A Tree In The Vineyard

1024px-Olive_trees_on_Thassos[Content warning: Horticulture.]

The difference between wild olive trees and domesticated ones is that the domesticated ones are bad at being trees.

Tame olive trees distribute far fewer seeds, their root systems are weaker, they don’t grow as tall, and they have less dense foliage, because all their resources are poured into unnecessarily large, sweet, oily fruits. But wild trees grow olives that are barely edible — just enough to appeal to wild animals, who are usually pretty hungry and not that picky. They’re small and bitter, and a wild tree can pump out a lot of them.

In a human-controlled environment, “tame” traits are (kind of) adaptive: branches that have them are nurtured and encouraged to breed, while the wild, woody, bitter branches are “hewn down and cast into the fire“. But the selection pressure is still so strong in favor of wildness that a tame, productive vineyard will go wild without a human constantly working against it, fertilizing and pruning the most productive branches, and cutting down the wildest ones.

And we can’t just root out the wild phenotypes either, because totally tame trees are feeble — they fall over in high winds, they’re the first to die in a drought, they’re more vulnerable to parasites, and they often stop producing because their weak roots and thin foliage just can’t support them anymore. So olive horticulturists have to continually graft tame branches into wild root-stock (and vice versa) to keep the vineyard healthy and productive.

In the Allegory of the Olive Trees in Jacob 5, wildness maps to “the natural man”.

Or, if you prefer, the Goddess of Cancer, saying “KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER”. Or “survival values“. Everything about the wild tree is optimized for competition, survival, and reproduction — it gives only what it must to meet those objectives.

In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander tells a story about sentient rats on an island, who split their time between two basic tasks: doing what they must to survive, and “creating art” (i.e. doing the things that make life worth living). But they’re also consuming and breeding exponentially, so that they fill the island and begin to starve.

Soon, one group of rats realizes that they can dramatically increase their odds of survival by gathering food while everyone else is busy creating art. So all the rats who still bother with art either die of starvation, or get with the program and spend their whole lives scraping for survival like everybody else. Rats who figure out that overpopulation is the problem and voluntarily limit their offspring will be overwhelmed by those who don’t. Rats who have scruples about cannibalism will get eaten by rats who don’t.

Basically, the message is that if resources are scarce enough, the future will belong to those who are most willing to jettison every activity, every belief, every moral restriction that does not improve their competitive fitness. So you end up with a race of creatures who may be just as intelligent as their art-making, leisure-loving ancestors, but who are basically feral (i.e. “wild”) in every way that matters.

Tameness, meanwhile, maps to “the spiritual man”, the transcendent man — one who is recklessly indifferent to survival outcomes, and optimizes for an entirely “un-natural” set of values.

Tame trees channel enormous resources into “fruits” that don’t improve their material situation at all, unless there’s a master of the vineyard carefully cultivating and protecting them, continually rebalancing the scales in their favor.

This is basically what Jesus has to say about “taking no thought for the morrow”, because God feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies — or “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” If there’s a lord of the vineyard, then abandoning one’s immediate self-preservation to do what he wants done is the optimal strategy.

And if you’re confident that you live in a well-kept vineyard, that selflessness isn’t really selfless. If you’re waiting for the master of the vineyard to make up all your sacrifices and cut all your competitors down to size, then you haven’t transcended the game — you’re just using a different strategy to win.

But it’s definitely a risky strategy — if there’s no master of the vineyard, or if you’ve got an incorrect idea of the sorts of fruits he’s interested in, then it’s suicidally foolish. And sure enough, this kind of transcendent self-denial leads people to pour themselves out in all sorts of pointless ways, for all sorts of cruel and vicious gods.

What makes things interesting is that neither of these strategies is obviously superior.

Our lives are abundant enough that all kinds of wasteful strategies seem to work out just fine — we aren’t bound by iron Malthusian laws to do only what will ensure our survival and reproduction. We can, of course, be rapacious moral nihilists like the rats on the island — and they do seem to enjoy a great deal of material success. But we can also abandon self-preservation in the name of Christ (or the planet, or the proletariat, or the Reich, or the Singularity, or Islam)  without slamming up against our resource constraints and being competed out of the system.

Robin Hanson says that this moment of freedom (or, in his words, delusion) is a fluke, a “dream time”, in which we’re so far removed from Malthusian constraints that we can pretty much do and believe whatever we want, and get away with it. In other words, we don’t live in a well-kept vineyard or a harsh Judean wilderness — instead, we live in something like a rainforest, where we can afford to blow our resources on  huge, costly signals. And someday we’ll eat the rainforest up, and be back where we started, utterly enslaved to survival.

Jesus, meanwhile, explains it as wheat and tares growing together, and the rain falling on the wicked and the just. In the Allegory of the Olive Trees, every tree in the vineyard is some hybrid of wild and tame, and they’re all fertilized and pruned and nourished regardless. So there’s no clear “optimal” strategy — at least, as far as the trees can tell.

If you believe in God, it’s pretty interesting that he designed it that way — an existential bubble in which we actually have to wonder whether there’s anything out there bigger than us, and just decide what kind of people we want to be. Noah Smith points out that what matters most about God is not his power or his knowledge, but his goodness — that he chooses to take responsibility for things weaker than himself, things that have nothing to offer him. This life (which imposes immense costs, both for us and for himself) seems designed to present us with the same choice — which says something about who he is, and what he considers important, and what he intends for us.

A Tree In The Vineyard

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