precedent and possibility

From: Michael Vassar (
Date: Wed Aug 03 2005 - 00:55:43 MDT

  Out of curiousity, does anyone here know of *any* instance where some
aspiration was asserted to be impossible by people who simply meant "I can't
see any way in which this could be achieved" and those people turned out to
be right?
  I've read "biochemistry/biology can't do X" literally dozens of times and
later found instances of biology/biochemistry doing X. Manipulate metals,
make lenses, mirrors, semiconductors, fire, travel in space, survive at
temperatures over the boiling point of water, live millions of years,
survive total dehydration while retaining multi-cellular structure, catalyze
some particular reaction, completely avoid cancer (under any conditions we
have been able to test), repair the Y chromosome, revert to grand-parent's
genomes, live deep under ground, utilize infra-red as an energy source,
survive in extremely salty water, survive in the stomach, reproduce without
DNA, evolve rapidly, hybridize and instantly create new animal species, and
on, and on, and on.
  And all of that under the hideously restrictive constraints binding it.

  Poll of SL4
Let's play "Guns, Germs, and Steel"
Given current human intelligence, ten million people, ten million years, and
no human eugenics, how restrictive would you guess starting conditions would
have to be to prevent the development of MNT?
Given Earth, no eugenics, ten million people, and ten million years, how
large a shift in the average and/or standard deviation of intelligence would
have prevented MNT from being developed?

My personal answers;
a) a small archipelago such as Hawaii (but not volcanic enough to wipe the
people out of course), with attendant absence of many "key" resources at
concentrations that are economical for us and total absence of some other
"key" resources (fossil fuels, for instance, or "domesticable" animals)
would not have stopped them, but a single island too small to develop
multiple interacting cultures might have. Permafrost probably would have.
b) a 2 standard deviation lower average or 1/2 current variation probably
would have.
Half that disadvantage probably wouldn't.

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