistance but Native Americans don’t, and also why the genetic risks of diabetes and obesity are higher in native Australian and Chinese people than in Europeans.

“Then,” says Eske, “we sequenced a hunter-gatherer from Spain, and he showed clear genetic resistance to a number of pathogens that he shouldn’t have been exposed to.” Clearly, Europeans and other groups have a resistance that other groups don’t have, but is this really a result of the early agricultural revolution in Europe, or is something else going on?

Eske’s analysis of people living 5,000 years ago has also revealed massive epidemics of plague in Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 years earlier than previously thought. Around 10 per cent of all skeletons the team analyzed had evidence of plague. “Scandinavians and some northern Europeans have higher resistance to HIV than anywhere else in the world,” Eske notes. “Our theory is that their HIV resistance is partly resistance towards plague.”

It could be that the cultural changes we have made, such as farming and herding, have had less influence on our genes than we thought. Perhaps it is simply the randomness of genetic mutation that has instead changed our culture. There’s no doubt that where mutations have occurred and spread through our population, they have influenced the way we look, our health risks and what we can eat. My ancestors clearly didn’t stop evolving once they’d left Africa – we’re still evolving now – and they have left an intriguing trail in our genes.

At the Gibraltar Museum, a pair of Dutch archaeology artists have created life-size replicas of a Neanderthal woman and her grandson, based on finds from nearby. They are naked but for a woven amulet and decorative feathers in their wild hair. The boy, aged about four, is embracing his grandmother, who stands confidently and at ease, smiling at the viewer. It’s an unnerving, extraordinarily powerful connection with someone whose genes I may well share, and I recall Clive’s words from when I asked him if modern humans had simply replaced Neanderthals because of our superior culture.

“That replacement theory is a kind of racism. It’s a very colonialist mentality,” he said. “You’re talking almost as if they were another species.”

Professor Eske Willerslev is a research associate at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which is funded by a core grant from the Wellcome Trust, which publishes Mosaic. 

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.