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« How do you make sense of anything? | Main | What is the real problem? »

July 13, 2008


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Wayne Hamilton

If this SignIn works I'll have good comments to follow.

Wayne Hamilton

I see that you were not 'away' for the weekend but rather working on this excellent post.
Your analogy to parasites seems sound. One approach could be to learn from other 'wildlife' models how to evolve a social structure that can preserve sapience and indivuality (probably in inverse proportion to numbers). I'll think about that and get back to you.
George, I like your relatively dispassionate approach. You use the kind of logical argument I can follow. Being new to your blog I'll now look around and try to meet some of your commenters.

Wayne Hamilton

Initially my guess about the future out several decades is that a geologist might be employed recovering metals, glass and plastic from high-grade deposits we now call landfills and dumps. Sounds grim, but it could be useful work and somehow it reminds me of ants.

We might learn something helpful from the social structure of other colonial creatures. At our place in the southwest we have harvester ants large and small in great abundance. The large females do guard duty around the hill while the tiny females form long columns, or random ‘Brownian’ trails, in their exploration for edibles that they carry back to the hill. The two sizes, all female, intermingle without conflict. My wife was once stung by a large harvester, but so far at least I haven’t had that experience. We never use insecticide on our ants, and I avoid stepping on them.

The small amount of reading I’ve done on harvesters suggests that their leadership is genetic, in that the queen is voluntarily sustained by her infertile females as she fulfills her egg-laying duties. After several years the queen begins laying eggs that hatch into fertile winged males and females. These pioneers fly off to mate and form new, all-female colonies. When the home queen dies after 10 to 15 years, her colony is abandoned.

Ants found preserved in amber have been around at least since late Cretaceous time, 92 MaBP. Solomon, in Proverbs, said: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer and gathers her sustenance in harvest”. See:

If you don’t throw an old shoe I might submit something on Hopi culture next time.

Florifulgurator (Dadaist)

Oh, if only I had the time and resources to ponder things as profoundly as Prof. Mobus...

Here's a quick rundown of my thoughts. (Now me back to day job)


1) Is sapience genetic or/and cultural?

1.1) Methinks we can be sapient enough. The obstacle is the Ego. Ego veils sapience and abuses cleverness for egotic purpose. (Perhaps techniques like Zen Buddhism can help break the Ego-internal survival drive.)

1.2) The question is moot for all practical purpose. We have to rely on our current genetics now. There's no time to wait for a Homo Eusapiens breeding program. So forget about that.

2) Necessary new world view

2.1) It is necessary to accept the proximate "divine", i.e. that which created our species, gave each induvidual's life, and sustains our lives. It's the biosphere, st..d, not some metaphysical god. Overbreeding serves the powerful (the Pope, Islam, Economy, ...) but not the proximate divine.

2.2) Methinks people can learn this. Current metaphysico theism is a degeneration of stone age world view. (E.g. sacrificing animals quite probably once made sense as agricultural practice: blood is fertilizer, burnt bones serve calcium for soil life.).

3) It's triage time! What to do?

3.1) World wide voluntary sterilization program. (And ridicule to the religious wackos' protests...)
3.2) Sequestered-carbon backed money.
3.3) New agri-culture
3.3.1) Food sovereignty: Small agriculture is more effective (i.e. effective per area, a long known "paradox" of agriculture).
3.3.2) Carbon sequestration by use of charcoal in farming/gardening. The only sequestration method currently at hand. Beneficial for soil and atmosphere (cf. agrichar, terra preta).


I'm dreaming of some epi-religious order to spread the above.
The vows: 1) CO2 negativity (instead of poverty) 2) non-procreation (instead of chastity) 3) obedience to knowledge.

The order will be engaged mostly in food production + carbon sequestration, education, practical re-research & knowledge preservation (writing Lovelock's book). Cowl to be self-made from self-grown fiber, like Gandhi's.

George Mobus

Hi Wayne.

I tend to keep my old shoes in service until they turn to dust, much to the chagrin of my wife! So none to throw.

I'm always trying to look to nature for guidance in our affairs. Speaking of the organizational competency of an ant colony, I am working on a future post bringing the hierarchical control theory back into the notion of what kind of governance should humanity be working toward. Probably no one wants to equate a human life with an ant life, but there are principles embedded in ant colony organization that are universals WRT system governance. We might be able to use these principles to fast forward humanity's version at a global scale in trying to self-regulate our impact on the rest of the planet. Something appropriate to human consciousness rather than purely genetically programmed behaviors.

I have written a bit about how our current forms of governance, representative democracy, tri-partite government, federal/state/city governance, and the markets are actually part of the natural evolution of a hierarchical management and control system. What is currently lacking is a better understanding of that natural progression, and a true strategic level at a planetary scale (UN doesn't quite cut it, but it shows we are moving in that direction).

Look for a synopsis of what a global hierarchical governance structure that is designed to maximize individual satisfaction with life in the near future.


George Mobus

Hi Florifulgurator.

1.1 - It may very well be that some fraction of the population might be 'sapient enough'. But that isn't the problem. Until a clear majority are sapient enough it is going to be a slow go. I suspect it will be hard to get the majority to practice mindfulness (Buddhism) in order to allow their inherent sapience to emerge. Earlier in my life I got involved in the TM movement for exactly this notion. In spite of all the hoopla over the Dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, too few people keep up on meditation and very few, compared with the general population, ever even try it. It would take one hell of a clever motivational message to get enough people into that mind set.

1.2 - Sapience is both genetic and cultural. The genetics involves the development program for the prefrontal cortex in late stage fetuses and probably into young adult life. It is a capacity issue. Very much like intelligence, which is estimated to be about 50% heritable, where development can account for early propensity and the kind of environment you live in accounts for the rest. Intelligence can be boosted maybe as much as 15% by the right kind of environmental stimuli, but the rest of the potential is accounted for by genes.

So too sapience. And the distribution of potential that I mentioned suggests that for most people this potential is pretty low compared to the need for high levels of judgment processing.

As for waiting for a breeding program, I don't exactly see that trying to boost whatever competency may be native to effect a quick response and helping high sapients to meet one another are mutually exclusive. In fact I think I alluded to the need for the former in order to effect the latter. I said I hope that the rest of us can see this need (because we are wise enough to at least do that) and help with the program that amplifies the production of high sapient offspring. In an earlier blog I wrote about this as bootstrapping Human 2.0 (Homo eusapiens).

The latter won't directly produce a new species. That may take hundreds of thousands of years. What it will do is help ensure that whatever breeding stock makes it through a potential evolutionary bottleneck is higher in sapience competency than would otherwise be the case. Thus the potential for the eventual emergence of a Homo eusapience would be boosted. We are not going to create a new species, either by breeding or genetic engineering. We don't know enough. And besides, last I heard Chihuahuas can still breed with Great Danes even after centuries of true breeding of each type separately.

2 - Well I think everybody who thinks about this kind of stuff recognizes we should have a different world view. But therein lies the nub of the problem. If people were wise they would be able to see that (indeed we wouldn't even be having this conversation!) But they aren't. So how do you teach people who are fundamentally incorrigible to have a different world view. This is what I see as the intractable part of the whole mess. Maybe if we had more time...

3 - Well I don't disagree about triage. The voluntary part is where I see the problem (same as 2 above). I'll be writing more about possible scenarios for how we will first finally admit that triage is needed, and then how we will let the doctors do their thing. It is ironic that the piece-wise solutions to a number of the symptoms (see my next post on this subject) are already known and many are feasible. But human nature continues to be the main obstacle to implementation. So I think we are still stuck on the need to raise sapience!


Wayne Hamilton

Re: “Until a clear majority are sapient enough it is going to be a slow go. I suspect it will be hard to get the majority to practice mindfulness”.

I’d suggest that in their clear-headed moments (TV turned off, good book resting in the lap) most older adults are capable of a practical level of sapience. For that capacity to be transmitted to younger adults, adolescents and children our society might need to work on keeping family units together under one roof. I can think of many other savings that would result from that return to the past. Government policies and tax incentives rewarding that kind of household might help it happen. Wayne

Wayne Hamilton

An Outsider’s view of Hopi Culture

Spanish priests built (= forced the Hopi to build) a church at Shungopovi in what is now northern Arizona in the early 1600s in an attempt to convert them to a new religion and teach them ‘proper’ farming. [This also happened to my ancestors in Westphalia, Rheinland and Alsace-Lorraine about the same time.] In about 1680 the Hopi killed the priests, hid the cross and the bell, resumed their traditions and avoided all contact with Europeans until the late 1800s. [My ancestors tried to resist but ultimately sold everything they hadn’t lost to buy boat tickets to the New World.] The ‘ng’ in Shungopovi is pronounced more like an ‘m’.

Bill T….. and I were childhood chums at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the late ‘30s, and I watched awe struck as his older brother Bruce danced at the Hopi House while their father Porter sang and drummed accompaniment for the amusement of tourists. I remembered some of that song in the late forties when our scout troop wanted to perform a similar dance. ‘Hyooooh … hyooh itsenaayo … itsenaayooo … itsenayo … ooo…” My father helped me get the costumes together.

Over the years I’ve kept in touch. In the late ‘70s I visited Porter and his stay-at-home daughter in their simple stone pueblo when I was doing a government survey of atmospheric ‘visibility’ in the Southwest. He was carving a large katsina (kachina) at the table, and the chips fell to the clean-swept earth floor. Bill was ‘gone’ (in the Army) and Bruce was ‘gone’. We have Bruce’s ‘Hunters’ (Bison dancers) painting on the wall at home. When family didn’t like doing without electricity and running water at Shungopovi they were ‘gone’. I asked Porter if he noticed any reduction in the visibility of the Sacred Mountains (San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff) in his lifetime, meaning air pollution. He looked up and answered “yes”. Then he looked down, picked up his glasses and said “so I have to use these now to see better”.

Margot and I were treated to less obvious humor on another visit when we went to the Snake Dance. Our seats were on the roof of a pueblo overlooking the dance area. Ten feet to our left sat John Erlichmann. Later we walked over to tell Porter how much we’d enjoyed it, and he told us that it’s lucky that we didn’t do what that other guy did that time before. We asked “what was that” so he used his hands to show how the priest sprinkles corn meal across the paths to the four directions where the snakes are released and said “he stepped over that corn meal”. We could see from his expression that stepping over corn meal was a serious violation! Maybe it wasn’t humor.

On an early visit with my parents my mother brought Porter’s wife a large sack full of seashells, and I could see she was delighted to have them. My mom explained that after being blessed they would be used to decorate dance costumes; sewn on close together so they would jingle as the dancer moved his feet along the clockwise circle in the plaza between the pueblos. The Diné (Navajo) and even our family maintain the clockwise movement of things, in honor of the sun’s passage through the sky.

Once I asked Bill if he’d ever run over to the Sipapu some 75 miles to the west at the bottom of the canyon. It was the duty of younger Hopi men to revisit the place where their ancestors had emerged from the underworld and return quickly with a load of salt from the deposit there to season their food. He said “no”, he’d been away too much. Every kiva has a Sipapu to commemorate Hopi origins and sustaining power. I’ve never been allowed to go into a kiva.

When Bill got back from the Army he wanted to get married, but first he had to go north to get a deer and tan its hide and make a lovely dress for his bride to be. He told me he did that, but still her parents were not too keen on the marriage. He had to work on them for a long time before they finally relented. Not long after that though Bill was ‘gone’. We still correspond though.

I suspect that the Hopi picked their homeland because nobody, except the occasional interloping Diné, would think anyone could live there. Porter once explained to us how to outwit and catch a jack rabbit and where to plant corn so it could find moisture. Such intimate knowledge made life possible, and the Niman katsina would come down from the Sacred Mountain to help bring a harvest if everyone was reverent at the dance. The Hopi have retained their cultural integrity partly owing to their secluded habitat but also because they safeguarded custom and knowledge. I am honoring that now by not telling you where to plant corn or how to catch a hare.

George Mobus


Thanks for that description. It does remind one that mature adults do have considerable wisdom when embedded in an 'understandable' environment. This basically underscores my main point that man evolved sapience to work in a much more 'natural' kind of environment.

We are surrounded by complex artifacts and a social system that no one can completely grasp. The level of sapience in humans cannot keep up with the complexities and rates of change of modern industrial society. Most of us are far from the biological/physical world of what we call nature. It is virtually impossible to acquire sufficient understanding (tacit knowledge) of our technological world so that our wisdom is adequate to guide decisions.

I'm no Luddite. I love technology and the inventiveness that went into producing the world we have today. But, we may have done too much, too quickly, and without foresight to see the consequences of our inventions. And then there is the issue of how many of us there are, trying to make sense of the world as best we can.

Evolutionarily, our cleverness raced ahead of our sapience. Think of it like the peacock's tail - runaway sexual selection (only for us it was personal energy selection!) After all you don't need to understand the workings of an automobile (or computer) to drive it. Sapience tries to produce understanding - knowing where to plant the corn - whereas cleverness manages the planting process. What kind of understanding do people make out of tax forms, insurance policies, or the stock market? We are clever enough to learn how to interact with these things, but how many people understand why? How should we understand war or foreign affairs?

And what about the inventor/designer who does understand the working of the automobile (or computer)? What else do they understand? Their whole world? Rare is the specialist who really knows much about things not in his/her specialty. Of course I don't mean knowing facts - every intelligent person should be able to have a large number of facts about the world at hand. I mean understanding the rest of the world as an integrated whole. That is what eusapience should be able to provide.

I hope.


George Mobus

* I've marked a statement in the above posting that has raised some concerns shared with me in a private e-mail.

Basically, the e-mailer thought that the statement might be interpreted by some as a call for some form of eugenics. This worry caused me to think a lot more about what I am proposing, or rather formulating for later proposal perhaps.

I emphatically reject anything like coercive eugenics. I am in no way anticipating anything like what the Nazis, for example, did in the name of improving the species.

What I am considering is simply similar to what we are starting to do now with genetic information, especially for genetic diseases. If there is a genetic marker that correlates with development of a more sapient brain, then making that information available might help individuals make decisions about finding compatible mates. Let assortative mating (a form of sexual selection) do the rest!

First and foremost there is the scientific question of what brain functions and processes are responsible for sapience (and hence wisdom). We have made progress in understanding that wisdom is a sufficiently different function from what we normally think of as intelligence. We know a lot about what parts of the brain contribute to intelligence and intelligent decision making. We have enticing cues about what parts contribute to sapient processing (judgment) and it is in the most recently evolved part of the brain. This is more than intriguing and should be investigated more fully.

When we talk about 'improvement' of the species there are many philosophical and ethical questions. First, I would argue that most intelligent people would agree that making people more intelligent isn't a great idea. I've already pointed out that very smart people with very poor judgment are actually dangerous. But who would not agree that more wisdom at the individual level would not constitute a real improvement.

We already know that wisdom is similar to intelligence in that it is only partially affected by the embedding environment. We can't really teach wisdom as much as promote its development in those who possess the underlying sapience capacity.

So it seems the only path to increasing sapience is an evolutionary process. Wisdom must be selected for in our world. Looking at the current culture in the West, which seems to discount wisdom considerably, it seems unlikely to me that normal biological evolution will move humanity toward a more sapient future in the short time frame we are looking at.

It seems to me we are at a profound juncture in the evolution of sentience. We are the first species to discover how we arose. We are evolution discovering itself. That situation suggests that our role in future evolution need not be as passive participants. We are already affecting the evolution of other species, both intended (breeding) and unintended (ecosystems disruptions). I suggest that it is not outside the realm of correctness to ask what about ourselves?

Previous views about improving the species were based on terribly incomplete scientific information as well as being motivated by ideology rather than a deep philosophical position with ethical constraints.

Today the word eugenics is coupled with all of the bad things that were done for political reasons rather than humanitarian. But the original question, can the human species still evolve,? is still a valid question. Especially since the future of humanity would seem to depend on a yes answer.



Hi George,

Thanks for the extended and quite helpful clarification. If it's true, as you say in the original post, "The only long-term cure for the disease is for the human race to get wise," then my interest is on the short term which leads me to inspect a couple of claims in your clarifying comment.

"We already know that wisdom is similar to intelligence in that it is only partially affected by the embedding environment."

To me, the key word here is "partially." If the quality of one's environment can enhance a natural ability by say 10% or even merely 1% that's a huge win. And for most any ability we can imagine environments that extinguish it nearly completely. So, even granting your proposition, the "embedding environment" is vital.

"We can't really teach wisdom as much as promote its development in those who possess the underlying sapience capacity."

That way of looking at it risks discouraging the attempt to create and institute methods for teaching wisdom, and in my view we can and do teach wisdom. The most fruitful direction to take this discussion is, I think, to unpack what we mean by wisdom. I lack time just now to do justice to that, but here are a few quick thoughts.

Part of wisdom is about flexibility: having the ability to let go of or adjust a position/belief in the presence of new information. Another part is about expecting change rather than being surprised or shocked by it. Wisdom also has something to do with "scope" -- learning to take the context of a situation into account (the people affected, the special circumstances that might apply) when forming judgments. These things strike me as quite teachable.

George Mobus

Thanks Trinifar.

Maybe a few additional comments about:
1) difference between sapience and wisdom, attributes of a wise person, distinguishing between sapience and tacit knowledge
2) the quality of the embedding environment
3) learning wisdom.

I often use the words sapience and wisdom interchangeably, which is really an egregious sin! So in discussions about what amount of wisdom is learned, etc. it becomes confusing not to be clear about the difference between the two terms.

Sapience is a term I use to describe a native ability, something genetically guided and subject to some adaptation during development, perhaps especially during early adulthood. Wisdom, on the other hand is reserved for the outcomes of judgments made based on a working sapience and a lifetime of acquired tacit knowledge.

It takes sapience to both acquire knowledge and to use it effectively. So sapience is a brain function with a competency based on the amount of wetware devoted to processing these higher executive functions.

Intelligence has many sub-functions (psychologist recognize both fluid and crystallized general intelligence along with special intelligences geared to aspects of the world) including learning ability. A reasonably intelligent person should be able to learn a considerable amount of tacit knowledge about her world. This means that it is feasible for less competent sapients to nevertheless learn knowledge that would produce wise-like outcomes even if sapience is restricted.

So, from this standpoint, wisdom can be learned to a degree. I suspect this, in fact, is the major role played by moral lessons from the major religions. It is a rule-based kind of morality that does not depend on deep understanding, but serves to keep the majority of people doing the wise thing, so to speak, in spite of not being inherently capable of developing wisdom on their own. A more truly sapient individual is more likely to discover these moral truths from experience in life and not need a rule-based system to guide her.

Of course this means the environment in which these individuals grow up must express inherent wisdom in the form of learnable rules. Ironically, as our world has become more secular (faith-based in name mostly) the emphasis on such rules -- like do onto others, etc. -- has grown weak. As in my latest post I even see rules of the opposite kind becoming the norm (do to others before they do to you!)

Children learn what they see operating in reality, not what words we tell them. Kids are perceptive to hypocrisy. One of my favorite examples is the way kids learn to game the education system by simply learning what teachers are after and then giving them that. Usually it means just remembering the important points long enough to regurgitate on a test. Thus kids will learn the wisdom of our culture not what we claim the wisdom should be. They learn pretty quickly what is really important for their survival and well-being. And if the society is practicing unwise things, the kids will adopt them pretty quickly.

I don't actually have much hope that our social milieu will somehow turn into one of wisdom in order to provide the environment for kids to grow up in and learn by example. I guess I am a pessimist in that vein.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I am so intent on creating a degree program in Systems Science is that I actually do believe systems thinking is a natural and powerful framework for learning wisdom. Discovering the systemness of the world and then using that to tackle other, seemingly different, domains of knowledge provides a substantial guidance to people as they work to understand the world. Getting that all dynamics are systemic is a pretty good starting point. So from the standpoint of providing an education in systems science as a basis for nurturing wisdom I have hope that some wisdom will emerge as a result. For example, systems science provides the most holistic framework for understanding sustainability issues. Most would probably agree that understanding sustainability is part of wisdom!

Your attributes of wise persons are recognized in the literature on wisdom psychology research. The key question is where do these attributes come from? Are they acquired personality traits or are they predisposed by genetic factors. This is a long-standing question about personality and thinking styles in general. But the weight of evidence seems to favor a genetic influence predominating. Thus we are led back to sapience. If the brain isn't wired for these deeper attributes, can it ever be? That is not known with any clear sense such that we could create the appropriate environment to teach it. Some parts of the brain, particularly the limbic system (more ancient cortical structures in particular) are not as malleable as the neocortex. So it remains to be determined if any form of education can boost or even instill these attributes.

And then the big question is, do we have time to find out?


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