Here’s the deal – given enough time, a biosphere that isn’t collapsing, and fewer rogue states and fanatical morons, we’d probably be OK as a species. Chances are, without the imminent threat of destruction, global warming, famine, water shortages, rising sea levels and toxic oceans, and given another couple of hundred years, humans might actually figure themselves out (and stop trying to wipe themselves, and every other species on this planet, out).
But, let’s face it, we’re all probably doomed.
Here’s the other deal – as you’ll know from reading my posts, humans are an evolved structure, meaning our brains are a hodge-podge of systems that have evolved on top of one another. This means that the systems we used 100,000 years ago in order to survive a dangerous world are still highly active today. Two of those systems dominate our behaviour: the approach system and the avoidance system. The first is responsible for rewarding us when we do something that increases our chance of survival (so we can pass on our genes). The second is responsible for activating our fight or flight system so that we can react appropriately to danger. Both are horribly out of date and neither works effectively for the issues of our modern world.
Most recently we’ve evolved the amazing neocortex, the astoundingly complex part of our brain that allows us to make incredibly complex calculations, understand maths, create music and art, and basically, be awesome. You’d think that, given that we’re no longer (for the most part) in constant danger of violence and starvation, that we’d favour this part of our brain over the more primitive approach/avoidance systems. And you’d be wrong. Unfortunately, the approach and avoidance centres (the limbic system) are integrated into the system so that they can easily take over when we’re in situations where they might be needed. We can, of course, override them, but most of us aren’t aware of this option (it doesn’t “feel” right) and so we end up making most of our decisions with a system that evolved close to a million years ago.
Let’s think about this for a minute. For the first time in human history many of us can have pretty much whatever we want. We have access to abundant food and clean water, we have shelter and warmth, and instant entertainment and communication. We don’t have to struggle for much, and what struggle we do have pales into insignificance when compared with the difficulties faced by our ancestors. Do we use this new-found security and comfort to devote our lives to greater meaning and wellbeing? Do we strive to make the world a better place? Yeah, sure we do, by consuming at an unsustainable and insatiable rate, by wanting everything now, by becoming increasingly intolerant, by becoming excessively narcissistic, and by demanding and expecting more and more. We’re using our approach/avoidance systems as the primary drivers of this behaviour and, when it suits us, the neocortex as a system for helping the approach/avoidance centres get what they want.
In other words, as a species we’re getting stupider. Technology makes it easier for us to rely on the limbic system – lust and anger become primary emotions. Compassion dies a shitty death in the throes of greed.
Oh dear, I do sound a tad cynical don’t I.
Well, bear with me.
Let’s look at the other great human failing, our inability to think long-term. Again, we can blame evolution for this. Until relatively recently, humans were lucky to live more than about 35 years, and only 20 of those years were productive. We’re just not hardwired to conceive of a span of time longer than a human life, and mostly we’re a lot more concerned with next week than next year, and next year over the next decade. Unfortunately, as humans we’re also crap at statistical reasoning. Because the human brain evolved for pattern recognition (to assist in hunting), most of us honestly believe that unrelated events are connected, simply because we notice a similarity. We’re easily convinced that correlation equals causation. Put together, this means that most of us can’t take in data effectively, make decisions rationally, or believe anything that we don’t see with our own eyes. We say things like “how can global warming possibly be real if it’s colder this winter than it was last year?”. And we respond to reasoned argument with something inane like “those scientists must be crazy” or “it’s all a big conspiracy”. And we honestly believe our own crap (yet another evolutionary flaw).
Alistair Mant used a brilliant metaphor to explain this flaw. Take a bicycle. It’s easy to understand, and you can take it to pieces and put it back together again. It might even work better after reassembly. Now take a frog. At first glance, it might appear bicycle-like (in that it moves), but if you start removing pieces (“oh, that frog’s far to heavy, if we remove the legs it’ll be a lot more efficient”) catastrophic failure will occur – we can’t reassemble frogs once we’ve broken them. According to Mant, humans are forever mistaking frog-systems (i.e., complex systems that aren’t easily understood) for bicycle-systems (i.e., simple systems that are easily understood). So we fuck with them, and we break them.
Thus, when we put a bunch of flawed humans in charge, they will, by default, start thinking short-term, even though they know that the long-term is probably important. For people, it’s the next meal, the next paycheque, the next election cycle. Because our survival instincts evolved for keeping us and our tribe alive through the winter, we don’t entertain thoughts of future generations seriously, and we can’t easily comprehend how our actions will affect the future. Worse, in their arrogance, those with influence often treat frogs as bicycles, and break things in the process. The only way we can intervene effectively is to use scientific methodologies that isolate us from our limbic systems. But most of us, including those in charge, simply won’t do this (some speculations on why can be found here and here). As such, our political and economic systems reflect our short-term biases. We’ve constructed complex systems that keep us locked into short-termism.
And when, from time to time, we do get it, we’re too easily distracted. You might have heard the term “bread and circuses” (from the latin panem et circences). It’s used to describe how politicians and organisations manipulate the public by distracting us with baubles, effectively bypassing our neocortex by appealing to the approach/avoidance system. It’s another evolutionary flaw (we’re so easily hacked). And, sadly, if I’m in power, my instinct will be to protect my position, and I’ll most likely do that by attempting to control those around me. Distraction is a great way of keeping people docile, especially when that distraction stops them from thinking in any sort of complex way.
But learning to think in more complex ways is exactly what humanity needs. If we can learn to recognise our inbuilt predilection for error and use more complex systems to help us focus on the important things (like what might happen in 50 years if we keep pumping shit into the atmosphere), we might be able to do something in time.
But, unfortunately, I don’t think that enough of us have it in us to make that much change. And the bread and circuses continues to distract us from taking action. After all, who doesn’t want a new car, an upgrade to their phone, or those new shoes? And one day in the near future, it will actually be too late.
Yep, we’re all doomed.