The full series of posts can be reached through these links. Some background reading might be helpful.
- 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
- The Path — Episode II (and Some Surprises)
A Brief Synopsis
Long-time readers already know that my working hypothesis about humanity is that we are headed for an evolutionary bottleneck event. In my opinion, this is inevitable. By definition, a bottleneck is when only a very small number of survivors succeed in making it through environmental selection conditions that wipe out the majority of a species' populations. Only a small reproducing population is left.
The two primary interrelated factors that will contribute to this event are the depletion of fossil fuels and the subsequent increases in CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans that will cause dramatic climate changes. The former factor will lead to massive starvation as the capacity for civilizations to feed themselves is largely, today, based on fossil energy. As the net energy flow diminishes we will be less and less able to support our complex modern cultures. They will collapse. The predicament will be compounded by the changing climate that will further disrupt both our agricultural capabilities and the natural biosphere's ability to adjust. This is because the rate of change in the climate patterns will exceed the ability for many of our food species to adapt. These predictions are not mere conjecture because we already have gathered considerable evidence that this double-whammy process is well underway.
Technology is not going to save us either. Energy technologies are not like digital (computers and telecommunications) technologies. They are subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Digital technologies have been following a rough form of Moore's Law, which has made it seem that we could go on forever getting more innovative and reaping great rewards. But bits are not edible, nor will they be useful in providing shelter. The only things that really matter are food and the hard assets that make living possible. And those take much energy to make. Energy technologies are subject to physical limits that apply to energy that don't apply to matter. And, as with the evidence of fuel depletion and climate change, the evidence that solar and wind (just another form of solar energy), while capable of delivering small amounts of useful electricity, will never be able to scale up to the level needed to power even a small fraction of our civilizations.
Bottlenecks get their name from the severe constriction put on survivability. The forces of selection can come from any physical or biological factors that impact a member of a species' capability to thrive and procreate. A graph of population numbers looks like a sudden and very dramatic drop followed by a stabilization at a very much lower level. The term 'bottleneck' derives from the outline you get by rotating the graph around the X axis (time - the Y axis is population numbers). It looks like a bottle top with a narrow neck. Most significant bottleneck events in evolutionary history have had very dramatic, rapid narrowing, looking somewhat like a bottle for vinegar! A longer, slower decline might look like a wine bottle. Given the rapid rate at which we are now deteriorating our world, I think we can expect vinegar rather than wine.
The believers among us can pray for a miracle. The rest can cling to hope that there is some secret key to new energy sources just waiting to be discovered. A few of us are thinking it is time to prepare for the worst case scenario. We seek to plan an escape of sorts.
The destinations has already been cognized, the first link at the top. It strikes me as a kind of promised land, not exactly flowing with milk and honey, but a time and a place where a much wiser kind of human society might thrive and every person has the opportunity to achieve self-actualization.
In the posts linked above I have been trying to consider if and how humans might survive a bottleneck event, providing a seed population for some distant future evolution. A bottleneck is, by definition, more rapid than any species can adapt to evolutionarily. The species of humans that survive, coming out of the bottleneck, will be the same one going in. After the environment settles into some kinds of long-term patterns, presumably, those future humans will continue to evolve in directions dictated by the conditions they will live under. What this means for the near term is that we might consider what kind of seed stock we would prefer to see get a crack at future evolution. What attributes of present day humans would we consider as worthy of survival. And what attributes might we think would best position those survivors to continue surviving in that future world?
What I have tried to describe in the above links is an attribute that I think is worthy of consideration. And I describe a way by which those possessing that attribute might live in the future. This post, and the prior two by the same name, have considered the path by which these survivors might take to maximize their likelihood of survival. It is a kind of a plan for dealing with the bottleneck and positioning humanity's successors to carry into a new life something very worthy.
That attribute, I have been long arguing, is sapience (for additional information my working papers on the subject are here. My thesis is that humans were, in fact, evolving toward higher levels of sapience at the start of the Holocene but that with the invention of agriculture and other tool-inventions, the group selection that had been favoring strategic and systems thinking (and accurate judgments based on extensive tacit knowledge) was overshadowed by individual selection pressures operating on shorter-scope thinking. For example farming requires logistical and tactical thinking but the major issues involved in a semi-nomadic life, such as where the wise men thought the tribe should move to over the next year, were taken off the table. Aggression, needed to protect or take precious agricultural land was favored. Ever since that time we humans have not had our survival depend on long-range thinking so have probably atrophied those mental capacities that give rise to wisdom acquisition. Our environment favors lesser capabilities.
Even so, the way population genetics works is by variations in traits. Such variations are conserved as a hedge against the environment changing. There is some chance that one or more such variations might be a better match for the new environment. Hence the species basic stock is saved assuming there are enough individuals with those variants that can form a breeding population. Life goes on if there are. Otherwise the species could go extinct - the end of a branch giving rise to no other branches. And in our global population of 7 billion there are bound to be a fair number of individuals who possess variants in the sapience “genes” that produce higher levels of the capacity, not unlike the genetic components of intelligence. So I played a what-if game. What if a large number of those with higher sapience capacity were to recognize the impending bottleneck and take actions to try to survive and form communities once the worst has passed? If there were a concentration of such individuals, would they prove to be competent specimens in the future? Would they out compete/procreate any remnants of our lower sapient, ordinary folk who happened to survive by sheer chance?
The Road Ahead
In this final installment — or episode — I want to suggest some ideas of ‘who’ the travelers will be and how they can be selected or self select for the journey.
The road will be rough in many different ways. Not only will the nomads have to survive in a changing natural world, they will have to survive against the likely aggressions of whatever other survivors who are not as sapient might have made it. In my mental picture of that road, the latter types will eventually die off because their inability to adapt to such a radically changed world will do them in. The highly sapient travelers will fare better. But it will still be an incredibly tough journey.
I still hold out the hope that there are more (younger) average to slightly above average sapient fellows who, even without the benefit of high sapience, are intelligent and knowledgeable enough to help the high sapients organize and get started on their way. These people will assist by acquiring material goods that can be cached in the wilderness areas that will become home territory to the travelers. The caches will allow the travelers to renew some kinds of goods and tools over what may be hundreds of years (certainly many decades) wandering in that wilderness. These people are like the parents who send their kids off to college, getting them on the bus and waving goodbye to them. They think that their kids will someday have a better life so they willingly made the sacrifices necessary to get the kids to college. For blood-parents the sacred duty is not questioned. For strangers, the willingness to participate in preparing the way will depend on their believing deeply that this effort will be the best and most hopeful approach for the future of humanity. I've suggested that this belief will need to be held with the same fervor and faith as a religious belief. I've even thought that the creation of a religious-like organization might be the key. Maybe so.
In any event, the roughness of the journey constrains the demographics of who should/can embark. In many ways I think the composition of the traveling bands will mirror that of tribes of long ago. A few older people can be taken in order to supply realized wisdom. On the other hand, most older people today do not have the practical wisdom of life on a nomadic trail. So the kind of wisdom they display would need to be more oriented toward how to deal with social problems in harsh conditions.
The average age of the travelers will need to be in their twenties and early thirties. Such individuals are among the hardiest and have more matured frontal lobes than teenagers (less willing to take foolish risks!). And they have the bulk of their reproductive years ahead of them. Sadly I suspect children below the age of eight should not be included, or at least be at a minimum in the population. Additionally I suspect there will be a moratorium on any new pregnancies until life has settled for the travelers to a point where the risks imposed by having infants in the mix are lowered.
Clearly, however, these people cannot put off child bearing past a certain age. Ergo, the average age will need to favor the younger adults. But this raises a problem with respect to the selection of high sapients. Young people, even if they possess high sapience, cannot display great wisdom simply because that comes from a long life. In our experience wisdom does not become apparent until after a person has passed typical child-bearing years, so it would be difficult to identify highly sapient candidates when they are young enough to participate in this venture. Yet, to be effective it will be important to aggregate only highly sapient individuals for the trek. What to do?
Who are the Sapient
Technically all humans are sapient but to different degrees. My suspicions are that the higher level sapients among us will display certain qualities and behaviors, even at a young age, that will help identify their genetic potential. I don't think there is enough time left before the major jolts to the social fabric will be felt in order to do the research needed to identify the genetic correlates of sapience and its levels. It would have been nice if some insightful neuroscientists and geneticists (especially those working in the field of EvoDevo) were to conduct such a research program. In the event that my hypotheses were not valid, that would settle it. But if they are valid, or even close, it would have been nice to have a somewhat more definitive test for high sapience (a genetic marker, perhaps).
The purpose of some selection criteria is simple enough. If people had a way to assess their own and others' sapience they could guide their own choices in mate selection (much like female bower birds select the male whose bower they find most attractive!). The higher sapients among us, I have contended, are already thinking about the impending peril and are preparing for the journey. So the process of identification, mate selection, and willingness to move away from the mainstream will provide a straightforward mechanism for segregating sapient potentials.
The key element here is the identification. Almost by definition the possession of sufficient sapience would lead to the rest of the process. Note that I find this possibility to be benign and certainly non-coercive. But I suspect that since the meme of eugenics as inherently evil has polluted the thinking of the mainstream, and anything that even remotely smacks of selective breeding of humans will be so labelled, there will be many who, in typical knee jerk reaction, will condemn even this process.
And that is one of the first tests of sapience! Unthoughtful (and emotional) reactions to ideas that seem to resemble those that are already labelled as objectionable is a sure sign of the lack of sapience. In my working papers I explain how sapience evolved to provide a counter to the limbic-based guidance of decision processing. It provides its possessor with judgment capabilities based on the collection of tacit knowledge acquired up that point in life. In its simplest form it is what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking” or system II (see: Fast and Slow Thinking). In more advanced or higher sapience it isn't just a matter of slow (intelligent) thinking to catch up with fast (emotion-driven call to mind of opinions) thinking, but sapience can actually down modulate and even check emotional responses before they have an opportunity to cause trouble. More sapient minds are more thoughtful before responding.
They are also capable, even at an early age, of dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. All humans desire some level of certainty and clarity in their lives. We want to be able to anticipate future conditions so as to avoid harmful ones and seek out those that we find rewarding. The more certainty and less ambiguity we have to deal with, presumably the more veridical our anticipations will be. But nature does not produce particularly certain and unambiguous conditions more as a general rule. So some capacity to make decisions and take anticipations under uncertainty and ambiguity is essential. Those that are better equipped to handle those kinds of situations without being paralyzed by indecision are likely to be much more sapient than most.
The contrast between those who can deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and those who cannot, or at least deal very weakly, is apparent among college students. The American style education system effectively teaches students to NOT deal with them. The emphasis on test scores and assessment based on objective measurements has become the norm and, indeed, dictates the whole process of education. This emphasis promotes the notion that there are always right and wrong answers (as is the case in math but hardly any other subject). Students grow so used to the notion that there is a set organization and fixed curriculum, and that all they need to do is demonstrate some mastery of certain facts to earn a piece of paper, that when faced with ambiguity at the college level, they complain bitterly. Getting students to understand that with complexity (in the subject) comes much ambiguity and uncertainty is a daunting task. They have to be exposed to these factors repeatedly with the experience of actually overcoming the challenges before they start to get an inkling of real problem solving. I have to say that most don't ever really develop the capacity. Some get better but still find it painful and never really grasp that it is one of the keys to success in the world if they can learn to deal with them.
But on rare occasions I have seen a few students who not only can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty but actually thrive on it. They are the ones who see some ambiguous situations as opportunities to expand their horizons and explore new territory. They don't see ambiguity as an enemy to be avoided, but as an opening into possibilities. Nothing has thrilled me more than when a student comes to my office and says something like: “This part of the programming specification doesn't make any sense.” Or: “Did you really mean ‘thus-and-thus’ on this assignment?” And better still: “Wouldn't it be better if this ‘whatcha-ma-callit’ had more ‘bells-and-whistles’?” Not only are these students deeply engaged in learning, they are responding positively to something that isn't clear. Such students are rare, not because it isn't part of ordinary sapience to be capable of handling ambiguity and uncertainty to some degree, but because for most of all students' educational lives they have been rewarded for NOT dealing with it, and learning (very well) that those things are bad and to be avoided. Only the higher sapient individuals will have escaped this ‘training’ such that they have the facility both in college and in later professional life.
A third characteristic associated with sapience, and thus likely to be more prominent in higher sapient individuals, is related to the above mentioned capacity to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. That is curiosity. While not stifled by uncertainty, a sapient is more likely to want to understand more about phenomena in order to reduce the uncertainty about outcomes from those phenomena. It goes deeper, however. A higher sapient is often curious and exploratory (investigative, studious) into phenomena seemingly just for the sake of wanting to know more. I take this as the evolution of preparedness. Wanting to understand things even when they do not directly impact one's immediate life is a tacit recognition of the systemic nature of the Universe, and one never knows when understanding something might come in handy. For one thing there are major patterns that can be found repeating in different phenomena and on different scales. These patterns, if internalized in one context, might be useful in quickly understanding a completely different phenomena that nevertheless exhibits the same pattern. This is what I have described as systems thinking in the working papers. It is manifest in high sapients by what amounts of insatiable curiosity and a willingness to work at understanding a wide variety of phenomena without any necessary immediate reward.
Almost all children are born with insatiable curiosity. That is what drives learning. Our modern school systems have succeeded in damping down native curiosity as children age and are trained to do what the teacher wants so as to earn a grade. This goes right along with the above mentioned training to avoid uncertainty. Later in life, starting often before middle school years, most average level sapients will forego curiosity and learning for the sake of the pleasure of understanding and hove to the school-industrial model of manufacturing workers because that is the culture they accept. The highly sapient will eschew this role and maintain their curiosity in spite of school. They may or may not get a standardized education (and thus may or may not be able to pass standardized tests) but they will be much closer to self-actualization than the average person. They must, of course, avoid being punished by a system that has little tolerance for nonconformity. I have personally known several people I suspected of being smarter and wiser than most, but who were beaten down by the mobs who resented them being smarter and wiser! To me, a true pity.
A last trait that I will mention, though there are probably several more that I could mention, is that a highly sapient person demonstrates a thoughtful approach to the future, not just their own, but that of many others. That is, they exhibit strategic thinking aimed at the well being of those they know and, in fact, those they do not. The urge to have peace and the ability to thrive for all is, again, natural to the human condition. And, again, it is the system of culture that people live in that beats that urge down such that they adopt notions like nationalism and we-versus-them attitudes by the time they are adults. But in actuality the we-versus-them attitude is encultured much earlier in youth. Most kids, with average sapience, can and are easily acculturated with distrust for those who are different, those who are not part of their own group. Evolutionarily this ability to see others as enemies served a useful purpose during times of competition for resources. Group selection dynamics are based on having this attitude available. But in the modern world it only generates competition where none need be. For the average sapient, feelings of in-group/out-group antagonisms are too easily triggered and lead to all manner of social dysfunction. The current attention on bullying in teenagers and younger is one such phenomenon where the accepted norm in our modern school environments amplifies these feelings, sometimes with horrible consequences. Of course the older population of average sapients tend to accept this as the norm and assume it is natural.
Young people, nearing or at reproductive age, will not necessarily show much wisdom. They haven't had long enough lives to acquire the needed tacit knowledge to be wise. Often they can appear to make egregious errors in judgment since they don't necessarily follow the beaten path and make all the ‘right’ choices (according to the social norms). Many high sapient kids and young adults can appear to be NOT NORMAL in a pejorative sense. Of course they are NOT NORMAL, but in a way that the rest of society cannot appreciate. It is a good way, just not recognized as such by ordinary average sapients.
Suppose one could construct a story about the life of a high sapient youngster who is something of an outcast, a loner, probably, and who doesn't do what is expected. In the story I'm thinking of the protagonist displays the qualities described above. Of course if you look at a whole variety of popular children and young adult books you do see this theme. The Harry Potter stories, or those of Roald Dahl depict a child who is out of sorts with their environment (and people) and still manages to prevail. So the theme is nothing new. The difference is that in order to make the protagonist work, the antagonists have to possess really bad qualities, be mean or evil, in order to contrast with the inherent goodness of the protagonist. In my version the kid looks like a willful antagonist against the background of a bunch of “normal” people doing ordinary stuff. Rebel without a cause. Such a story would probably not sell books. Its not actually a story of good versus evil. And, most likely, it would take an audience of higher sapients to appreciate it.
But maybe that is the point. Only the higher sapients could relate to the plight of an outcast kid who just wants to pursue self-actualization as opposed to fitting into the mold. Maybe this is a way to probe the psyche of such younger people and propel them to action in finding others like themselves. It would allow another, older high sapient to recognize the younger person as one who probably should be included in the journey to the future.
I will leave it to more fiction-oriented, and higher sapient individuals to construct such a story (or stories).
If you have read the other posts in this series, if you are still reading this, think carefully. Do you know anyone between the ages of, say, 18 and 30 who you think might be higher than normal sapience? In order to have digested the bulk of this screed you must be above normal intelligence, so you should qualify as able to make a reasonable judgment along these lines just from rational considerations. It doesn't matter if you yourself are highly sapient. It is best if we do not attempt to apply such judgements to ourselves anyway. But I am guessing that the readers who have gotten this far do understand that there are people out there that they know who answer to the kinds of descriptions given above. If so, I charge you with approaching them with the questions: “What do you think the world will be like in twenty years?” and “Where will you be in that world?” If they answer something to the effect that they think the world is going to be extremely different (and not in a good way) and they are uncertain of where they will be in that world, then you may have found someone to save!
My hope is that the concept of higher sapience and helping those with it through the bottleneck will be shared more broadly. Among those who hear, the higher sapient individuals will recognize the message and heed the call.
They will need a lot of financial help. Those that understand this, and believe it, should sponsor the high sapients. Help them get permaculture training, for example. Various skills in mountaineering, wilderness medicine, etc. will be needed. Help them connect with others. Provide them with living support so that they can focus their attentions on learning and preparing. And start stockpiling provisions.
You will need to search your conscience and your deepest beliefs. Do you really believe that the end of civilization and a bottleneck event is looming on the horizon? If you do, please become part of an attempt to give humanity a second chance.
There is no way to predict just when the proverbial defecant will hit the fan to the extent that the travelers should be off. It could be many years yet, or it could come much more quickly owing to nonlinear effects that accelerate the decline. If the former, and this had been my original thinking, the higher sapients should aggregate in permaculture settlements at the edges of civilization. If the time scale is longer, this will give them more time to acquire and practice the skills of living closer to nature. It would provide a gathering place where new members could be recruited.
Now suppose I am just another nut-case gloomer who is completely wrong about the end of civilization? Suppose twenty years go by and nothing bad happens. Suppose some bright light discovers a revolutionary way to produce nuclear fusion and we're all saved. Even if this were the case, would the people who followed my advice be any worse off? Well, I suppose if they could have become gazillionaires by sticking with the mainstream, it would be possible to argue it. But suppose things in twenty years are really pretty much like they are today. There are plenty of reasons that many people (many of whom I suspect are higher sapients!) today are choosing to live in permaculture centers as opposed to metropolitan areas. Even if the world doesn't crash, they will be in a much better, life-sustaining environment.
Earnestly, however, I don't think I'm wrong. This Scientific American article, Apocalypse Soon - Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?, is just one of so many that are popping up everywhere. This article is about another book following on the heels of the Limits to Growth genre. These books are by prominent scientists, not whackos, who are all coming to the same conclusion. It is too late to do anything that would save modern civilizations based on fossil fuel energy.
We are past the point where we could say something like: “If we don't do thus-and-so now we will be doomed.” When we had the chance to do thus-and-so we blew it. We didn't do the things that would have needed to be done to prevent our ultimate doom. And now it is too late.
If you do understand this, then help preserve the human genome, the better representatives of that genome. This is the noblest cause of all.
No great fanfare. No farewell parties. They will simply disappear.
The rest of humanity will be embroiled in calamities so intense that no one will notice. As the ground crumbles beneath civilizations and the bulk of humanity resorts to their natural human survival instincts, pitting against one another for the last scraps of food and drops of water, the travelers will quietly fold into the wildernesses that are left. Prepared in ways that even the few natives who live in or near those wildernesses are not, they will begin their trek into the uncertain and even frightening future.
Bon voyage eusapients.