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« What is Going On? | Main | The Goal Episode I: The Basic Requirements »

August 21, 2011


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George Mobus

This is a comment from Stewart Shuker who is from Brisbane, AU.
Great discussion.

I am new here and I can instantly see many of the same lines of thought and influence as have shaped my own growth.

I did my PDC with Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawnton in 2009. As a result I joined where I work whilst building strength to do what Bill Mollison calls, 'crossing the line'.

It is wonderful to see the influence of Illich, Martenson, Hugh-Smith, Heinberg, and so many others that I have come to embrace in my own life.

Above all it is refreshing to see a conversation about our situation and future in terms of what I see as the base challenge, that being humanities coming to terms with it's own nature, or more precisely humanities reconciliation of the human condition. It is refreshing to see the problem [the human condition] being discussed more directly and not being enmeshed with the symptoms [greed, inequity, religion].

May I be as bold in my first post to suggest that just as Newton's picture of a non-realtivistic word 'worked' within limits acceptable at the time, so has Darwin's... however I suggest we are now past the acceptable limits of Darwin's theories. We need a fuller picture of what it means to be human, a fuller picture of how we got here, a higher resolution picture of the meaning of life.

Has anyone here read any Jeremy Griffith? I suggest that his profound work may well round out the picture you are painting and take this discussion from the ballistic to the relativistic; give this discussion more traction as we plan a transition from a position of being more in tune or aligned with our nature.

Here is one small example [I hope I do him justice in framing his work this way] of the higher resolution image which Griffith projects of the human condition.
Q. Is it human nature to be nurturing, supportive and loving?
Q. If you answered yes, why do we see humans being divisive, brutal and duplicitous?
Q. Is it also in our nature to be hurtful, hateful and vengeful?

These questions are important, and not answering them, especially as a teenager [and I see humanity acting as a teenager] is taking quite a risk and has taken quite a toll on all of us.

Many answers to these questions mix the problems with the symptoms. Griffith suggests that it is not in our nature to be divisive and hateful and brutal, that these behaviours are symptoms of the real problem, that being our collective and individual inability to integrate our nature and the understanding of our own mortality into our daily view of ourselves and how we fit into our relationships, communities and the natural environment.

This topic is obviously too big for a single post, and if I have tickled your interest I suggest you quickly visit the following site.

Please look past the basic nature of the site and the name itself. Once you have read and watched a little of Griffiths material you may come to understand his choice of words.

If Plato and Aristotle were alive and read Griffith, they would die happy men.

Great site George; great discussion, great insight and great tone; mature and grounded. Thanks for posting it on the net free of charge.


I will be working on responses to comments later today.


George Mobus


Couldn't agree more. A number of permaculture-based groups have contacted me with questions about where they should go and I defer to the climate models. But since we really have no idea as to where the "most ideal" place will be, better to let evolution be the guide and there be many in various locations. Then someone is more likely to make it!


Thanks for links and quotes. Some very interesting if not useful insights there.

Hi Phil.

...a whole culture of normal people that unquestionably fail any test of sapience, who mostly think of themselves and often of each other as rather "sapient".

That culture is us, of course...

I have to take issue with this (hopefully I've captured sufficient context). No population is going to all have the same level of sapience (and no one has zero sapience anyway). There is a distribution in sapience strength. I can't demonstrate that that distribution is highly skewed (more like a Poisson than a Gaussian) but evolution theory suggests that it should be if it is relatively newly emergent. In any case there will be representatives from various levels of sapience in the population. And if the trait is mediated by a few control network segments of DNA rather than a particular mutant gene, then we should expect a range.

Now, if I am right about the distribution shape then your observation of 98%... may hold some water.

I've been trying to get you and others to discuss these curiously insurmountable "dysfunctional fixations", with no success so far. Why do you think that is?

Which leads to your concern for why we aren't discussing the "dysfunctional fixations". I can only speak for myself, and I do believe I have mentioned this before. I am not writing what I write for a wide audience. So the 98% you posit wouldn't understand such a conversation even if a few of us had it. Those who do understand don't need to have the conversation because we realize that no one is listening!

As per my above, there is sapience in many brains (a low level in most brains). So it isn't the case that it is missing from our culture, it just isn't sufficient in our brains and the culture that obtains therefrom. Sapience isn't wisdom. The latter requires a lot of tacit knowledge gained over a lifetime. Unfortunately there are not enough highly sapient beings in the population to flood the market with wisdom. That is what is missing from culture, but even when those who try to put out some wisdom for the masses to consume they simply do not understand what they are seeing/hearing. Ergo, the discussion is essentially futile if the intent is to save mankind. Mankind doesn't know it needs to be saved, and even if it did it would want its salvation to be what it wants - more consumption of junk.

I think it is better for those who are more sapient to spend their time and efforts preparing for what is inevitable and stop worrying about changing the world. That seems to me a Quixotic adventure - noble but not practical.


Thanks for the link and commentary. I will get to it as soon as I can.


Phil Henshaw

George, It's interesting that though I tried to be especially explicit I did not succeed in drawing your attention to the clear implication of my example that "sapience" is not a characteristic of individual humans.

It seems the evidence makes it inescapable that sapience is a combined trait, a property of an individual's role in their culture. Within a culture like ours, having a social structure that commit everyone to helping maintain prosperity by accelerating depletion of our dwindling resources, achieving "sapience" seems to not be a 1:100 chance but more like 1:1,000,000 or lower chance.

The evidence is we are a culture caught in the classic trap of "crafty" problem solvers, that they "can't see the new problems". That seems to be the generally observed behavior of all human complex societies, with growth powered by their being expert problem solvers they "run into problems they can't solve", as Toynbee and others have seen it.

George Mobus


The basic problem seems to be that you are trying to redefine sapience to fit your perspective and not in accordance with the work I have done. My version of sapience is the brain's capacity to acquire and use tacit knowledge for complex moral judgments. I've been very careful to lay this all out in my working papers:

I am missing your points because I do not grasp your redefinition of the term compared with what I have been writing about all this time. If I had to guess I think you are confusing the term sapience with its behavioral correlate wisdom. If so, then I can see you are right to claim that wisdom is an attribute of not just an individual but of a culture and its individuals. No dispute there.

But if you want to talk about wisdom (esp. collective wisdom) then please drop the references to sapience. The latter is based on specific brain competencies that can lead to individual wisdom (which then can contribute to social wisdom) but it is not what you have been describing.

Can we get our terminology synchronized?



For those who have not read the work, a good summary of Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" is at the link below:

Perhaps there is something there to inform us about the evolution of human ape culture and its implication for us today.

George and Phil, please continue with the discussion, as I suspect that there is a mutual understanding to be gained, as well as most of the readers here finding the discourse instructive.

Phil Henshaw

George, I think I'm using "sapience" not as you define it, but as you use it. I see those as two different things. I think you use 'sapience' as “that property which allows a mind to recognize and consider what it is observing”, or as you put it "a brain's capacity to acquire and use tacit knowledge for complex moral judgments".

I'm saying that property is contingent upon the a brain's cultural context. All "knowledge", in fact, relies on the culture of knowledge it is based on and a variation of. So people who are part of a confined knowledge culture can’t see beyond it, just as the mental paradigm of "Flatland" would keep one from discussing mass and volume.

The working structure of the knowledge culture a mind is part of makes ALL its members non-sapient for the realities that don't fit. So one would need to talk about both individual and cultural sapience.

We can list quite a few of these cultural fixations that disable the sapience of their members. They’re commonly observed as relatively disconnected "silos" of cultural thinking (academic departments, economists and Tea Party agitators) that seem to multiply with societal complexity. There's also the strange disconnect between nature an western culture evident in believing in sustaining prosperity by using things up ever faster...

You find it at the very root of scientific reasoning as well. Deterministic science represents nature as a theory that fits the available information (after Popper and Bohr, etc). Naturalists, however, define nature with their open questions, using words to refer to the identifiable but unexplained features of the uncontrolled physical world.

Deterministic science, of course is doing the opposite, defining nature as the explained features of the seemingly controlled world. So enormous gaps in understanding what to do develop, as we radically change the earth.

One can spend a lifetime to no avail, as I largely have, trying to point out to people that each perspective of these kinds is “a different flatland" for the same real world subject. Our silos of thinking are just different dimensions of knowledge that "sapient ones" (if our culture allowed them) would seek to connect. It's virtually impossible to get people to even acknowledge the materiality of the dilemma. It kind of means that why policy discussions get nowhere is that everyone is talking at once in a starkly different language.

George Mobus

Hi Bruce.

I read the piece on Ishmael. Very interesting. Some day when I am not so loaded down (when I retire ;^)

I agree that we should not call the problem with human mentation a "flaw". The problem looks to me to be the same as every other species that found itself in an environment in which it was no longer fit. For man, the irony has been that it is the environment that we have created ourselves.

I'm less enthusiastic about what appears to be a claim that humans are victims of the story, as if takers do what they do (enacting) purely as a result of believing the story. This sounds like all we have to do is change the story (and get everyone to buy it) as in changing the culture. I suspect the argument is based on a notion that leavers demonstrate that we are capable of believing a different story. But I wonder how much this might be based on a possibly naive view of "primitives".

In any case thank you for bringing the link to us.


...I think I'm using "sapience" not as you define it, but as you use it.

Hmm. That implies internal inconsistency which I will need to be alerted to! I would hope that my use of the term is consistent with my definition.

You go on to use a term, "knowledge culture", that I am unfamiliar with.

But in reading this comment it still seems to me you are conflating sapience (as I define and, I hope, use it) and wisdom. Wisdom is the aggregate knowledge operating through the mechanism of sapience. I agree that a culture can have a collected wisdom. We often refer to it as "the conventional wisdom". But this is really just the collection of heuristics that have seemed to be valid in the past and are used in lieu of any personal wisdom on matters at hand.

I don't find an argument for "cultural sapience", except possibly as I describe below. What social mechanism would this entail? Perhaps the legal system (see below). As humans evolved and existed in smaller tribes and bands, the wisdom of the elders was the wisdom of the tribe. There was no separate mechanism outside the brains of the those who possessed greater sapience, and therefore became the tribal elders. Also there is reason to suspect that higher sapience capacity was part of the group selection process that led some tribes to succeed where others didn't, i.e. having at least one or two higher sapient individuals in a tribe (of a certain age) was selected for prior to the advent of organized agriculture.

I do think that science IS a social mechanism that can operate outside the restrictions of individual intelligences to acquire veridical knowledge of how the world works. But this is explicit knowledge and science does not deliver wisdom, only this explicit form of knowledge. To have a cultural sapience would require some means of gaining and storing implicit knowledge plus having a way of using that knowledge through a form of cultural "intuition" or judgment. The closest thing that we have at a cultural level that approximates this is our legal systems (which is why we call judges by that title). So perhaps this might qualify as a kind of cultural sapience mechanism. The various forms of laws (e.g. constitutions, edicts, common, etc.) are explicit, but always subject to considerable interpretation (unless you are a member of the Tea Party, in which case you know exactly what the US Constitution says!) So, perhaps an argument that the interpretation of laws (through argumentation) qualifies as a kind of sapience mechanism. I will have to give this more thought.

I agree on your conclusion re: everyone talking a different language. And as I have never found a Rosetta Stone for humanity in its current condition, I really don't try to get anyone to understand anything. Besides, I might be wrong too!


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