An Appeal for Support
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As a species that evolved to our basic current form a mere 100 to 150 thousand years ago we may be the meteor that triggers the next great mass extinction event. And like a meteor we have a short life in the light. We flashed through the biosphere in a mere wink of an eye after a long silent period of development just like a meteorite flashes through the atmosphere after a long time dormant in the cold of space. Longtime readers know that I have reached the conclusion (hopefully from careful consideration of the evidence) that we are about to go through an evolutionary bottleneck that will test the fitness of the genus Homo (see also my essay: Past the Point of No Return).
Many people who have come to accept the implications of what is happening to our world due to the behaviors of our species go through what amounts to mourning the loss of what they have long valued1. It may be the idea of pristine nature, or at least stable habitats for other species. It may be the idea of human progress in technology and wealth. It may be for our progeny who we realize we have been party to relegating to a harsh, perhaps even impossible future. In some measures it can be all of these. Whatever we as individuals cherished as the good in life, we are realizing is transient at best, and a good deal of it, like endless economic growth was merely virtual in reality. It will be lost to us, so naturally we must grieve.
Grieving is natural, of course. And proper to experience in this case. Most of us will suffer losses and we cannot help but feel the emotional impact of those losses. It is our biology and our psychology. It is OK to weep for ourselves and our progeny. But for mankind, for the human species of today do not weep. Species go extinct. That is certain. But that does not mean the genus will be lost. A distant future depends on the survival of some representatives of Homo sapiens. My hope is that by understanding the nature of our predicament, those who have recovered from their grief may find ways to help the cause of ensuring survival, their own or others who they suspect may have the mental traits necessary to carry on in a very different world. Thus I delve once more into the predicament, this time from a slightly different angle in hopes that it might help shed a bit more light.
The Human Predicament — Once More
Yet once again let me try to summarize our predicament and possibly add some more insight as to why we are in the spot we are in. Figure 1 is a graphic summary of this situation. We humans have learned to break out of the ordinary biophysical boundaries that regulate the other species and grow much beyond them. In doing so we are driving other species to extinction, polluting our own nest, and using up the very resource that we need to maintain ourselves in any reasonable manner. We are reaching a physical boundary that will do what the normal evolutionary boundaries could not. It will stop us cold. Unfortunately not before significant damage is done to the planet so far as its ability to sustain the kind of biosphere we have had.
Figure 1. The human predicament can be summarized in this figure. We, through our cleverness and the discovery of high powered energy sources (fossil fuels), have blindly overgrown our natural biological limits and are rapidly approaching a finite physical (and seemingly absolute) boundary condition. Yet we do not know how to do anything else!
The dominant paradigm in neoclassical economics and generally accepted in modern capitalism is that an economy should grow. This is interpreted as the supposed measure of wealth, the gross domestic product or GDP, should grow at some percentage rate over each time period. Growth of GDP, say by 5% per year, is considered a good thing and a sign of a healthy economy. How did we come to believe this, in something that is so obviously void of understanding of the laws of physics? One answer is that it is just an accident of evolution of our species. In other words we really never transcended natural evolution, we just triggered some new kinds of selection processes. There is no sense being mad at ourselves for being so stupid (or rather so foolish). We can lament that it went this way versus some smoother softer route to whatever comes next. But it is what it is. We are what we are. And we simply have to trust that what happens is all natural in the course of universal evolution. Perhaps on some other planet(s) things went a little less rough. But overall, evolution has never been about easy transitions.
There are three major contributing factors to why we think growth is good and fail to understand that compound growth (similar to a savings account when interest is retained in the account) is a physical impossibility in a finite world. Let's examine the reasons for believing growth is good.
Any living species will attempt to propagate its kind as much as possible. This is a biological mandate. Life is successful only by perpetuating its own biomass into the future. Individual growth is only possible up to a limit (though with the outbreak of obesity in many developed nations we see this limit is stretchable!) Thus the only option for living systems is to reproduce. Now in the ordinary sorts of econiches available on the planet, species are in competition for the constituent components of life as well as the essentially fixed amount of energy arriving from the sun every day. Put simply, every species is bounded in its attempted expansion by natural feedbacks that constrain the availability of food and in all but the top predator category (which species are solely bounded by food availability) are subject to population pruning by predation. And all species must contend with diseases that can have a massive negative feedback effect when the populations of host organisms gets too large and dense. Thus a balance is struck. Essential material components of life are recycled endlessly through the biosphere and no species is able to grow its particular biomass beyond limits.
Humans, seem to have broken out of this negative feedback bounding. Through our cleverness and considerable adaptability we have managed to confiscate more and more of the rest of the biosphere for our own growth support. Moreover we have all but eliminated any constraints from predation and managed to greatly reduce the impacts from diseases. Or so it has seemed.
What has enabled humans to achieve this remarkable feat has been their cleverness in finding increasingly powerful sources of available energy with which to do useful work. Energy is an ultimate key to everything. As do all animal species, we derive our physiological energy from the food we eat, and that ultimately derives from real-time solar energy converted into primary biomass through the photosynthesis of plants. But because of our cleverness we have repeatedly discovered better sources of energy to supplement photosynthesis and at the same time increase our access to photosynthesis itself, through agriculture. We discovered fire, and cooking food. Later we discovered the use of animal power, water power, and wind power. All of these are essentially different forms of short-term stored solar energy. But then we discovered fossil sunlight in the form of coal and oil. Later we would add natural gas (we were using whale oil for lighting but because of the demand outstripping the rate at which whales reproduce and grow we were past peak whale oil at the time).
Through our cleverness we were able to grow our capacity to produce food and extract and reform other natural resources to our purposes. Meanwhile through our cleverness we were also decreasing our death rates so that with all the increased energy resources we were able to grow our biomass beyond what would have normally been the limits for our species. This has been the case for at least the last ten thousand years and became deeply ingrained in our belief structures as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The current so-called Information Revolution has further strengthened our beliefs by making it seem that economic growth might actually be decoupled from physical resource constraints (as in the service economy vs. the manufacturing economy).
Wants, Needs, and Hedonism
Our attitudes and feelings about what is right to believe are deeply programmed into our brains by the biological mandate as well. As individuals we have a hierarchy of needs (Abraham Maslow). Under stable, nominal conditions (e.g. not in constant subsistence living) an individual rises above his or her basic needs when those needs are being met (e.g. food, water, shelter, sex, successful reproduction) to seek more options and more fulfillment psychologically. Maslow's positive psychology led to the notion of ‘self-actualization’ or finding a stable sense of well-being, even happiness as a result of accomplishing other non-basic achievements.
Prior to agriculture there were likely any number of sub-populations in the world where basic physical needs were easily met (such conditions exist to this day for a number of so-called primitive indigenous peoples). People in this situation, not under constant survival pressure, had an opportunity to seek self-actualization in their social relations. For example a hunter who had become so skilled with a bow and arrow could thrill the tribe by hitting bull's eye targets for fun! Someone who was particularly good at making pottery might take to embellishing their work with decorations. Seeking superiority just for the pleasure of it is a good model of self-actualization. It leads us to going beyond mere needs fulfillment to what we experience as wants. Subjectively it is difficult to differentiate between needs and wants. We desire the object in both cases. It is also easy to experience a mere want as a need when we have been able to regularly satiate our desires for a long time. For example there are many people today who view the possession of a microwave oven or an iPod as a need!
So how does this work when for many, many generations, not only have our basic needs been met but most of our wants have been fulfilled to the point where it seems perfectly normal for this to be the case2?
Technology has been involved in every aspect of our seeming to break out of the constraints of normal biological laws. We are extremely clever when it comes to local-scale and tractable problem solving. We are also motivated by the internal biological mandate to expand biomass. When we were still constrained in the same ways as other species the operation of this mandate involved acquisition of surpluses of food and other resources, especially exosomatic energy such as a pile of wood for the fire. We are wired to seek excesses when they are available simply because they were not always available in our primitive environment. We are wired to grab any excesses we can when we can in case we need them to buffer our needs later when the resource is less available. For example, kill the big game and try to preserve the meat for later eating. There isn't much concern for over killing because in the long run there will likely be periods when the availability of game is low and survival depended on having stored some prior surplus. The same psychology applied to the saving of grains and other food stuffs when agriculture took off.
But what happens when due to the use of technology and increased energy supplies those periods of want come much more rarely? There have always been local episodes of depletion of resources, of course. But these were geographically circumscribed and survivors could emigrate to a more favorable environment. So the average experience of humans since the advent of agriculture has been to generally have a surplus. And, coupled with the hierarchy of needs model, some of the surplus could be used to reroute human efforts to more artistic and entertainment activities. Those few creative individuals (see below discussion re: exploitation vs. exploration) could be supported to produce non-essential items for the pleasure of themselves and others.
Human history since agriculture began spreading out from its few (about 7 such) invention sites has been one of increasing support of non-food producing individuals who could begin to take on new roles such as social governance, commerce, and the arts. We see this in every early civilization. Humans, especially those coming from the early civilization cores, began to take it for granted that the accumulation of wealth, originally just physical possessions, was a natural way to live. Hedonistic desires were increasingly accepted as not just natural under the right conditions of surplus, but something like a human right (at least if you were in the right human group).
Now skip ahead to the Twentieth Century when the increase in energy from fossil fuels was increasing exponentially and at unbelievable levels.
The Propensity to Continue to Believe
We now come to the third major factor in producing the human predicament. As a species we have a great deal of trouble offloading non-working beliefs. It is in our nature. You might say we, as a species, stubbornly hold onto old beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence that we are wrong! There is a reason for this.
Our brains evolved to receive a set of beliefs (concepts about how the world works) from our elders and an ability to plug our on-going life experiences into those beliefs as we mature (see: constructivist theory). In our natural environment (in the late Pleistocene era on the African savannah), as long as that environment was relatively stable, this system of intelligence for guiding our ordinary behaviors worked very well. Our beliefs were built from correlations we noted in our environments, both causal and casual. Our brains are able to modify beliefs to some extent when the correlations no longer hold or new correlations are found to be operative and stable over time. We are capable of learning but not necessarily able to change our beliefs outright unless the evidence is overwhelming or cannot be reconciled with those existing beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is known to be a powerful incentive to turn learning on. But even so learning can fail if we don't pay careful attention to the process and treat the evidence soundly.
Within that framework we also evolved the tendency to attend more to observations that support or seemed to confirm our a priori beliefs, perhaps so as not to be overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance. The evolutionary advantage of this kind of day-to-day cognition is to filter out transient changes and provide a basic level of stability to maintaining behaviors and lifestyles. What had worked well in the past was most likely to work in the future, so a tendency to change one's beliefs on the basis of one-off occurrences of something that seemed contrary to our beliefs would not provide that stability. This condition, to have the built-in tendency to fit our observations and experiences to what we already believe and ignore countering evidence, ironically, probably contributed to our fitness as a species. This strategy seems to support a heavy weighting to the ‘exploitation’ of knowledge and resources and puts less emphasis on ‘exploration’, or finding new knowledge and new possible resources. Again, this makes a great deal of evolutionary sense when the environment remains relatively stable and the beliefs (knowledge) have led to greater fitness in the past.
Fortunately for our species the trait of putting greater weight to exploitation of beliefs versus greater weight to curiosity and experimentation is much like other personality traits; different people lay at different positions on the spectrum from one extreme to the other. Though I know of no specific research in behavioral psychology that has attempted to measure the level of this trait in these terms nor considered how it might be distributed in the population (e.g. as with intelligence quotients) the subject has been studied in reinforcement learning and the multi-armed bandit game theory problem. In organizational psychology it has been noted often that a generally smaller proportion of individuals within the organization are responsible for the majority of innovations. It suggests a perfectly reasonable hypothesis in the evolutionary model: Most humans prefer to exploit what they have (current beliefs) and are less inclined to explore new ideas. It is likely that where one sits on the exploitation-exploration spectrum is distributed as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Individuals in the population are distributed along a trait spectrum. Exploitation and exploration are not strictly mutually exclusive but individuals will spend more time in one or the other. This scale could be interpreted as that portion of a population that spends more or less time at one behavior. Most individuals in a population will tend to be more exploitative than explorative since this improves fitness when the environment is stable and sufficient resources are available.
Attempts to ‘measure’ creativity have been mixed. Creativity is an outcome of a mind more willing to explore new territories. New work on comparing cognitive attributes of political spectrum mentation (i.e. conservatives vs. progressives) shows some interesting differences both psychological and neurological that might approximate a measure as in Figure 2. For the moment I will use it as a working hypothesis to see what other results might we expect to obtain from this picture.
From a different track of psychology we know that personality types include people who are deeply opinionated and intransigent to objective evidence, contrary to their opinions, when it is presented. We know that people in general are loathe to abandon their religious beliefs, or are capable of rationalizing some modernized version. The majority of people hold strong political beliefs or ideologies that they often take to be self-evident truths. Recent work on the neuropsychology of conviction — the feeling of being right — reveals that there is a consistent neurological response by everyone when they are thinking about or reminded of their ideological or religious beliefs regardless of what those beliefs might be. Catholics and atheists, republicans and democrats alike will all show activity in a part of the brain that relates to strong senses of rightness. This applies even to simple beliefs such as that one and one equal two. There is currently a lot of interest in the evolutionary justification for developing this strong urge to feel one is right and, consequently, that others with opposing views are wrong. Those evolutionary arguments are still developing but what is clear is that all of us have this strength of conviction reaction regarding our beliefs (which is why we equate beliefs with “knowledge” all too often).
So here we are, a species that is just smart enough to reshape our physical world to our desires as we see fit, used to getting the hedonic things we want, and stuck with the certain belief that what we are doing is right and good. We came to grasp the need for a growing economy as a result of our population growth (right and good) our desires for creature comforts and entertainments (right and good) and, having gotten energy driven machines to do the really hard work for us, a desire to not strain ourselves (right and good).
But we're a species not wise enough to realize that all of this has gone way too far. A little creature comfort is not bad. A little machine assist is not bad, as long as you have a sustainable source of energy to run it. Even pleasures and entertainments are not bad in proper measure. But our brains are not, on average, really geared to make these judgments. We still seek surpluses.
Which brings us to our modern belief in profit motivated capitalistic wealth production. We are caught in a vicious cycle due to our beliefs. We believe we have to grow the economy to keep everybody gainfully employed so that they can buy stuff (and keep others who make that stuff employed). But at the same time we believe in making our work as easy as possible so we happily employ more machines to do the hard stuff, even thinking (information processing) work. We need to consume (in the sense of use up and ‘planned obsolescence’) so that there will always be demand to keep the economy growing. But to grow we have to also expand our usage of fossil fuels since alternatives are simply not ramping up fast enough to provide the growth power (moreover the scientific evidence suggesting that they will never be able to provide that level of power is mounting rapidly). That, in turn, means pumping out ever more CO2 to warm the planet and cause mass havoc for us and for all life on the planet. And so many people still hold onto their beliefs about what normal life means. They insist that they are right, that what they know is true, because that little module in the brain that served us well in the Pleistocene is cranking out that influence on our over all thinking.
And the majority of people will simply never be able to examine the reality of systemic destructive positive feedbacks because they are so certain that the way their lives were spent (or in the case of developing world citizens, the way lives were spent in developed nations) is THE RIGHT WAY.
It will take a massive blow up side of the head to get any of these people to question their beliefs and values. In all probability it is really too late to do anything but hunker down even if they do finally get it. That is the human predicament. We evolved to exist in a world that works very differently from the one we created by our own hands and minds. And that creation process proceeded far too rapidly to allow us to adapt neurologically to the changes. So we can't really think naturally about the situation properly. We need to let those who can show the way if there is to be any kind of survival of Homo as a genus.
What is a Species To Do?
Having a better understanding of why we hold onto false beliefs and what the biophysical factors are that are responsible for the demise of our civilization if not the extinction of our species may be intellectually satisfying (in some macabre sense I suppose). But it is hardly comforting on the face of it. The only solace I can offer is what I have found myself. My ease of mind comes from a deep grasp of what evolution is on a universal scale. It comes from years of studying evolution as the core process by which organization is temporarily increased in a local space-time by the flow of energy through a system with huge degrees of freedom in composition and connectivity (interactions between the components). Earth is such a system. Or rather it is a subsystem of the Sun-Earth-Deep Space larger system and enjoys the flux of photon power that drives complexification on the surface (with minor contributions from geothermal-driven tectonics and Moon-tidal energy). That system produced ever more complex entities (species) at higher levels of organization till we humans emerged with our clever brains and eventual technologies and civilization. After that we coevolved with machines but also started impacting the rest of the planet. We just failed to also evolve enough sapience to see that those impacts were turning destructive. By that I mean that the majority of people can't see it. A few can and have certainly been vocal about it. But it is really hard to have a voice heard when the din comes from those who simply act according to the points made above.
So even though there is variability in the species with respect to adequate sapience, the vast majority of humanity, with its relatively low level of the quality, dominate what happens by brute force. It works because there are very clever people who with very little real wisdom are able to gain the kind of power needed to control the direction of thinking of the masses. They have been incredibly successful achieving their own immediate goals for gaining wealth and power. But they are in for a really huge surprise when nature takes over again.
Actually, nature is doing so already. Our species' brief snubbing our noses at nature is right on the cusp of collapse. We are about to get our collective and individual butts kicked and those rich and powerful people who helped orchestrate this scenario in their greed and lack of true wisdom are going to suffer every bit as much as the rest of us. Maybe more so since they will perceive they had so much more to lose.
Meanwhile, if you are able to see the play unfolding, be at peace of mind. Evolution will work itself out. It was always really in charge, so to speak. None of us can know what it will produce in the distant future. But we can have faith that whatever emerges will be the most fit for the planet Earth. I have some level of confidence that representatives of our species will persist even if the worst should come to pass. I guess that little module in my brain that makes us feel certain is responsible, of course. But my intuitions tell me that there will be survivors to carry on into the longer term future of the planet.
If so, could those future humans evolve to a point where they could collectively manage their biological mandate? Could they learn to quell their desires for creature comforts in the interest of the whole system? I think so. Our species was already moving in that direction in terms of the evolution of the human brain to expand our eusociality (see: “A new eusocial vertebrate?”, by Kevin R. Foster and Francis L.W. Ratnieks, TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution, Vol.20 No.7 July 2005) in the late Pleistocene (2.6Ma to 11.7 thousand years ago). But in the early Holocene (about 10 thousand years ago) we invented agriculture and that set our further evolution on a different track. Essentially our further brain evolution toward higher sapience was stunted (see my working papers on sapience, which includes a chapter on evolution). There is even some recent suggestions that since agriculture humans have become less smart as well. I would agree we have failed to become as wise as we might have had the forces of group selection (see the section on “multi-level selection”) continued to favor sapience development. Alas, we were too clever for our own good (see my review of Craig Dilworth's book, Too Smart for Our Own Good).
Take heart, however. Consider it a privilege to be one in the first species that has actually understood evolution well enough to grasp the meaning of our own extinction! That is significant I think. That is what gives me heart. The understanding may be telling us something profound about our place in the trajectory of evolution. We should strive to appreciate the much bigger picture.
1. This essay was inspired, in part, by many comments by several readers who have voiced some form of resolution, perhaps even peace of mind, regarding the troubled future we face. My thanks to all of you who have contributed these sentiments. I think they are helpful in many ways. This essay was written, in part, to possibly help others who are still struggling with their grief. I can only hope it offers some impetus toward solace.
2. Of course not all humans have had their needs met for all times. There are plenty of examples of how that is not the case today even. My point is made regarding what is today the developed world. The messages coming out of that world suggest that, on average, the needs of people have been met in an absolute sense, even if not in a relative sense. That is, where disparities exist, individuals on the low end of society are always going to feel that their microwave is not as good as it could be. Even some of the poorest people in the developing nations are still richer in terms of material goods by far than most people living 10k years ago. this is the problem with not being able to differentiate between needs and wants.