What the hell is wrong with us?

Welcome to humanity: a species of short-sighted, venal, self-absorbed, stupid, profligate feeders. And that’s the good stuff.

This is what evolution primed us for – based on a tiny population, nasty predators, and a cruel environment we evolved to put ourselves and the survival of our tribe first: something we became extremely good at. In fact, a big part of this expertise involved us learning how to recognise patterns so that we could predict what was likely to happen, an ability that works really well in the context in which it evolved (e.g., determining where to find the best food). But extend the timeframe beyond a few months, increase the variables to include abstract concepts, and expand the effect beyond our immediate tribe, and not only do we become useless at pattern recognition, we stop caring. We’re wired for statistical incompetence.

Smoke stacks

We evolved to be really good at outcompeting our environment, using all available resources to benefit ourselves and enhance our survivability. In this context, our inability to think statistically actually helped because it made us blind to actual versus perceived risk, especially when there was something to gain. In other words, when there’s the potential for benefit, we will always underplay both the perceived and the actual risk (e.g., climbing a tall tree to get at the berries at the top) because it has the potential to keep us alive in the short-term (e.g., by getting food when we’re hungry). On the other hand, when we believe that we’re in danger, we’ll deliberately overplay the perceived risk, irrespective of the actual risk, in order to increase our short-term survivability – often resulting in poor decisions (e.g., preemptively going to war with another tribe because they appear to be a threat, despite a lack of evidence). Worse, we’ll retroactively modify our perceptions so that we absolutely believe that we made the right decision – reinforcing our inaccurate risk assessment.

These traits were absolutely fine for most of our history. After all, we’re supposed to be a self-selecting species, but now we’re in plague. Not only have humans populated pretty much everywhere that’s habitable on the planet, we’ve learnt to like luxury and developed the technology to make it virtually ubiquitous. It’s not really our fault – it’s a brilliant demonstration of our ‘successful’ evolutionary traits. It’s also, obviously unsustainable in an environment of finite resource.

But evolution has given us something else – the ability to think, and observe, and reason. Sure, this ability evolved to help us outcompete our predators, but it has allowed us to come up with the scientific method – the best way we know of to be able to ask and answer questions – and this gave us the possibility of breaking free of our major design flaws.

At this stage, I’d recommend you go and read Ramez Naam’s “The Infinite Resource” – he expresses, a lot better than I can, just how humans can use our intellects to solve the large number of problems facing our survivability. He’s an optimist, and a believer in our ability to innovate a solution to pretty much anything. But he also points out the importance of sensible regulation.

Give me a minute here. Mr. Naam suggests that sensible regulation/legislation corrects the free market’s tendency to fuck things up. Here’s an example. A company finds it’s products in demand, so it ramps up production. To make the most profit, it decides to dump its waste into a nearby river. On the one hand, this works a treat for the company, because it’s cheap, so the company expands and makes more money. On the other hand, it doesn’t work so well for the people who live next to the river or the fish who live in it. This represents (at its simplest) the free market in action. The problem is the misuse of what Mr. Naam refers to as “the commons” – areas that aren’t owned by an organisation, but are vulnerable to its actions (like the polluted river above). According to Ramez Naam, the solution is to protect the commons through sensible regulation (e.g., by forcing organisations to find a safer way to dispose of their pollution). A perfect example of this sort of legislation can be found in the international agreement in the 1980s to ban CFCs. The free market wasn’t going to act to reduce the use of this chemical (the ongoing use of which threatened all life on the planet) without regulation, backed up by punitive action. And, hey presto, within a few years, a safer alternative was developed at a substantially lesser cost than was assumed. This ability to innovate when required is the central point in Mr. Naam’s thesis: when required, humans will come up with a solution, quickly and effectively.

According to Ramez Naam, another example of extremely sensible legislation is a carbon tax. His version works along the lines of a 20-year reduction target, with no penalties for the first five years, but dramatically increasing limitations for each year after that (giving the market time to catch up before the five-year deadline, and ongoing incentive after that point). He suggests that, without the stick, there is no incentive for the free market to change what it’s doing (i.e., relying on fossil fuels), but with appropriate legislation, the market comes up with a cost-viable alternative. Thus innovation is directed at developing alternatives, and we come up with a better version. In fact, there’s pretty good historical evidence to suggest that the ‘better’ version will end up being cheaper and better for the market in the longer term. Everyone wins.

With current trends, there’s a very strong likelihood that civilisation will collapse within the next 50-100 years and that humans will be gone from the planet within 200 years. It’s pretty obvious that our current lifestyle is unsustainable. No one’s going to rescue us: the only thing that is going fix our shit is thinking ourselves out of this mess, because there’s no way that we’re going to stop eating, and burning oil, and buying televisions. Real change needs to happen, but there’s a major problem: we get distracted.

Yup, we need to remember that humans didn’t evolve for large-scale, multifactorial thinking. We don’t get timeframes longer than a few months. This is why many people are convinced (for example) that global warming doesn’t exist: after all, we tell ourselves (smugly), if the last winter was cold how can global warming possibly be real? But it’s not just our inability to process complexity that makes us vulnerable. I’ve documented this elsewhere (see here) but, put simply, we’re incapable of seeing what’s in front of us accurately, and we’re very easily sidetracked or distracted. A big problem for humans is something called the ‘availability heuristic‘: our tendency to place greater importance on things that are more easily available to us (e.g., things we know well, or recent experiences that got our attention). We’re all victim to it, and it makes us make stupid decisions. Right now, in the wake of the horror that happened in Paris, French ‘leaders’ are seriously considering curtailing internet freedoms in an “effort to tackle terrorism”. That’s right, because of the availability heuristic, the awful death of 12 people trumps the deaths of millions every year to disease, poverty, war, violence, and incompetence. And, conspiracy theories aside, the same error in thinking will be result in a ‘solution’ that curtails freedom of speech to protect us from a threat that, statistically speaking, doesn’t exist. This reaction becomes even more ludicrous when anyone with even the most basic knowledge of encryption protocols can avoid government surveillance, but it’s par for the course: humans like to be in control of their environment and, because we’re easily distracted, we confuse small problems for big ones, and take the wrong actions.

Effective action is the difference between sensible legislation, based on evidence, clear thinking, and scientific process, and knee-jerk reaction based on cognitive biases and human fallibility. And whilst I agree with Ramez Naam’s belief in the human ability to innovate ourselves out of pretty much any problem, I’m not convinced that our leaders are capable of acting sensibly, at least not consistently – nor that they’re capable of determining the difference between a perceived and an actual threat (hence the unilateral spending on wars in the Middle East, but the inability to agree on carbon reduction targets).

We are doomed (see here) unless we start thinking and acting. So why the fuck do we vote in idiots who think that survival equals winning the next election, and that sustainability equals ‘economic growth’ over the next three years. The same idiots who think that spending less on education is a good thing, but that restricting the freedoms of its populace to protect from a perceived threat is sensible?

The free market certainly isn’t going to innovate voluntarily without an incentive. We need sensible legislation, it’s probably the only way we’re going to get out of our mess. But how the hell do we ensure increasingly sensible regulation from our leaders?

The single best solution: educate the shit out everyone. Increase standards, make university degree-level training ubiquitous (and increase the standard), and fund the hell out of research. Make PhD’s the poster children of the new world. Educated people aren’t necessarily free of cognitive bias, but they can be trained to be aware of it and to modify their behaviour to compensate. If education is good for anything, it’s to make us aware of our limitations and to teach us better, more effective ways of thinking and acting.

I realise that to do this, we’d need some sensible legislation (oh irony), but it’s potentially the start of a domino effect. It’s also a solution to the treat of radicalism. Educated people who live in politically free, affluent countries are not (on the whole) prone to radicalism. But limiting education, restricting freedom of speech, and encouraging hatred is a guaranteed way of making it worse. Whilst France’s citizens march to tell their leaders that the solution is community, compassion, acceptance and freedom (an amazing display that demonstrates the ability of people, on a mass scale, to act in a compassionate, non-selfish way – at least for a short period of time), the knee-jerk reaction from those same leaders will be to restrict the ability of people to collaborate. And if they can’t get that right, how the hell are they going to agree on any legislation to limit carbon emissions…

4 Replies to “What the hell is wrong with us?”

  1. Not convinced that education will reduce self centred materialism. Especially for law graduates! This suggestion is slightly offensive to those without fancy PhD educations.

    1. All education is good – and some is better than nothing. Not suggesting that anyone needs a PhD, just that those who do them tend (at least in the sciences) to contribute a fair bit to the whole moving science forward thing.

      You’re right though – education doesn’t necessarily reduce materialism – that’s another problem altogether…

  2. Ted Cruz is a product of the Ivy League schools. So this clearly illustrates that an individual can be stupid, dangerous, maladapted yet highly educated. Not that education is bad, but consciousness is better. Perhaps machine consciousness is better yet.

    1. There’s a guaranteed exception to every rule – education certainly doesn’t ensure that people won’t be dicks, but it can help us think about whether or not we should be a dick. Not sure if consciousness is the solution – after all, having conscious awareness of ourselves leads to most of our screwups. Perhaps increased attention our options, rather than going with the default?

      Re machine consciousness – well maybe that’s the endpoint of biological evolution on the Earth – after that, humans will probably be irrelevant, so this blog (as a commentary on humanity) will also be irrelevant…

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