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« What is value? | Main | Energy and the economy »

November 04, 2009


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I've been following Catton for some time but only just discovered you. John Michael Greer, one of Catton's other 'sons' is very interesting too.

What you call 'sapience' is certainly achievable by individual human beings IMO, but there is an inertia in the current trajectory of civilization as a whole.

Personally I think biophysical economics represents one of the best prospective ideas for embedding sapience in any future culture. Sustainability has occurred in some previous cultures but never before has it been seen as a flow of economic energies and theoretically modeled. If an index that could prevent what you call 'getting greedy' in your latest post were to exist, would we follow it?

At least I like the idea that the theory of actual in-practice economic flows could be put in place to some extent, even if the practice can't be. We have some centuries of decline ahead, IMO, to tweak the results and tell everyone we told them so.

Personally I also believe that philosophical and 'spiritual' traditions the world over have been attempting to 'up the sapience level' for a while. Not that any of them is the last word, but some have much of interest.

The other factor at work for me is the level of government involvement in financial sectors, which is huge. Thinkers like Spengler or Toynbee, basing observations on history, would predict dictatorships emerging at a time like this, precisely because the democratic system works by promising wealth to voters, a wealth which it increasingly cannot deliver.


Interesting thoughts. Catton is the leading edge of scientific, apocalyptic thought for sure.

I don't think you have to worry about the future human race acquiring sufficient wisdom to competently manage their complex affairs. The capacity for wisdom of any homo sapiens that remain, after the reordering that will certainly take place in the wake of all hydrocarbon consumption, will once again be perfectly evolved for their permanent, new, low energy, non-technical world.


So how best to live a fulfilling life in the present, even as we contemplate the rising and converging of so many runaway systems? Are we not like the Zen monk being chased over the cliff by tigers? I would welcome discussion about ways to create respectful,satisfying and aware lives here and now.

Dr. Susan Krumdieck

I am a Mechanical Engineer who knows better. I spent 20 years or so becoming an expert in the "next" great alternative energy technologies. (solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, biofuels...) I love to have politicians or government people tell me that technology will respond when I know that it can't in any way relevant to what they are thinking.

My response to your thoughts on Catton are weirdly sexist. What has gone wrong during the industrial age? We let men run the place. We need men and their "get it, build it now, beat up people who threaten us" approach to the world. We always have. But sustainable societies have always had a balance in their decision-making, a simultaneous female side of the economy. OK, I'm a woman and a scientist and an engineer and an intellectual, and I know that I think about these things totally differently than my male colleagues. I think that our species has already worked out the wisdom problem that Catton talks about, and she's been ignored for 200 years in favor of the male approach.

If Catton is right and we have to wait for MEN to evolve, then yes, we're going to have to kill off most of the species and start over.

George Mobus


My own view of the role of spiritual and "religious" attempts in the realm of sapience -- the moral compass side -- is that these are the thoughts of women and men who have been trying to explain what is already programmed into our behavior, our natural ingrained sentiments toward altruism, empathy, cooperation, and second-order consciousness (thinking about our own capacity to think!) What religions and spiritual traditions have been doing is trying to grapple with these innate behaviors and explain why we seem to have them (except for 2nd-order consciousness, mistakenly believing that other animals don't, by the way). They have tried to codify what comes naturally to our species as part of in-group solidification (another part of moral sentiments). The details vary from culture to culture, but the universality of moral sentiments is now well established in science.

Today, most people have it backwards, thinking that without some kind of religious code, based on punishment for infractions, people would not be moral creatures. This, as much as anything, is evidence that humans have not quite reached the level of sapience needed to comprehend the world and ourselves.


I don't exactly "worry" about future humanity's sapience. Evolution is simply unpredictable. Rather I hope.

What I do think is feasible, however, is taking some actions now, based on a scientific understanding of the genetic basis of prefrontal lobe development and behavioral correlates with sapience, to assist the survival of a highly sapient subpopulation as breeding stock for that future world. An ark, if you will.


Please feel free to post comments along these lines. I am always interested in what the community has to say about such subjects.


It isn't that men are unevolved per se. All humankind is in an intermediate state between the advent of second-order consciousness and nascent sapience and what might be the case if selection conditions were to favor increases in the capacity of the prefrontal cortex, specifically the dorso-lateral prefrontal lobes. Evidence suggests this is what was happening with human evolution, but somewhere along the line, most likely with the advent of agriculture, the selection criteria shifted toward the traits you ascribe to men. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There is some hope in thinking that humans could resume their evolutionary arc toward greater sapience if the selection conditions return to emphasis on group cooperation and expansion of selflessness (altruism). But there is no way to second guess nature when it comes to evolution!



Any good references for the universality of human moral sentiment? (Not that I disagree, I just didn't know there was a scientific case which held any water.)

Personally I think there's a little more to spirituality and mysticism than that, too, but it's too big a subject for a comments page I guess. It relates to what Trillium was talking about.

George Mobus


Here is a partial bibliography. A longer listing can be found on my academic web site:

De Waal, Frans, (2009).The Age of Empathy, Harmony Books, New York.

De Waal, Frans, (2005). Our Inner Ape, Riverhead Books, New York.

Donald, Merlin, (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Donald, Merlin, (1991). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Gazzaniga, Michael S., (2005). Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, HarperCollins, New York.

Gazzaniga, Michael S., (2005). The Ethical Brain, Dana Press, New York.

Hauser, Marc D. (2006). Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, HarperCollins, New York.

Mithen, Steven, (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, Thames and Hudson, London.

Morrison, Reg, (1999). The Spirit in the Genes: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Sober, Elliott & Wilson, David Sloan (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Sternberg, Robert J., (1997). Thinking Styles, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (2002). Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Sternberg, Robert J. (2003). Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wright, Robert, (1994). The Moral Animal, Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Vintage Books, New York.

And that is just the short list!

By "...a scientific case that holds any water...", I trust you mean a growing body of evidence in support of a hypothesis and not 'proof'.

Morrison's book offers some insights into the evolution of spirituality in human psychology.

Also, the 6, Nov. issue of Science carries a very interesting article on the Origin of Religion, as part of its year-long series of articles in honor of Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species. If you have other insights you would care to share, feel free to e-mail them to me.


No I don't care about proof! My own background is far from scientific in respect of 'spiritual' concerns.

Many thanks for the list; I'll investigate. I will hold off giving you my 'insights' until I read a bit more background. Are you familiar with John Michael Greer BTW?

Molly Radke

Just received Catton's earlier book, Overshoot, and am about a quarter thru it. VERY insightful especially considering the publication date - 1980 - I think. Thanks for turning me on to this remarkable fellow. His stuff isn't "cheery," but it certainly is logical and well-research. Thanks, Molly

George Mobus


Welcome and you're welcome!

I have been going back through some of the early literature on the subject of limits to growth and the consequences of not paying attention to it before we reached those limits. It is amazing how many very thoughtful people published on this back in the 60s 70s and 80s.

A good review of much of this literature is contained in Odum & Odum, "A Prosperous Way Down", chapt. 2 especially.


George Mobus


I am familiar with JMG and the Archdruid Report. Very thoughtful writer.


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Many christians equate the soul with emotional aspects of humanity, if that is the case, how come emotions....?
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"Unfortunately, I happen to agree with him."

Unfortunate is, perhaps, not the best preface to the statement, Perhaps fortunately as clearly you are an engaged academician that understands the "nature of things" and your professions foundation of transferring such nature to others.

George Mobus


I meant "unfortunate" in the sense of for the implications for humanity. But I get your point.



Thank you for sharing this.
I think a faint smile can be witnessed on the casing of nuclear warheads these days.

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