Daniel Kokotajlo

Daniel Kokotajlo's Comments

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

I think I agree with most of the object-level claims you made, but I still think the term "conqueror" is justified. If the Spanish didn't conquer the Aztecs, then Alexander didn't conquer Persia, Genghis Khan didn't conquer China, etc. etc. More relevant comparisons would be the British East India Company conquering India, I think, and the Russian conquest of siberia, ukraine, and central asia, since those conquests lasted for a long time and allowed significant influence to be exerted on the locals. Anyhow, if AI has the potential to do to humans what Cortes and Pizarro did to the mesoamericans, I think we have good reason to be very worried. So for my purposes -- drawing analogies to AI -- I think it should count as conquest. The fact that it took a while for most Americans to be "actually controlled" by the Spanish doesn't matter.*

It seems like you are saying that Europeans colonized the world (as opposed to Chinese, or Americans, or Africans, or Ottomans) because they had the will to do so whereas other regions were more inward-focused. This seems implausible to me, except maybe in the case of China. For example, the Portuguese took over the Indian Ocean fairly easily, it seems; I find it hard to believe that the Ottomans wouldn't have done it first if they could. Or one of the Indian states. China, it seems, actually could have, and chose not to -- their bureaucrats burned their treasure fleet etc. And anyhow it seems like the only people who had ships as long-ranged as those of the Europeans were the Chinese. Thoughts?

*Justification for this: I think what's important is the "window of opportunity" for resistance by the conquered, before too many bad things happen to them. Even if it takes a century for the bad things to happen, if there isn't a realistic opportunity to boot out the invaders after time T, then it seems like you've been conquered by time T, in the relevant sense of the word. (In the AI context, I'm worried about our "window of opportunity" to react to AI and make it safe for humans. As long as our window remains open, great. But once the window is closed -- e.g. because there are already unsafe AIs running around with enough political, social, and military power that they can't be ousted -- then, well, then we're screwed. If the window of opportunity lasts decades after the creation of the first human-level AI, great! That's a decent amount of time. But what if the window lasts only a year? Then we'd better be prepared to act swiftly and judiciously during that time. By analogy, put yourself in position of a random American in 1492 who gets word of mysterious invaders across the sea. You might wonder: If and when they come to conquer us, how long will our window of opportunity for resistance be? Will it be a very gradual conquest, that takes many decades, so that we can learn about our enemies, adopt their technology and tactics, and unite our various quarreling principalities to fight them off? Or will events move too quickly for us to do those things? Turns out the answers were no and yes respectively, I claim, based on my current knowledge, which is admittedly small. One way I could be wrong is: Maybe the Spaniards actually didn't make things much worse for the Americans, in which case maybe the reason they weren't booted out wasn't that they had a firm grip on power but rather that there wasn't enough desire to do so.

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

Thanks, that's a helpful clarification. I do look forward to reading the things you mentioned. I agree it is important to read multiple books coming from multiple perspectives. I also agree that it is dangerous to read a recounting of events without mentally reminding yourself that this recounting probably has some selection bias of some sort on it. However, I still think that individual human historians can be more or less biased in their recountings, and that insofar as they try to be less biased, they can often succeed at least partially.

Anyhow, this matter of "They didn't" intrigues me, obviously. I don't know (yet) what happened after Cortes and Pizarro won, but didn't a bunch of Americans get basically enslaved? Weren't the silver mines at Potosi basically hell on earth? Weren't the American religions suppressed, their temples destroyed, etc.? Sure, it wasn't complete genocide like what the Germans tried to do to the Jews, but it was still pretty bad from the perspective of the pre-conquest Americans, no? And insofar as I'm trying to draw analogies to what an AI takeover might be like, this seems good enough. I guess my question is: In what meaningful sense did the spanish NOT conquer "new spain" in the span of a decade or so?

It sounds like you are saying the industrial revolution was the main driver of European dominance in the world, not colonialism. Fair enough (I'm not sure what I think yet on that subject) but it still seems like colonialism was a surprising happening that needs explaining, and IMO the explanation is a combination of experience and technology (Good ships, good weapons, good navigation, etc. Also the ability to sail around and encounter loads of parts of the world and then move on, building up experience that the people they encountered lacked. E.g. Pizarro probably couldn't have taken over Peru without knowledge of the stories of previous spanish conquests in the americas. e.g. if somehow all the Aztecs had teleported to Spain and Hispaniola twenty years prior as invisible observers, they probably would have squashed not only Cortes but many much larger subsequent Spanish invasions. It would have been like the British conquest of India, something that took hundreds of years. If it ever happened at all. I think.

Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso as Precedents for Takeover

Nobody in Europe could stand up to them either? Then how come they didn't conquer Europe?

I agree that the factors you list were contributing factors, but I feel like they aren't the main part of the story. I'd imagine technology + experience were more important.

Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso as Precedents for Takeover

Makes sense. I'd heard this about quinine before, but didn't know about nagana.

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

I don't care about Cortes in particular; I'm interested in drawing broader lessons from what happened. I would be interested to hear more about what Montezuma was thinking, which apparently that book talks about, so maybe I'll check it out. Thanks.

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

Update: After having read your blog post I am less optimistic. The books you recommend are arguably more tendentious than the one from 1830! At least the one from 1830 was primarily trying to recount events, rather than argue for some overarching lesson. What did you mean when you said tendentious historiography was the norm then (implying that it isn't now)?

As for the 7 myths in particular: Definitely seems worth reading for me. It looks like I don't believe any of those myths fully (despite getting my knowledge of this part of history from wikipedia and school) but I do believe some of them partially. Thanks for the tip!

Thornton's book looks even better for me. The quotes you pulled in your blog post are things I already believed, however. But still, like you said, this is a modern comprehensive history so it's exactly the sort of thing I need.

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

Thanks for the advice! I'll check those titles out.

Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso as Precedents for Takeover

Yes. Distinguishing between not having an empire and not being willing to fight all-out, they suffered from the first problem, whereas (perhaps, we shall see) the other port cities suffered from the second.

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

1. On the importance of disease to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that disease killed within a factor of 10 as many of Cortes' allies as enemies (Confidence: 80%, Tenochtitlan was under siege and a big city so probably especially vulnerable)

--I predict that I'll eventually conclude that Cortes had a >10% chance of winning even without the disease. (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll find some textual evidence of disease helping the Spanish maintain control later, e.g. locals deciding that the disease meant they needed to convert to christianity rather than deciding that it meant they needed to overthrow the foreigners, or e.g. some local ruler or population considering rebellion but then being too weak due to disease. (Confidence: 60%)

2. On the importance of "cunning" to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that I'll conclude Cortes' had significantly more relevant data (stories of European interactions with American civilizations) than Aztec leaders had-- in particular, that the Aztecs didn't know about what happened in hispaniola, and knew less about what happened in Yucatan than Cortes did. (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from a big information disadvantage, militarily: They had a noticeably worse sense of the capabilities and weaknesses of Spanish technology and tactics than the Spaniards dis of Aztec tech and tactics (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from some sort of diplomatic cunning disadvantage, e.g. not even considering the possibility that Cortes might kidnap the Emperor, e.g. being preoccupied with prophecies and religious implications that distract from level-headed calculations of military and strategic possibilities. (Confidence: 65%)

3. On the importance of technology to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that guns weren't that big a deal; they probably were useful as surprise weapons (shocking and demoralizing enemies not used to dealing with them) but that most of the fighting would be done by swords, bows, etc.

--I predict that I'll conclude the following ranking of technologies by importance: (Credence: 20%, it's hard to get so many things exactly right!)

Steel armor


Steel weapons


4. On the importance of disease to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict I'll conclude that disease was mostly a factor in that it reduced the total number of native troops and also got a bloody civil war started. That is, if somehow the population had just been naturally lower, and a bloody civil war had happened, Pizarro would have had just as good a chance as he did have. (Credence: 70%)

5. On the importance of "cunning" to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict that Pizarro designed his strategy to learn from Cortes' experience (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that the Incas were not aware of what happened to the Aztecs at all (50%) or just vaguely (90%)

--I predict that Inca rulers made at least three serious mistakes in anticipating what Pizarro et al might do, mistakes that they wouldn't have made had they been familiar with the history of Cortes and the Aztecs

6. On the importance of technology to Pizarro's conquest:

--Same predictions as in 3, with the same confidence.

Cortés, Pizarro, and Afonso as Precedents for Takeover

Good question; I'll find out. Malacca at least was a city-state, so the Portuguese attack was an existential threat.

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