Tl;dr: Karel Čapek’s 1936 science fiction satire The War with the Newts is brilliant and relevant to various topics in EA, and I’d like more people to hear about it (and to consider reading it). It deals in particular with non-human sentience and welfare, misguided or signal-oriented altruism, and x-risk (among other topics). It’s also just really fun to read, if you’re looking for slightly obscure, slightly experimental science fiction. (Please note that it has a fair bit of violence.) You can find the book here. (I read and endorse Ewald Osers’ translation, but it’s possible others are good, too.)[1]

A note about this post: this is a quick summary and a heartfelt recommendation to give this book a try, and that’s it. Here’s a NYT review (paywalled) in case you’d prefer to read that. There are no real startling revelations in this post, and I don’t think the book will revolutionize your thinking about impact or the long-term future; I simply think it’s great and am jotting down why.

Summary of the post

  1. Historical context and a brief intro + summary of the novel
  2. EA topics
    1. Non-human sentience and welfare
    2. Misguided or self-congratulatory (rather than goal-oriented) altruism
    3. X-risk
    4. Weirdly AGI-like behavior of the Newts
  3. Concluding thoughts and meta comments

Historical context and a brief intro + summary of the novel

Karel Čapek was a Czech journalist, writer, and early anti-fascist, and is best known for producing the first piece of literature ever to use the word “robot” in his 1920 play, “R.U.R.” The play is a cool (and short) read— especially as a piece of science fiction history— but I prefer the novel.

The War with the Newts is in a whole different class. It was written in Czechoslovakia in 1936, and it responds directly to its scientific and political background. I tend to dislike it when science fiction is judged on “prophetic ability,” as this often leads to survivorship-bias- and overfitting-afflicted discussions that overlook the actual strengths of literature, but it’s impossible to avoid pointing out the eerily insightful portrayal of Europe’s development in the book. (An optional elaboration is in the footnote.[2]) The main strengths of the book have little to do with Čapek’s ability to predict the pathways of WWII, however.

The novel starts with the discovery of a new species of intelligent mild-mannered Newt. The human relationship with the Newts is initially pretty benign—the Newts help human endeavors by fishing pearls from water, and in exchange, humans give them knives to defend themselves from sharks— but the situation soon becomes industrialized and quickly turns sour. The rest of the book explores what follows. Čapek illustrates mental shenanigans humans use to justify treating beings as non-sentient. He creates fictional op-eds and conference notes. Readers learn the strange experience of living in a world that seems to be utterly safe but which moves extremely quickly under the surface. All of this is conveyed through a patchwork of perspectives (and a play of medium) that is great for revealing a bunch of real cognitive biases (satire at its best).

A spoiler-y summary is in this footnote.[3]

Non-human sentience and welfare

The novel painstakingly sets up a core fact of the fictional reality; the Newts are sentient to some vaguely undetermined and fluid degree. It contrasts this truth with descriptions of casual exploitation of the creatures (and the corresponding euphemistic scientific jargon and pseudo-objective journalistic coverage). All of this highlights inconsistencies between the treatment and interpretation of the Newts— and by extension, of real-life non-human beings.[4]

A relevant passage:

  • “The death-rate during transportation scarcely reaches 10 per cent. At the request of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals there is a chaplain on board every tank to ensure the salamanders are treated humanely; every night he delivers them a sermon which exhorts them in particular to show respect to humans and to show obedience and love to their future employers whose one desire is to exercise paternal care for their well-being.”

Misguided or self-congratulatory (rather than goal-oriented) altruism

Čapek often offers a moment of hope to readers—e.g. a humane society speaks up and maybe now the Newts will be treated well—but he dashes those hopes by showing that the interventions are farcical.

A couple of passages or examples:

  • “Conscientious objectors to vivisection also signed a lot of protests and petitions urging the banning of scientific experiments on live Newts. In a number of states such a law was in fact enacted.” (152) Great! Except there is a footnote, and the reader who follows it sees: “In Germany, in particular, all vivisection was strictly prohibited— though only to Jewish researchers.” (Footnote 13).
  • The League for the Protection of Salamanders manages “important and praiseworthy work for the salamanders.” That work? Setting up special Newt recreation areas, teaching (human) children to avoid throwing rocks at Newts, protecting Newt tadpoles from overwork in school, and a call to action; “you, women” should sew modest skirts and aprons for the Newts in order to appease the Newts’ supposed sense of propriety.

X-risk

The whole book is about x-risk. A brief summary is that humans make dangerous miopic-incentive-driven moves that threaten the fate of humanity. The story is obviously fantastical, but I think it gets some things extremely right, like the role of misaligned incentives, the current state of protection against unprecedented events, and a plausible portrayal of the experience of people living through a sudden existential catastrophe. Spoiler-y quote in footnote.[5] And another one.[6]

The Newts’ development sounds weirdly like a training neural network

This is true in form and content. Content-wise, it’s interesting to see the Newts go from mastering a specific task to learning speech to pursuing other things. On the form side, however, I’m just struck by how much the Newts’ speech sounds like “AI speech.”

At one point in the book, some characters have discovered that one of the Newts (Andy Scheuchzer) has learned to read (Andy is in a zoo, and a worker, Greggs, has been getting him to read the newspaper out loud while he works). The director of a zoo (Sir Charles, a passing character) and a scientist (Professor Petrov, also a passing character) are debating whether the Newt is sentient, and have decided to interview Andy. Here’s part of that passage:

‘Professor Petrov here has come to take a look at you.’

‘Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Andy Scheuchzer.’

‘How d’you know your name is Andrias Scheuchzer?’

‘Why, it’s written up here, sir. Andreas Scheuchzer, Gilbert Islands.’

‘D’you read the paper often?’

‘Yes, sir. Every day, sir.’

‘And what interests you most in it?’

‘Police Court news, horse racing, football - ’

‘Have you ever seen a football match?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Or a horse?’

‘No, sir.’

‘So why do you read about it?’

‘Because it’s in the paper, sir.’

‘You’re not interested in politics?’

‘No, sir. WILL THERE BE WAR?’

‘No one can tell, Andy.’

‘GERMANY BUILDS A NEW TYPE OF SUBMARINE,’ Andy said worriedly. ‘DEATH RAYS CAN TURN WHOLE CONTINENTS INTO DESERT.’

‘You read that in the paper, didn’t you?’ asked Sir Charles.

‘Yes, sir. WILL PELHAM BEAUTY OR GOBER-NADOR WIN THIS YEAR’S DERBY?’

‘What do you think, Andy?’

‘Gobernador, sir. But Mr Greggs thinks Pelham Beauty.’ Andy nodded his head. ‘BUY BRITISH, sir. SNIDER’S BRACES ARE BEST. HAVE YOU GOT YOUR NEW SIX-CYLINDER TANCRED JUNIOR? FAST, CHEAP, ELEGANT.’

I think this reads like an awkwardly trained language model. But I don’t actually know much about this— if you disagree, I’d love to hear about it.

I’m ignoring many great qualities of the book. For instance, Čapek blithely targets fascist ideology, antisemitism, and other forms of bias. See the footnote at the end of the sentence if you want an example, but if you’re considering reading the book, you might as well just discover these aspects yourself.[7]

Concluding thoughts and meta comments

Don’t read this book to efficiently learn what you need to know about non-human sentience or x-risk. But if you’re searching for different ways of thinking about those phenomena (and of making them real to yourself), I think this could be a great experience. I’m also happy to recommend this book to non-EA people (lots of people I know are probably tired of hearing it).

And it’s also just really interesting to read fiction so relevant (from a “it’s good to have fun sometimes” perspective), and to see writing so seemingly proto-EA (from a historical perspective).

One of the things I appreciated was the sense of urgency I got from the book. This urgency was most noticeable with respect to the fate of the world and with respect to morality. Čapek forces his readers to see the human ability to justify our actions in the face of evidence that these actions are ethically corrupt (or useless). I think it would be hard to come out of this book without wanting to do something to help as fast as possible— and hard to read it without realizing that many of the ways do-gooding is attempted are deeply flawed.

Notes


  1. Note that you can also just find a PDF online. If you’re getting a copy, check that the footnotes in Book II (the novel is split into three “books”) are correct, i.e. on the page they correspond to. (And read the footnotes!) ↩︎

  2. The historical context of the novel is directly tied to the book. By 1936, Hitler had come to power, Mussolini and Laval had invaded Ethiopia, and Germany had ignored the Versailles Treaty in its efforts to re-arm. According to his friend and biographer Ivan Klima, Čapek, a devoted journalist who had already written on the dangers of fascism and anti-semitism, felt increasingly pessimistic about Europe, and his concerns poured into the novel. The text exhibits and condemns attitudes from the interwar period—Czech neutrality, lynchings in the United States, German chauvinism—and demonstrates Čapek’s keen understanding of the political situation in his depictions of what will happen during [WWII (Britain will be the first power to stand against the threat, China is discarded by European nations, etc.)]. ↩︎

  3. Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel is a brilliant dark satire. Its plot, which is secondary to the stylistic experimentation that dominates the 250-page text is as follows. Sentient sea-dwelling Newts (Andrias Scheuchzeri) are discovered, and an international syndicate begins to farm and sell them as labor at an industrial scale. The Newt population grows exponentially as a result, and begins to form elaborate societies that mimic the human world. Suddenly the humans learn that they have managed to arm and militarize the Newts, who would now like to politely inform humanity that they will be blowing up countries and continents one-by-one in order to expand the shallow ecosystems they need as habitat—20 pages later, everything is over. This is all told indirectly, often through layers of embedded fictional sources ranging from scientific publications to anonymous pamphlets to board-meeting transcripts, and from a ruthlessly human perspective. To understand what the Newts are doing at any moment, readers are forced to sift through layers of (fictional) bias, interpretation, and spin. The unusual structure of the novel amplifies its satirical and critical power. It consists of three Books. The mishmash of chapters in Book One, “Andrias Scheuchzeri,” pastiches different genres and allows Čapek to spoof everything from Romantic adventure literature to hyper-capitalistic modernist works that glorify progress. It introduces the Newts and culminates in an odd appendix on “The Sex Life of the Newts.” Book Two, “Up the Ladder of Civilisation,” is dominated by one long chapter of the same name (subtitled: “A History of the Newts”) which is bracketed by short scenes from the life of one of the text’s only real characters (Mr. Povondra). It resembles a dissertation based on the dramatically incomplete record of the Newt society’s history— newspaper clippings saved by Mr. Povondra. The final book is called “War with the Newts.” This is once more a mix of fictional primary sources culminating in a bizarre coda chapter where “the author talks to himself.” (248) The actual war with the Newts, if it can be called that, is presented in this book and is told mostly through descriptions of proceedings and apologetic communications from the Chief Salamander, who is directing Newt hostilities towards humans. Aside from Mr. Povondra, no character appears in more than one Book. ↩︎

  4. Semi-relevant note: I finally wrote out this post because I came across this BBC article on the possibility of octopus farming. (EDIT: there's also now a linkpost to the article on the Forum --- see the comments.) ↩︎

  5. Near the end of the book, basically everything is destroyed. The author’s voice notes: “Let me ask you this; do you know who even now, with one-fifth of Europe inundated, is supplying the Newts with high torpedoes and drills? Do you know who is feverishly working in laboratories night and day to discover even more efficient machines and substances to blow up the world? [...] I do. Every factory in the world. Every bank. Every country.” ↩︎

  6. It is easy to read Čapek’s War with the Newts as an anachronistic warning against AI: the learning-capable Newts initially help the humans, then develop intellectually and technologically until they are out of control, and adopt the humans’ faulty value system. This, in the end, is the humans’ doom, and leads to the implied conclusion that the planet as we know it might too be destroyed. ↩︎

  7. Although bias was not a term Čapek would have known or used in this context, he clearly attacks racist and anti-semitic biases in the sciences by revealing the ludicrousnous of how they might function in his fictional world. He repeatedly leads readers to a clash of the text’s reality with scientific and philosophical interpretations of it. Most notably, there are two individuals who serve as stand-ins for the scholarly eugenicists; the German researcher Dr Hans Thüring and the fatalistic writer Wolf Meynert. Thüring’s only accomplishment in the book is to determine that the Baltic Newt, which he names der Eldemolch, or the “Noble Newt” has different physical traits. German press begins to take an interest and—surprise!—discovers that the German environment has caused the Newt to develop into a “higher racial type.” Other Newts are called degenerate. This leads to an argument about the origin of the Newts being German, too, and thus for a need for Germany to expand its coastlines to spawn “new generations of racially pure original German salamanders.” ↩︎

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:48 PM
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Thanks for the recommendation! I've just finished reading it and really enjoyed it. Note for future readers that the titular "war" only really happens towards the end of the book, and most of it is about set up and exploring the idea of introducing newts to society

I don't remember the book's plot very well, but I do remember thinking it was brilliantly written, and I'd recommend it highly.