A Series Index
- Setting the framework for a journey into the future, having a sense of what the destination could be: How Might Humanity Survive a Radically Changing World?
- The Goal — Episode I: The Basic Requirements
- The Goal — Episode II: Support for Security Needs
- The Goal — Episode III: Fulfilling the Higher Needs
- The Path: Episode I
First, A Surprising Thought
I apologizes for the time gap between the last episode and this one. Even as there seems to be more and more evidence of the coming undone of global technological civilization popping up in the news these days, I have also been privy to the emergence of a nascent but developing network of wise thinkers who are making connections with one another and sharing thoughts on the primary factors driving the decline. As reported here, often, those factors include: population overshoot, climate change challenges, declining net energy per capita and its effects on the global economy, and the nature of human psychology that seems to make the majority of people incapable of realizing what is happening (discovering the dots and then connecting them). In a way this new development (from my perspective) is quite extraordinary. Previously I had been part of each of the above conversations as carried out in somewhat isolated groups. Each had their focus and seemed to not be interested in the larger picture and how these all connected. But over the last several years several individuals within these groups have been expanding their horizons and incorporating more aspects from the other foci into their conversations. In other words we are witnessing the emergence of systems thinking in this growing network. Over the last few weeks I have been engaged in numerous conversations with groups in which the names of people who had been primarily associated with one of the above issues are showing up (in e-mail lists and cc's for example) in discussions of the more integrated topics. Seeing this take place has revved up my grey cells, spawning some new ideas, at least one of which I will report here. This is preliminary. It should be viewed as a work in progress (as everything I write about should be). There are many questions being generated from this idea so I expect to be pursuing understanding for a time to come. I will explain below and you will begin to see why I call these essays episodes.
As those readers who have been following this tract know, I am trying to consider how a sub-population of the most sapient people could avoid the near-future bottleneck event and survive into the distant future to produce a new subspecies of humans (the index above links to the previous episodes). This new subspecies would be capable of superior understanding and judgment in managing themselves to be in balance with the rest of the Ecos (background on my research into sapience, as distinct from intelligence, creativity, and affect, can be found here). Our current species has failed this evolutionary test, which is why we are facing the bottleneck in the first place. Part of the reason behind the failure is that our brains are still too weak to manage our perceptions of and knowledge (actually beliefs) about the world and how it works. We rely much too heavily on faith and rationalization because that is built into our more primitive brain centers. Our newest brain centers in the neocortex, especially patches in the prefrontal cortex, evolved to help manage (strategically) those more primitive inclinations but was only just beginning to get a handle on the problem when humanity invented agriculture (see below). Those newer centers were no longer selected for in our ensuing cultures and so remained nascent and immature.
Faith and rationalization hold their greatest sway over human thinking in the form of religions (and the secular version, ideologies). Humans started out their careers as a sentient species in ignorance, but still capable of recognizing and learning more complex forms of cause and effect. Indeed, the human brain is programmed, as it were, to find explanations for any effect that might have an impact on its survival. That way, seeing a cause happen allows one to predict, or more correctly, anticipate, an effect event that is about to happen as a result. The effect event is a potential “cause” for something important to the individual, so the brain is built to construct a network of cause-effect event chains (e.g. multiple causes and multiple effects all linked in a complex network of temporally directed relations — see my paper, Toward a Theory of Learning and Representing Causal Inferences in Neural Networks). But some kinds of causes are not available to the perceptions of humans. This can be because they are too large (in spatial scale, i.e. too distant), too small, too fast, or too slow to be picked up by ordinary human senses and integrated with memory. “Man the clever,” Homo calidus, discovered the scientific process (and method) to compensate for our lack of perceptions for these kinds of causal events, developing better sensors and measuring methods, and better ways to integrate new facts into our externally recorded knowledge base (e.g. the scientific literature). Science has, to a large extent, but by no means perfectly, provided a substitute way of knowing to faith and rationalization with objective perception and rational reasoning processes.
Despite the rise of science, which requires a considerable amount of cleverness (intellect + creativity) to practice, the vast majority of humans today remain dominated mentally by faith-based belief systems and use rationalization (which is supported by the fact that the more primitive parts of the brain still rely on genetically programmed heuristics) to do their thinking. Couple this with the ironic fact that thanks to science and engineering the world has become far more complex than the average person can handle insofar as building an understanding of the cause-effect networks that operate in reality, and we get a population dominated by people who find it much easier to resort to an old style of belief based on accepting supernatural explanations, the kind our ancestors developed out of their ignorance of the deeper aspects of physical reality. Over 80% of the world's population cling to beliefs in a supernatural domain and a higher power (God or gods) that “causes” everything, at least in some ultimate sense. Even while there has been a gradual shift toward more secularism insofar as daily life and politics are concerned, nevertheless, most people still contend that there must be something greater than the visible, physical world. They cannot see how physical laws provide sufficient explanations because most people cannot understand the physical laws. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most people are tremendously ignorant of most of what science has discovered and documented about how the world really works. Ergo, religious explanations suffice and are much easier to rationalize. But why, in light of scientific explanations, are people so compelled by the narratives of the world's religions?
The Story of Evolution
Up until very recently the above explanation for religion persisting in spite of science had been sufficient in my mind. But a short while ago something occurred to me. Perhaps it was triggered by something someone said or wrote in a comment, I can't say. The thought came to me unbidden, as so many insights seem to do. My subconscious mind was already working on it. For years, whenever the subject of what my personal religion might be I have answered that my religion is evolution. If the discussion was with believers that usually shut down that line of questioning. If it was with fellow scientist they would generally nod their heads in agreement and the discussion would veer off in another direction. My posture was only moderately serious. My faith in evolutionary explanations was not blind, having spent a fair amount of my life looking very closely at the scientifically developed evidence and theories. I have faith in the veracity of scientific explanations, not because they are absolutely correct, but because they work so well, and the process of science tends to correct any misapprehensions we might have had and refines the precision of explanation as the world ages. Nevertheless, I still marvel at the process and its products. My emotional state could almost be called reverence and humility in the face of the evolution of our knowledge about evolution!
The recent thought that emerged into consciousness is multi-faceted but basically this: There is a deeper and more profound (serious) reason why evolution is my religion. I needed to take the idea more seriously. Evolution explains our relation to the whole Universe and how we came into existence (existential concerns). It explains our roles as sentient beings on this planet. And it provides a basis for understanding something that I now find compelling. I will claim that every human being has within their psyche (their deep subconscious) a hardwired narrative of evolution itself! Birth-maturation-death; beginning-middle-end: a story of cycles but not closed cycles. With each maturation comes the potential for increasing organization (knowledge). The “middle” is the development of the individual (or group or society or species) but also the new possibilities that that development spawns (e.g. children, ideas, inventions, etc.) Death comes to us all, individuals, groups, societies, species and allows that which was spawned to emerge in its own right. The cycle is an expanding spiral of organization. Evolution has a trajectory toward greater organization and complexity. Even in death there is hope for something better in the future. Cataclysmic death(s) are very much a part of this narrative. Evolution on Earth has had its catastrophes. Biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere, all have had coevolutionary reorganizations throughout Earth's history. We see the most direct impacts in terms of the mass die-offs and extinctions in the fossil record. But these cataclysms invariably have performed the role of creating newer and ultimately greater opportunities for advancing organization.
This narrative is encoded in our brains and in our whole being because we are the result of this evolutionary narrative unfolding in self-similar fashion at all scales. It can be read in our genome and in our expressed forms. Another version of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, so to speak. As to the version encoded in our brains, it constitutes the fundamental script of our personal lives as well as the lives of our societies. All of our mental traits derive from variations on this universal narrative. And in particular, it is reflected in our religious beliefs. It is the common theme in all religious stories. And it is the compelling reason that we are prone to believe in our explanations, even without evidence. We have a legacy of made up details of the narrative elements that form our religious baggage. We have a less than adequately sapient brain that makes us susceptible to blind faith, and especially to submission to perceived authority (along with a propensity for a few power-seeking individuals to claim that authority). That is why our religious stories persist in spite of the growth of science. The narrative is all important.
Then the thought occurred to me: But this is exactly the narrative I have been following in constructing the scenario that leads to proposing what I am proposing! I had been so wrapped up in the mechanics (e.g. peak net energy) that led me to believe that a cataclysm was approaching that I failed to notice that the story unfolding in my vision was really the same story that men and women have been telling for ages. My concern with eusapience survival and future evolution is exactly the same as the plot of a chosen people emerging from the broken masses. It is the same idea expressed in Eastern philosophies and religions of the attainment of Cosmic Consciousness. The story I have been developing from my concerns in science is exactly the same story that religions have told for a very simple reason. It is the story of universal evolution and we all have it encoded within our selves.
Below I will lay out this narrative, its elements, in more detail and show, as best I can at this juncture, the correspondences with the science-based version I've been trying to piece together.
The Trigger That Brought this Thought to Consciousness
In my previous episode I considered the possibility of how we might assist our future progeny by preserving the accumulated useful knowledge that humanity has acquired over its history. I have also been considering how we might create caches of energy and replacement tools, hidden from the rest of humanity but locatable by future humans for use in reestablishing a more technological civilization, e.g. encapsulating things like solar collectors that might be used to bootstrap a smaller and wiser population into an appropriate technological society. As I thought about this I realized that there will need to be many more average sapience people involved in setting the conditions for the future than I previously guessed. In short, we will need to enlist many more of our average minds to help usher in the bottleneck event! But more importantly, they will need to help prepare a place for the high sapients to occupy. In essence, just like any trophic pyramid, it will take a wide base of inputs to support a smaller population of consumers at the top. The higher sapients will not be able to prepare the path by themselves. They will need to enlist help from the average sapients who are still clever enough to understand the problem, after a fashion, and commit to do the necessary work, even make sacrifices in the name of a greater good.
In a very ironic and surprising twist of thinking I began to consider that the impediment to such a scheme lay in the fact that the average sapient brain could not be swayed by scientific arguments. Indeed a majority of people (at least in the US) would be turned off by the evolution basis for my arguments. The majority of people attend to emotional appeals that resonate with what they already belive, and in the way in which they believe. Thus, the best way to enlist the common sapient minds to this cause would be through the very mechanisms that are to blame for our situation, faith and rationalization. In other words what we might need is a religion! That is what triggered my thinking about what the contents of such a religion would be and, in turn, the realization of what I laid out above. The impact of that “revelation” (from within my subconscious mind) was quite startling; you might say I had an epiphany.
Before I lay out my thoughts and arguments on this it is appropriate to recap my thinking about the future goal and the pathway to it, to date. Please note that in what follows I have cast the ideas more as a narrative in which I make statements that would ordinarily be couched as hypotheses or conjectures (in a more scientific style). So be advised that I will state things as given even though they are really not. The scientific version of the narrative on sapience is provided in my working papers for those who want to dig deeper. My reason for the narrative style is in keeping with the theme I am developing and should become clear later.
The Predicament, the Goal, and the Path Redux
Long-time readers know that I would seem to be a gloom and doom pessimist with respect to the fate of humans and civilization. Admittedly, in terms of the current human population I have concluded that a major cataclysmic collapse is about to ensue. And here is why.
There are very many people who have taken the position that human evolution stopped after our species achieved consciousness. This is, of course, pure hubris and conceit without a shred of evidence. It is assumed on the basis of humans developing technology, as if that then eliminated selection pressures in some fashion. Evolution never ceases. Our technological environment simply changed the nature of the selection pressures to produce a modern subspecies that is dependent on that technology to survive. We modern humans are actually quite different from ancient humans, even though we are nominally the same species, Homo sapiens. There is growing evidence that modern humans have actually evolved more than might have been imagined and we are not at all like our recent predecessors from the late Pleistocene. Anatomically there doesn't appear to be many differences though our modern versions appear to be taller and, in some countries, more rotund. Physical differences might easily be accounted for in terms of better nutrition and such, but this does not preclude the idea that our genome may actually be different from that of our ancestors even as little as twenty thousand years ago. And that is an easily disconfirmable hypothesis! We now know there are a number of physiological and anatomical traits which are quite different from those ancestors and have arisen genetically within the last ten thousand years. Believing that biological evolution stopped with human culture and invention (a common meme it seems) is pure anthropomorphism, nothing more than an extension of the belief that humans are biologically special, itself nothing more than an extension of the belief that humans are divine. Pure rubbish, especially in light of modern findings regarding our genetics.
No. Humans have continued to evolve, or more precisely coevolve with our cultures. We have evolved to be a race of much less adept beings, insofar as sapience is concerned, than our ancestors precisely because we were clever enough to invent technologies that isolated us from the more “natural” selection forces. Natural is in quotes because the reality is that the forces we have been evolving under are really just as natural as anything before. The fact that we created those forces does not preclude their naturalness simply because we are, ourselves, the products of nature. The invention that probably accelerated the devolution of sapience was agriculture (about 10,000 years ago in multiple locations). Agriculture meant a settled lifestyle with tools and structures to support the process. And with that came the extension of the notion of territory to that of “ownership”, and with that the need for territorial protection. Agriculture, done by community cooperation and in larger scales, requires logistics and protection of territory requires tactics. The aspect of sapience that makes it different from mere cleverness is judgment based on strategic thinking. With agriculture the selective pressure (cultural-genome coevolution) for sapience diminished in favor of having a few logistical bosses to organize and direct the work, a few tactical bosses (military commanders!) to organize and direct the protection, and mostly workers who only needed to think operationally. When societies became sufficiently complex there arose a need for someone who could think both logistically and tactically with slightly longer time horizons to be the big bosses (kings, etc.). This was the only real remnant of strategic thinking but it was a very weak version and often lacked the moral component that characterizes true sapience.
The evolution of sapience had been leading humans toward an emergent form of social organization in which cooperation dominated competition, at least within tribal groups. But after agriculture was developed this pathway was no longer favored. The more primitive brain functions continued to dominate our mental lives. And, following the biological mandate (codified in the Jewish tradition as, “Be fruitful and multiply”) we humans have proceeded to do everything we could to take over the world and appropriate every possible resource to our ends. We have not been wise enough to manage ourselves, to restrain ourselves, to cooperate with one another to the extent necessary to keep balance with the natural world. We have acted like spoiled, selfish brats who, even knowing that what we are doing is wrong, do it anyway for hedonic satisfaction. Living in balance within the Ecos, when you have technology at your beck and call, requires strategic thinking on a grand scale. It requires ecological wisdom.
Which brings us to the predicament. We humans have altered our own environment in many different ways some of which have made us weaker minded. And the excesses of our population and behaviors with respect to the consumption of resources are altering our world in ways that will punish our species in the near future (meaning the next hundred years or less).
The majority of humans of today are literally genetically spoiled (even though there are pockets of more primitive humans in isolated areas, even they have been genetically influenced by modern Homo ‘urbanis’). And I claim that the rapid depletion of energy resources, which have been needed to maintain our technological civilization will mount extreme selection forces on them that they will not be able to adapt to sufficiently rapidly. The same depletion of energy resources (i.e. fossil fuels) has led to the enrichment of carbon dioxide (and now increasing methane gas) in the atmosphere and oceans. We are literally changing the kind of climate we have become used to and probably need to continue large-scale agriculture. We are changing the geochemical cycles that created the oceans and soils that support abundant life. Along with the depletion of energy resources we have also depleted many other natural resources like potable water (e.g. aquifer draw down) and self-sustaining soils. We have made a mess of things and it is going to get much worse until major chunks of humanity start to die off. Even then there will be momentum effects (e.g. the methane gasses escaping from thawed tundra and warmed ocean depths) that will seriously change climate stability long into the future.
In other words. modern humans are doomed to evolutionary failure because they have become ecologically unfit to survive in any environment other than modern technological culture. So when the culture crashes, so do the humans. That will be the bottleneck event.
I actually started this series by describing the goal state for future humans. Basically I described a living situation in which a more sapient population could live at a low-tech level based on a better version of permaculture along with a culture that supports every individual achieving self-actualization. The image is one of a village settled in a geographical territory that can easily support a small population (say between 200 and 500 people). This living situation is sustainable as long as the people are wise enough to maintain a stable population level in the long run. The amount of technology would be appropriate to maintaining a primarily agrarian social structure but with sufficient conveniences to allow for education and pursuit of individual interests within the context of the society. As the populations of a number of such villages settle and the climate stabilizes (probably more than a thousand years) there can be a return to pursuing more technology, especially in terms of communications between villages. This will depend on those future people having access to knowledge and energy (as I explained above). The outline of this is still in development.
The key to the success of this living situation will be based on the average sapience level of members of the population far above what it is today. I have suggested that this would amount to the success of a subspecies of humans that I have dubbed Homo sapiens eusapiens. This subspecies would develop in isolation from our current species Homo sapiens sapiens because they alone would be the survivors of the bottleneck event. Under those circumstances and living in a more challenging environment, without the aid of powerful and often superfluous technologies, humans might yet get back on track to evolve stronger sapience. Cooperation, not just between members of a single group, but between groups would be the key to the emergence of what could be a new species of humans, Homo eusapiens (where the true sapience is elevated such that ‘they’ would be looking at a real species difference).
My objective has always been to simply ask the questions about feasibility of a future living situation given what we know about ecological footprints, sustainability, and what the future climate shifts might be. It has never been to prescribe or direct. What I am interested in is a set of feasible conditions given the goal of flourishing rather than subsistence. The latter does not provide room for humans to self-actualize and to have anything less as a goal would be to not seek being truly human.
The Path: From Predicament to the Goal
In my last episode I introduced the notion that the path to the future might literally be a geographical path. That is, I suggested that the best strategy for survival during the collapse period and in light of climate change phenomena might be a nomadic lifestyle that could take hundreds of years before the tribes can settle permanently into villages as described in the Goal. This would be as opposed to simply finding a location far from the madding crowd and hunkering down to wait out the transition. My original thoughts had gone along those lines until I studied the maps a bit more carefully and realized the difficulty in finding suitable locations.
Before agriculture developed most humans were nomads and hunter-gatherers to one degree or another and those living in reasonably productive regions actually had relatively comfortable lives. Even those in less productive areas compensated by being fully (year-round) nomads ranging over much larger territories so as to have sufficient resources in toto. Their lives may have been more rugged than those who could settle, say for the growing season, in one location for a time. But from modern day examples of continuous nomads we know that this life can still provide time to relax and pursue interpersonal relations and other enrichment activities. It is a different kind of life than people raised in modern technological societies are used to. It may be a bit of a stretch to expect people, even very sapient ones, to adapt to this style very easily. But I do think it is feasible and the safest strategy to adopt. See Episode I.
Even if this strategy is the right one (or one of the right ones), it can not be pulled off without a great deal of preparation. And, I now think, a great deal of help. It is hard for me to see the situation in which clusters of “pioneer” sapients simply ride off into the sunset with their wagons and horses never to be seen again by members of the dying civilization. I suppose someone might pull it off, the departure part, but then what?
I am now of a mind that a successful launch of a new subspecies will take a lot of cooperation and help from us plain old calidus folk. I will argue that whatever trail the nomads take, it will have to be prepared with caches of supplies that will make it possible to survive better on their journey. I don't think this can be done by the higher sapient folk by themselves. I don't think there is enough time before the possibility of provisioning such caches is gone. The high sapients have yet to discover one another let alone start preparing for the journey.
The intuition I am going on is based on the model of parents and their vision for their children. Caring parents want their children's lives to be better. They want them to be smarter and richer. They are very often willing to sacrifice their immediate desires to provide support for their kids as they raise them and launch them into the world. Perhaps Homo sapiens sapiens (or at least some subset of them) could see themselves as the “parents” of this new subspecies. They can want them to be better, to live long lives, and thrive. Perhaps. But people have to believe that such an attitude will be worth it. They need to have faith that the journey is even possible.
People Need to Believe In Something Greater Than Themselves
If you need 'em and you can't beat 'em, then join 'em. Or at least find a common ground.
The vast majority of people in this world are mentally and biologically stuck with the need for some kind of religious belief or a secular equivalent, as explained above. The word religion means “to bind back (to the truth — justified, true beliefs, in philosophical-speak)”. It is used to describe a set of beliefs about what people feel is a reliable truth about the nature of the world. As I mentioned before, most of our beliefs originated in ignorance and were invented to explain phenomena for which no perceivable causes could be discerned. From a very early time the human brain needed explanations and its capacity to conduct abductive reasoning (a form of reasoning where causes are inferred from effects witnessed) was essentially hijacked to produce rationalized explanations. The brain is also designed to hold various degrees of conviction about the veracity of beliefs and the more impactful (and mysterious) a cause might be the more strongly held that belief will be. This is the explanation of superstitious beliefs. Sapience was developing as a mental mechanism to override this built-in bias (from a general programmed heuristic for learning things that were important, also a heuristic for learning things from authorities). But, except for the invention of science, it never got a chance to operate in the whole population. And the invention of science can be attributed to a very few remarkable individuals over the ages. The practice of science, fortunately, does not rely on wisdom, but on extreme cleverness. Once it was invented (emerged, more accurately) it became a self-perpetuating process and produced, along with its conjoined twin, engineering, the world we have today.
So it is a fact that most people today need religion. They need to believe in something that resonates with their notions regarding what makes the world work. An agent (or agents) that is super-intelligent, prescient, super-cognizant, some being who is more powerful than any human agent, makes sense to most people and that is what they believe in. The vast majority of people need that super-agent and they need a narrative that resonates within (with the encoded evolutionary narrative as explained above) to explain things. They can assume that the super-intelligence of the agent makes some of that agent's actions inscrutable and mysterious, but those actions still explain why the world works the way they observe it to do.
This being the case, and supposing that it will be necessary to enlist the aid of many lower sapient people to help our high sapients to survive, it occurs to me we need to consider a new, but resonant narrative with a new twist on the nature of a super-agent. We need to offer such a binding back to a reliable truth in such a way that these people will believe that their help (and sacrifice) will be for a greater good of humanity. And, if there is an afterlife, after all, to find their reward in heaven.
I am in no way saying that we have to create a new religion that makes up untrue (or untruthful) stories just to manipulate people who want to believe. I am not proposing that someone write a fantastical book and pretend to find it to promote a new belief structure. What I am suggesting is that the narrative that I have been developing is very much in consonance with the narratives of most of the world's great religions! I will explain that below. But what is missing is the nature of a super (and supernatural) agent. That part has me stumped!
What follows is a first attempt at mapping some of the narrative elements from several modern religious perspectives onto the evolutionary narrative. Consider it a very rough draft and subject to major changes in the future. I just wanted to get these ideas written down while they were dominating my thinking.
Human beings are flawed moral creatures. We are born in sin! What is so different about the idea that we humans are not sapient enough to manage our affairs and live in harmony with this beautiful gift of the Universe, the Earth, than many religions contend? At our current average level of sapience we do commit acts of violence and cheat our neighbors when we think we can get by with it. We easily fall into attitudes where some of our fellow humans, who happen to look and act differently from us, can be categorized as subhuman, thus permitting us to commit acts of torture and abuse (though one might ask why anyone would think it was OK to commit such acts on other animals). Even taking mental illness as a cause into account, still we humans are capable of behaving badly in many different ways when it comes to the good of the society in which we live. We can't live gracefully with ourselves nor can we do so with the Ecos.
We can easily become completely self-centered, narcissistic, selfish people. Even in milder forms (seen, it seems in a fair number of developed world citizens and especially in the United States) we see the impacts on social organization and function. These tendencies even operate at the familial level leading to untold agonies and dysfunction. If one wonders why the divorce rate in the US is so high, one need look no further than this phenomenon. We are not really born to be overly narcissistic or selfish. Some part of that is a healthy part of self-survival and development. But our flaw is that we can be easily subverted to it by our cultural surroundings and the impact of social stresses on our psyches.
We Homo sapiens sapiens are very imperfect beings. Probably no one is born setting out to harm others. There is no intention behind our sins as such. The imperfection is in the inability to resist the pressures that turn us into selfish bastards. And that is a function of sapience. Sufficient sapience can protect against the tendency toward self-centeredness
People who are very clever often times know when what they do is being harmful to others, or is diminishing others well being. They do it still. No one can convince me that people as smart as big bankers and Wall Street tycoons are really doing “God's work”, as Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, famously told a congressional committee. They know their shenanigans are at fault for the depth and rate of fall in the last recession. The recession would have happened eventually anyway, due to the decline of peak net energy per capita, but the financial bubbles they created, trying to get richer, made it more severe and devastating than it needed to be.
Scientists who know full well that a particular line of research, say creating a potentially deadly virus or designing the atomic bomb, in a politically unstable environment, where governments are run by foolish, not wise, men, still persist in that line just so they can further their careers are among the biggest sinners. On one level they can't help themselves. Neither can the bankers or any one else who succumbs to the temptations of fame, or glory, or riches, or power. They are weak minded because they are not sufficiently sapient. Remember, sapience and intelligence, while correlated, are not the same. And a very smart person can still be very foolish with respect to the good of the whole. They are pursuing a local optimization (their own status) at the expense of the global well being.
Each and every individual in the developed and developing world is sinning against the Ecos. Socially speaking our sins are systemically ensconced. We know the things we do are wrong, but we can't help ourselves.
Much of that is due to our not really understanding the consequences of our actions. We might feel a pang of guilt when we throw some recyclable item into the trash rather than take the trouble to find a recycling bin, but mostly just a pang. We know we're supposed to do it because we've been told it is better for the environment. But, honestly, most people don't really understand why. The same goes for wasting gasoline on frivolous trips. We are suffering from partial knowledge. We don't understand.
Some, those with a bit more sapience than average, come to dimly understand and may even undergo a revelation, perhaps even a flash of enlightenment not unlike Saul's experience on the road to Damascus. Environmentalists and those who have gotten on the “green” bandwagon are in this category. They are mentally ready to be saved.
When sinners realize the importance of the consequences of their sins the see the light and seek forgiveness. They seek redemption. For the religious believers much of the importance of the consequences might be tied up in what happens to their immortal souls. Eternity is a pretty long time, last I checked, and spending it in hell doesn't sound attractive.
Sinners in many religious cultures seek redemption not for their current situation but for some future in which they can imagine benefiting from changing their lives now. Going to heaven, say for the Christian or Islamic religions, is a future benefit for certain. For Buddhists and Hindus it is to escape the cycles of rebirth and suffering (an effective hell). For Taoists it involves coming into harmony or balance with the rest of the Universe. In fact in all of the major and many of the minor religions of the world the story is similar. People can come to realize that living sinful lives leads to suffering and destruction, for self and others. If they do they adopt a life style in accordance with the teachings of their culture and lead devout lives in order to avoid the punishment and/or attain enlightenment, communion with all, heaven. To model their behaviors they look to the “wise” men and women of their societies.
Of course, as humans have low levels of sapience in general it is hard for them to know who the truly wise really are. Absent sufficient critical thinking skills it is easiest to follow those who claim to know the path blindly. Hence the modern religion.
The average sapient brain is still capable of changing behaviors when they come to understand the nature of their misdeeds and the consequences therefrom. They have to want to do so. The higher sapient brain readily changes behaviors when they grasp the consequences of their mistakes, even when there may be no special reward to do so. They are more motivated by a need to forgive themselves than seek forgiveness from another place. They act because they believe it is the right thing to do regardless of reward or punishment. The average sapient needs a motivation beyond an intellectual understanding. Religions, in their stories and traditions, give them that motivation. Whether it's heaven vs. hell or Nirvana, or enlightenment, or God Consciousness or freedom from suffering, the idea that the ego will gain something is needed. Religious traditions provide the way.
Almost all of the pathways of the world's religions require sacrifices of various kinds. It isn't enough to stop sinning. You also have to supplicate and give up things of value. Suffer fasts, use your time in necessary rituals, basically, you have to demonstrate that you are willing to do things that are not particularly fun in order to prove your worthiness and your dedication.
Redemption of the Individual
All of those rewards (the carrots held out in front) are seen as wonderful future states, and people will adopt a lifestyle that approximates the revealed pathway to the extent they are convinced of the reality of the story. Still, no one is perfect and the occasional stumble or deviation from the path can be expected.
Nevertheless, each person who has started down the pathway in earnest believes they will ultimately achieve the end goal. Occasionally someone will switch pathways, or even end up rejecting any pathway. But they are in a very small minority. The vast majority of people look for some kind of redemption. Significantly, that same majority usually hold the belief that only a smaller number of “true” believers will ever actually make it.
Apocalyptic End for the Majority
It is ironic that while most people seek their own redemption, to some degree, they recognize that there is an end time for humanity as a whole. The end may not be actually apocalyptic in the western sense of that story. Rather it may be due to the ending of a phase of a great cosmic cycle. Sometimes humans will suffer that end. Other times the end comes when the last soul reaches Nirvana. But there is an end to what we see as our culture and social situation right now.
Then, there is a new beginning. And, as a rule, that new beginning is full of promise for greater things to come. Whether it is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven, or oneness with the cosmos, it will be a better kind of existence than mortality. Or it could be utopia. We could come through a turbulent, dangerous time and triumph as a better people. There is always a hopeful better outcome no matter how trying the test.
It is hard to say how these narrative elements took shape in early man. Perhaps the origin of language occurred very early in the evolution of Homo and the first usages was to construct stories motivated by resonance with the universal narrative and based on experiences of the world of a much smaller, and more homogeneous population. The stories were passed down by oral tradition to help each new generation get quickly oriented to the vagaries of their world. As it happens, these elements, in some form, subtle or overt, occur in all of our literary narratives and much of poetry. Whether comedy or tragedy, protagonists seek redemption, antagonists are either converted or punished (ultimately). The whole social fabric is tested and the survivors walk into a new world with new and wonderful possibilities. [A remarkable novel and film adaptation that contains all of these elements in various measure is Children of Men (the movie version has many different plot lines, but still contains the elements). I think it is particularly appropriate to the scenario version of the evolutionary narrative I have been developing!]
In the end, I think, religions reflect the collective experiences not just of humans, but of life itself. Their mystical aspects derived from ignorance about causal relations, but they nevertheless tell a true story of how nature works very generally. Nature is full of struggles, cycles, finding pathways to survival/fitness, etc. Religions tell the story from a past perspective based on the lack of procedures for knowing other than imagination. Science tells the same story from a future perspective based on a reliable procedure for constructing reliable knowledge (i.e. we can make predictions). Nature is right in the middle for both.
Can There Be a Naturalistic (Science-based) Religion?
This question has come up many times in the context of philosophy and theology throughout man's history. As science has built more knowledge of how the world (the Universe) works, at least a reliable approximation of it, it has really not changed the fundamental story. It has filled in sufficient details regarding the cause of organization rise in the Universe via auto-organization, emergence, and evolution. It has made it fairly clear that a theistic God probably doesn't intervene and need not have designed the creation. So continuing to believe in miracles is not really justified. On the other hand it has made it clear that virtually all of nature is a miracle — in spite of entropy we have order, structure, and ‘beauty’ in the world. It is no longer mysterious as to how, but it is no less wondrous to the observer.
For a moment, let us suppose that the answer to that question is yes. There could be such a religion which satisfies the spiritual quest for a future brighter state for the individual soul (as in consciousness) and addresses the raw fact that humanity faces a time of tribulation at least as damning as the biblical apocalypse. Such a religion would give the average sapient mind a pathway to redemption. It would demand sacrifices in the immediate future. It would give promise for the redemption of mankind and hope for its achievement.
Imagine the metaphorical pathway of such a religion would be that believers would work toward the salvation of the higher sapients by preparing the physical pathway for their journey. In essence, the belief would be that their sacrifices would benefit the children of mankind and thus the souls of all of mankind.
Perhaps I wax romantically a bit too much. This idea has grabbed hold of me quite strongly however. Most long term readers have probably assumed that I must be an atheist or at least an agnostic. I am clearly not sympathetic to blind faith or ideological beliefs. I have rejected all traditional religious dogma in favor of evidence-based models of reality. So it is probably either a sign that I've gone round the bend, or a hopefully temporary lapse of judgment, to come up with the suggestion that the path to Homo eusapiens depends on a large number of religious believers in the interim. Please dear readers set me straight if I've strayed too far. But be prepared to counter my arguments with evidence! Question everything but make sure your answers are backed with veridical evidence.
Borrowing a thought from Edward O. Wilson, can there be a “jumping together” of the emotional life of religion and the intellectual life of science? I think there can, but we need to be aware of the multiple dimensions of both that will need to be reconciled. That humans inherently posses a primordial narrative hardwired in their psyches, as I have argued above, is not a sufficient framework for finding consilience. We need to understand much more deeply the psychological (both individual and social), political (power), economic (life support), and ecological (the Ecos — Home — of man) dimensions and find the loci of contributions from religious belief and scientific knowledge if we are to propose an earnest naturalistic, that is a scientific-based, religion.
The Psychological Dimension
I've covered the internal, personal motivation above as being from the inherent (encoded) evolutionary narrative. I've also described some ideas about the social psychological aspects in terms of the shared stories of experiences that attach to that deep personal narrative. But there are nuances to the psychology of humans that complicate merely telling a new story and expecting it to replace the old ones.
For starters, the human brain has an amazing capacity to circumscribe concepts in a manner that allows internally inconsistent ideas to take up residence and never conflict in conscious awareness. People can hold two diametrically opposite ideas in memory and simply use whichever one fits a current rationalization! This comes from the same mechanism that allows us to compartmentalize concepts so that our consciousness is not overwhelmed by thoughts when we are trying to use rational thinking. It is a two-edged sword, good when used properly, but dangerous when used lazily. These inconsistencies invariably surface in religious beliefs where the standard rebuttal to arguments from logic are such as “God works in mysterious ways.”
In social settings, the problem might stem from the imperfections of language, especially with respect to semantics. Two people can be talking using the same words and mean very different things by them. The real problem is that most people are unaware that this might be the case and never take the time to explore the semantics being used by the others to make sure that everyone is using the same meanings. Sapience provides one with a tolerance for ambiguity and a realization that there are times when the resolution of such is an important part of the discourse. A related concern is with uncertainty. The average sapient mind has difficulty tolerating uncertainty. Our evolution as cause-effect explainers drives us with a desire for certainty. A more sapient person is mindful of this and will not assert certitude where inappropriate and is much more tolerant when uncertainty of explanations prevail.
A new religion probably needs to tell a simple story rather than a complex one. The latter reflects the kind of story science tells directly. It is too full of nuances of semantics and uncertainty (think of the arguments regarding global warming and how uncertain the models and empirical results are!) A simple but truthful story, based on our best understanding of natural laws is most likely able to be integrated into the beliefs of most people.
The Political Dimension
Ordinary H. sapiens are strongly influenced by the power structures in which they exist socially. There are those egos that believe they should be the decision makers (remember George W. Bush's proclamation that he was the ‘decider’), regardless of their intellectual competencies. There are many more who are satisfied to let someone else take the responsibility (and the blame). The problems seem to arise when the ones who consider themselves worthy lock horns. And when the winners then turn around and succumb to corruption and abuse their power status.
The organized religions of the world have not been immune to the human propensity to form pecking orders and abuse power. Indeed, many of them have, at various times, leveraged on their dogma and taken undue advantage of their believers. No names will be given here, most of us know this story all too well. But it would be interesting to speculate if a new religion with a new story might be able to minimize the attempts by the power-hungry to subvert the central purpose.
The Economic Dimension
He who controls beliefs controls the flow of resources. Again (and linked with power) the current slate of religions have too often redirected the flow of production, wealth, into the hands of the few powerful. Even in the supposed secular world of commerce we are witness to this phenomenon. While we call it secular, in fact people hold beliefs about things like economic growth and capitalism and the invisible hand with the same fervor as they can hold religious beliefs. Indeed, one could assert that modern capitalism is a religion of a kind. And the result is the wealth distribution inequities we are seeing right now.
A new religion should probably borrow some of the ancient teachings from the old ones regarding humility, thrift, sharing, etc. And, certainly, the Golden Rule, a universal sentiment in all religions, should be emphasized.
The Ecological Dimension
The economic dimension deals with how we acquire resources and share the wealth in an equitable fashion. It also deals with the economic use of resources and the minimization of waste removal. We get our resources from the rest of the Ecos and deposit our wastes back into it. The Ecos is our larger home. Fortunately it provides recycling of materials such that renewable resources are made available and wastes can be absorbed and detoxified if not produced in overwhelming amounts per unit time.
We humans have already overshot our footprint on the Earth and overloaded the Ecos with our wastes. We have depleted most of the very low entropy non-renewable resources. And these facts are at the base of the current predicament for humanity. These are our sins. The new religion has to tell this story as the grander story of the death part of the cycle. Once again, the science is less important than the simplicity of a believable story. The story of Noah's ark and the flood is such a story. God was seen as punishing mankind for its folly once before (and of course this same theme is found in many cultures in history). According to the biblical version He promised not to use that particular approach again. But mankind's follies have not been cured and this time, metaphorically speaking, we are going to punish ourselves. My guess is that as the economy continues to drag down and the weather continues to produce horrific consequences, that the right suggestion that this is universal retribution for being the less-than-competent species that we are is coming to fruition. The end is, indeed, near.
Believers in the Path
I have no illusions that a new religious story, especially one that does not include some supernatural being that has causal influence over the material universe, will convert everyone. I imagine there will be howls of accusations of blasphemy from staunch fundamentalists in many current religions. But I also think that there is already a trend in motion in societies toward secularism (e.g. humanists), agnosticism, and the mild form of beliefs (spiritual but not aligned with any religion). The knowledge of science, especially evolution theory, has made some inroads into the consciousness of those on the higher-than-average side of the sapience distribution. They are still seeking universal truths. They are still seeking an understanding of their relations with the world and the cosmos. They still need to feel that there is a purpose in life, that this all didn't come about by sheer chance. They need meaning.
These are the people who might find comfort in a new naturalistic religion that tells the universal evolutionary narrative. They might find recourse and salvation in a belief in the redemption of humanity in the pathway to a eusapient future. They might be willing to sacrifice their lives and efforts to making the pathway viable for the eusapient pioneers.
Perhaps it could be the salvation of Homo the genus. It is something to think about.
 Generally the definition of a species includes the idea that members of two related groups (populations) are distinct species if they cannot or will not interbreed. This distinction, however, is not a hard requirement. There are grey zones. For example horses (Equus ferus caballus) and donkeys (Equus africanus asinus) can mate and produce hybrid offspring called mules. These are not reproductively viable, however, so horses and donkeys will remain distinct species. Many, perhaps most species can be found to be divided into subspecies based on genetic differences selected for in, for example, different environments for sub-populations. When members from different subspecies mate they generally do produce viable offspring. When the latter mate with either of the two subspecies, their progeny generally revert back toward that subspecies. When two populations that had developed subspecies status can no longer produce viable offspring then we consider this as a speciation event. Continued separation allows both populations to diverge further giving rise to two (or more) true species.
 Fortunately for humanity there remains a genetic remnant of higher sapience in the population that occasionally appears in a small portion. Sapience might be the result of a few rare and possibly recessive gene alleles but more likely it arose from mutations in the development control network of small DNA segments (non-protein coding segments in what was formerly thought of as junk DNA). The development controls over the prefrontal cortex and especially Brodmann area 10, a likely key site for the emergence of human-level consciousness and sapience, might have been altered to enhance the development of these areas. This could account for the seemingly explosive growth in the relative size of these areas compared with the rest of the frontal lobes (and all of the neocortex).
 Many people will object to this assumption on the grounds that the primitive peoples in places like Australia or Brazil will survive just fine. There are three things to keep in mind however. First, many of these primitive cultures live in regions that are among the most threatened by climate shifts. The Amazonian rainforests, for example, may be very hard hit by drying over the next several hundred years (one of those momentum effects I mentioned). Second, these pockets of isolated peoples have grown exceedingly small relative to the whole human population. Their very isolation already puts them at risk for continued survival. This brings up the third point. Most of these so-called primitives are actually more reliant on technological society than many people realize. It is very hard to find a tribe anywhere that has not benefited from trade with more urban centers. Next time you see a photo of a primitive tribe in the Amazon, check out their T-shirts and shoes! Also consider their food sources. Once energy stops flowing in the technological world, they will very definitely be impacted. No one can say how much or what effects may ensue, but it would be unwise to assume they will be OK regardless of what happens to the rest of the world.
 If this population of humans were indeed a “new” species it could not be put to the test unless there were remnants of Homo sapiens sapiens with whom interbreeding experiments would produce inviable offspring! In this case the two species would be separated by time rather than space, but the change in genome could tell the story. Basically, if the distant culture were to re-develop the ability to sequence DNA samples they could determine the degree of separation between our current DNA (perhaps found in fossil remains at that time!) and their DNA. That degree would provide an indication of how far along speciation has gotten. Too, if the new version turned out to have an additional chromosome pair, that would be a fair indication that speciation had been accomplished!
 The potential for further evolution in the direction of eusapience depends upon whether or not the prefrontal cortex can actually develop greater capacity for coordinating the various functions of sapience. In other words, is it feasible that a larger, or slightly modified version of Brodmann area 10 (BA10) could support greater judgment or more strategic thinking? A second consideration is whether or not some additional mutation to the developmental DNA control network would actually give rise to a larger (proportionally speaking) or more complex BA10. Finally, would the enlargement or complexification of BA10 and associated prefrontal cortex patches be sufficient? Might it also be necessary to further enlarge the portions of the neocortex involved in encoding tacit knowledge (e.g. the left temporal and parietal lobes)? These are great unknowns. From a purely speculative psychological perspective it seems that more control over inherent biases (built-in heuristics) leading to better judgments would be useful. Also, a greater capacity to down modulate the limbic urges, especially the negative emotions, as well as boost the urges toward cooperative behavior — more empathy and altruism — would provide greater fitness for the species. It may be that if we have time to pursue the biology of sapience we may be able to provide better answers. We could, for example, do very detailed comparative cytological and anatomical studies of people's brains who had been judged or tested for levels of sapience in life. It could be possible to see from any differences we found what the trend toward eusapience entails.
 If you want to have a gauge of how far someone is toward a more strongly narcissistic personality pay attention to their behavior in open conversations. If they start talking even after someone else has started talking then they are focused on their own thoughts and feelings rather than having concern, and consideration for other peoples thoughts and feelings. Bear in mind this isn't the same as interrupting someone when they have said something and you think you have something relevant to say (many consider that to be rude too, however). It is simply that the interrupter hasn't even noticed that someone else has started to say something. They are not interrupting in order to correct a mistake or add some important detail. They just plain aren't paying attention to what others are doing.
If you try this observation you will be amazed at how many people, even friends and people you might like, do this. I find it quite common in faculty meetings! You can try to monitor yourself, but if you aren't even listening to others to begin with, it might prove problematic to do so.
 Deism provides a framework for a naturalistic religion. In essence, deism supposes a higher intelligence that set the Universe in motion but does not intervene in its development. As science has revealed more about the laws of nature, especially Darwin's and Wallace's explication of evolution as a result of natural selection, proponents of this view claimed that God invented the laws of nature so perfectly that once set in motion there was no need for His intervention. The sciences continued to lend support to the idea that no higher power need intervene since the laws that we had come to understand, within the limits of precision in our various measurements, provided sufficient explanation for how the Universe had developed to its current observable state.
Though science may reveal the marvels of an evolving Universe, it cannot, so far as we know, work backwards from the Big Bang to reveal the nature of that supposed God (i.e., what came before the Big Bang?). Physics (time, energy, matter) came into existence after the Big Bang. And physics is all we have to work with. Nevertheless, many people have argued that the nature of God can be inferred from what the state of the Universe looks like now, especially the nature of the human mind (“God created Man in His image.”)
The Unitarian-Universal “church” provides a contemporary model of a such a naturalistic religion. Actually not a religion in the strict sense, but an aggregation of “believers” from many different belief systems who essentially reject most organized religions' dogma, many UU adherents espouse a naturalistic view similar to deism. Their organization (without dogma) may be a model for a new religion as well.
A Short Bibliography
Here are a few books that relate science and religion with an underlying evolutionary theme.
- Bulbia, J., Sosis, R., Harris, E., Genet, R., Genet C., and Wyman, K. (eds)(2008). The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques, Collins Foundation Press, Santa Margarita, CA.
- Davies, P. (1984). God & the New Physics, Simon & Shuster, New York.
- Dennett, D.C. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York.
- Morowitz, H.J. (2002). The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Primack, J.R. & Abrams, N.E. (2006). The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, Riverhead Books, New York.
- Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos Oxford University Press, New York.
- Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Vintage, New York.