Transhumanist Fables

Once upon a time there were three little pigs who went out into the world to build their houses. The first pig was very lazy and built his house out of straw. The second pig was a little harder-working and built his house out of sticks. The third pig was the hardest-working of all, and built his house out of bricks. Then came the Big Bad Wolf. When he saw the house of straw, he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down, eating the first little pig. When he saw the house of sticks, he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down, eating the second little pig. When he saw the house of bricks, he got out a bazooka and blew the house to pieces, eating the third little pig.

Moral: Reality doesn’t grade on a curve.

Once upon a time there was a big strong troll who lived under a bridge. A little goat went across the bridge, and the troll reached out to grab and eat the goat. “Wait, Mr. Troll!”, the goat cried. “Soon my brother is coming, and he is even bigger than I am!” The troll let the goat pass, and soon came another goat, twice as big as the first. The troll reached out to grab and eat him, but the brother likewise objected, saying his brother was even bigger. Sure enough, a third goat arrived at the bridge, twice as big as the second, and the troll, now ready for a very hearty dinner, reached out to grab and eat him. “Wait!” said the third goat. “My brother is the biggest of us all!”. So the troll let the third goat pass. Then came the fourth goat, who was hundreds of miles tall and blotted out the sun, whose very steps caused earthquakes and made the rivers change course. Without even noticing, he stepped on bridge and troll, pulverizing both to bits.

Moral: Sometimes growth is superexponential.

Once upon a time, Chicken Little ran to her friend Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” she shouted. “We must tell the king!” Henny Penny joined her, and together they headed toward the capital. On their way they run into their friend Goosey Loosey. “The sky is falling!” they shouted. “We must tell the king!” Goosey Loosey joined them, and together they headed toward the capital. On their way, they ran into the cunning Foxy Loxy. “The sky is falling!” they shouted. “We must tell the king!” “Oh,” said Foxy Loxy. “I know a shortcut to the palace. Follow me into my den.” So the birds all followed Foxy Loxy into his den, where he ate them all, laughing all the while about how gullible they were. Then an asteroid hit Earth, killing everyone.

Moral: Beware the absurdity heuristic.

Once upon a time, a young boy named Jack lived with his mother. Their family was very poor and owned only a single cow. “Go sell this cow at the market,” Jack’s mother told him, “so we will have food to eat for the winter.” Jack went to the market and came back with three beans. “These are magic beans!” he told his mother. “A man told me that when we plant them, they will grow into a beanstalk leading to a land of infinite riches.” His mother pooh – poohed him and threw the beans in the ground angrily. That winter, they both died of hunger.

Moral: Good decision theories should be able to resist Pascal’s Mugging.

Once upon a time, there was an old woodcutter who had no son. He made a little marionette out of pine wood and named it Pinocchio. Then he wished upon a star that it could become a real boy. The star turned out to be the evil Red Fairy, who brought Pinocchio to life, but told him that if he wanted to be a real boy he must murder everyone in the village. That night, Pinocchio took his father’s saw and killed Gepetto and everyone else in town.

Moral: Never create an intelligence unless you are certain it will share your values.

Once upon a time, an evil witch transformed a prince into a frog, telling him that only the kiss of a princess could restore him to his proper form. But although he searched around the world, he could find no princess who was willing to kiss a hideous little frog. Finally, he went to the Wise Wizard. “Gender is a social construct,” said the Wise Wizard. “Just declare your gender identity to be female, then kiss yourself on the hand or something.” So the frog did that, returned to human form, and ruled the land for many years as a wise and benevolent queen.

Moral: Ability to self-modify is just ridiculously powerful.

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28 Responses to Transhumanist Fables

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Creutzer says:

    The one about the absurdity heuristic doesn’t really work. The fox behaved completely rationally because there is nothing that he or the king could have done to prevent the asteroid from killing people.

    • Agreed; as a reader, I had to edit the ending to “and then, a few weeks later, an asteroid hit nearby. It killed many individuals — including Foxy Loxy” & also add-in some note about how the kingdom was historically VERY good at large-scale space projects, but had recently shuttered the majority of near-earth threat-detection programs due to controversial budget shortfalls.

      … oh, also: the famously open-minded and science-loving king was especially unhappy about these cutbacks and was likely to listen to an amateur astronomer like Chicken Little.

  3. Shmi Nux says:

    Don’t forget the original Little Mermaid:

    Moral: Shut up (literally) and do the impossible.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’ve always thought the moral of the Little Mermaid was “Just because you have feelings for someone, that does not put an obligation on them to return those feelings.” Added bonus moral “Doing crazy stupid excessive things to demonstrate your love doesn’t count either.”

      I heartily wish all those obsessive stalkers who insist “You have to love me” could learn this lesson. All those accounts of men (and it’s generally men, though I’ll welcome any examples of women behaving equally badly) who assault and even kill their ex-girlfriends/wives/partners for breaking up with them means we as a society really should promote the whole “you have a destined soulmate out there” notion less and “nobody owes you a rose garden” rather more.

  4. Mary says:

    In fiction, the surrounding world provides the constraint. This has nothing to do with realism (even if it explains also realism). A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess’s kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos).

    Umberto Eco

  5. Randy M says:

    Seems like 3 & 4 contradict.

    Also, in the last one it seems like the frog would need to convince the Witch, not himself that he was a she. But, if we learned anything from Jurrassic park, it’s that amphibian gender truely is a social construct. (wider applicability somewhat dubious).

    • Mary says:

      “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

    • Deiseach says:

      But would kissing yourself work? Isn’t the point of the spell that it has to be another person, otherwise, any curse could be broken by the victim performing the ritual to break it?

      • Herm says:

        The setter of the spell conditions believed she (I’m assuming “witch” implies she, anyway) was doing as much by specifying a princess, because she didn’t anticipate the prince’s mental gymnastics.

        Perhaps adding “and not yourself” would have been an appreciable extra effort and/or waste of power, but I’m running with the assumption that our witch is traditionally-minded and simply didn’t think of it.

      • Alternate way of protecting the curse from the “kiss yourself” attack: Kissing is defined in some way (maybe it needs flexible lips rather than just mouth/skin contact) which makes it impossible for a frog to do it.

  6. Joe says:

    The last one reminds me of the emperor and his new clothes. Thanks for the link on absurdity.

  7. MugaSofer says:

    Loved them all. Now I have to figure out if these are funny to non-transhumanists or just strange.

    Oh, except the Jack and the Beanstalk one. Did you mean to have the old man on the road appeal to the high reward of a magical kingdom to overcome the low probability of them being worth a cow? Because otherwise I don’t think that’s Pascal’s Mugging, it’s just gullibility.

    • Raemon says:

      He specified “infinite riches”

      • Raemon says:

        Er, rather, the general case of Pascal’s Mugging relates directly to gullibility – most people claiming to be Matrix Lords are not. But if they’re promising enough utility, then it’s worth the chance they are wrong.

  8. Deiseach says:

    But surely if you plant the beans, at least you will have a bean plant and can live on beans for the winter? They may not lead you to a magical land of riches in the sky, but if they’re only ordinary beans, they’ll grow like any ordinary plant.

    Also, if the cow is too old to calve and give milk, and you’re selling her for food money (not money for rent, fuel, etc.), it makes more sense to kill the cow and salt her meat and live on that over the winter – which is what most farming communities did before efficient foddering systems meant they could have enough animal feed (hay, silage, processed animal feeds) to keep livestock alive until the new grass.

    My country background may be showing here in my interpretation of this fable πŸ™‚

    • Max says:

      “But surely if you plant the beans, at least you will have a bean plant and can live on beans for the winter?”

      Have you ever known a bean plant that produced beans through the winter? Enough to live on?

      • Deiseach says:

        You have three beans, you get three plants. No, they of themselves won’t provide you with enough food, but you won’t starve if you can use them to eke out what other sources you have – and besides would they make enough money from one old cow to buy enough food to last the entire winter?

        I think Jack’s Mother should try teaming up with the bazooka-toting wolf to hunt those pigs – maybe a combination of pork and beans meals they can produce as “artisanal cookery” and sell to keep themselves going – start up a new business πŸ™‚

  9. Kat says:

    Was the goal of this post that those of us reading would have to get more people we know to become rationalists just so they will understand what’s so funny here when we link to it? If so, well played.

  10. Isn’t the Pinocchio story a general argument against having children?

    • Mike Blume says:

      You can have tighter priors about the behavior of your children — look at how humans have behaved in the past.

      • Randy M says:

        People in the past have done worse than pinocchio in the fable.

        • Hand of Lixue says:

          Yes, but on average having kids produces significantly more positive results than “entire town is murdered”. We wouldn’t be around as a species if that was a typical or even merely-uncommon result.

    • Nisan says:

      Somewhat relatedly, I interpret The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang as, not quite an argument against having children, but a warning that having children is a weird act fraught with ethical problems.

    • @Johnwbh says:

      Alternatively, think of the red fairy as the Strong AI analogue and it becomes a fable against under-specifying your desires.

  11. Avantika says:

    That last one, that’s awesome.

  12. ArtilectCowboy says:

    You know, if transhumanists do end up augmenting their intelligence, and the concept of comedy turns into a series lesswrong posts, I’m totally, 100% okay with that.