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« The Hardest Moral Dilemma of All | Main | A Dream of Education for the Future »

March 06, 2010


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George, I shouldn't worry about it. If all our thoughts, ideas and emotions are just neurons firing in specific patterns, as is our perception of the world, then our existence means precisely nothing in the greater scheme of things. If so, then our thoughts are no more significant than the patterns within slowly shifting mud crystals.

Unless you have some sort of religious belief in our significance in the universe? I know that you don't believe there is anything 'special' about consciousness and that you believe it could be 'modelled' in a computer. (I'm not so sure, myself!)

But like I said in another comment, we should worry hugely about the people who already exist, but if everyone in the world became sterile tomorrow, it would not be a cause for sadness, in my opinion.


George, We seem to be thinking along roughly parallel lines, that we are being outdone by our "cleverness" as it were. I've become more interested recently in how our cultural ideas of reality are social constructs creating "artificial realities". That makes both sapience and intelligence subject to being fooled by clever ways to stick with old ideas and loose track of change taking place around.

Even, or especially, in the environmental sciences schools of thought can become bubbles of misinformation, as world views being created by mutual agreement in prior environments find they were built with no regular way of noticing fundamental change in new environments.

The big change our professional and institutional cultures are not responding to yet, of course, is the point of diminishing returns being variously discussed. As I see it that occurred half a century ago at the point when the rate of new oil reserve discoveries peaked, in the late 50's. That coincides with numerous other early signals of the whole system shifting from being guided by how much more opportunity it was ready to take to how much more there was left to take.

For clarity, that's my way of defining the end of positive returns for depending on a perpetual growth system. So that's also where I date the "end of growth", more than ten years before the publication of that "futurist tract" The Limits of Growth. ;-)

I have a series of recent short items on the perceptual problems on my blog you might like. I also have ten very short analytical essays on it called "What wandering minds need to know". I'd be interested in your thoughts on anything you see.

phil henshaw

George Girod

I am concerned that a bottleneck event is being seen as both likely (I, unfortunately, have to agree) and beneficial (I do not agree) as a solution to a problem that, IMHO was brought on by Edward Bernays ( and his ilk. No matter what problem, whether global warming, peak everything (not just oil), or economic collapse, some philosophical offspring of Bernays is behind the irrational behavior. Creating the equivalent of the Berlin Wall between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain, he disassociated rationality and long term consequences from most of human social life. It did sell cigarettes and cars, by the way, and lots of other swell stuff too.

It is one thing to look at the sorry intellectual state of the majority of humanity, especially in the US. It is quite another to attribute the results of hacked software to defective hardware. What is to say, after the bottleneck event, that the same nasty social engineering will not be repeated by, I might point out, the powerful survivors who, I firmly believe, will be capable of preserving themselves and joining the chosen few others who survive. Don't be fooled. Wall Street trumps Darwin every time.

My second comment is to beware of the seductive nature of eugenics when defining solutions to problems. A bottleneck probably does not execute the desired eugenics manifesto but selects instead on those features immediately active. Unintended consequences might well rule the day. Some really hard problems don't have elegant answers. This one, methinks, is one of them.

Joe McCarthy

Given "the extrasomatic, mechanical amplifying beast of a culture that we have created" and the crowding out of sapience by cleverness, I agree that individual sapience may not be sufficient for solving the complex problems of modern society.

If sapience is in short supply among individuals, what may be needed is more compelling - perhaps clever - communication of wise courses of action ... what some may refer to as "the vision thing".

Roberto Verganti wrote an interesting piece on "Having Ideas Versus Having a Vision" last week in the Harvard Business Review, in which he noted an abundance of creative ideas, but a relative scarcity in vision:

"What is in short supply, I'm afraid, are visionary thinkers who will be capable of making sense of this abundance of stimuli — visionaries who will build the arenas to unleash the power of ideas and transform them into actions."

You've shared a wealth of information about the neurological, psychological and evolutionary bases and implications of sapience, intelligence and creativity. You've touched on a few sociological dimensions, and I wonder if you might have more to say about how sapient individuals might influence their less sapient cohorts.

George Mobus


"If...then our existence means precisely nothing in the greater scheme of things."

I don't get this. It seems nonsequiter to me. To draw such a conclusion implies that absolutely nothing means anything, which can't possibly be right.

My own 'belief' is that everything is meaningful to every other thing! All entities (and non-conscious things as well) provide meaning to each other by virtue of our dynamic interactions. That is what evolution is all about. I have stated that I think evolution is progressive in the teleonomic sense. Our brains are so clearly more complex and adaptive information processors than anything that came before on this planet. It may not be purposeful, but it is clearly meaningful in my view.

Why the nihilistic view? Nietzsche warned us against this sink. Striving for perfection isn't wrong. It is a goal. Maybe not really achievable in any absolute sense, but surely worthy of effort.

I do think the bottleneck is upon us. If only the highly sapient beings on the planet were fertile it would certainly make matters simpler. But I suspect that should the forces of selection work as I think they might (not, incidentally unlike what happened each previous time there was major climate shifts) then higher sapience will have selective advantage and in the long run, Homo will achieve a yet more capable fitness level. We will no longer be obsessed with infinite growth, but will be content with the steady-state that at lower energy throughput is nevertheless sustainable.

You don't need to be religious (as it is generally practiced today) to still have a spark of spirituality. You don't need to believe in non-physical realities to appreciate the awe at what we have now.


George Mobus

Hi Phil (shouldaknown),

[To other readers, Phil (synapse9) maintains a blog worth reading!]

You said..."That makes both sapience and intelligence subject to being fooled by clever ways to stick with old ideas..."

The point about sapience and its difference from intelligence is that it cannot be 'fooled'. Rather, if it is weak, its capacity to reduce or eliminate biases that affect intelligence is simply not active. The mind can be fooled if there is insufficiently strong sapience to override the underlying biases. Specifically, it is our limbic proclivities that do the fooling. We believe what we want to believe when sapience is weak. We question our own beliefs when sapience is strong. Intelligence, influenced by affect (a la Damasio) forms those biases unless sapience is there to override the tendency.


George Mobus

Mr. Girod,

If you read my response to Phil's comment you might anticipate what I would say about your claim that the problem is "hacked software" vs. "defective hardware".

First, I do not claim that the weakness of sapience in modern Homo sapiens is due to defective hardware. On the contrary, I characterize it as simply a stage of evolutionary development that lagged behind the development of cleverness. The hardware, in this case, simply never got sufficiently developed before it was overtaken by other parts of the brain.

Your attribution of the problem to advertising won't hold up. If a brain is sufficiently sapient, and there are many that are more so than the average person, then they are less susceptible to the effects of advertising. Advertising doesn't make one less sapient, but it can make one less clever!

There are many examples of people who have turned off their TVs because they hate advertising (as well as the inane programming that passes as entertainment).

We just need to face the reality that the majority of our species are simply susceptible to mind control because they do not have the brain power, the right hardware, to be otherwise. There is no one to blame. We are what we are. But it is OK to understand the causal aspects of how advertising can make those less sapient souls do things that are not in their best interest. At least we can understand why.

On your second comment: I am generally loath to even respond to comments about eugenics, seeing as how that isn't what I propose or advocate per se. Especially this is the case given the common persons' association of the term with Nazis and other atrocity-perpetrators as if eugenics actually implied such things.

Are people who have this aversion actually not similarly susceptible to the 'advertising' of social commentators who proclaim that eugenics is wrong and immoral by virtue of the 'fact' that it necessarily atrocities?

Note that I do not speak of eugenics or anything even remotely resembling it, especially as supposedly practiced in former times.

Take a look at: and get back to us.

George Mobus


Thanks for the comment.

In Verganti's piece is this gem:
"To generate fresh ideas we have been told to think outside of the box and then jump back in; vision building destroys the box and builds a new one. It does not play with the existing paradigms; it changes them."

In this kind of thinking lies the answer to your last question.

PS. This includes recognizing when the economic model based on growth and material prosperity is past its usefulness!

George Mobus

I received this e-mail from George Girod (my reply will follow shortly):

I attempted to post this to the blog but it was rejected. I hope you enjoy reading it.

First of all,
"Take a look at: and get back to us." - My reaction in my previous post was based on concepts such as "feeble minded" which filled the literature of education in the early 20th century United States. I apologize for trending toward Godwin's law ... it was certainly not my intent.

"On the contrary, I characterize it as simply a stage of evolutionary development that lagged behind the development of cleverness. The hardware, in this case, simply never got sufficiently developed before it was overtaken by other parts of the brain."

I would question that statement in that it is not clear how one would measure hardware capacity for sapience in an individual. Many "higher functions" such as language, space perception, mathematics, etc. develop only in the presence of appropriately timed environmental stimulation and frequently also require some behavioral performance that closes the loop. In the case of sapience, the endpoints are insights, etc, and not necessarily readily apparent to the observer. Clearly a physiological substrate has to exist but at least as important is the opportunity to develop it. Sans opportunity to develop, the hardware is useless. Witness the staged changes in neurological plasticity during development from fetus to adult. I also suspect that without the opportunity to develop sapience, natural selection will not get a chance to operate on that which is not exhibited. Our current social structure favors conformance over uniqueness, absolutes over nuances, emotion over reason, and more other examples than I care to list. Behaviors exhibiting incipient sapience are very likely to garner no reinforcement if the child is lucky and punishment if she is not. Independent thought weighing the knowledge one possesses and looking at the long term are not things that society encourages in children. By puberty, when much of cognitive development is complete, the hardware may already be committed. If we want humanity to exhibit increased sapience then the environment will need to support and nurture it in children, adolescents, and adults. By the way, IMHO it is not nature vs nurture, it is nature AND nurture.

"There are many examples of people who have turned off their TVs because they hate advertising (as well as the inane programming that passes as entertainment)." -- I guess it is around 1% or so of the population that has no television. That subset includes me. Due to lack of exposure to the media, when I am incidentally exposed, audience manipulation seems novel and very apparent. The effects of carefully engineered stimulus characteristics in media become readily observable when they appear as an exception to one's common experience. The apparent intent seems clear to me but is missed by the vast majority of the watchers who are immersed in it.

"Sapience has one more, very important function. It is operative in making decisions about what we should pay attention to in our life experiences. We make judgments about what we should learn, what is important in life." - First of all, I agree, but with caveats. Mostly what is attended to in life is that which is rewarded. Society, for the most part, calls the shots. If you expect sapient individuals to attend to different stimuli than their cohorts then you have to expect them to act contrary to common social controls. Mostly that situation disadvantages the individuals and that is part of the social control.

"What has not kept pace in terms of our sapience evolution, our ability to make good judgments, is the capacity to think (subconsciously) long-term. We are short-term imaginers. We are so good at short-term problem solving that we have gotten trapped, evolutionarily speaking, in that mode of planning. We can easily ask the question: Can we do this? But we rarely ask the more important question: Should we do this? The latter has implications our brains are not evolved to deal with." -- I will propose a different mechanism. Social control requires short loop times to acquire and maintain the desired behavior in the population. Social control is impaired when somebody asks whether the expectation or response is wise. With the exception of personal development, those who forego short term reinforcement for longer term objectives are frequently deprived of significant social support and power. Attempting to do something that takes several years is very unlikely to get funding, while turning results in a quarter is guaranteed. Only as a labor of love (one good example of a sapient act) can one accomplish something like that. Large projects inspired by sapience are rare. Individuals, small teams, or, rarely, wealthy eccentrics seem the most likely producers.

Another aspect is that sapience may in fact be self-limiting because of social controls. In the presence of social context, a sapient individual might reach the conclusion that long term something is terribly wrong. Looking around, nobody else in his cohort may have reached that conclusion. A great example is home equity loans that were acquired by a large share of my colleagues in spite of the fact that they were obviously ill advised in the extreme. Opinions confirming mine were non-existent or at least very rare. Sapience could advantage the individual in this case but only if he acted contrary to the almost universal "common wisdom". The sapient individual also risks becoming a Cassandra should he communicate his insights. In retrospect I wonder how many individuals saw the trouble coming but were unable to get the confirmation that would have enabled them to act or speak out.

Social disincentives may be responsible for the low percentage of sapience you have observed.

I think a better expression of why I disagree with a bottleneck influencing sapience is two fold. First, as my second comment above indicates, natural selection will not act upon that which is not exhibited and even if it it is exhibited, the survival impact for sapience would seem less than for other traits. Instead, social position, power, wealth, aggressiveness, physical prowess, physical attractiveness, and cleverness would seem likely to prevail through a bottleneck. I am assuming that in a bottleneck, a relatively small subset of people is struggling to survive. Garnering resources to survive will be everyone's highest priority. My suspicion is that if there is some heritable aspect of sapience then it could be wiped out in a realistic bottleneck. In fact, in light of the second comment, rulers might well deal with people who exhibit sapience with extreme prejudice.

Finally, I will approach the topic from yet a different perspective. I enjoy writing fiction and sooner or later will achieve publication. In any case the activity seems to help me grow intellectually so I persevere. Anyway, one day I got inspiration for a sci-fi story in which a group of people came together, all of whom shared awareness and perspective on the coming challenges of energy, climate, population, economics, and food. The idea was that their wisdom (sapience, in your model) advantaged them in evolution and their progeny would go on to repopulate the world. It was a great idea but as I tried to elaborate it (the devil is always in the details) the story refused to fall together. As I struggled to put the story together it became more obvious to me that sapience is a major advantage to societies that employ it to prevent or get an early handle on problems but when a society fails to prevent them, sapience lends less advantage to those left to cope with the aftermath.

I guess my position is that sapience is much better supported in the hardware than we will ever see in people's behavior unless something changes the social situation in which we live.

I hope this perspective has been interesting.

George Mobus


First my apologies for the delay in getting back to you. My laptop died and I am on jury duty. Without the laptop I've been effectively dead in the water. Here I am today on my one day off, in the office, trying to catch up. Anyway, that is my excuse and I'm sticking with it.


I agree with your statements about developmental influences shifting the hardware, so to speak, either toward improved or damaged sapience. This the same effect in general intelligence and probably in creativity as well. But you said:
"I would question that statement in that it is not clear how one would measure hardware capacity for sapience in an individual."

There is a growing field of genetics and epigenetics (Evo-Devo) in which scientists are teasing out the various aspects of genetic expression vis a vis environmental influence during critical development. This is especially exciting in the area of brain development. While no one is yet claiming to know which genes are definitively turned on during early prefrontal cortex development, they are starting to home in on them. What is clear is that there are definite genetic controls that determine the size and extent of prefrontal patches as well as underlying the interconnections between the frontopolar patch (Broadmann area 10) and, say, the anterior cingulate cortex that mediates interpretation of limbic output (emotions).

At some point I think they will have identified some key genetic components (not just protein coding alleles but also control segments) that are activated during critical development stages in BA10, among others. This might very well be the basis for assessing the importance of patch size, density, cytoarhitecture, and interconnectivity with other areas of the brain. All of these must have played a role in the evolution of our species as the endocasts of skulls of archaic Homo sapiens and erectus show that this area of the prefrontal cortex expanded extensively in modern sapiens. It was, in fact, after this major expansion that we see culture actually starting to take off in complexity.

"My suspicion is that if there is some heritable aspect of sapience then it could be wiped out in a realistic bottleneck. In fact, in light of the second comment, rulers might well deal with people who exhibit sapience with extreme prejudice."

This is, of course, exactly what we need to be wise enough to prevent! Is it preventable? I suspect so. Otherwise I wouldn't waste my time dreaming about the outcome.

"...sapience is a major advantage to societies that employ it to prevent or get an early handle on problems but when a society fails to prevent them, sapience lends less advantage to those left to cope with the aftermath."

Ergo we get an early handle on things!

"...unless something changes the social situation in which we live. "

That will almost certainly happen. When it does it will either be selection for stronger sapience or for more brutishness. A lot may depend on the choices we make today.




I guess I missed your Mar 9 reply due to not subscribing to the thread (and switching computers I think four times since then!)

You speak of "sapience", as what helps us question our own beliefs if its strong enough. That treats it as a scalar force, that can be stronger or weaker. I'd be more inclined to refer to more concretely observable aids to self-critical thinking, such as "diversity" and "curiosity" and the complex learning processes they allow.

These days I'm trying to explore the distinct curiosity "turn off point" crossed by the vast majority of people when needing to find new terms of discussion for unfamiliar scales of organization in the world. I'm recognizing that as a very pronounced response, even when the clear evidence points quite clearly to unfamiliar scales of organization dominating familiar ones.

Any comment on that?

I have two cases in point, here clipped from my recent comment to the UK Finance Lab ( discussion on changing the financial system:

Two cases in point of some immediate relevance come to mind. One is that solving the money creation problem doesn't solve the macro problems with money caused by other things. However you define money you'd still have the problem that how people customarily use money, those with more money than they need will still habitually invest money to multiply their money. As Keynes first pointed out that will continue to cause that "unearned" income to multiply until the economy produces zero net returns. I call that the intrinsic problem of money, that the natural limit of financial growth is when the average business has no profit. If you wonder how that would happen, just consider a business environment of ever increasing competition over ever shrinking resources, as we are not going into.

The other example of that same error in systems thinking, fixing things on one scale to let things get worse on another, is the whole world's dependence on efficiency for reducing our resource uses. Improving efficiency is what businesses use to redesign their products and methods so each part of the business becomes more productive, with the main object being to help it multiply its resource use. That's a process of saving on one thing to be able to use more of *other* things. People think efficiency only has only a linear cost reduction effect, as often described with the equation I=P*A*T. Including the non-linear stimulus effect of what we actually use efficiencies for, that equation becomes I=P*A*T*S. I have a new long paper on this, called "Stimulus as constraint". fyi and a shorter web page of notes from a talk I gave on it.



Just a quick comment on the cultural component of "sapience". In both history and personal experience we see lots of examples a active "flowering" of new ways of thinking. That gives considerable support to it being partly a developmental process. Such flowerings also often seem to identify and explore some real pre-existing natural level of explorable relationships. So there's an appearance that some of the great flowerings of reason are real processes of learning about a environments of real relationships. I find my little model of that process (¸¸¸.• ¯ ¯ •.¸¸¸) quite useful for helping find where that's happening and not. Do you "buy" this "physical world" thing as what the internal meanings of language are often intended to refer to?

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