Too Big to Scale

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Published on Peak Surfer on April 3, 2016


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"We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now."

While it is not likely that the heterodox economist E.F. "Fritz" Schumacher was the first to use the term “appropriate technology” — he preferred “intermediate technology” — he certainly had a big role in defining it. In Small is Beautiful he described it as the “middle way,” which dovetailed nicely with his elucidation of Buddhist economics, or what Mohandas Gandhi called "Economy of Permanence." 

According to Schumacher, a technology is appropriate to preserve, adopt and adapt if it is truly village scale, lying in that mid-range between individualistic technology (toothbrush, smartphone, coffee cup) and industrial-scale (pharmaceutical laboratory, steel mill, railroad).

Examples of village scale are the old bakery, perhaps a large stone or brick oven where families bring their doughs to become breads; the bicycle repair shop; or a family-run tofu shop (as in the 10,000 or more in any large Japanese city) because handcrafted tofu is much to be preferred in taste, texture and nutrition over machine-produced.


James Earl Jones as Locust-Man

As early as the 1960s Schumacher, as president of the UK Soil Association, was correctly diagnosing what was wrong with the atom as an energy source. In 1977 he published A Guide for the Perplexed as a critique of materialist scientism. It was also a foray into the nature and organization of knowledge. He championed the style of Ivan Illich's conviviality: user-friendly and ecologically suitable; applicable to the scale of the human and natural community.

Born in the late 1940s, we were witness to Moore’s Law from its birth. We watched electric typewriters replace manual portables, then IBM Selectrics arrive with their changeable font-balls and auto-erase tape. We were there when punch cards and tape readers began to type form letters like a player piano. From the days of our youth, hand calculators kept getting smarter than we were. 

In the late 70s we automated our Plenty Office and the Book Publishing Company with arrays of linked, part home-brew, part off-the-shelf, CPU-and-dumb-terminal minicomputers. Soon came inexpensive personal computers that put desktop publishing and spreadsheets into the hands of the masses and made small fortunes for Apple, Atari, Dell and Texas Instruments.

Office networks of linked hard-drives using first ethernet and then wireless LANs and WANs were middle scale appropriate technology as long as you could service the devices or maybe even build them yourselves within the village. All was well on this good earth. Desktop computers were like tractors or teams of oxen, shortening the time it took you to furrow your inbox or do your taxes.  

Then came The Cloud upon the land. Cut to the scene in The Good Earth where the Chinese farmers look to the sky as their faces darken — the locusts are here! That was about 10 years ago, or 5 generations in factor-four Silicon Time.

Boston-based research outfit Forrester calls cloud computing—that’s public cloud computing—a “hyper-growth” market. In a recent report, it predicts the market for cloud services will grow to $191 billion by 2020, a 20 percent leap from what it predicted just a few years ago. “The adoption of cloud among enterprises, which is really where the money is, has really picked up steam,” Forrester analyst John Rymer recently told us. “It’s a big shift. The cloud has arrived. It’s inevitable.”

– Cade Metz, Wired 12-22-15

Getting back into our annual workshop schedule here at The Farm, we find ourselves stuck without a middle way, with no “village scale” with regard to either email or accounting. We have always suffered the digital divide by electing to live in a rural area in a country without Net Neutrality, but we take clean air and birdsong more seriously than ones and zeros.

What passes for broadband in rural Tennessee would be laughable in Romania or Thailand. We live beyond the profitable reach of the cable companies, or even DSL from the quasi-federal phone monopoly. Getting a dumbphone mobile connection here can be challenging, never mind G3 or G4. We pay far too much for far too little connectivity, but then, welcome to the unpaved precincts. Have you seen the stars at night?

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

— Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (May, 1969)

We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now. Many, if not all, of the email and accounting packages that have the capabilities we need have discontinued stand-alone functionality and hard drive data storage on your personal device in favor of wireless subscription plans. An unbeckoned choice is being thrust upon us. Either we late-migrate to the Cloud and trust in her all-knowing beneficence (and suffer indignities whenever there is no connection) or we put up with rapidly-shrinking features and capabilities. 
For code-writers keeping legacy software working may be somewhat easier. But most code-writers are Cloud addicts, not old school.

We use Photoshop but seldom have need for the other Adobe apps packaged into their (formerly $3650) Master Suite. To us it was worth several hundred dollars plunked down every few years to have that one app. We’ve tried GIMP and other freeware but they are no substitute for Photoshop. Now a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud would cost us about $2,400 — assuming the price doesn’t go up. And that is just one subscription, from one cloud provider.

Microsoft rolled out Office 365 in 2011 but still plans to sell packaged software for a while, which makes sense given how much of the world has weak to nil internet connectivity. “Unlike Adobe, we think people’s shift from packaged software to subscription services will take time,” Microsoft told Wired.

The largest cloud storage provider, Amazon Web Services, reported $2.41 billion in revenue for the fourth quarter last year, or more than $9.6 billion in annualized sales—and that’s after the $10-billion-dollar company Dropbox ported off Amazon to build its own server farms in Q3.

Dropbox calls each of its storage machines a Diskotech. “The thing we care about the most is the disk,” its chief engineer told Wired. “That’s where all the bytes are.” 

Measuring only one-and-half-feet by three-and-half-feet by six inches, each Diskotech box holds as much as a petabyte of data, or a million gigabytes. Fifty of these machines could store everything human beings have ever written. Maybe even all the cute kitten videos on YouTube (“Maru gets into a box” – “大きな箱とねこ” – 8.1 million views).

At one point in 2015, when it was moving from Amazon to its own 40 acres and a mule, Dropbox was installing forty to fifty racks of hardware a day, each rack holding about eight individual machines. That installation rate continued for nearly six months. They surpassed Peak Kitten in the first month.

We have had the trauma of a terabyte data fail. It is not pretty. It means we now have to have 2 or 3 terabyte safety redundancies. If you go to DVD you can become dependent on legacy hardware (DVD readers and burners), calling up recollections of floppies, cassettes, optical readers, etc. we may still have in the attic but prefer not to think about. 

A flash drive is ephemeral – how many years will it hold its charge without any degradation or chance encounters with moisture, temperature change or magnetic fields?

We want to be able to access 20-year-old data using only the power of a Biolite Stove and no cloud. We can do that right now with an iPad and a portable HD. Can we do it still in 2017?

There may come a time when we just have to go our own way and de-cloud. At the moment we are struggling to remain amphibian, with a webbed foot in each world. Thanks for all the fish, but for now we intend to keep our paper-based bookkeeping and a sharpenable pencil.

Many years ago Amory Lovins’ Brittle Power described how lack of prudence and foresight had allowed city and regional planners to erect a monumental infrastructure of energy supply that keeps the lights on at night across North America but can be taken down by a tree branch falling on wires in a blizzard, or a pipe bomb in a pipeline.

The same kind of blind spot infects the planners of the Cyberverse. Mighty as they be, they are not Gods. To get to be in their club, you have to take the blue pill to believe the separate reality the Google-vets believe; the one with Space X missions to Mars and fusion-powered Teslas.

This represents an attitude that began with Google and has gradually spread across Silicon Valley. Google was so successful not just because it built a pretty good Internet search engine, but because it built the underlying technology needed to run that search engine—and so many other services—at an enormous scale. Facebook, which recruited countless ex-Googlers, did much the same. And so did Twitter and its ex-Googlers. And, now, so has Dropbox. To become a giant, you may have to stand on the shoulders of others. But once you become your own giant, you start to feel like you need to build a home that’s just right for you.

— Cade Metz, Wired 3-14-16

The problem, as we see it, is that the parallel reality field is eating away the brains of its wizards. Wormhole-brained, they keep edging farther out onto the limb of a system that is just one fallen-tree-branch or cyberattack away from ruin. Worse, they are forcing the rest of us to follow along and add our weight to that same weak limb.

What is Learning?

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Published on Question Everything on August 21, 2015

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High Anxiety over Education

education_race_to_nowhereJudging by the number of comments that education blogs seem to get, relative to other subjects, and the number of e-mails I receive after posting something on the topic, it seems that there is a high level of interest in the area. And, judging by some of the things people tell me in those e-mails, there is a fair amount of anxiety accompanying the topic as well. My blog post of Aug. 12, 2014, a little over a year ago, titled What is Teaching? just officially became my most read of all of my posts. It still gets about ten to fifteen hits a day, even after one year. Most of them come from search engine results, people searching for an answer. Indeed, a Google search on that title (exact phrase) has my blog as the number three item! [I shouldn’t brag but a search for “Question Everything” brings me up in the number one slot!]

In that post I had a lot of not-so-good things to say about the No Child Left Behind law and the explosion of high stakes standardized testing regime that has effectively gutted our public school system of any real learning of how to think. I lamented the fact that my classes are increasingly filled with students who have been so conditioned by this regime that they are distraught by the encounter with the teaching I offer which definitely does not include teaching to the test.

Subsequently I have received over a hundred e-mails from disgruntled current and former K-12 teachers who pretty much expressed the same basic sentiments. They were either ready to get out of the profession, or had already done so, or were just hanging on till they could retire. But all of them told me the same basic story. Teaching has become a worthless profession in the public schools and they are no longer inspired to work at this faux-education process that the schools have become. How utterly sad. And how completely damning it is for the United States of America's future. Just imagine what the citizens will be like in ten to twenty years from now. Its bad enough now with a citizenry that elects an idiot like George W. Bush into the highest office in the land, but also fills the Congress with more idiots that thought that law was a great idea.

One e-mail, however, stood out for an interesting insight and I have been thinking about it. From someone named Connie:

… but as much as I am pained by the current situation, I am still somewhat hopeful. There are still a few kids I've seen who seem to be able to call bullshit what it is and get on with their own learning. Whether they do well on the tests or not doesn't seem to matter to them. They are curious and follow their own interests in subjects. More than that, I still think all of these kids still have a basic instinct to learn and will do well once they are out of high school. I just hope the colleges can give them a better learning environment than they got from here.

I think Connie is right to believe that some kids will survive the system in spite of its crushing tendency to kill learning. And I suspect she is right that most kids will eventually figure it out and get on with learning what they need to thrive in whatever world they enter. The reason is very simple. Learning is what we humans do, naturally and without imposed incentives. You can't stop kids or adults from learning because the incentives to do so are built right into our psyches. Our evolution equipped us with the ability and desire to learn whatever we needed to know to thrive in whatever environment we found ourselves in. The big problem with our public education system is that we think it is teaching kids the job skills they need for our current economic system that is what we are supposed to be doing. But schools even fail to do that. Instead, what schools are teaching our kids is how to ignore bullshit and get on with what they care about.


Of course I still lament the fact that schools are not places for learning about how the world works in the large. Nor does it instil a love of learning and intellectual pursuits. But I suppose we must take heart in understanding that learning is still happening, it is just not the learning of subjects we have historically thought were important. The kids today are learning techno-social networking and communications skills on their own and constructing a new kind of culture and attitudes of disconnection from the mainstream culture of the older generation. They know how to text, for example, and there is a huge volume of text messages flying through the Internet as they hone their skills while sitting in class and ignoring the teacher. That is, they ignore her until she has something worthwhile to say, such as, “OK, this is going to be on the test…” at which point they listen and repeat what she says in a text to their friends who skipped class so they would know what was going to be on the test too.


Does the Education System Support Human Learning?

The fact is our education system was never really designed to support the learning of intellectual understanding in the first place. No matter what the rhetoric has been regarding learning critical thinking skills and a substantial body of knowledge about how the world works (e.g. taking biology, history, civics, etc.) the fact is that school has always really been about one basic thing, making good workers out of us. A good worker does what they are told to do and still deeply believe in the myths of individualism and the promise of upward social mobility. That has been the domain of the K-12 system from early in this country's history. Colleges, on the other hand, were reserved for the few who would become elites and needed at least a modicum of intellectual prowess to serve as administrators of the proles or professionals such as doctors and lawyers who specialized to the point of losing perspective of the larger political framework. Only a small handful of elites would get the kind of education that would truly prepare them for grasping the bigger picture of how to run a culture that was already committed to specific values, such as capitalism as the supreme economic system.

An even smaller group of super-elite intellectuals have received an education based on knowing just for the sake of understanding. They have been interested not in the knowledge needed to control a social order (that has fallen mostly to the lawyers who become politicians) but to a grander understanding of how the universe works. These are the scientists and mathematicians who pursue knowledge that may or may not have any practical application. They, by their nature, see such knowledge as intrinsically valuable and there is a long history of pure science producing knowledge that does, eventually, generate practical usage. This is an extremely small group. They are motivated by internal needs to understand and are conscious of the need to eschew ideologically based investigations as well as maintain an honest realization that knowledge itself is provisional, ambiguous, and uncertain. This is the crowd that do the esoteric intellectual work for society. Today we expect everyone to take algebra, one or two natural sciences, and a few social sciences in their schooling. These courses are taught as if the students are intending to become scientists. They are taught about the scientific method and reams of facts and figures from the disciplines as if they need these in order to be productive members of society. And, of course, they don't. Moreover, most students are actually aware of the fact that they will not need to know what a valence electron is and wonder why the ideas are being shoved down their throats — and wasting their time.

Humans evolved brains designed to learn a culture, to adopt the ways of their tribes, and to become functioning members of their societies. They had to learn the way their world worked, the knowledge of how to survive in a wild environment, because that was linked inextricably to how people made a living, and kept living. Our brains are designed by evolution for that purpose. So it is altogether natural that that is exactly what we do now, even in our technological culture. And the simple truth is that most people do not need to really know biology or calculus for the most part. We just need to know how to fill in forms and follow procedures. Only a small number of people actually ever use even algebra in their daily lives. They may use some aspects of algebraic thinking, like knowing how to double a recipe for cooking. But they do not need to use most of what is taught officially in schools to sell insurance or write commercial jingles. Those subjects are “taught” as a front to hide the real purpose of education; students need to be acculturated as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

Schooling through high school solves another major problem for society, namely the fact that since we decided children should not be factory laborers, and the majority of families are no longer involved in farming, we have to have something seemingly productive for our children to do while parents work at the office. Schools have become a way to corral the young, sequester them for a significant portion of the day, and keep them largely out of trouble. At least that was part of the motivation and the early belief. If kids were engaged in learning about the world in a controlled environment they would not be getting into trouble. And if the subjects were important, they would end up with a wealth of knowledge they would use in their work lives. As with so many of our social engineering ideas that look good on paper, this one has been a miserable failure as well.

There is a horrible mismatch between the way human beings learn and the way schools are designed and operate. There is a terrible myth about what children should be taught in order to become worthy members of society. The latter is largely the result of deep ignorance of the actual nature of the various subjects that are dictated to be taught by the very politicians and corporate overlords who determine what we are all supposed to believe about school curriculum. Most politicians know no more about physics or biology than they themselves were taught in high school. And in most cases they have forgotten how bored they were themselves, and how much of the subject they have actually forgotten. All they know is that they were taught those subjects when they went to school so assume they must be important and so, by god, every student needs to learn them. This, more than anything, provides stark evidence that no one is learning critical thinking in school. If they had (and this applies to all members of society since they buy the story and reinforce the politicians) they would be able to examine their own experience and realize that they did not really learn anything useful in those courses. They would then be willing to question why we force all of our children to take courses that will never help them live meaningful lives.

Instead they invent new myths such as if we don't “train” our students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) subjects, the country (the US) will lose its leadership role in technology and its global competitive advantage. Actually the US, while having been an economic engine supporting innovation in the past, has always depended on a very few brilliant people (the super elite intellects mentioned above), many of whom came from abroad, and received their formal educations elsewhere. In fact, if you look at the educational histories of many of our brilliant scientists and mathematicians you will discover the role of self-education in their lives. Today the innovation still comes from a remarkably few people. Even the claim that the workers of today need to be highly educated (meaning having BS degrees or better in some STEM subjects) is a myth. The Googles and Microsofts of the world need a few really creative and knowledgeable people to come up with the innovations. But the army of programmers and engineers that produce the resulting products are really not much more than technicians who know how to push the right menu selections on an array of “tools” and let the computer do the hard work. Programming languages like Java, for instance, have evolved to a point where the programmer need only know a menu of options and design patterns. In their day-to-day work they do not need to know computer science at all! The students are smart enough to realize this and literally rebel at our efforts to teach them computer science as an intellectual topic.

School curricula, including, increasingly, higher education, are based on a fundamental fallacy. Society believes that everyone needs to know STEM subjects (as well as US history and a few other subjects that are difficult to connect to everyday living) and students know that these subjects are largely irrelevant to their lives. The whole accountability philosophy applied to K-12 and looming large over higher education institutions as well, is the result of the mistaken beliefs we harbor about what is important for students to learn. And those beliefs are retained even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed as the damage caused by teaching to the test, an outcome of No Child Left Behind and high stakes standardized testing, takes hold on student learning outcomes, instead of diagnosing the problem correctly, society doubles down on more accountability based on metrics that people terribly ignorant of human learning invent. It is a positive feedback loop that is taking the American education system down.

How Humans Learn

The key to getting out of this conundrum is to grasp the way in which human beings learn. That way was evolved over millions of years of hominid evolution and deeply refined during the cognitive explosion that turned the Homo predecessor into Homo sapiens. All animal learning is based on constructing neural circuits that correspond to perceived systems in the world and how they work. These circuits are the conceptual models that the brain encodes and uses to anticipate the future. In the case of humans we can build incredibly complex conceptual models that also allow us to anticipate far futures. But all such concept construction is based on associations with a priori meaningful concepts or physiological mandates. Ultimately all learning is for the support of living in the world (the extant environment). This is natural learning. We do it without really trying, without hard mental effort, because it is important for our survival and the overall fitness of the species.

Human children are endowed with extraordinary curiosity. They want to know and understand everything because evolution programmed them to learn about their world. We are not born with a lot of knowledge pre-programmed by our genes. We need to build those mental models that allow us to succeed as adults in our complex social and physical world. Parents and caregivers are able to channel where children focus their attention mostly by providing role models and occasional explanations. Children in the Pleistocene, and up to today, learn extremely quickly when an adult produces something useful and then shows the child how it is done. The adult need not lecture the child. They merely have to provide some guidance when the child gets off course. All of the motivation for learning comes from within.

At first, when a child is young, this involves fundamental things that are characterized as “play.” Building towers with blocks is fun, but it is also preparing the child to build real structures with real materials for real purposes. As children age their attentions naturally turn to more practical knowledge. A young boy goes hunting with the men to learn how. A young girl follows her mother on a foraging expedition to learn where the best roots are to be found. Nobody has to lecture these children on the importance of learning these skills and the knowledge of how things work that supports them using the skills. They are tied to the very act of living and the motivation for learning is built into the brain from billions of years of evolution. Contrast this as I stand in front of a class of blank faces trying to explain to them why it is important for them to learn how logic gates can be configured to wonderfully do arithmetic. Such attempts at motivation do not really work. They know they will never need to know that to put food on the table. What they need to know is how to write a program in the latest language so they can get a job that will put food on the table. How can I get them to see that their ability to write programs well does depend on their subtle understanding of logic when they know very well that they just have to choose the right method (a program function already available in a library of such functions) from a menu of options and never have to worry about how it works?!

So, though the number of people who really need a deep grounding in STEP subjects is actually quite small, they still do need to have an intellectual base from which to operate. And the average worker/citizen needs to have a better understanding of what they do for work and why they are doing it. They require more than just a cursory knowledge of which button to push. So the real conundrum for society is how to develop an education system that achieves deep learning. Clearly the design of education that matches the way people actually learn would seem to be the answer. But immediately we run into a fundamental problem. The current education system is based on mass production – the assembly line process of moving students in lock step through the manufacturing plant, adding modules of knowledge to their brains with each step. It is done for economic reasons. The industrial model of production is the most efficient way to move large volumes through the system.

An education process based on how humans actually learn, on the other hand, would be the antithesis of what we have now. The kind of process that is best matched with learning has already been prototyped in the Montessori schools. The mechanics of classrooms and developmentally-based learning with hands-on active learning a core part of the program are much better matches for how kids learn a variety of subjects. These schools still adhere to the curriculum ideas of traditional education, for the most part, but have a much better set of practices with respect to pedagogy. An even better matching would be achieved if a Montessori-like school were combined with a permaculture-based curriculum (application of systems science principles to designing and operating living and sustainable communities). Students would be immersed from an early age in the skills and knowledge needed to live successfully and in harmony with the natural world but also have access to the underlying and intellectually stimulating principles of systems. Those who have a natural bent for exploring the intellectual areas or want to go deeper into design principles will be motivated to learn math and science as it pertains to these living systems. When a curious child ask grandmother what makes the plants grow the opportunity to teach biology is at hand. At the time an inquisitive youth asks father why the arrows need feathers the chance to teach physics is realized. These questions have deep meaning to children who grasp that those subjects are truly important for life. The gaining of knowledge of biology or physics follows from the desire to understand why the world works the way it does. Moreover, when the child asks if larger feathers would make the arrow go further or faster or straighter, the advent of learning science and invention is reached.

The Sad Reality

Unhappily our society is locked into mass production of know-nothing education. We will not reform schools in any meaningful way. It would be too costly. We would have to sacrifice a lot of consumption of luxury to support such an endeavor. And with the attitudes expressed by the majority of people in this country (and many abroad) that is not going to happen.

So we will continue to force kids to sit in dull classes memorizing just enough facts from dull subjects to pass tests (and then promptly forget what they memorized). We will stunt their development. We will erect barriers to progress for those kids who are exceptional. We will drive our future generations into the depths of ignorance as we tell ourselves that with just the right amount of testing we will have a perfected education system. And a decade from now we will be complaining even more.

As with all of the foibles of human behavior of which I have written over these years, this example reinforces my thesis that the human species is deficient in the one thing that would help us achieve better decisions in life. As I have said so many times, we are clever but we are not wise. Cleverness gave us calculus but it didn't tell us where best to apply it. Cleverness doesn't give us the understanding that just because we have calculus (which is very useful for a number of applications!) doesn't automatically mean every human being needs to learn it. Let those who are curious learn it and those who are adept at its uses use it. For the rest all that is needed is a basic understanding of what its uses produce and appreciation for what it does for humanity. Appreciation for is more important than having any facility for using when you don't really have an interest or a need. I am perfectly happy knowing that there are quantum physicists in this world who are exploring the basis of physical reality. I appreciate their capabilities and their findings without having to know the kind of math they use to do their work. We don't need many such physicists to explore that world. But it is nice if everyone else can grasp the significance of what the work produces.

There are many different kinds of cleverness (intelligences and creative capabilities) and not everyone fits the STEM model, or the humanities model, or the social sciences model. But we all need to have some basic appreciation for the variety of capabilities that exist and contribute to our lives. Each individual will learn what seems important. Wisdom would help individuals decide what to pursue. Wisdom would help us collectively not try to force everyone into the same mold (or at the same rate). But this world we have created has no place for wisdom. It is too costly. It does not make profits in the current quarter. We will continue to batter our children with one-size-fits-all education based on the belief that the curriculum we teach is what students need to know to thrive in this world. And our delivery system (schools) will continue to crush curiosity so as to get conformity from all. At least we can say that we did successfully acculturate out children — if you call this a worthy culture.

Navigating the Blockchain: Drones, Droids and BitCoins

Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on July 5, 2015

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A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

— Isaac Asimov, Runaround (1942)Barack Obama may be remembered for many things — becoming the first Hawaiian President of the United States, withdrawing allied forces from epic military disaster in the Muslim World, dismantling market moral hazard, and reopening Cuba to the mob — but his most lasting legacy may be still to come.

There is a revolution quietly taking shape in Air Force joystick cubicles near Las Vegas, in the Horn of Africa, the Tribal Territories of Pakistan, the DMZ of Korea, and in secret sites in Tel Aviv and Kiev. Autonomous Robot drones are evolving capability to select and execute targets of opportunity.   

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota meaning forced labor, and is generally attributed to a 1924 play by Karel Capek. The idea that men will build machines that may all too easily destroy their creators runs back through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Greek mythology. We have a deeply engrained wariness of anything that might knock us out of our place as top-predator in the food chain. And yet, we ignore these death machines we are building, seeing nothing more threatening than a good movie script. 

The median response from Artificial Intelligence programmers when asked when AI-droids will have better processing power than humans is 2030. Put another way, the coming generations of flying robots that kill their human prey from 10,000 feet up will be smarter than people in about 15 years, barring total collapse of petroleum civilization, or maybe even because of it.

Removing Asimov's three laws from the kernel of killer robot CPUs is a death wish. Actually, Asimov wrote four laws. The fourth or zeroth law that outranked the others:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.


 In the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, the open source protocol for a public asset ledger called the blockchain was put forward. The core of this invention was the idea of decentralized consensus on a large scale, an app version of Occupy, if you will.

From the blockchain emerged BitCoin. BitCoin was modeled on the gold standard for valuing transportable wealth – there was a finite supply but it could be "mined" to enlarge what was available for transactions by users. New gold went to miners who solved mathematical problems. The Cyberpunk community extolled its virtues:

"Psychopathic tendencies as the side effect of extreme individuality can be brought into balance within a new social contract, enforced by Satoshi’s perfect market with its equilibrium of supply and demand. Characteristics that are often considered negative in society such as risk taking, calculated selfish acts and profit motives can now be channeled to serve a larger shared vision of a more free society.



"Instead of arms races and financial wars, with bitcoin the competition for solving a mathematical problem helps to achieve a global level security infrastructure. This new flow of currency has the potential to end financial apartheid and begin serving the unbanked and underbanked that have been excluded from the current financial system. It can free those who are restrained by rent-seekers and subjugated to financial colonization. Out of the torrents emerging through the massive hashing power, the torus of a new heart grows and with every beat expands our collective goodwill to flow throughout the entire network."

— Nozomi Hayase, Taming the Beast  

Anytime someone comes on to us like a Snake Oil salesman, we check to make sure we still have our wallet, even if that wallet is now an app on our wristwatch.

Actually, this exuberance is immediately suspect in the case of bitcoin because "free" coins will gravitate towards whomever has the most computing power, leaving a 99 percent of lesser power users to purchase from the 1 percent who get theirs for "free." This is not a paradigm shift, it merely shifts the elite class (temporarily) from banksters to any hackers with supercomputer access and an ability to pay the electric bill.

The top coin miners have a Red Queen problem. In the Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland, everyone runs faster and faster and no-one gets ahead. In coin mining, more and more computing power is required to solve the mathematical problems. The software underpinning the network reacts to successful miners by elevating difficulty, so hackers add even more computing power, and so on. 

As this cycle speeds, it takes more datacenter CPU heat, and more cooling electricity, to mine a bitcoin. The computational power of the bitcoin mining network surpassed the world's top 500 supercomputers in 2013. On average, for every megawatt of electricity spent mining bitcoins, 0.65 tons (1300lbs) of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Dave Carlson, founder of Megabigpower, a mining datacentre in Washington state, figures he spends 240 kWh and releases 312 lbs of CO2 for each coin he mines. Worldwide, bitcoin mining generates about 25 tons CO2 per hour, or 219,000 tons per year. This is not virtual CO2. This is real CO2.

Can the blockchain prevent HSBC’s illegal money laundering for Mexican drug cartels? No. It makes it easier. Nigeria is already becoming a blockchain haven for Citibank, with ambitions to colonize all of payments space. If it seems oddly ironic to speak of Nigeria as a colonial power, just remember how quick its entrepreneurs were to colonize and monetize spam.

Does Citibank have any compunction about employing the fastest available processing power to (a) game bitcoin mining; (b) replace devalued bitcoins with its own CitiCoin; and (c) unleash predatory trading algorithms from the blockchain that operate at warp speed or even employ quantum mechanics to execute trades before they are even imagined by the trading partners? 

The Cyberpunk response is that blockchain transparency will flush the bandit algorithms. But one man's bandit is another's freedom fighter, layering, spoofing, and generating wash trades. The sheriff (SEC, FIRA, FBI, or a State or US Attorney) is outgunned and doesn't usually want to do anything that might jeopardize his/her pension, or the party in power. 

In his White House War Room, The Commander-in-Chief is assured that if we don't do this first, our rivals will. And so we drift, towards unparalleled catastrophe.

Above, circling the heavens, are autonomous killer drones that keep getting smarter by the year. In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are they.

What’s Next — Evolution or Extinction?

Off the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on May 21, 2015

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Our friends at the Doomstead Diner (they frequently repost Daily Impact essays) have caused a bit of an uproar among doomers — their term for people who believe the crash of industrial society is imminent — by conducting a poll on whether and when all humanity will be extinguished by the collapse. The Human Extinction Survey immediately revealed strong differences and strong feelings among the doomers surveyed. Just a few years ago it was controversial in the extreme to raise the prospect of collapse; now the idea is moving to the mainstream but wait, extinction? Yikes.

Questions determine their answers. While I am interested in this topic and wanted to participate, I found the survey questions didn’t offer the choices I would make in discussing it. So instead of selecting from the offered alternatives, I offered the following:

I’m not sure I believe in the extinction of people. Civilizations, yes, and this industrial one is surely doomed. But people endure. The Anasazi (Chaco People) are still with us, as the Navajo (Dine). We still have Aztecs and Mayans, although their civilizations crashed. Hell, I even have dinosaurs running around in my yard, we call them chickens now. Soak a cow with broad spectrum antibiotics, spray a field with pesticides, bomb a battlefield till the rubble bounces — there are always survivors.

I agree that a near-extinction event is in the offing. When it will happen and how many people it will leave behind are, it seems to me,  both unknown and unknowable, so I don’t concern myself with marking my calendar or setting my alarm clock. What makes sense to me is to do everything I can to maximize my family’s chances of getting through to the other side, and then we’ll see what we see.

It has been my observation during 30 years or so of reporting on the environment that industrial humans have always underestimated two things: the harm they are doing to the natural web of life; and the power of the natural world to heal itself when the harm is stopped.

It bears remembering, I think, that the world’s best scientists have been pretty consistently wrong in their appraisals of climate change. Not, of course, on the questions of whether it’s happening or whether humans caused it, those have been answered beyond any reasonable doubt. But they have been wrong about the speed of its onset and its severity in the short term. This is not meant as a criticism of scientists, it is only to observe that no one is ever going to be completely right in predicting the behavior of a system as enormous and complex as the global climate. So it seems appropriate to me to listen with respect to the arguments of those who now predict imminent extinction, as I hope they will respect this layman’s response: It ain’t necessarily so.

All my life I’ve made a distinction between the Utopians the the Pragmatists. Utopians put great effort into designing the world as it should be and then trying to herd the rest of us into it. Whether they design a best-of-all-possible world, or a dystopian world, same process. Pragmatists try to fix what they can reach, wherever they find themselves, and do not concern themselves with picturing how the world would look with everything fixed (or broken). They know it is beyond them. Count me a pragmatist.

We all know that each of us is going to die — when, where and how, we cannot know. Yet the inevitability of death does not deter us from finding meaning and fulfillment in the time we have. Nor does our lack of knowledge prevent us from trying to ensure a decent afterlife, whether through religious zeal or cryogenics or something else. Even if we are convinced we are all going to die together, say on an August afternoon in 2019, we are still obliged, it seems to me, to live until then according to our values.

It has never been up to us to decide whether our lives are meaningful, or worthy. Life is its own meaning. Our duty is to see it through as well as we can.

What is the Future of Humankind?

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on May 22, 2015

(Note from REThe Human Extinction Survey upon which this discussion was intiated is still Open for Submissions.  You will find the full survey at the bottom of this article.)

"Hellstrom's Hive," written by Frank Herbert in 1973, is one of the few sound explorations of how an "eusocial" human society could be patterned on the lifestyle of social insects, such as bees and ants. Could this be what the remote future has in store for humankind? It is impossible to say but I, for one, welcome our new hive overlords.

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The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive?

I have no doubt that we are heading at full speed toward a major ecosystem crash. We are wrecking the climate, destroying the biosphere, poisoning the seas, dispersing heavy metals all over, creating radioactive isotopes that had never existed in the four billion years of the Earth's history. Whatever is going to happen, it will not be a pretty sight for those who will be alive to see it.

But does the upcoming crash mean the end of the human species? That can't be excluded and the concept of "Near Term Extinction" (NTE) even became rather popular, nowadays (*). But the problem with human extinction is not so much how likely it is. The problem is that it is boring. We go extinct and that's it; end of the story. We may even wreck the ecosystem so badly that we would sterilize the whole planet, having everything else dying with us. Even more boring, isn't it?

Yet, the future remains a fascinating subject and the remote (or "deep") future is the most fascinating one. So, suppose that not everybody dies in the great crash; what future is in store for homo sapiens? (**).

As a first hypothesis, the great crash might not be so great, after all. Maybe it could be just a bump along the way; more or less like the Middle Ages were for Europe. So, humans could emerge into the after-crash future still as a few billion strong and still having most of the technologies we have today. They could have energy from renewables, enough to keep going in the form of an industrial society.  But this would imply a capacity of long range planning that we just don't seem to have.

More likely, humans would emerge out of the great transition as few, battered, and poor. They would find themselves stranded on a planet badly depleted of the energy and mineral resources they had before the crash. Then, what could happen to them?

Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming "pulse" generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period – at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually – very gradually – re-absorbed into the Earth's crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages of the "Pleistocene," spanning some 2.5 million years.

So, we can say that our after-crash descendants (if any) will live in a warm, possibly extremely warm, climate. But the Earth is big, so it would be possible for them to find areas cool enough that they could survive, perhaps in the far north or even in Antarctica. On the whole, we can expect that, after the great crash, humankind could face several tens of thousands of years of survivable conditions, perhaps even a few hundreds of thousands of years.

A lot of things can happen in several tens of thousands of years, but we can be reasonably sure of one: humans will not see another industrial revolution. Fossil fuels will be gone and it will take millions of years, at least, for the ecosystem to create them again. Then, the after-crash world will also be severely depleted in mineral resources. Our descendants won't have mines, but they will be able to scavenge what their predecessors had left in the ruins of their cities. They will have plenty of iron from the skeletons of old bridges and buildings; perhaps they'll be able to put their hands on some ancient vault filled with gold ingots. Their limit will be the vegetable charcoal they will need in order to process the metals they scavenge. For them, metals will always be rare and expensive.

So, we can imagine that our future humans will have to settle to simple ways of living. Perhaps they would have to revert to hunting and gathering, but they may also be able to cultivate the land, even though we can't be sure that this future climate will be stable enough for that. Whatever the case, it will be a low-tech world. It doesn't look very much like an exciting future. Hunting and gathering by hominids has been going on for millions of years, always more or less the same. And agricultural societies are static, hierarchical, oppressive and have been described as "peasants ruled by brigands." (attributed to Alfred Duggan). Is this what we should expect for the next 100,000 years? Not necessarily.

The fact is that humans can evolve. And they can evolve fast, substantially changing even in a few thousand years. The recent results of genomic research opened up a Pandora's box of discoveries. Our ancestors did evolve, oh, yes, they did!. The idea that we are still the same guys who hunted wooly mammoths during the ice age badly needs an update. We are similar to them, but not the same; not at all. A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

So, if humans can survive the great crash and keep going for more millennia – perhaps many more millennia – there is plenty of time for more changes. Actually, humans are going to change a lot over such a long time span. How will they change? Of course, it is a difficult question, but we can at least identify some trends. In particular, we can imagine that some present trends that today we tend to see as mainly cultural, may eventually become enshrined in the human genome.

Something that might happen is that humankind could speciate. That is, they could gradually branch in two or more species; different enough that the members of one could not breed with those of the other. We have already seen a considerable divergent specialization among at least three different human groups: hunters/gatherers, shepherds, and farmers. Each of these three branches exploits different ecological/economic niches and has developed cultural (in  part also genetic) adaptations to different lifestyles. Extrapolate this trend into the far future and you have two (or even three) species of hominids; repeating the situation that was common long ago, when different hominids co-existed at the same time. Neandertals and Sapiens, indeed, lived in overlapping times and they had limited (although non zero) capabilities of interbreeding with each other.

If the future will see more than one species of "homo", then each one will independently specialize and adapt to their environment. Hunters/gatherers will probably revert to the already optimized tool makers of the Pleistocene. Shepherds will become more and more adept to their nomadic lives in areas which are poorly productive for agriculture. Farmers will keep living in villages and cities at high population densities. They will build cities, temples, and palaces. They will create armies, fight against each other, and build up kingdoms and empires. And it is there that things have a chance of getting more interesting. 

The past genetic and cultural evolution of agricultural humans has been all along the development of more "social" characteristics: an increase in the ability of living in large groups of highly differentiated categories (farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, priests…). If the trend continues, we may see cultural characteristics becoming more and more embedded in the genome of the species. In the (very) long run, we could see the birth of a "eusocial" humankind; the same kind of social structure of bees, ants and termites. That is, a society of sterile workers, sterile soldiers, "queens" that generate most individuals, and dumb males (on this last characteristic, we are already pretty advanced). It is not impossible. There already exist mammals whose social organization is eusocial, one is the naked mole rat of Central Africa. So, maybe the future for humans will not involve advanced technological gadgetry (of which we are so fond) but, rather, advanced social engineering, with the development of more and more efficient and stratified societies.

Is the future of humans a beehive? We can't say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool's edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the "superintelligence" that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert's novel "Hellstrom's Hive"). Will these superintelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can't say. Of course it is something that none of us will ever see; but the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human and, perhaps, our hive descendants will have this characteristic, too.


George Mobus' take on the future evolution of humankind. 

George Mobus contributed to the discussion started by RE of the doomstead diner with these considerations that I am reproducing here with his consent.

With respect to ideas about extinction as a possible outcome, I would like to reiterate that extinction of species is apparently inevitable. Some 99% of all species that have ever lived (it is estimated) have gone extinct, and the current batch of biodiversity is probably no more than one million years old, on average.

But there are alternative pathways to extinction and alternate subsequent outcomes. Much has to do with the "evolvability" of the stock species. I posted a piece on this notion some time back: http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/02/how-did-mammals-and-birds-survive-the-end-cretaceous-event.html 

Human evolution is still underway, but is tightly coupled currents with cultural evolution, that is co-evolution is driving mutual selection in both the biological species and the artifactual, human-built world. Biological evolution is still very much slower than cultural innovation owing to a lower generation of novelty rate (e.g. genetic mutation). Nevertheless, we humans are still undergoing biological adaptations (not individual adaptations) to cultural influences.

The capacity for evolvability, however, affords many kinds of opportunities for species to radiate even when occupying the same geographic and ecological environment (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympatric_speciation and an article in Scientific American, Vol 312, Issue 4, on "The Extraordinary Evolution of Cichlid Fishes," http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-extraordinary-evolution-of-cichlid-fishes/).

All of this leads me to expect (and hope) that some form of hominid, specifically derived from our current genus, will survive the almost certain change in the cultural devolution due to decline of energy and the environmental stresses due to climate change and, given enough time, produce a new species of Homo, indeed perhaps several new species, over the next several million years. Technically, then, Homo sapiens, as we understand our species now, will be extinct even while new species carry on under the future selection conditions that will exist.

Though speculative (trying to second-guess nature is always a shot in the dark!) I have used some evolutionary historical patterns of emergence of cooperation throughout the history of life (from origins of life to eusocialization in humans) to envision some future possibilities. See:

All of which is well and good, and stimulating to think about. But I still think the immediate concern is for the dynamics of collapse. Can collapse be "managed" so as to minimize, in some practical way, the suffering that will attend it?


(*) The reasons of the popularity of the concept of "Near Term Extinction" are a fascinating subject in themselves. One reason could be that many of us are truly fed up with the many awful things we are doing to this planet (and to ourselves). So much, that human extinction doesn't look so bad; it actually becomes almost a relief. But near term extinction could be seen as an extreme form of BAU-ism. That is, some people seem unable to conceive that there could be life for humankind in forms different than the present one. Some of them take refuge in a form of technological BAU, hoping that the present society can be maintained forever by means of technological progress. Others seem to realize the impossibility of the technological dream and hence take refuge in self-annihilation. It is a little like the many Japanese citizens who committed suicide after the surrender of Japan at the end of the second world war. They couldn't conceive a world where Japan had been defeated, and so they decided to leave it.

(**) The considerations made here about the homo sapiens species are long term enough that they could be applied to other, similar species. So, if humans go extinct, the path to eusociality could be taken by other primates; such as chimps and bonobos (the latter may well be more advanced than us in social technologies). Even some non-primate species, hyenas for instance, are very advanced in terms of social organization. And then, there are mammals which are already eusocial. Could naked mole rats take over the planet? Why not? 


Thinking About Thinking

Off the keyboard of Geoffrey Chia

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Composed in February 2014.  Published on the Doomstead Diner March 21, 2015


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This essay is not for religious fanatics or new age ideologues who refuse to accept, against overwhelming evidence, the fact that homo “sapiens” are a species of ape, with more than 98.5% of our DNA being identical to that of chimpanzees. For truly sapient readers who are willing and able to accept the reality of our present insoluble2 predicament, here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Human beings are biological organisms subject to the laws of Nature. We share the same DNA coding as all other living creatures. We cannot survive without the ecosystems we were evolved to live in, the same ecosystems we are now destroying at an exponential rate. There is no evidence humans were supernaturally created by some magical being(s) who gave us a divine “right” to consume, exploit and poison everything around us indiscriminately. That is simply a delusional, if conveniently self justifying, fairytale.
  2. By means of random mutation and natural selection we, one particular species of ape, evolved a cleverness exceeding that of other animals. This freed us from many of the constraints (predation, infectious diseases etc) which previously kept our numbers in check. It enabled us to harness a one-time windfall bounty of fossil fuels to greatly increase our food supply. These have caused the human population to explode to plague proportions.
  3. World food production has flatlined for several years and will decline soon due to multiple insults – principally various constraints (eg petroleum, water, fertiliser) and climate chaos. Humans now face a guaranteed massive die-off this century because of our failure to transition to zero emissions renewable energy systems and a steady state economy. Business as usual – the use of fraudulent schemes to delay the inevitable demise of this existing corrupt fossil fuel and greed based GIMME3 establishment – is causing a runaway greenhouse effect4. Record breaking weather extremes have been occurring year upon year and will become exponentially worse. This will eventually destroy our entire agricultural capability along with any remaining natural habitats and ecosystems we might possibly derive sustenance from, thus rendering ourselves extinct (along with the majority of other species on this planet – the sixth global mass extinction).

For further elaboration of these matters please see:


If there is no hope for humanity, what is the point of this essay? Firstly, as we agonizingly attempt to come to terms with our own self inflicted demise, achieving an understanding of how we arrived at this horrific nexus may provide a worthwhile cathartic effect. Secondly, such an understanding of human pathology will be absolutely essential to posterity, if by some unexpected “good”5 fortune a tiny number of humans somehow make it through this impending genetic bottleneck to repopulate the planet. Repetition of our past transgressions by future survivors will guarantee human extinction in the longer term. But how can future survivors avoid the pitfalls of the past? To do so they need to understand the pathogenesis of our mistakes. It has been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. It is a glib quote which may very well be entirely correct, nevertheless if we do not at least try to learn from our past mistakes, future failure will be guaranteed.

How did we create this horrific situation? By our destructive actions, our bad behaviour. What facilitated our bad behaviour? We justified our bad behaviour by employing self serving narratives and myths based on dysfunctional thinking driven by an overweening sense of entitlement. What is dysfunctional thinking? Dysfunctional thinking is thinking based on flawed perception, on no evidence or on false “evidence” and/or on distorted reasoning. Dysfunctional thinking is not self correcting and leads to rigidly held belief(s) in false paradigms (ie delusions) and eventually adverse outcomes.

Conversely, proper thinking, what we (RW and GC) term “eufunctional” thinking, has the opposite characteristics. Eufunctional thinking is based on accurate perceptions of reality, on evidence which has been properly checked and validated and on logical interpretation and reasoning. Eufunctional thinking is self correcting (ideas can be modified or changed if better evidence comes to light and/or more sound reasoning becomes available) and ultimately leads to paradigms which most accurately reflect objective truth and reality. Furthermore eufunctional thinking must be guided by a strong ethical framework6. In order for individuals to promote the wellbeing of greater society and the greater planet, we must consider the short, medium and long term consequences of our actions on other people, other species and the environment. In short, we would define eufunctional thinking as reality based thinking guided by ethical principles. Unfortunately, eufunctional thinking is not easy to achieve. Furthermore eufunctional thinking inevitably places certain behavioural demands on the individual in order to achieve worthwhile long term outcomes: patience, restraint, sacrifice, diligence, discipline, perseverance, fortitude, reliability, trustworthiness, cooperativeness, fairness, kindness, generosity, empathy, compassion. Does this all sound familiar? It is how your grandmother said you should behave! How wise was she!

Examples of false paradigms based on dysfunctional thinking are:

  • All the accounts of every single religion regarding the creation and nature of our universe. These were all based on wild guesses and fabrications by ignorant ancient anonymous authors with no understanding of Nature
  • Neoliberal economic theory. This is based on greed, false assumptions (eg humans always make rational economic choices, the free market solves all problems) and venal stupidity eg denial of externalisations, denial of the laws of thermodynamics, denial of the finite size of our planet, failure to understand or accept the essential necessity of adequate net energy inputs
  • Technofantasy “solutions” to our predicament such as limitless cheap fusion (or “harmless” fission) energy, hydrogen as a fuel, mirrors in space to counteract global warming etc. These are based on hubris with no understanding of true science, the magnitude of the problems we face nor the factual constraints imposed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.

How did such dysfunctional thinking arise? Before we attempt to answer that we need to ask a number of other questions. What is “normal”? What is “abnormal”? What is mental health or wellbeing? What is mental illness or disorder?


What is “normal”? What is “abnormal”?:

Let us consider some examples in the fields of sociology and medicine as to what we conventionally regard as “normal”. Statistically in some disciplines, the median, mode or mean may be chosen as the”norm”. For example, normal IQ is defined as 100, the mean or average IQ in a population. Hence anything under 100 is considered below normal and anything over 100 is above normal. Thoughtful readers will immediately identify flaws with such a definition which we will not delve into here – that topic has been extensively debated elsewhere. Using a single number is of course too narrow a definition, hence in some evaluations, normality has been extended to include the range of (roughly) two standard deviations (SD) on either side of the mean7 to encompass 95% of a healthy study population. Hence if your serum electrolyte result shows your serum sodium concentration is above that upper cutoff limit, you are defined as having hypernatraemia and are regarded as metabolically abnormal unless proven otherwise. This “red flag” result obliges the medical practitioner to look for a cause of the “abnormality” and treat it. Similarly for hyponatraemia. Such a policy works well on the whole for practical patient management, but it depends on which parameter we are studying.

On the other hand, in our assessment of serum cholesterol concentrations, we do not use this method of defining the normal range as being two SDs on either side of the mean population value. Why not?

Looking at the graph above, we see that the population distribution of serum cholesterol concentrations roughly follows a bell curve, as is the case with most biological variables. In this example, the average population cholesterol is around 6.0mmol/l. If we were to use the “normal” range as (roughly) two SDs either side of the mean and label only the upper 2.5% of the population as having an abnormally high cholesterol, then only those above, say, 9mmol/l will be defined as having hypercholesterolaemia. The whole point of making measurements however is to identify the presence of disease or the increased risk of developing disease. In the case of serum cholesterol, it has been found in several population studies that the incidence of coronary events (and hence prevalence of coronary artery disease) rises sharply from 5.6mmol/l (or 220mg/dl) onwards.

TC=total cholesterol, CHD=coronary heart disease. The x axis scale of serum cholesterol on the graph above only went as far as 7.7mmol/l (300mg/dl) because individuals with higher cholesterol levels were rare in that population

This means that if we were to use 9mmol/l and above as the definition for hypercholesterolaemia, we would be missing the vast majority of individuals at risk of coronary events (those from 5.6 to 9mmol/l) in that population. In Bayesian terms, a cutoff of 9mmol/l will have very high specificity but very low sensitivity for the future prediction of coronary events. Of course, using a zero value cutoff (ie. including all patients with values above zero mmol/l in our reckoning) will have the highest sensitivity for the prediction of events (as it will encompass all the people in the population and therefore all the people who will eventually have events). However using a zero value cutoff has no specificity whatsoever (it is of no value in identifying normal people who will never develop coronary events). Hence we need to arrive at a compromise between good sensitivity and good specificity in our cutoff value, which is why we use 5.6mmol/l as “upper limit of normal” (and not 9mmol/l) in most of our laboratory ranges. This is despite the fact that 5.6mmol/l is around the average population value for serum cholesterol.

The actual considerations regarding individual patient lipid management are a good deal more complicated than that, however further elaboration is beyond the scope of this article.8

Suffice to say that we cannot use a “one size fits all” method to define what is normal or abnormal, it depends on the situation. Quite rightly, the medical profession has decided that it is not appropriate to define “normal” cholesterol as the average level in the population, as many such “normal” people will be headed for a heart attack9 in the long run without risk factor intervention. The new average body habitus in the US and Australia is fast becoming that of obesity – which is certainly not healthy and therefore should not be regarded as “normal” either, merely common.

Let us ask however whether there is there a single crucial criterion we must use when shaping all definitions of normality or abnormality (or good health and ill health)? We assert that all definitions we decide upon must have practical utility based on real world outcomes. Practical real world outcomes are the most important consideration when we fashion our definitions, otherwise our definitions will just be meaningless jargon, useless at best and misleading at worst.

What is mental health or wellbeing? What is mental illness or disorder?

The definitions of mental health and illness have been ever changing and malleable from one version of the psychiatric diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) to the next (currently DSM-5, May 2013). Indeed the psychiatric profession has been strongly criticised for their progressive “medicalisation of normality” leading to the excessive and inappropriate prescription of medications in the USA (at least 69% of the DSM-5 taskforce members had ties to the pharmaceutical industry). Some of the strongest criticism came from within the psychiatric profession itself, by prominent practitioners such as Dr Allen Frances, chair of the DSM-IV task force and Dr Bruce Levine. Psychiatrist Dr Colin Ross stated that the diagnostic and statistical manual is neither particularly diagnostic nor statistical and the manual itself admits there are no laboratory tests available to measure, confirm or refute the “disorders” mentioned in the DSM-5.

If the “top” psychiatrists and psychologists, the so-called experts, cannot agree on what is mental health and what is mental disorder or disease, can others offer anything better? We argue that we can. We believe the psychiatric profession can learn from other specialist medical and scientific disciplines, particularly those which practice “harder” science.

One loose definition of mental ill health has been “any way of thinking that is harmful to the individual or others”. Such a definition has some merit in that it does focus on real world outcomes. However, the mental health professions themselves have not been applying their own definition appropriately (possibly for fear of offending those in power, who by that definition must be regarded as mentally ill psychopaths10 or for fear of offending the majority of conformist people in the GIMME establishment, who by that definition must also be regarded as mentally ill – being deluded and cognitively deficient (ie stupid) – as they believe in nonsensical destructive ideology such as infinite economic growth on a finite planet).

We would prefer to discard the term “normal” mental health and replace it instead with what we term mental eufunction, defined as reality based thinking guided by ethics (eufunctional thinking), which promotes behaviour leading to the wellbeing of the individual, to wider society and to the living planet.

There may however be a hierarchy of priorities of wellbeing, one level of wellbeing having priority over another eg community needs taking precedence over individual greed. Such a view is entirely consistent with the way society tends to celebrate individuals who have contributed to the greater good, often at their own personal expense. Such individuals are then labeled as “altruistic” or “heroes”, albeit retrospectively (often posthumously).

Those who fought for social justice in society have historically done so at considerable risk to themselves (having sacrificed their personal self interest and wellbeing in working toward a long term common good). Examples were slavery abolitionists and civil rights activists. Repercussions against them included social ostracism, loss of employment, violent retribution, imprisonment or financial penalty imposed by the prevailing corrupt establishment of the time. Such corruption was institutionalised then (eg legalised slavery or legalised apartheid) and it was necessary for the eufunctional minority to behave in an “illegal” manner to eventually change it.

Those Germans who opposed Hitler in the 1930s did so at the extreme risk of being imprisoned, tortured and executed. We assert that such people, the minority in their society at the time, demonstrated strong mental eufunction and it was in fact the majority of the German populace then who were deeply mentally dysfunctional. After all, Hitler acquired power by majority vote. The majority were engaged in thinking and behaviour leading to harm in their own and other societies, even while labouring under the delusion they were somehow morally justified in their actions. The majority were gripped by a collective madness. The only appropriate eufunctional response would have been utter contempt for majority German opinion and their “leader” who was voted in democratically. In that situation the only way to change it, contrary to Neville Chamberlain’s view, was to kill the German masses and reduce their country to rubble.

Thus we can see that mental eufunction has nothing at all to do with holding a majority opinion. There was a time when the majority of people believed the Earth was flat. Conversely, just because a person holds a minority opinion does not mean they are necessarily correct or eufunctional. They could be just as deluded as the majority but just hold a different delusion. Just because the majority flatearthers were wrong did not that mean a chap who believed the Earth was doughnut shaped was correct. The real test for mental eufunction is not whether it is a majority or minority opinion. It is whether the mentality is based on good evidence, reason and ethical principles.

Now let us ask: What is sanity? What is insanity? Is there a clearcut line between them? The answer to the latter question is yes, maybe and no. Before we proceed, a few definitions may be useful.

Intelligence, in its most basic form, is nothing more than the ability to accurately identify true patterns. For example, in an IQ test a subject may be asked which number (or letter or polygon etc) does not belong in a sequence. The intelligent subject quickly and accurately identifies the common pattern to those that belong and determines the odd one out. The less intelligent will take longer to identify the pattern. The cognitively deficient will completely fail to identify the true pattern. Some may fabricate claim to a nonexistent (false) pattern which does not bear scrutiny. The pinnacle of intelligence is exemplified by those geniuses who discovered true11 patterns in Nature which mere mortals hitherto never suspected eg Newton’s F = Gm1m2 / r2 or Einstein’s E = mc2 .

Hallucinations are the perception of things which are simply not there, they do not exist in the real world. They are generated entirely within the subjects’ brain due to biochemical, pharmacological or electical disturbance. Examples include the classic auditory hallucinations or “hearing of voices” in schizophrenics, visual hallucinations induced by LSD and complex hallucinations, often of a religious nature, in temporal lobe epilepsy.

Illusions are perceptions which are wrongly interpreted by the subject eg a person sees a coat draped over a dummy in a dim room and concludes it is a ghost.

Delusions are beliefs in elaborately constructed frameworks which have no basis in fact, evidence, logic or reality. A delusion is an individual’s incorrect explanation for a particular set of circumstances eg a patient finds himself locked in a padded cell and concludes he is Napoleon imprisoned on Elba. Delusions may be shared by two people (folie à deux), by groups (eg religious cults) or entire populations (mass delusions). Most delusions are in fact not held by psychotic patients, they are held by supposedly normal people in the general population. They sometimes take the form of conspiracy theories. However just because many conspiracy theories are delusions does not mean that all conspiracy theories are delusions. For example we know for certain, decades after the events occured as a result of the freedom of information act, that the CIA conspiracies to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 and Chilean government in 1973 (among others) were entirely true – these are historical facts beyond any dispute. If a conspriracy theory is plausible and has a strong basis in evidence and reason, then it has credibility, even if not yet proven.

Here is a somewhat old-fashioned categorisation of mental disorders (a basic list, simpler and less comprehensive than ICD-10 or DSM-5, but is useful enough for our purposes):

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders: eg mental retardation, autism
  • Other cognitive disorders eg dementia
  • Substance abuse / addiction
  • Minor mental illnesses or “neuroses” – eg anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, conversion disorders
  • Major mental illnesses or “psychoses” – eg schizophrenia, affective disorders (major depression, bipolar affective disorder, mania)
  • Personality disorders – eg psychopathy, sociopathy, narcissistic personality, disorders of “type” similar to the major or minor mental illnesses eg schizotype, hypomanic etc

There is a world of difference between a subjectively applied sloppy label and an objectively derived disciplined diagnosis. For example, in cardiology there are strict objective criteria to be met before we can reach a confident diagnosis of (left) heart failure:

  • The gold standard index is an elevated left atrial filling pressure (or mean PCWP) which requires invasive cardiac measurement and hence in practice is almost never done.
  • However even without that we can reliably use various other surrogate assessments such as the combination of the serum BNP, echocardiogram, chest Xray and reduced VO2max to make a robust diagnosis.
  • Even without those, we can often make a reliable clinical diagnosis on the basis of typical symptoms and signs if the patient has fullblown heart failure.
  • How do we verify the diagnosis? It is confirmed when the appropriate treatment leads to the expected result eg administration of a diuretic and ACE inhibitor reduce the LA filling pressure and improve the patient’s symptoms, signs and eventually serum BNP. The story does not end there however. Heart failure is a syndrome, it is not a complete diagnosis in itself. It is of vital importance that we further refine the diagnosis to identify the underlying cause of the heart failure eg valvular disease or coronary disease etc. Any cure, if feasible, always requires the identification and specific treatment of the underlying cause.

Unfortunately the soft fuzzy nature of psychiatry is such that it is usually impossible to reach an objective diagnosis in the same manner as the “harder” medical disciplines. Most of the time only subjective labels can be applied, which can be extremely problematic, not to mention stigmatising.

This recalls a story I (GC) overheard over ABC Radio National a year or two ago. It goes something like this: a young girl was restless and fidgety in school, she seemed unable to concentrate on her studies and to lack focus. Her mother brought her to a psychologist for help. Following the interview, the psychologist turned on some music and took the mother out of the room, leaving the door slightly ajar to observe the girl alone. After a while the girl started moving rhythmically to the music, got up and started gyrating and pirouetting gracefully. “I’ve got it!” the psychologist declared. “Your daughter is a Dancer!” Her mother subsequently enrolled the daughter in ballet school, she became the top student and ultimately became the prima ballerina of the national ballet company and one of the most celebrated dancers in the world. Would the mental health professionals of today be capable of such wisdom? Or would they be persuaded by the toxic influence of the drug companies to slap a quick and dirty label of ADHD on the child and ply her with Ritalin to make her “behave”?

In the case of organic brain diseases (eg dementia, frontal lobe strokes) where the problem is demonstrable by independent objective testing such as an MRI, it is possible to make a robust diagnosis. Strange thoughts and behaviour may occasionally occur as a result of organic brain disease. For example on rare occasions a stroke or head injury can induce “foreign accent syndrome” where the patient speaks their native language with a foreign accent. Delusional beliefs may also sometimes occur as the result of structural brain damage. For example, “alien hand syndrome” is the belief that one’s hand does not belong to oneself but has its own independent life. It is usually caused by stroke or other brain damage, particularly in the areas of the corpus callosum, or frontal or parietal lobes. Certain syndromes may have different underlying causes in different patients. For example, Capgras syndrome is the delusional belief that a spouse or other close family member has been replaced by an identical looking impostor or several doubles. It has been reported in patients with dementia or epilepsy and after traumatic brain injury, which are all clearly organic causes (ie. objectively demonstrable structural or electrical pathology). In this syndrome however we see an overlap between clearcut organic brain syndromes and other psychopathology, because most patients with Capgras syndrome have schizophrenia without any other brain disorder.

There is strong evidence that the fullblown major mental illnesses (schizophrenia and the major affective disorders) are actually organic disease entities caused by underlying biochemical/neurotransmitter abnormalities (hence such patients lack insight and are not amenable to psychotherapy). Psychoses are largely determined by genetic inheritance (although environmental triggers are also important) and respond, often spectacularly well, to specific pharmacologic agents. Unfortunately these medications are not without side effects. By their nature, the psychoses are quite different from other mental “illnesses”. Thus we can observe a clear boundary between some types of organic insanity (the psychoses) and ideal sanity (the mentally eufunctional person).

Unfortunately the boundaries are blurred in most other psychiatric conditions. They are not amenable to objective diagnoses, therefore subjective labels are resorted to, which may or may not be used appropriately and may or may not be helpful. Even though psychiatrists use checklists of criteria, the criteria are themselves subjective. Furthermore there is considerable overlap between those people labeled with “mental disorders” and the “normal” (whatever that is) population in the form of traits which may be similar to but not as severe as the typical neuroses or psychoses eg schizoid, paranoid, obsessive etc. Some “abnormal” traits may actually be advantageous, indeed essential, to perform well in certain high functioning professions eg good physicians tend to be obsessional with a meticulous eye for detail so that no important information is missed. In addition, it is clearly inappropriate for psychiatrists to label normal reactive depression and grieving as abnormal (thus requiring medication). Indeed, inappropriate merriment in the face of a tragedy should be regarded as abnormal. It is unnatural and absurd for the psychiatric profession (and American culture) to expect all people to be “positive” and display a cheery disposition 24/7, irrespective of their circumstances, failing which they should be medicated. Bring on the curmudgeons!

One problem not discussed or studied very much in psychology is the existence of psychopaths or sociopaths, the terms sometimes being used interchangably. It is estimated they constitute1% to 2% of the human population. Some psychologists argue that since we have become such a populous species, psychopaths have flown under the radar. This is however untrue. Psychopaths are in fact not hiding. They are thriving and possibly constitute far more than 2%. They are politicians and major stakeholders in very public positions. In a small town, it is very easy to detect and avoid a psychopath. However, in the cities and in very large workplaces/corporations, they find the ideal conditions to adopt phoney facades and possess the manipulative know-how to jump straight to the top. They then unashamedly make decisions that fuel mass delusions to suit their personal gain. Since they are in privileged positions, they most likely give birth to numerous offspring who may inherit and/or mimic such psychopathic tendencies. Despite the overwhelming proportion of psychopaths being male, dare we also mention Rebekah Brooks? Of course, Rupert Murdoch, maker and unmaker of prime ministers and governments, may well be the apex psychopath on the entire planet. Such people lie without compunction, are utterly self serving and have complete disregard for any harm they cause to others, even death. They vigorously deny any responsibility unless caught redhanded, in which case they are good at feigning regret so that they can escape punishment and be free to commit worse crimes in the future. They lack remorse. Moral of the story: psychopaths are governing our world and most people have not even noticed! 12

Experience has proven that the “toxic” personality disorders are impossible to treat. They are not amenable to medication (assuming they would be compliant) nor psychotherapy. They can learn to disguise their tendencies temporarily but will revert to type in the long run every single time. As such, avoidance and ostracism may be the only strategies.


How dysfunctional thinking and behaviour have been promoted in the “normal” population:

A. The seduction of the reptile brain and the cultivation of irrational fears

The vast majority of the population are not psychotic and may not meet the precise definition of any of the fullblown mental disorders. And yet how is it that they can be persuaded to believe in ideas which are patently untrue such as religious delusions, WMDs in Iraq or denial of anthropogenic global warming (AGW)? As the saying goes, those who can be persuaded to believe in lies can be made to commit atrocities – as demonstrated in the examples of “holy” wars, the invasion of Iraq and the impending genocide of future generations (and many other species) due to AGW, the worst atrocity of all time.

The puppet masters of our society have cleverly devised systematic methods of indoctrination using seductive propaganda to brainwash the masses and in so doing have immensely enriched themselves, the “0.1%”.

Edward Bernays was probably the most influential person in history that no one has ever heard of. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud (Bernays’ family emigrated from Vienna to the USA when he was a child, however he kept in touch with “uncle Siggie” who he visited during holidays). Bernays subscribed to Freud’s view that the natural tendency of human beings was to be governed by the irrational Id (or reptile brain) rather than by the rational Superego (or frontal neocortex). He used this knowledge, not to promote rational thought for the benefit of humanity, but to exploit human irrationality to manipulate the masses to consume products they did not need and could even be harmful. In so doing he was immensely rewarded by big business and became extremely rich. Unbridled capitalism and the free market at work. Bernays was spectacularly successful in employing the media to persuade young women to smoke13 (hence was responsible for untold numbers of cancer and emphysema related deaths). He also paved the way for the US corporate corruption of Latin American countries (as in the case of the overthrow of the Guatemalan government by the United Fruit Company in 1954). It is ironic that Goebbels was a self confessed student of Bernays’ tactics and utilised the ideas from this Jew to promote brutal pogroms and the mass murder of six million other Jews.

Bernays’ legacy has been far reaching and enduring in the way corporations now systematically study and exploit the consumer mind to advance their profits. They have finely tuned their tactics to manipulate the reptile brain. What makes certain dysfunctional thoughts so appealing, leading to delusional ideas so entrenched, that people latch on to them like limpets on rocks from which they cannot be pried? It is largely related to having an inflated image of the self, or the self as part of a “superior” group eg the “master race”. It is about self aggrandisement.

All of us were born with innate infantile egocentricity and needed to learn socialisation. As infants we all believed we were the centre of the universe, that everyone around us existed only for our own gratification and everything we wanted had to be given to us immediately for free with no effort required on our part. We believed we were special and important and nobody and nothing else mattered. Furthermore we had no idea that actions had consequences, that eating a bucketful of candy could make us sick. For many people, that mindset never really went away and lay at the back of their brain ready to be seduced and to dominate once again, given the right encouragement.

Hence the strategy of advertising has been to appeal to the infantile egocentricity of the unthinking reptile brained masses seeking immediate gratification. To influence their behaviour using shallow flattery, to hold up a mirror to their primal desires. Examples of such messages:

  • You are special, you are unique, you are better than everyone else! You must show off your superiority to the world by buying this superduper, exclusive, limited edition toilet plunger / nosehair trimmer / giant suppository, which has been endorsed by the celebrity(ies) you admire! Then you too will become a glamorous, magnificent sex magnet, just like them! or
  • You can have it all and have it now and shouldn’t worry about the future because nothing else matters! This credit card enables you to enjoy the lifestyle of millionaires right here, right now! Why? Because you deserve it! Do not delay or you will miss out! (special conditions apply in small print and you may lose your house if you default in your debt) or
  • You are entitled to enjoy all the conveniences and luxuries resulting from fossil fuel based technologies, it is your birthright to enjoy them now and forever! There are no adverse consequences! Hence AGW is not real! It is a hoax, evidence be damned! The scientists are lying and are a serious threat to your way of life!

Bernays was also influential in the political sphere and his ideas shaped the kind of consumption focused and poll driven bogus “democracies” we have today. In an Observer article in 2002, Tim Adams wrote that Bernays “thought that the safest way of maintaining democracy was to distract people from dangerous political thought by letting them think that their real choices were as consumers. He believed, and argued to Eisenhower, that fear of communists should be induced and encouraged, because by unleashing irrational fears, it would make Americans loyal to the state and to capitalism.

After the Cold War, the GIMME establishment’s frantic search for a new bogeyman against whom the masses could project their irrational fear was finally realised on September 11, 2001. Bush the lesser exhorted immediately after the twin towers fell, that the duty of good Americans was to go shopping – a thoroughly brainless activity which would keep feeding the corporate beast and prevent the public from thinking about the real reasons behind the terrorist attacks.

How ironic that Bernays’ idea of maintaining “democracy” was to whip up fear and divert the attention of the herd towards trivia rather than encourage participation in sane decision making in society. To abandon circumspect thought and relinquish true freedom to depend on central partriarchal authority for their “security” in the manner of irrational infants. It was the very antithesis of true participatory Liberal Democracy – which should advance courageous, progressive, thoughtful rule “of the people, by the people and for the people”. It was entirely about reinforcing the power structure of an undemocratic corporatocracy. Clearly, the deviously manipulative Rupert Murdoch is the modern successor to Edward Bernays, only magnitudes worse.

B. Social learning and mimicry, obedience to authority and conformity:

It is inherently human to believe everything that is fed to us by authority figures – it is called social learning. From an early age, we mimic and believe everything passed down to us from those we depend on (be they parents, elders or religious figures) and it has been found that we even replicate behaviour when it makes absolutely no logical sense to do so (chimps actually perform better than human children in this respect: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/47/4/1050/ )

This is one feature that sets us apart from other primates – we see, replicate, believe, even when it makes no logical sense to do so. We do it because it is inbuilt and receive positive feedback as it nurtures acceptance within the group. We like people who copy us – even if it is just subconscious social mimicry. When what we are taught proves dysfunctional, this is not so much “mental illness”, but learned delusion as a species that we need to overcome – a difficult task given we have naturally evolved this fatal trait. This adaptation is also very much tied up in religiosity – where again, people believe what they are exposed to when logically it absolutely makes no sense. Social learning causes us to believe very strongly what those around us tell us to believe and to do precisely what we are told to do even when it makes no sense. Like anything, there is a rank or scale of delusional ideas – some are more delusional, some are less. Delusions when revisited repeatedly become self reinforcing. If you think about something enough, the pathways solidify and you can more easily retrieve the information. Thus certain people become proficient at reciting chapter and verse of the bible which they use to justify whatever it is they want to do and shut out any other forms of thinking.

Mimicry did confer survival advantage in the past and, augmented by our cleverness, has enabled us to realise incredible technological advances (we replicate what we are shown with the incentive to surpass the skills of the expert teaching us – something chimps never got the hang of). Our killing machines have never been so effective.

Another human trait which had important survival value (as it unified tribal societies in the pursuit of common goals) was that of conformity, the deep emotional need to belong to a group, to be socially accepted by others. Social conformity now plays a huge part in our contemporary denial of resource depletion, denial of AGW, continued habitat destruction and – oddly enough – wars over whose made up god is better. Groupthink (which is actually centrally manufactured by the GIMME establishment using Bernays’ tactics and is disseminated by PR14 shills – eg Fox “News”) triumphs over reality based thinking. Conformity and unquestioning obedience to authority are unhealthy bedfellows. The ease with which it is possible to invoke such thinking and behaviour and the adverse consequences thereof were demonstrated in a number of famous seminal studies.

Blind obedience to instructions from authority, even if thought to cause fatal harm to an experimental “subject”, was shown to be easily imposed on common people in the experiments by Stanley Milgram. He showed that ordinary American people could be cajoled into harming others by an authority figure who supposedly knew what they were doing. This went a long way to explain the atrocities committed by ordinary German people in World War II and showed that this trait was not unique to Germans.

Philip Zimbardo in his Stanford role playing experiments demonstrated how educated American college undergraduates could degenerate into thuggish brutes by merely adopting the uniforms and simulated environment of prison guards.

Solomon Asch showed that an individual on a panel of peers would rather agree with the obviously incorrect majority (who were secretly in collusion with the experimenter to provide the same wrong answer to a simple question eg which was the longest line in a series) rather than go out on a limb and state the obviously correct answer. It takes courage to stand up and speak the truth and contradict the majority, even on a matter as neutral as which line is the longest.

How can we counteract and immunise against dysfunctional thinking and promote eufunctional thinking?

Question: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Only one, but the lightbulb must really, really want to change.

A change of mindset among the herd in this GIMME establishment is only likely to come about when large numbers of them begin to die off. Even then, most will probably embrace new delusions eg they may fabricate blame against minority ethnic groups or refugees (vulnerable scapegoats they can take their frustrations out on) or adopt more extreme religious pseudoexplanations, rather than accept the scientific and factual truth of our predicament. The favoured paradigm of the reptile brain is always one which promotes self aggrandisement while blaming others for all bad outcomes. Only mature people beyond the stage of infantile egocentricity are able to accept responsibility for their actions. This clearly excludes people like Tony Abbott.

If people eventually become receptive to change, this will be our strategy: to establish a “counter-Bernays” philosophy which promotes thinking and behaviour on the basis of rationality, ethics and courage (as opposed to Bernay’s appeal to irrationality, egotistical amorality and fear). This essay will be the basis of such a philosophy. All children must be taught to think for themselves, to learn critical thinking from an early age and need to be psychologically immunised against bullshit delusions. This goal is easy to state but difficult to do, particularly as we know how Bernays’ appeal to irrationality among the masses has been so spectacularly effective. If it proves impossible to convince future survivors to adopt eufunctional thinking and behaviour, in the long run we will just have to accept that homo sapiens was an evolutionary dead end. A failed experiment. A parasite or cancer on this planet with no possibility of redemption.


  1. Certain people who are supposedly mentally “normal” are causing most of the harm in the world today15. Practical outcomes are the most important consideration when defining terms and describing such people as normal is not appropriate. They are in fact mentally dysfunctional.
  2. Accordingly it is clear that Prime Monster Tony Abbott (monstrous refugee abuser, sanctimonious God botherer, fossil fuel industry stooge and gobal warming denier) and his ilk (eg Bankers, Industrialists, Rupert Murdoch, the Republican Tea Party) are among the most extremely mentally dysfunctional of all people. In the old parlance they are batshit crazy psychopaths. Islamic terrorists are just as mentally dysfunctional but are much less dangerous to the world.
  3. Because of the devastation these people have wrought (Abbott and his ilk, not the Islamic terrorists), we face a massive die-off this century. If, against all odds, a few people do survive the massive die-off, but the survivors fail to devise ways of living based on eufunctional thinking and behaviour, they too will perish from the Earth from self inflicted stupidity and human extinction will be complete. However this will probably be a good thing for the sake of all other living creatures.

Dear old departed Kurt Vonnegut suggested that humanity should paint this sign on the walls of the Grand Canyon for future visitors to our devastated Planet to read:

We could have saved the Earth but we were too darned cheap. Only he did not use the word “darned”.

For our part, we would recommend this big sign in bold letters:

Advice to future occupants of this Planet from former dumbass tenants:

  1. It is much more important to be wise than to be clever
  2. If you wreck your environment you will die


  • Rebecca Willis is a psychology graduate whose research focused on the evolution of primate behaviour. She obtained her permaculture design certificate many years ago.

  • Geoffrey Chia is a curmudgeon


  1. Several years ago, as a follow up to my (GC) previous essays on How to identify truth / achieve wisdom http://guymcpherson.com/home/doomstea/public_html/guymcpherson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/WISDOMSeekingTruth-by-Chia-for-NBL.pdf and How to make good decisions http://guymcpherson.com/home/doomstea/public_html/guymcpherson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/WISDOMDecisionMaking.pdf , I intended to write an essay entitled “How to con like a neo-con, with particular reference to the lesser Australian lying rodent“. That lying rodent was of course former Prime Monster John Howard of “children overboard” and “never ever GST” fame. My impetus to write the “rodent” essay waned after Howard was tossed out of office. I then directed my efforts toward trying to engage with the Labor government to advance sustainable policies, which proved utterly futile. Now that the even more monstrous Tony Abbott has gained power, abolished the Science Ministry and is driving us ever faster towards perdition with the prospect of near term human extinction, I have been motivated to write this new essay “thinking about thinking“, with the kind contribution and advice from RW, although all errors and provocative language in this essay must be regarded as GC’s alone. This essay would have superseded the “rodent” essay anyway, had that been written.
  2. Insoluble, insofar as human survival is regarded as a “solution”, which we, as humans, implicitly assume. To non-human species, surely the only solution to their suffering and impending extinction will be the elimination of all human life on earth, the most final of final solutions.
  3. Government-Industrial-Military-Media-Economic establishment
  4. Overwhelming evidence shows we have already triggered multiple runaway greenhouse effects which are now impossible for us to control http://guymcpherson.com/2013/01/climate-change-summary-and-update/
  1. Again, from the point of view of future non-human species (if they possessed sufficient cognitive understanding), human survival will actually be a very bad thing if we proceed to repeat the same atrocities of the past. Even back in the Stone Age, humans rendered the megafauna extinct everywhere outside Africa we went (although our mass extinction capability only reached global proportions with the utilisation of fossil fuel and nuclear power)
  2. The topic of what consitutes an ethical framework is vast and well beyond the scope of this article. The reader is referred to works by ethicists such as Peter Singer. Nevertheless as a rough guide to what is ethical, we can utilise the univerally accepted “Golden Rule” which has been independently advocated by and instinctively understood by all human cultures around the world. As previously mentioned in GC’s “armadillo” essay http://guymcpherson.com/home/doomstea/public_html/guymcpherson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/1TheMeaningOfLifeToAnArmadillo.pdf , the Golden Rule was “originally stated as ‘do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you’ (analects of Confucius) and centuries later, as ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ (some guy from Nazareth). Funnily enough, verification of this wisdom of the ages has been demonstrated as the best interactive strategy from computer simulations of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ scenario.” Being ethical has thus been mathematically proven to be an entirely rational strategy.
  3. https://sites.google.com/site/physiologysite/normal-reference-range-table
  4. “High” cholesterol – ie a serum total cholesterol concentration above which intervention is advisable to reduce clinical risk – is dependent on many other cardiac risk factors eg presence of other vascular disease, age, diabetes, hypertension etc. This is known as management by absolute risk. Mentioning subtypes of lipids and lipoproteins is even further beyond the scope of this article.
  5. In the past, infectious diseases were the principal cause of death, however with the advent of sanitation, vaccination and antibiotics, vascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) has become the main cause of death (at least in “first” world countries) – heart attacks being more common than strokes. Addressing cardiac risk factors such as high serum cholesterol has been very effective in dramatically reducing heart attack deaths in the past few decades.
  6. Kurt Vonnegut on psychopathic personalities: “To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! http://inthesetimes.com/article/kurt_vonnegut_vs_the/
  7. True patterns in Nature have elegant explanatory power and their paradigms mesh well with other proven paradigms. True patterns in Nature are verifiable by real world experimentation, observation and measurement and also have strong predictive power eg the Big Bang theory predicted the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation which was later subsequently discovered, thus verifying the theory.
  8. http://theinternetpost.net/2013/04/20/bush-and-obama-dangerous-narcissists/ http://theinternetpost.net/2012/01/05/psychopaths-caused-the-financial-crisis-and-they-will-do-it-again-and-again-unless-they-are-removed-from-power/
  9. Bernays used his clever media skills to convince the young women of the day that the cigarette was their means of self expression, their symbol of defiance against an oppressive patriarchal establishment, that they could become the equal of males by lighting up these “torches of freedom“. Kurt Vonnegut, who I keep quoting, was himself famously addicted to cigarettes, as unfortunately were most World War II veterans. He acknowledged it was a foul and disgusting habit that he was unable to shake and called the cigarette a stick with “a fire at one end and a fool at the other“.
  10. “PR” in medical terminology stands for “per rectum” – ie. the act of sticking a finger up your rectum. “PR” in general terminology stands for “public relations”, the difference between the two being…er…actually there’s no difference between them.
  11. Those fossil fuel propagandists who find AGW denial no longer tenable have adopted another tactic. They are actively perpetrating the lie that all individuals and all companies are equally culpable when it comes to AGW – as they attempt to shift the media focus away from themselves onto individual responsibility and individual lifestyle change. Research published in the journal Climatic Change showed that just 90 companies were reponsible for 63% of human greenhouse gas emissions. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/20/90-companies-man-made-global-warming-emissions-climate-change

There are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world,” climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute told the Guardian. “But the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil, if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”

How to Save the Human Genus

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 24, 2015


Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

What Can be Saved?

I am on record as saying I doubted that humanity as a global population could be saved from certain destruction. I have also stated that the species, Homo sapiens is probably not salvageable in its current form. However, I have also suggested that the salvation of the genus, Homo is both feasible and desirable. Let me briefly recount.

There is at this point, in my opinion, nothing that can be done to save the vast majority of humans alive today from a catastrophic demise. I am sorry. And below I will summarize my findings. The simple truth, as I see it, is that humanity has set itself on an irreversible course of destruction that is equivalent to the impact on the Ecos that the meteor or comet that crashed into the Yucatan peninsula had on the dinosaurian Ecos 65 million years ago. That is, by our activities we have brought about a geologically recognizable age called the Anthropocene in which we are the agents of the extinction of vast numbers of species, including, possibly, our own. Whenever such die-off events have happened in the past the Ecos shifted its characteristics and dynamics such that the extant species either went extinct or gave rise to new species of the same genus that were better adapted to the new Ecos. I fully expect the same kind of thing to happen in the future.

In any case the populations of critters and plants were decimated or severely reduced in number and that is what I suspect will happen to our populations. Homo sapiens must, of necessity, go extinct simply because the future environment will be extraordinarily hostile to human life. The real question is whether the genus might give rise to a new species that is better fit for the new Ecos before the very last member of the tribe extinguishes.

Proscription of Business as Usual

We are in the process of killing ourselves by engaging in an economic model based on ideas that just about everybody accepts as valid and good. What irony. The model that has been held responsible for producing abundant wealth for humankind is also responsible for destroying the life support systems upon which we depend. The problem is one of scale. When there were relatively few humans on the planet their economic activities were not as damaging. They could harvest slowly renewing resources like trees without threatening the forests. They could dump their sewage into rivers that would quickly dilute the toxins to low enough levels that they would not threaten other living things. It was a good model to establish a level of comfort in living that would not do more harm as long as the population numbers did not get out of hand. The problem is that those numbers did get out of hand. The improvements in living standards due to technological innovation made it seem feasible that more and more people could live on the land, but in truth, the extraction rates and pollution rates were accelerating beyond the capacity of the land to sustain us. So now, what was once the source of human success has become the cause of human demise. And very many people do not want to believe that because they have enjoyed benefits from BAU and want to continue to do so. See what I mean by irony?

What I want to do here is summarize the systemic relations that I see as causal factors relevant to the near future dynamics of human existence. I present a series of arguments, somewhat in the form of mathematical or logical propositions that provide “proofs” of the veracity of the arguments, that provide a chain of reasoning leading to this conclusion. These are presented in a way that suggests what might actually be done to maximize the salvation of our kind. But I have no illusions at this point that any of the actions suggested here will be undertaken. As I have written repeatedly (and will be presenting more definitively in an upcoming book) my firm belief is that humanity is not sufficiently sapient (that is the average of sapience is not sufficient) to change its behavior and set of beliefs such that it would actually adopt any of these prescriptions. Yet in the spirit of undaunted hope it can’t hurt to at least state the possibilities even if they are unlikely to be regarded. One never knows. I certainly would not claim to know. Maybe something like a miracle will happen!

Propositions Regarding the Salvaging of the Genus

1. The vast majority of people will have to stop having children. The population cannot grow when the wealth production rate goes to zero and must decline when the rate goes negative, as it must.

The operative variable is a measure of wealth per capita. There exists some lower bound value of wealth per capita that can be defined as necessary for every human being to live at some level of comfort above subsistence (let’s call that the “adequate” level). I base this level on the needs for food, shelter, clothing, companionship, and other factors that allow individuals to achieve a modest level of ‘self-actualization’, a condition I believe was part of the Paleolithic condition of humans when sapiens became a dominant species. Assuming a fair distribution such that each person possesses exactly their per capita share of wealth, then the number of people on the planet is limited to the amount of wealth that can be produced.

Claim: Wealth is produced by physical work and requires energy flow (free energy) to accomplish. The amount of wealth produced is proportional to the amount of energy available to do useful work and the amount of raw resources available for extraction.

The total wealth of the world is based on the accumulated wealth produced over the history of the work done less the drain on wealth due to consumption (active degradation of physical objects) and entropic decay (passive degradation) over the same time frame. Growth in wealth is defined as the positive increase in wealth or net wealth of production less degradation per unit of time. In order to maintain a steady state condition the amount of wealth growth must be exactly what is needed to accommodate the population growth over the same time frame.

Wealth derives from work done on natural resources, converting them to usable objects, including food. Among the mix of natural resources used there are those that are finite in availability. Among those most are extracted with greater effort as the supply is depleted (extraction is always per the “best first” principle). Fossil fuels are special cases of energy resources. They are finite in quantity and obey the same diminishing return laws such that the net energy available for work declines as the resource is depleted. That is, it takes more energy per unit of energy extracted and the net energy return declines over time.

Thus the growth of wealth is limited by the marginal cost of extracting resources and the marginal net energy available for extraction and conversion to human use. For example the extraction of iron ore and its conversion to steel is limited by both the depletion of ore and of fossil fuels (usually coal).

There is an upper bound on the total wealth that can ever be produced but no bound on the degradation of wealth. Since the production of wealth will ultimately decline (growth will go to zero) due to the depletion limits a point will be reached when no new wealth can be produced and only degradation will take place.

If the population continues to grow[1] then it is clear that the wealth per capita must decline and do so precipitously when wealth production rates fall below degradation rates.

The current evidence strongly supports the claim that wealth production is now in decline, yet population growth continues. The global economic situation today is a symptom of this decline. It is true that the decline is unevenly distributed throughout the world, giving rise to the illusion that, for example, isolated pockets such as the US economy, are on the mend from the longest and deepest global recession in history. Aside from the fact that most of this illusion is produced by erroneous economic models and government statistics that are biased, the US economy is temporarily seeming to be regaining strength (that is starting to grow!) but the ground truth for millions of households is quite different from the reports trumpeted by the media.

ERGO: The wealth per capita is also in decline and that needed to sustain the adequate level of life support for every individual is already below its lower bound.

This dynamic explains the vast numbers of poor people in the world. There simply isn’t enough wealth to go around. Even if we were to redistribute the existing wealth of the world (a Robin Hood action) there would not be enough to support the adequate level of living (or we could redefine adequate to be closer to and approaching subsistence rather than providing some level of comfort and joy). If the population were to continue to grow as projected, say, by the UN demographers, leading to some nine billion individuals by the end of this century, and no energy miracle emerged to compensate for the reduction in fossil fuel availability, then the per capita wealth would likely fall below subsistence. Since distribution is unequal this translates into billions of people starving to death or dying of rampant diseases (not even considering natural disasters).

2. Neoliberal[2], free-market, profit-driven capitalism (NL-FM-PD-C) can no longer be the operating model of economic life.

Claim: This model requires continual growth of wealth production over time. Even if it were to support the objective of providing a fair distribution of wealth (which it doesn’t) it is physically impossible by proposition 1 to sustain this model. The attempt to try to maintain the model under current conditions of depleted resources will cause a cataclysmic collapse of global civilization. Moreover, however, it can be shown that each of the main components of the NL-FM-PD-C model is fundamentally flawed. It is possible that if only one or two were so flawed that the others might contribute to a new economic model that would work. But all of them are flawed and demonstration of this supports proposition 2.

Neoliberal ideology. Humans are supposed to conquer nature and convert the “abundance” of the planet to their uses. Only human satisfaction counts on this planet and that should be maximized. However, not all humans are created equal. Only the worthy elite are entitled to aggregate larger proportions of wealth as long as the working masses have adequate wealth to sustain their lesser lives. Worthiness is based on attributes such as cleverness, ambition, and drive, which are ingredients in producing wealth. Those that are responsible for wealth production are entitled to a larger share of the rewards.

These sentiments favor individualism and ignore contributions from groups or collectivism (the sentiment that the group is the unit of interest). Science, particularly evolutionary psychology and sociology now tell us this is not correct at all. Group selection played a major role in making humans what we are and group efforts and collective decisions are known to be superior to individual efforts and judgments. We humans evolved to be eusocial creatures who are able through interpersonal communications and visibility into one another’s minds (our ability to model other’s intentions known as ‘Theory of Mind’) is the very thing that make our species fit and produced our superior (biologically speaking) capacity to adapt. We do so in groups not as individuals.

The objectives of neoliberalism based on these sentiments are just plain wrong. However, we should note that humans are not yet evolved to perfect eusociality. Each individual, remaining a biological agent, retains remnants of individualism when pressed and under stress. Capacities for selfishness and even narcissistic tendencies are still part of the human psyche. Amplified by the culture of greed that neoliberal objectives entail, it is possible for observers of human behavior (in economic matters) to wrongly conclude that these qualities are dominant. Indeed some have argued from a misreading of evolution theory that these qualities are what made us successful (e.g. Social Darwinism’s reliance on competition and survival of the fittest). Since greed and selfishness play into the neoliberal agenda and became a self-fulfilling prophesy of success in wealth production the narrative of NL-FM-PD-C has become generally accepted and is all too believable for naive minds. Yet it is counter to what science shows us is true for human evolution and the success of human enterprise. It is a myth that is self-reinforcing because it suggests to those who believe it that they have the right (and by implication the prospects) to become rich by virtue of their cleverness and efforts[3].

Free-market assumptions. Core to the idea of market-based economies is the dictum of laissez faire economic activities, or non-intervention by a higher authority (governments) in economic affairs. It is related to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ metaphor in that individuals guided by self-interests will, nevertheless, cooperate in trade so that everyone is better off. Thus there is no need for governments to regulate those activities. The neoliberal extension holds that if governments do intervene it will distort market information and create biases that will interfere with maximizing wealth.

It should be granted that in historical and contemporary cases where governments have interfered with market mechanisms they have a mixed record of success at best, and too often abject failures. The failures of the communist planned economies are cited by nearly everyone as examples of government ineptitude in meddling in economic activities. And the criticisms are valid up to a point. Those particular experiments in collectivism were based on ignorance and bad judgement. What you cannot conclude from their failures, however, is that markets are totally capable of self-regulation. It simply does not follow from the failures that the NL-FM-PD-C model is therefore the best (and as some claim the only) one for the economy.

In fact I have already delved into the question of whether free markets are really that efficacious in solving all economic problems as is touted by neoclassical economics and neoliberal fundamentalists. Taking the systems perspective and analyzing market mechanisms I concluded in Could Free Markets Solve All Economic Problems that they really can’t. There are too many flaws in the conception of free markets to cover here (please read the above post), but basically it comes down to a few basic principles. First exchange markets depend on veridical information in order to balance true costs with prices. Nothing like that exists in the neoliberal version of markets. Their version depends on competition and, therefore, proprietary knowledge that obfuscates true costs. Prices do not necessarily reflect costs (see my comments below re: profits) and therefore the equations of wealth are never balanced realistically.

In neoclassical economics trading decisions are made by rational self-interested agents. Once again science has demonstrated that this assumption is simply not met in the real world[4]. The models of markets foisted by neoclassical economists (and that includes the so-called liberal economists like Paul Krugman) are invalid even before other assumptions are included.

Finally, and as I covered in my blog post linked to above, markets deteriorate with scales of distance and time. They degrade with complexity. Simple network models of market message flows through unreliable (human decision making) nodes clearly demonstrate that the supposed information needed for markets to “clear” declines non-linearly as the number of ‘hops’ through the network increase linearly. Information is supposedly conveyed through prices established by the decisions of buyers and sellers. When these agents are non-rational, non-privileged regarding true cost information, and are at great distances from nodes that are relevant to the value of the good being bought or sold, there is no way that the market can perform magic and get everything right.

These theoretical considerations should be sufficient to put neoliberal, neoclassical thoughts about free markets to rest once and for all. Of course we now know that science will never trump religious beliefs among low sapient individuals, which is what these ideologies are. But what about the actual experience, the evidence from daily life? Shouldn’t that count for something? Consider all of the various “bubbles” and scams that have been experienced in virtually every market framework. How could such things happen if markets were truly capable of solving economic problems? Think of Alan Greespan’s infamous admission that what he believed about the market place turned out to be wrong[5]. Even with these humble pie crumbs still on his lips, he still persists in asserting that the free market is the solution to all problems. Religious beliefs are very hard to nullify even with clear evidence of contrary reality.

Profit-driven Capitalism assumptions.

Possibly the single biggest fallacy perpetrated by all economic theories (neoclassical or heterodoxical) is that of “profit”. Not that profits don’t actually exist, of course, but that profits need to be made continually over the long run. Profits, in natural systems, are the episodic accumulation of product in excess of production costs that occur because of unusually favorable conditions that do not represent the norm. For example when a wheat farmer has a bumper crop he can readily store the excess (over his use) against a time when crop production is sub-par. Profits can be used in this manner to smooth out the rough spots in the long run in what is otherwise a steady-state dynamic[6]. Up until recently the primary drive for continual profit increases came from business expansion due to the growth of populations and increasing market sizes. More recently that growth has been replaced by the so-called globalization phenomenon that replaces expansion within a region with expansion to other continents; made possible by the use of transportation and fossil fuels. But the real source of profit has always been the increase in energy availability.

Human cultural evolution included the discovery of various energy flow enhancing means, either new sources of more powerful fuels or new tool technologies that increased the efficiency of both energy extraction (e.g. the water wheel) and production (e.g. the belt-driven loom). With these advantages the production of profits seemed to be perpetual. We humans seemed to have transcended the laws of nature and could generally count of making more wealth than we used up or fell apart. Thus we came to believe that profits are always feasible and became a normal part of economic theory. Unfortunately this was a misconception about how nature works. It depended entirely on the growth of energy flow, most recently from fossil fuel sources, to sustain. And energy flows, up until now, were generally always increasing. We humans came to believe deeply that profit making was the normal mode of living and something to be pursued. After all, this is how one gets rich!

But now those pesky laws of nature, in particular the first and second laws of thermodynamics, are demonstrating to us that in the very long run, it all balances out. Profit making is always temporary even if the time scale runs over many generations. We have plenty of historical evidence that is now being more correctly interpreted regarding the collapse of past societies[7]. Namely civilizations, particularly empires, collapsed because they ran out of energy. They could no longer make profits but the momentum of continued expansion (and population growth) required that they did so. All such societies eventually turned to debt-based financing, that is borrowing against future profits when none were going to be made. Essentially they consumed their previously accumulated wealth and the people in the working classes in a desperate attempt to keep the society going. It was always a futile attempt.

Capitalism started out innocently enough. Suppose an enterprising individual (say in the Bronze age) saw a way to possibly make a profit from some new endeavor. He (historically they were generally he’s) had to gather together enough resource wealth (capital) to pay for the construction of whatever production facility was needed, and to initially pay the labor. There are any number of ways to get others who have saved some of their prior profits to invest (or loan) the resources needed with the promise that there will be a profit return. They will make more wealth from such a venture than they could have done with any other use of that wealth. In other words, in order to attract capital the entrepreneur had to promise superior profits. Sometimes this didn’t work out and people lost their investments. But during the rise of increasing energy flow (which meant the energy input was really cheap and almost not worth considering) and opportunities to freely dump waste products into nature’s lap, more often than not, they succeeded.

But as our energy resources now begin to shrink and the pollution of our dumping is overwhelming us it should be clear that the idea of capitalism based on making superior profits was just plain ignorant. It was literally too good to be true.

Technology Salvation Assumptions

There is one more assumption that is often closely associated with the whole model and that is that technology will always come to our rescue. Fundamentally this seems true on the face of it. We have always managed to invent our way out of binds in the past, so naturally we assume that we shall be able to do so in the future. Nowhere is this more the case than with energy supply, and in particular, replacing dirty carbon-based fuels with “clean” alternative energy sources such as solar PV and wind power.

The impetus to believe that these technologies are ramping up and are capable of providing sufficient power to society such that it might get along as before (as promulgated in the popular media) is generated by several factors. One is that, as I stated, throughout history we have witnessed inventions transforming our world so have come to expect that will continue to be the case. In particular we witnessed the incredible phenomenon of microelectronics revolutionizing the field of computing and communications, with costs plummeting down as the scales of components shrank (Moore’s Law). There is a natural tendency to transfer the ideas of what we’ve seen in computing to the production of energy. That is, we imagine a technology that will allow us to generate abundant low-cost energy (high power) that will lead to a brighter future. Right now the focus is on solar and wind. Another factor driving our belief is that most of us simply cannot imagine the contrapositive. We cannot believe that all of this magic is going to come to an end. Many of us (actually most of us) are polyannish optimists and absolutely NEED to believe a solution will be found.

But the ability to hold onto such beliefs stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding, mostly, thermodynamics (the physics of energy) and a deeper understanding of the history of technology and invention. Space doesn’t permit a full explanation of why these alternative energy sources are not likely to provide what we are looking for. They may provide a small fraction of power to buy us a bit of time. But eventually when the carbon-sources are no longer viable these technologies will have to be self-sustaining, that is they will have to provide all of the power to rebuild and repair themselves. Not all the data is in, but to date that likelihood is slim. Even if they could, they would still have to produce an excess of power that would be used by the economy for other work. The current belief that efficiencies (for example) will be improving to a point where one day these technologies will provide the power fail to notice the trends in technological innovations, particularly with respect to energy. Most of our past successes have been with increasing efficiencies because the starting points for our machines were so low. Over the past few decades many technologies have been experiencing decreasing rates of improvement. We are approaching the limits of efficiency increases and even where such increases are happening it is with the inclusion of materials that are rare or expensive to make. And that is because it takes significant energy to make or extract them.

Profit desires drove us to increase efficiencies or productivity (the human equivalent) and now profit desire persists even when the possibility of increasing these is declining. Part of the economic system’s shift to debt financing is because we still believe that efficiencies must increase and therefore we need to continue to invest in pursuing that agenda. But the reality is that they will not. There will be no great increase in the flow of high-power energy in the future due to technological innovation. There will be no magical increases in efficiencies that defy the laws of physics. Wishes do not make reality. Only nature does that.

ERGO: Profit making will have to go, and with it the notion of free-market capitalism. This is especially the case for rentier profits and investment profits, i.e. making money on money. But all enterprise must convert to non-profit operations. Companies that make useful things or provide necessary services will need to be taken over by employee collectives. The revenues obtained should be just enough to cover costs, including, of course, employees’ salaries. Management of such companies would be in the hands of employees and no manager would make a salary much greater than the average worker’s.

Such an economy is inconceivable to most people but in truth that is because they have never known any other way and the myth of profit-motivated self-interest has been the societal norm for so long it is hard for anyone to imagine that it could be different. But a non-profit based society is the evolutionary norm for Homo sapiens and under declining energy flows it will be absolutely essential. There is no profit possible other than under conditions of short-term energy surpluses. With those a thing of the past, only non-profit activities can be sustained. And then only if the activity produces something that contributes to productive lives.

3. Replace Globalized NL-FM-PD-C with Localized Collectivist Economies based on Sharing.

Claim: There is a more viable alternative to the current model of socio-economics based on selfishness and self-interest-based decisions. The new model is actually the old model for humans. It is based on cooperation, empathy, and sharing resources and wealth. It is the kind of economy that existed for many millennia before the advent of agriculture. We might call it the “Tribal” model. The model depends on tribes that are fairly local and limited in spatial scope, and therefore manageable. That is they are localized and essentially self-sufficient within their locales. This will be a necessary model.

Scale Considerations. Transportation will be limited in both rate and distance due to the declining availability of long-range fossil fuel vehicles. Machinery power will also be limited. Local production of power (most likely from hydroelectric or alternative energies if they can be shown to be self-sustaining) and limited storage capacities will necessarily limit transportation of goods. Therefore economies localized to regions, defined by the limits of transportation, will need to be crafted. The basics of life, food, shelter, water, etc. will be the main focus of the economy. Clothing, furniture, and other such personal belongings will need to be constructed from locally grown plants and trees. In most respects the only kind of lifestyle that can be supported in a low energy world will resemble small village/town assemblies of the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s.

Manufacturing and service providing companies will have to be employee-owned and run collectives (as above). All markets will be local. With more people having greater insight into what it takes to build something or provide a service, the value/price setting will be based on costs, including personal labor, rather than merely a market-set one based on whatever that market will bear.

Value Assessment Considerations. A new kind of accounting (or actually a very old kind) that measures value added based on energy used plus a factor for skill[8] would be the basis for setting prices. Markets for goods and services in a localized economy would resemble the old farmer’s markets and their scale would be manageable. In such a market buyers and sellers will have adequate knowledge and be able to agree prices more readily.

Cooperativity Considerations. Human beings, when not stressed by over population (density stresses) are more open and empathetic than when they feel they must compete to make ends meet. Cooperation and agreements are much more viable under a localized economic system. However, that economy must be capable of meeting all of the needs of the members. This means settlements, villages, or other living arrangements will need to be situated in habitable locations. Food production must be possible and climate cannot be too severe. It is very likely that there will be very limited choices of locations in the near future. In keeping with the idea that population size will start to shrink, and rapidly, it may be possible to find enough of these locations to satisfy supporting a breeding population in a steady-state condition. That will take permaculture engineering[9] to work out the requirements and design the systems.

Ecos Damage Considerations. The NL-FM-PD-C model is destroying our Ecos. Coupled with the drive to consume, desire for convenience, and power/speed pursuits, we dump CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans causing global warming and ocean acidification that is disrupting the very basis of our ecosystems. The quest for profits drive all manner of chemical pollution and soil deterioration. This alone should condemn the model. Unfortunately there are stubborn minds who’s livelihood depends on the extractive and polluting industries for their wealth and who, buying into the model’s justification, that it produces wealth, refuse to believe the evidence. Those same minds have gained influence over the governance system so as to prevent any rational response to this situation. But the degree and rate of degradation of our Ecos is directly due to the expansion of the NL-FM-PD-C model over the globe. Moreover, the evidence that we have reached and possibly already exceeded the limits beyond which permanent damage is done has mounted. By some reckoning we have at best a few years to completely reverse our course or drive our planet into another regime, one completely hostile to our existence[10].

Ergo: There is a better way to live than the global NL-FM-PD-C model. That better way restores the more ancient human traits that emerged when we became sapiens and allows us to live in a cooperative, small scale community. Living in small local communities does not necessarily mean we have to live like cave dwellers with only stone axes and animal skins. It does mean that we will abandon much of the current high-tech material wealth that many consider essential, like iPhonesTM. Our societies may be able to retain some forms of technology that are essential to supporting life, such as water-driven generators for limited electricity. But I suspect when the choice between TV and food is to be made most of us will choose correctly. Wise choices about what technology to maintain and what to give up will need to be made.

4. Reduce Consumption and Production of Non-Essential Goods and Services.

Claim: The only way a new (old) socio-economic system can work is to walk away from the current NL-FM-PD-C one that depends on constant and increasing consumption. What is produced and used should contribute to sustaining the steady-state tribal economy.

By all the arguments given above it should be clear that there is no physical way to sustain a NL-FM-PD-C system. And if you can’t you can’t. The alternative is to radically reduce our consumption (for those who are consuming) as well as stop growing our population. We will have to give up producing worthless goods or providing worthless services. My guess is that something like 80% of the population will need to be engaged in food growing, processing, and transportation since food is the number one stuff that will be needed. With a declining population there will be no need for new building construction. More work will be put to repairing existing housing or converting some formerly commercial properties into housing for workers.

Clearly this is a bleak picture compared with the ordinary vision we have of a bright tomorrow where we have even more stuff. Basically it probably exceeds your worst dystopian nightmares. Governance will need to be autocratic and organized along the hierarchical control theoretic lines. One would hope that those taking decision-making roles would be wise, but given the likelihood of finding such people is very low, it is more likely they will be despotic. At least one might hope they would have the objective of saving the genus in mind. That would mean they would recognize the need to reduce the population and consumption with emphasis on the use of energy to produce useful goods (food, clothing, tools, etc.)

Bear in mind, however, we are talking not about some monolithic state or government. The only practical way that humans will live in the future is in those localized and limited scale tribes. My speculation is that resources will become so scarce and energy to extract any that might still exist so unavailable that no one group will be able to gain any particular advantage over others. They simply would not be able to manage in the old fashion of expanding empires, and it wouldn’t matter how ruthless their leaders might be. No basic (seed) resources, no capacity to wage war and take over others who are, themselves, living in subsistence conditions. This leads to a further speculation that there will be a few of these tribes that are fortunate enough to be led by truly wise individuals. Those few may enjoy higher than average cooperativity internally and thus be more fit as a group to survive the changes that will be in store.

Perhaps for the next several hundred thousand years these tribal humans will be tested by a whole new Ecos. They will live low tech, though not necessarily stone-age, lives. We have learned a lot of science and with the right combination of cleverness and wisdom should be able to live comfortably within nature’s limits. As long as we pay careful attention to how the Ecos is changing.

5. Focus on Adaptation to Climate Variations.

Claim: Dramatic, possibly catastrophic, climate change is now baked into the cake and will impact every region to one degree or another. Some areas, like the higher latitudes, will be affected more than others in terms of extreme conditions. But all will suffer climate shifts that lead to more severe storms and changes in rainfall patterns. Humans are going to need every bit of adaptive capability to live under these conditions.

Above all else future humans will need to continually adapt to changing and possibly violent climates. Not unlike the impact of the glaciation periods followed by receding glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, climate changes are going to significantly stress the biosphere. More so than the Ice Ages, the climate changes our progeny will experience will come more rapidly and be more extreme than our ancestors experienced. Surviving and thriving under these conditions will take every ounce of wisdom that tribes can muster. They are likely to have to be semi-nomadic as growing conditions in an area change. They will have to be super observant of plant characteristics that enable them to grow under otherwise stressful conditions and select those that can be relied upon for food for planting.

Most paleoanthropologists now believe that climate changes due to the Ice Ages were responsible for driving the evolution of hominins in Africa, by changing the local conditions over thousands of years. What now appears to be a large speciation of a number of hominins, especially those events that led to the emergence of our genus, Homo was, to a large degree, driven by these climate impacts. It is conceivable that future climate changes will once again drive the evolution of the genus.

No one can predict evolution’s results. However, I think it is possible to observe the major transition patterns that have occurred in prior evolutionary trajectories and make reasonable suppositions about what might come about in the future[11]. Those transitions demonstrate that biology has always found ways for cooperation to emerge and trump mere competition. Our very bodies, as multicellular organisms, are the result of such a transition. Group selection is now favored as an explanation for the evolution of human sociality and I also add to that the evolution of sapience (the two phenomenon are tightly linked, in my view). Tribes were evolving toward stronger eusociality (hyper-sociality) prior to the advent of agriculture and the requisite need for more top-down command and control style management systems with emphasis on logistical and tactical management (and less on strategic management which is the basis of sapient cooperativity). We traded off selection for greater wisdom capacity for food security. It was a reasonable trade off given the state of scientific ignorance we lived in. But it did dampen our potential increase in sapience over the last ten millennia or so.

If it was climate adaptation that drove hominin evolution to the point of producing this emergent new psyche based on sapience, then it might be reasonable to expect that selection based on climate change could once again drive that in the direction of a new transition — human societies based on hyper-social individuals cooperating in an economic system that is not based on profit, competition, etc.

Of course none of us will ever know what will play out. We will all be dead by the time the trends are more evident. My reason for considering these issues is that part of wisdom is using our knowledge, both tacit and explicit, to shape our world as best we can given the circumstances. That is what we have always done with our quest for more energy and our inventiveness. But what we did before we did in ignorance of the consequences. Now we see what those consequences of unfettered growth and profit-taking are. If a few surviving tribes are wise enough they might use that knowledge to reshape our social structures so as to avoid the mistakes we have made along the pathway to our current condition. It is still possible that the changes in climate will be so severe that no humans will survive and our species and genus, the whole Hominini experiment will fail. We will suffer extinction as a whole tribe. Indeed the likelihood of survival of any of the still extant hominin, the great apes, is negligible, so that the planet may end up with no very smart primates at all. But I hope that is not going to be the case.

The Likelihood

The solution to Fermi’s Paradox may be very simple. The reason that no sentient beings are flitting about Earth in flying saucers is that all such beings reach a point in technological development where their wisdom is insufficient to squelch the advent of the NL-FM-PD-C economic paradigm! The latter takes hold of the minds (like memes) and dooms the species to extinction. They can then never get outside their own star systems to explore their galaxies. If we had to extrapolate from our own experience that certainly looks to be a likely scenario.

A more likely scenario is that all such beings simply exploit their energy reserves before they achieve interstellar propulsion capabilities (assuming such is even possible). It might be because of the NL-FM-PD-C meme taking over or it could be that it simply takes almost all energy just to get to the technological point of getting off the planet and further technological advancement becomes too expensive[12].

Regardless, I think it is extremely likely that our genus, if it manages to survive the next ten thousand years, will be a long time getting back to a technological level close to what we have today. We won’t be exploring the galaxy any time soon. We will be taking a giant leap backwards, resetting our evolutionary progression. And it will be quite a while before a wiser, perhaps smarter, species derived from Homo sapiens will be looking into leaving Earth again.


[1] Actually the relevant measure is not body counts but biomass increase per unit time. The resource consumption rate is dependent on this factor which takes into account things like demographic distribution of ages.

[2] The term is being used here in its ideological sense. The new “liberals” believe in the supremacy of the free-market and capitalism as the very best economic model insofar as it produces enormous wealth. See the Wikipedia article for more details and read Naomi Kline’s The Shock Doctrine.

[3] Interestingly luck is never mentioned in this narrative. Yet if you read the biographies of so-called self-made people (mostly white males) you cannot help but note the significance of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people had on so many stories. Granted being prepared to take advantage of luck was important, but the luck itself was far more significant than the neoliberal narrative lets on.

[4] The work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see: Heuristics and biases) and many experimental economists have decidedly demonstrated that humans, even corporate captains, are far from rational decision makers when it comes to economics.

[5] From the Wikipedia article on Greespan:

In Congressional testimony on October 23, 2008, Greenspan finally conceded error on regulation. The New York Times wrote, “a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending. … Mr. Greenspan refused to accept blame for the crisis but acknowledged that his belief in deregulation had been shaken.”

[6] By steady-state I mean a system that is in the very long run receiving an average influx of energy that is used to produce exactly the amount of wealth that is needed to balance that degraded by consumption and entropy. This would have been the case for the earliest human tribes whether hunter-gatherers or early farmers.

[7] My favorite analyses of civilization collapses include Joseph Tainter‘s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down.

[8] An unskilled worker will tend to use more energy for the same output delivered so the final price has to be adjusted accordingly. The energy being used for measurement purposes is net ‘free’, in the thermodynamic sense, which takes this into account.

[9] I recently became aware of another “flavor” of systems based agriculture called agro-ecology. Though I have only just started investigating this concept it appears to be mostly about food production whereas permaculture addresses more holistic community living.

[10] If you only read one book on any of the issues related to Ecos damage and its relation to the NL-FM-PD-C model I strongly recommend This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She has done her homework. I disagree with some of her characterizations of alternative energy being ready to take over from fossil fuels; she has cited a few engineers who produced a grand scheme several years back, reported in Scientific American, that I have already critiqued and has been criticised by a number of other energy researchers. Nevertheless, her ability to connect the dots of finance, ideologies, politics, governance failures, and geophysical realities is in the best tradition of systems thinking.

[11] See: Maynard Smith, John & Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Several other books on this topic have been written in the past few years. The field of group-based evolutionary selection is now fairly well established even if there remain some significant questions about the implications.

[12] My own preferred explanation is that they simply don’t want to be detected. If they had at all monitored activity on Earth they would more or less likely not want to get involved with such primitive beings as ourselves.

The Evolution of Governance

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on September 24, 2014


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The Evolution of Governance

Previous posts in this series:

  1. How Does Nature Manage Complexity?
  2. Systems Science and the Political Economy
  3. Governance of an Economy
  4. A Sapient Political Economic System

A Brief History of Evolving Social-Economic Governance

In the blog post, Systems Science and the Political Economy I tried to show how the concepts of economics, social organization, and the political process are all intertwined and based on extended physiology — the interactions between the physiologies and psychologies of eusocial beings. I started with a primitive social system where the participants were starting to specialize by talent in the production of tools or services that were needed to keep the group successful and fit. As Adam Smith had long ago recognized, specialization and cooperation is the key to success of the whole enterprise (this latter observation was expressed in his lesser referenced book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments). In this post I would like to run through a brief recount of how social and economic governance has evolved through history. There is a single caveat to make: all of this history is based on the fact that the decision agents involved in both the general social organization/economy and the governance structures have been humans and only as sapient as the species had evolved in the late Pleistocene.

In all likelihood early sapiens formed groups based on extended families. These groups were small, maybe twenty to fifty individuals across all ages. They were hunter-gatherers with a still relatively primitive set of tools consisting of digging sticks, stone blades and axes, and possibly thrusting sticks (spears). They may have scavenged meat more than hunted it but they had mastered the use of fire for cooking and hardening wooden shaft points. They probably built temporary shelters but were primarily nomadic, at least over a large territory, following food opportunities. This was the milieu in which we imagine the first specialists emerged. Certain individuals were good at chipping rocks, others good at finding root foods, etc. Men were probably the primary hunters and as tools like throwing spears and later bows and arrows improved we suspect certain individuals tended to excel in the hunt while others were good at butchering. If we can extrapolate from contemporary indigenous peoples’ organizations then the tribe was guided strategically by the wise elders, a council group, with perhaps a headman providing tactical leadership for hunting and conflicts with other groups when they occurred. I consider this as the root form of governance that evolved along with and because of human genetic evolution. Language was an integral part of this evolution as the organization of a primitive market of specialist agents undoubtedly required significant communication to coordinate activities. Aside from the time-to-time conflicts over territorial disputes, groups interacted with one another to trade special goods and especially brides to ensure against inbreeding. The main form of interaction within the group was cooperation even while that between groups vacillated between competition and cooperation (trade). Thus logistical management was probably minimal since all individuals could easily see everything that went on within the tribe and each individual’s behavior was guided by a strong moral sense of what was best for the group.

This root form persisted even after the discovery of horticulture as a process. Originally tribes, probably driven by climate changes in Africa, started settling in year-around camps where they could be assured of water and good soils. Effectively they were still tribes and they still tended to generate specialists, but now doing farming instead of hunting and gathering. Note, however, this was not a universal phenomenon. Some tribes in more arid areas remained nomadic and reliant on herding of ungulates for a living. These tribes would evolve a governance form that was more suited for a more demanding and constrained lifestyle.

Early agriculture was wildly successful and tribal villages grew into larger many-family units. As the Mesolithic age transitioned into the Neolithic and later the Bronze age tools were evolving rapidly. The plow, drawn by oxen, for example, revolutionized agricultural practices and provided for an explosion in food production and, consequently, populations. With increasing complexity and decreasing transparency in terms of the work of specialists, the need for logistical management arose as did a class of ‘managers,’ such as the granary manager and the scribes who accounted for the volumes of grains and other food stuffs stored for future consumption. The need to protect farmlands and villages also called for some of the stronger men to become warriors from time to time. They needed weapons (built by specialists) and supplies when needed. Thus the interface between logistical and tactical management for protection was established. The same was true for trade with more distant settlements. Someone had to organize the trade excursions and then manage the artifacts and foods to be traded. Coordination management emerged as a class of people who did not get directly involved in the on-going production of food or the crafts that produced the artifacts needed to produce food and support daily living. The beginnings of a layered hierarchical management system emerged from the need to coordinate many specialized work processes and coordination specialists emerged from this structure. The bureaucracy was born.

The question of strategic management is not easily discerned. As with the above described tribal organization, a council of wise elders and a headman or chief whose primary duty was to implement the strategic decisions of the elders may have morphed as the needs for tactical and logistical management grew more prominent. Once permanent villages were formed, in essence the strategy of life became fixed. Grow food to feed the population, protect the land, and seek out alliances for trade and protection purposes. The wise elders probably devolved into the function of advisors as opposed to leaders. The role of the headman evolved into that of mayors and later kings. They took more power as leaders and eventually “law givers.” The beginnings of autocracy and authoritarian rule vested in one individual were at hand. This is the point in cultural evolution when the selective forces that had favored increasing sapience were reduced. The selective forces for ruthlessness and power seeking from competition between the various coordination level managers for the leadership job took over. Most often, history tells us, the top dog was the one most honed in military capabilities. As regional populations grew and put pressure on the land, competition for resources (soil in particular) came to be a permanent pattern of interactions. Thus military men gained the skills in leading.

This new framework for organization was incredibly successful. Within a seemingly short time small villages gave way to more elaborate towns and cities in key environments (e.g., Egypt and Mesopotamia). The age of civilizations and empires emerged and the complexity of life exploded. The surrounding farm villages and the farms themselves were somewhat unaffected by this transition in terms of daily life. But of course they became subservient to the city centers that now needed resources brought in from the surrounding land. A more elaborate military was needed to protect the towns and surrounding lands. Tactical management was raised to a new level. For some reason, however, logistics management in its full form never advanced beyond the issuance of currencies and collection of taxes, which are not really serving the economy so much as making the bureaucracy possible. Even as cities grew in complexity and workshops became increasingly opaque to their customers, the governing class left the logistics pretty much to the marketplace. They could get by with this approach only because the vast majority of humans are inherently motivated by cooperative moral sentiments. The proportion of cheaters was (and still is) relatively small by comparison with the cooperators and the instances of dispute could be managed by a magistrate judiciary. Occasionally truly egregious disputes and wrongs needed to be referred to a “higher court”, but for the most part the marketplace remained reasonably self-regulating[1]

Rather than governments taking a direct hand in logistic management, by assisting the direct regulation of interprocess transactions and distribution of resources, a different, non-governmental form of logistic management emerged from the practice of sequestering excess foodstuffs for later consumption and as insurance against a bad harvest. Once abstract monetary tokens came into widespread use, they rapidly began to represent stored wealth and a new institution, the bank, arose as a means for sequestering these tokens. The idea that bankers should receive their income from a portion of each savings account was probably the first version of managing that resource. But very soon another practice came into existence. As with granaries that stored seeds and from which seeds could be borrowed, for example, to start planting a new field (an investment in the future), banks started lending small amounts of stored money to finance new trade ventures. And just as the granary needed to be paid back in full (with possibly a small increment more), the bank could charge a fee for the use of the money — interest payments. But here is where the twist came in. In order to convince the people saving their “wealth” in the bank that this practice was sound, they paid the savers a small fee for keeping their money in the bank and thus available to the bankers to make loans. This was the first foray of the monetary system into logistics (as described in A Sapient Political Economic System as the origin of “monetary policy.”) Banks loaning money out to borrowers effectively creates second-order money because it is cash that is supposedly existing in two places at once. It is both in the bank at least on the ledgers, and in the hands of someone else being used to buy things. If the savers want their money back, the bank would have to rob Peter to pay Paul, take out more money from other peoples’ deposits to restore the full amount of the account that is being withdrawn. The obvious risk is that if everyone wanted their money out at the same time the bank would not be able to give them their full due unless it could turn around and quickly pressure the borrowers to pay them back. Messy business.

This basic pattern worked pretty well most of the time. The banking industry achieved full status as an institution and with due prudence became respected and trusted. But then, banks struck an unholy alliance with governments. They started loaning money, for example, to finance armies and navies for war efforts. Those loans could only be paid back if the wars were won so those were risky business deals. In any case bankers became influential in government affairs (see, for example, The House of Medici) and, indeed the financial machinations of bankers and those of political heads of state became extremely intertwined and remain so down to the present. In spite of numerous downturns and failures, the banking industry seems to have survived quite well. The next major “innovation” in financial management came with the invention of bonds and stocks. Capitalism is basically a set of ways in which an investment class, those with the financial resources, can lend their “excess” wealth, or what would have been called savings, to new ventures, not unlike the loaning of seeds to start new fields.

As I wrote in A Sapient Political Economic System even today governments do not engage in true logistical management, preferring and believing that markets can solve all of those pesky distribution problems more efficiently than can people. This belief emerged and evolved into its current “free market” version as a result of the observations made by Adam Smith regarding the mythical “invisible hand.” Indeed, Smith was noting that there was a logistical function that seemed to be taken care of by self-interested parties working out trades in an open market setting. Smith’s observation may have hit on an underlying truth about coordination even as it has been lost on those eager to use this observation as an excuse for maximizing profit taking. In one sense Smith’s observation, made in much simpler marketplaces, is basically true, if the decisions are left strictly to people to make when all relevant information is available to them. But as I also pointed out, with proper scientific-based methodologies and an appropriate objective function those decisions could be based on facts-of-the-matter and not human opinion. Better still, with sapient agents there would be little question as to the efficacy of logistical decisions.

The notion of a free market being the solution to all problems has been reinforced by the the failures of so-called planned economies. The few attempts that governments have made to “plan” an economy have ended fairly disastrously. The former Soviet Union comes to mind. China was going down the same road but has recently morphed from a communist state to a modified capitalist state with somewhat less planning and a good deal of new knowledge gleaned from watching the progress of the West and the failures of the Soviet Union. But even in the modern China we have evidence of the failures of their approach to logistic management. For example, China has a horrendous commercial real-estate bubble (as well as a private bubble) due to poor planning.

Evolution of a Sapient Socio-Economic Management System

If human socio-economic hierarchical management were to have evolved in ways that reflect a more “organic” form, what would be different between what was described above and some kind of “ideal”? This is an exercise (possibly in futility) to try and discern how such a system might be obtained. As a starting point, assume that there will be a reset of civilization. And not just to a lower technological civilization but to a very low technology collection of tribes. Let’s consider what a future evolution of society might look like. Furthermore, let’s consider what that evolution might look like in the case where the social agents, the people, have evolved greater sapience[2].

I suspect that the main difference at the operational level, the level where people are attending to daily life and production of goods and services will come from something that might look like altruism but is actually the result of desires to cooperate and to do what is good for society. The profit motive will have been reduced back to the need to make and save a small profit as a buffer against bad times. Indeed, when the larders are full and account for the average demand during those bad times, the producers of goods and services may elect to back off of volume and/or price. Volume could be adjusted based on demand/need and price could reflect the actual costs of production. There would be no premium to collect to take advantage of fellow tribespeople. Every producer would consider the whole of the society in setting prices and availability based on actual costs and availability of inputs. These are morally-motivated decisions and not profit-motivated.

Operational level management is primarily concerned with quality aspects of products and services. Just as craftspersons of old cared about their reputation and thus paid careful attention to quality details, sapient producers would monitor their outputs for quality sake and make adjustments to maintain or improve that quality. But a big difference is a subtle shift from concern for reputation to keep sales up to concern for the customer’s capacity to find value in the product or service. In other words this too looks a bit like altruism but is not because the producer is not compromised by performing the necessary acts. Indeed, both producer and customer are enhanced as a result of the synergy afforded by the product or service. Society is better off as a result of a qualtity product being used, possibly to construct another quality product.

At the coordination level the question might be posed: If everyone is so cooperative and morally-motivated by their interactions in transactions, wouldn’t the market be sufficient to provide logistic coordination? And it is likely that with agents who are more discerning and honest in their communications, the likelihood that the marketplace could serve as a sufficient medium for logistics is probably high. But only as long as the complexity of the web of buyers and sellers is relatively simple and the nature of products and services is also relatively simple. At the stage of social evolution where the farming community is the mainstay of society, then this condition probably holds and simple marketplace mechanisms along with the above mentioned cooperativity and motivations of the agents would lead to efficient and satisfactory outcomes. This is what Adam Smith observed in Wealth of Nations, at least in terms of the workings going on in the lower echelons of commerce. Unfortunately, higher forms of financing and obfuscated transactions were already developed and starting to negatively impact those lower echelons even in Smith’s time. Just at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the bankers and lack of state-based logistics management were deepening the wedge between the rich rentier-capitalist classes and the poor working class. The moral sentiments that Smith also wrote about were fading.

Recall the main tools of logistic management, the budget and the accounting system? The evolution of a true hierarchical cybernetic system would involve the employment of these to help producers and consumers regulate themselves at the operational level and maximize cooperation. For the society, the maintenance of a global accounting system would allow all members to have information about the costs of everything and the prices that reflect fair trade. Something akin to a financial accounting system would let everyone know and understand the state of the whole community. With that knowledge, sapient agents would be able to adjust their activities and expectations. In the early agricultural days, and even before in the hunter-gatherer stages, everyone in the tribe knew very well what the status of the whole tribe was with respect to food and other resource supplies. Everyone got complete visability when it came to the stores of those resources. They could then individually take whatever action would be necessary to do their part to maintain or improve the status of the group. A global accounting system, not just for the governing “agencies” but for every operation within the society, would provide this same sort of information for more complex systems.

I imagine that at some point, as societies do grow within the limits imposed by the carrying capacity of the environment and by the availability of energy, there would need to be a function devoted to summarization and interpretation of the accounts. The information load from an accounting system, even for a moderate sized company requires a controller and financial managers to monitor the assets, liabilities, and equities as well as cash flows of the whole enterprise. Similarly, budgets relating to the whole community, the activities of individual producers and consumers would be employed to plan for resource allocations. Unlike planned economies such as tried in communist countries, budget development is not a strictly top-down process. Each operating unit provides input based on their operating experiences and the trends they see. For example, a producer may note an uptick in demand for a specific product and project the continuation of that demand increase. They would request additional resources to meet the demand and the budgeting process would ascertain the feasible allocations of resources given those requirements. The logistics coordinator would have to make decisions about actual allocations and their timing. But they would not simply decide one fine morning that making more “tractors” would boost the manufacturing sector of the GDP which would look good when reporting to their superiors. An approach to logistical management has simply never been tried in any economy. Yet it is the necessary form of management needed to deal with the kind of complexity found in societies beyond the simple village.

Higher sapience would make this kind of management possible simply because people would not feel they have to hide anything. The sentiment of proprietorship and secrecy about what goes into production would be much minimized. Thus agents would be willing to participate in accounting reporting (cost and financial) and would be happy to have comprehensive information about products and services. However, the major driving sentiment behind a sapient logistic management system would be the a priori willingness, even desire, for all participants to cooperate for the good of the whole. Today, perhaps due to cultural aberration and pressures to conform, most people are primarily interested in maximizing their own situation. Fewer in number, but still enough to make things really bad, are those who hold that same sentiment and are perfectly aware that doing so will harm others, yet they do not care. Nothing could be further from a sapient mind.

The form of tactical management would be as described in A Sapient Political-Economic System. But how would it evolve as societies evolved to greater complexity? Tactical management of a small community starts with attending to the state and trends associated with the community’s environment. The very first problem is how to grow enough food to maintain the health of the community. But other issues include finding building materials for shelters and materials for making other tools. Under the assumption of a reset of social evolution with small communities and those are spread out, and with the members of communities having some greater level of sapience, it is not hard to imagine that the tactical issues of interacting with other societies would be trade of goods and genes. However there is also the trading of information that would need special attention. If one group is experiencing stresses, say due to poor harvests, they might share this information with the other groups nearby. They might find out that those other groups, too, were experiencing stresses. Then, the groups might find ways to symbiotically cooperate to find synergies that would help all through the rough times. At minimum they could agree to spread out further apart to lessen the total human load on the environment. Of course I am not saying this would be easy, but more sapient minds would be more likely to seek cooperative solutions than resort to violence. More sapient minds, armed with knowledge about how the world works, would be in a position to find solutions. More sapient minds, remember, are strategic as well as morally-motivated. They would be less prone to the US-vs-THEM psychology that dominates our weaker form of mind.

Of course there is always the possibility that clusters of less sapient communities will have survived as well. Such communities are more likely to resort to violence in acts of desperation. Thus tactical management will also necessarily include military-like approaches for protection. There is nothing about higher sapience which precludes self protection. So, until or unless the lower sapient groups die off (due to unsuccessful competition with more sapient groups) the construction and maintenance of military capacity would remain part of the tactical management process.

What would be different is the role that strategic management would take in all tactical affairs. Agents tasked with tactical management (e.g. monitoring the health of the environment and the activities of potential enemies) would necessarily consult with the those tasked with strategic management — the wise elders or, in the case of smaller communities, the wise leader. Strategic management is always concerned with the state and trends of the world around the community. They also keep themselves informed of the state and trends of things within the community, the logistics and operations. They know and think about the strengths and weakness of the community and the threats and opportunities in the environment. Their job is to wisely guide the activities, both logistical and tactical, for the long-term stability and maintenance of the community.

Where do wise elders come from? Or a wise leader? If you read my working papers on sapience, especially about the evolution of sapience you would recall a discussion of the statistical distribution of sapience strength. In the extant population I conjecture that the distribution is not the ordinary normal curve but is quite skewed toward the low end of the scale. That is, the mean sapience level (like an SQ) is relatively low, with a rapidly declining tail off toward the high end. This is the result of the newness of the traits involved in integrated sapience. Given enough time in biological evolution and a continuance of selection factors favoring sapience, the curve would eventually tend toward normal (bell shaped). Well, if our reset populations are somehow more sapient that is what we would expect to see. And there will always be a minority (but a non-trivial one) of individuals who are much higher in the distribution just as there are people with higher IQs now.

The Key to a Hierarchical Cybernetic System

The key is good inter-module communications and veridical models for making control adjustments. Because no communication channel is perfect, there is always noise and ambiguity, nature learned a long time ago how to build communications systems with clever coding and redundancy. We humans have learned to do the same, but we low sapient humans have also managed to inject noise and ambiguity to hide reality from others we see as competitors (or suckers) and to hide from reality ourselves. We know how to do it right we just don’t have the guts to do so. At every turn we can rationalize obscuring the truth by believing that everyone else does so and we are just protecting our own interests. In a sapient society, a wiser people would understand the importance of reliable and complete communications. Unlike in the game of “Telegraph” where everyone laughs about the mangling of a message passed on by whisper from one person to another wiser people would work hard to ensure the fidelity of messages they handle.

This is not merely true within the marketplace but up and down the hierarchy of management. Workers would not hide mistakes from their coordinators for fear of punishment. They would be wise enough to realize that it is important to report problems so they can be fixed. They would have no fear because they also realize their coordinators are wise enough to understand that mistakes happen, things go wrong, and that it is not in anyone’s best interest to punish anybody when they do.

Similarly, the models of the subsystems used to make decisions must be as close to reality as they can economically be made to be. Models that are not sufficiently complete or riddled with ideological beliefs(such as the neo-classical, neo-liberal economics we mostly rely on today) that do not correspond with reality are worse than useless. They cause damage. In our current population of sub-sapient people beliefs in models of governance based on totally unfounded ideologies (and they are all pretty much this way) are the cause of our current crises in government, politics, and economics. They are the reason that our civilizations are collapsing in front of our eyes. Sapient beings learn from mistakes and that learning turns into more precise and/or accurate modelling of the processes that need to be managed. Models become more veridical as the system evolves.

Ultimately, and I realize I repeat myself, a true hierarchical cybernetic system depends on the sapience of the decision agents at all levels in the hierarchy. While there may still be a statistical distribution across levels of sapience and intelligence, this need for all to be sufficiently wise in their judgements also implies a more egalitarian social fabric. Just because an individual is performing the role of strategic decision maker does not mean that that individual is “worth” more in material rewards for doing their job. Is this socialism? Is this the feared plague that is the antithesis of capitalism? Well yes and no. Egalitarianism among sapient beings is not the same as rewarding a lazy sub-sapient just because he is breathing. Higher sapience implies greater sentiments of responsibility and effort applied. Only if every participant in society contributes to the good of the whole can there be a true hierarchical cybernetic system. And only if the latter is achieved can there be a sustainable form of society and culture.

I called this posting “The Evolution of Governance.” Many readers may have noticed that I then described what sounds like a “designed” governance system. However, I claim that even human designs are the result of evolutionary process. From the earliest times of Homo sapiens humans have tinkered and tested technology and organizations. The governance systems that have emerged over the history of man, especially since the advent of agriculture, show that these were merely experiments. So it is the same with the current experiment in liberal democracy and capitalism relying on an all-knowing market. This too is an experiment and one that has proven disastrous even as it produced untold material wealth.

If humans can make it past an evolutionary bottleneck and if the average level of sapience can be boosted then the next experiment, built from what was learned by this last one and knowledge of hierarchical cybernetics should be an improvement. In some sense mammals and birds can be viewed as a kind of brain/mind organizational improvement over dinosaurs. But it took a major global calamity to give them the chance to emerge and evolve further. I take comfort in thinking that the next round of governance evolution, based on increased sapience and hypersociality will demonstrate the same kind of improvement in form and function. Nothing is “perfect,” only better than what came before.


[1] I forgot to mention in that previous post the role of the law, especially contract law, in helping to ensure transactions are conducted fairly. Their are laws mandated by Congress and there are laws that are subject to interpretation by the courts and the enforcement evolves according to the history of application. While these laws seem to be in place to regulate fairness and thus reinforce cooperation, they are not actually part of a logistical management framework. Rather they seem to be compensating for the lack of sapient-based cooperation that would preclude cheating and the taking advantage of others due to higher levels of empathy, etc.

[2] Some readers will argue that perhaps sapience can be improved by learning or being influenced in childhood by being in a sapient community. Perhaps it will not require neo-Darwinian evolution to produce a more sapient group. That is indeed possible in my opinion. Certainly by comparison with the state of affairs at present even slight improvements in morally-motivated judgement would make a substantial difference. Coupled with an effort to maintain that knowledge of how the world really works that we have gained through science, it is conceivable that educating for wisdom would contribute significantly to a morally-motivated society. Then, as with all biological-cultural coevolution there would exist a return to the selection forces that gave rise to and promoted sapience in the first place. For purposes of this discourse either education for wisdom, or some directed selection for greater sapience will have similar effects.

The Real State of the Union (and World)

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on January 27. 2014


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The Formulaic SOTU

You know the drill. The POTUS starts by spotlighting some highlights of what s/he thinks is going well in the US. Here are our strengths, as a country – Blah, blah, blah – look at us, we’re good guys and exceptional in the world! There will be special guests sitting with the first partner who will be acknowledged as exceptional people for whatever reason. The “message” — Everything is fine folks. See how we prevail over adversity, etc.

Then s/he will acknowledge some critical issues that need to be addressed. The climate, the environment, energy, jobs (actually probably number 1), income disparities, etc. etc. are bound to be on the list in this SOTU.

And then comes the grand list of major initiatives that will solve all our problems. Of course, only if Congress gets off their fat butts and get bills written and through the votes. And we know what the responses will be. Politics has been so badly ideologized (if not a word it should be) that the President’s party will rise in applause for every one of the grand schemes. The opposite party members will sit staunchly, frowning and likely shaking their heads to signal their disgust and telegraphing how intransigent they plan to be to block any of the nonsense.

What You Won’t Hear, But Should

The POTUS will only be communicating with the humans on this planet. That is because we humans use language and other species don’t. Too bad. They should be warned also.

My fellow human beings, the state of the world is not good.

I am sorry to report that the US is probably the single biggest cause of this situation. Our insistence on the notions that greed is good, economic growth is good, financialization is good, and personal wealth accumulation is good, is the one underlying factor that is driving the destruction of our environment and the depletion of critical natural resources. What we are doing, and apparently not thinking about the consequences, is not sustainable, even over the next several decades. To put it succinctly — we are screwed!

The US has led the world in a mad grab for anything we could possibly exploit. We have led the world in creating so much pollution that the natural environment cannot possibly absorb and process it. Now China is trying its best to follow suit. Europe, for the most part, has been a little less guilty, but trying its best to keep up appearances. India, African nations, the MENA states, and the BRICs, and everyone in between wants what we Americans have had. If all 7.2 billion people were raised to the same level of consumption and lifestyle as Americans (middle class) we would need five and one half Earths just to get there. Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

We have messed things up so badly that our civilization is highly likely to collapse in chaos. If you are familiar with self-organized criticality dynamics (of course almost no one will be) you will recognize that the pressure has built up and many small collapses have already occurred. The big one is coming and likely soon. We can expect a massive down-sizing of the population and the living standards of any survivors. To believe that somehow our current situation is really different from prior civilizations with respect to the possibility of collapse is just wishful thinking. There is, of course, one difference with the current state of affairs and the consequences of collapse. In all other local civilization collapses the survivors had somewhere else to go where resources were still available. This time we are talking about the planet as a whole. There is nowhere else to go.Collapse on this scale combined with massive climate changes and sea level rises could very well lead to extinction of our species. We should recognize it, at least, as a possibility. In fact our destruction of habitats and now the shifting climate effects are driving many species of plants and animals to the brink of extinction. Many, unfortunately, have already stumbled over the precipice.

Now for the really bad news. There is absolutely nothing that I as president, or the congress, or anyone can do to change things now. Most of the problem is to be found in you the populace. You are profoundly ignorant of how things work. You don’t want to take the time to try to understand the world. You basically want to have a good time and leave the work of fixing things to your elected officials. The problem is that those officials haven’t got a clue for the most part. And even when someone tries to speak up and point out the problems and what we should probably try to do, they are laughed at, mocked, marginalized, or just plain ignored. Sheer massive ignorance and stupidity is defeating us on all fronts.

In conclusion I would have to say that I suspect there will be only a few more state of the union addresses given in the future. At some point truth will force itself on us all. Of course, by then it will be much too late to do anything. It really already is too late. At best a few insightful and forward thinking people will work to organize themselves to survive the chaos. There may be a species of humanity in the distant future, but only if they evolve a greater capacity for wisdom than we have.

Goodnight. And hope for the best. No sense asking a god to bless us.

These words will never be heard.

Timing Is (Not) Everything

Off the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler

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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation  December 9, 2013


“Federal Reserve officials are closer to winding down their controversial $85 billion-a-month bond-purchase program, possibly as early as December, in the wake of Friday’s encouraging jobs report.”

      That from the much-deservedly maligned John Hilsenrath, widely regarded to be the Federal Reserve’s ventrioloquist dummy over at the Wall Street Journal, as in, from God’s mouth to the jittery multitudes. Of course the jobs number was just another highly seasoned and over-leavened cupcake from the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s magic hedonic oven, so you can be sure that the predicate of that statement is… how to put it delicately…  the latest arrant lie with hypothetical icing on top.

     Everybody knows that the Federal Reserve’s money-pumping operations have become a replacement for what used to be an economy. Therefore, no more money pumping = no more so-called economy. It’s that simple. But it doesn’t mean that the Federal Reserve won’t make a gesture and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try it during the season that Santa Claus hovers over the national consciousness — or what little of that remains when you subtract the methedrine, the Kanye downloads, the fear of an $11,000 bill for an emergency room visit requiring three stitches, and all the other epic distractions of our time.

     The next meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC), where such things as taper-or-not are considered, is Dec. 17. The Fed has to make some kind of gesture to retain any credibility, so I suspect they’ll go for a symbolic shaving of five or ten billion a month off the current official bond-buying operation number of $85 billion a month (or $1.2 trillion a year). If they don’t do it, no one will ever believe them again. I call it the “head-fake” taper, because it is essentially a false move.

       The catch is that the Fed has more than one back door for vacuuming up all sorts of other miscellaneous financial trash paper securitized by promises already broken, moldy sheet-rock housing, college loans defaulted on, car payments that stopped arriving eighteen months ago, credit cards maxed to oblivion, sovereign foreign economies visibly whirling down the drain, and untold casino bet derivative hedges. Loose talk has it that the Fed is buying up way more dodgy debt than the official number of $85 billion a month. And why not? They bailed out way more than the $700 billion official TARP figure back in 2009 — everything from insolvent European banks to Floridian motels on the REO junk-pile — so nobody should take any particular taper number seriously. They’ll just backfill as necessary.

     But even in a world of seemingly no consequence, things happen. One pretty sure thing is rising interest rates, especially when, at the same time as a head-fake taper, foreigners send a torrent of US Treasury paper back to the redemption window. This paper is what other nations, especially in Asia, have been trading to hose up hard assets, including gold and real estate, around the world, and the traders of last resort — the chumps who took US T bonds for boatloads of copper ore or cocoa pods — now have nowhere else to go. China alone announced very loudly last month that US Treasury debt paper was giving them a migraine and they were done buying anymore of it. Japan is in a financial psychotic delirium scarfing up its own debt paper to infinity. Who’s left out there?  Burkina Faso and the Kyrgystan Cobblers’ Union Pension Fund? The interest rate on the US 10-year bond is close to bumping up on the ominous 3.0 percent level again. Apart from the effect on car and house loans, readers have pointed out to dim-little-me that the real action will be around the interest rate swaps. Last time this happened, in late summer, the too-big-to-fail banks wobbled from their losses on these bets, providing a glimpse into the aperture of a black hole compressive deflation where cascading chains of unmet promises blow financial systems past the event horizon of universal default and paralysis where money stops moving anywhere and people must seriously reevaluate what money actually is.

      I think we’ll see them try the head-fake taper. They must. It will be backstopped by and saturated in statistical lying, and everyone will have trouble parsing the probable effect because the chronic dishonesty loose in this land will have deformed and impaired all metrics of true value. At the heart of whatever remains of this economy is fire, and the officers of the Federal Reserve are playing with it. Pretty soon, we’ll get the un-taper, the final surrender to the crack-up boom that awaits before the western world has to go medieval.




James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.


The Future of Evolution?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on November 28, 2013


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The Major Transitions in Evolution

This last year, having completed work on the systems science textbook, I have immersed myself in the emerging and growing literature on this subject. Evolution as used here refers to the universal dynamic of change, specifically the increase in levels of organization and complexity1 over time (McIntosh, 2012; Morowitz, 2004). I devoted an entire chapter to the phenomena of auto-organization and emergence as underlying the process of evolution involving selection, descent with modification, competition, and cooperation. The latter was covered in the following chapter (the two chapters form a unit section titled Evolution). My co-author and I sought to present the concepts in the most general forms possible, as applicable to all levels of organization in the universe. The reason is that there is emerging a general understanding that evolution is much more than just the neo-Darwinian biological paradigm that has dominated thinking and investigations for the past hundred years or so. The theories of evolution have been evolving! One of the most exciting discoveries (still somewhat tentative but gaining evidence) contributing to this evolving understanding is that evolution itself has been evolving! That is, as new levels of organization emerge, the mechanisms of evolution within the new level seem to be accelerated compared with what came before. For example, I have already written about the new thinking about evolvability and how it may have played a role in the survivability of mammals and birds after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg, formerly the K-T) mass extinction event. Over the past several decades considerable work has shown that evolution in all its forms is far more complex, subtle, and operates in levels of organization just as the physical universe is evolving into more complex, subtle, and leveled organization due to evolution. The philosophical implications are deep.

The emergence of higher levels of organization is now recognized as a sequence of transitions that occurred as a result of increasing complexity within the Universe. That means that as the complexity at any one level of organization reached a critical point in complexity of structures and functions (e.g. when proteins and nucleotide polymers were sufficiently large and interacted in autocatalytic cycles and were associated with bi-layer fatty acid complexes — membranes) many of these structures/functions combined to create new super-structures with new super-functions that, in effect, created a whole new level of organization (formation of protocells). Figure 1 shows a summary of the major transitions where higher complexity emerged from lower levels in the hierarchy (Calcott & Sterelny, 2011; Maynard Smith & Szathmáry, 1995).



Figure 1. A summary of the major transitions leading to levels of organization in the evolution of the Universe. The presumptive “Big Bang” is thought to be the origin of ordinary mass and energy. Nucleons evolved through the interactions of gravity and nuclear fusion processes in supernovae explosions. Once the Universe cooled sufficiently for stable atoms to interact within nebular clouds and in the form of formed mass bodies such as planets (like the Earth) chemical reactions led to a large variety of molecules and crystalline structures. The combinations of atoms created more complex structures that could then further interact in a pre-biological evolution of precursors for life.


At each level in this summary we see that the complexity of structures that auto-organize increases as we go up the hierarchy. For a more complete explanation of the process of auto-organization, emergence, and evolution of complexity, please see my working paper, “Does Evolution Have a Trajectory?” Here I am more interested in what that trajectory looks like, standing back and looking at the whole of the history of the Universe.

Figure 1 illustrates what we mean by levels of organization and the blue dashed lines represent the transitions from a lower level to the next higher level. For example pre-biotic chemical evolution involved the generation of the major molecular constituents of life from non-organic sources. The origin of life problem is far from solved in detail, but the broad outlines of what compounds needed to be synthesized in advance of protocell organization is understood well enough to be confident in saying that the pre-life conditions could create a milieu in which further auto-organization of those component parts led to protocells with heritable, stable genetic material and the triggering of neo-Darwinian evolutionary mechanism. The latter increased the rate of increase in complexity above what had been the case in all time before (see Figure 2 below). And eventually, with the emergence of chromosomes and stable energy-gradient consuming metabolisms, true cells (e.g. eubacteria) organized and set off a new level of evolution.

Notice a few interesting dynamics indicated in Figure 1. The obvious (red arrow pointing upward) is the increase in complexity with the increase in levels of organization. But there are two other very intriguing dynamics we should note. The first (green arrow pointing up) starting in biological evolution continues upward. This is to recognize that the emergence of social evolution (cooperation among biological entities to give rise to higher organisms) did not actually bring biological evolution to a halt. Biological evolution, however, is seen as halting any chance for pre-biotic developments. The reason given is that bacteria, especially, would instantly consume any non-organic but carbon-based molecules that might form by accident. So the chance that a second or third pre-biology could get a hold is essentially nonexistent. This is similar to the slowdown and cessation of nucleonic evolution due to the limits of energies needed to fuse ever more complex nuclei. The depletion of lighter weight elements in making heavier elements simply acted as a negative feedback to bring further evolution to a halt.

Social emergences and evolutions (e.g. endosymbiosis giving rise to eukaryotes, colony cell specializations giving rise to multicellular forms, and higher forms of social organizations) did not halt biological evolution, but instead enhanced it (Bourke, 2011). But then we get to cultural evolution, and in particular that of human cultures, which especially includes science and technology. Suddenly we see a re-triggering of lower level evolution due to human intervention. We have generated nuclei we don’t (or haven’t) find in nature. We have created chemical compounds impossible to auto-synthesize in nature. We are on the verge of creating artificially constructed protocells and even cells. We have cloned all kinds of creatures that would not have happened in natural selection. We have created chimeras from multiple species. It seems as if humans and their scientific cultures have restarted the lower levels of the complexity hierarchy and we have yet to see what may come of further evolution taking place in those levels. Most people look with great horror on this development, claiming we are creating monsters that will destroy us. They may be right. But there is another (non-humanistic, but perhaps more objective) way to look at it. We are simply unwitting agents in the Universe’s once-more increase in the rate of evolution of complexity. We are the Universe’s way to increase its own evolvability. We, as a species, may be victims of this transition. But the Universe as a whole may actually achieve a whole new level of organization as a result.

Figure 2 is a very rough approximation of the rate of increase in complexity as a result of Universal evolution. It looks exponential. A central question raised by this view would be, how much more complexity is possible? The answer may lie in realizing that the perspective shown in Figure 2 is from us residing on this planet. Change the scale, by stretching the time line out many more billion years into the future and the complexity measure up by many orders of magnitude and the steep rise we see from Earth might just look like a slower sloping exponential (still). In other words, we can’t let our earth-bound and species-centric bias influence our perspective on what evolution is really all about.If we can help it.



Figure 2. Overall complexity of the Universe appears to have grown at an exponential rate (albeit very small exponent). This is a very rough graph that shows how levels of organization emerged and the evolution of complexity then appears to have greatly increased. Other authors have suggested that the graph should depict a step function as the emergence phase might have been rapid and the evolution phase slower.




Cultural Evolution

Auto-organization, the emergence of new levels organization, and the evolution of structure and function with those levels depends entirely on the flow of energy. Energy flowing from a high potential source of the right kind of kinetic form to a low potential source powers the processes and their adaptation (maintenance of function in spite of environmental variations) and evolution (changes in form and function to maintain continuity into the future) over time and space. The sun has been the main source of high powered energy flows in the form of electromagnetic radiation (light). Early life may have used less powerful chemical potential gradients to extract energy but once photosynthesis was discovered the power of light was exploited to synthesize new structures and perform new functions (of course life based on chemical energy sources can still be found today, for example at thermal vents in the deep ocean). The evolution of life has since largely been driven by the steady flow of energy to the earth from the sun and the eventual degradation of the energy to waste heat due to the many work transformations done by the biosphere.

Life evolved us. We and our late progenitors found new ways to raise the level of organization above that of life itself. Through the evolution of our large brains we became capable of invention of artifacts that allowed us to exploit sources of solar energy other than food. We gave rise to a new complexity — humans and artifacts that would then evolve together, that is co evolve. The artifacts increased human access to high powered energy flows which then allowed humans to gain greater ecological fitness in a much higher number of environments. Even though some people think evolution of our biology has ceased with our ascension to the top of the food chain and our technological ability to keep genetically deficient individuals alive prosthetically (e.g. glasses), in fact we are not the exact same species that emerged from Africa some 60-65 thousand years ago. Racial differences attest to the on-going force of selection for traits commensurate with different environments. This cannot be denied. So our culture(s) which made dispersion across the planet feasible has recursively acted on us to push biological evolution, albeit at a normal pace for biological evolution, further along.

On the other hand, culture has evolved at an exponential rate due to the continuing discovery of higher and higher potential energy gradients. We cannot eat hydro power, or fire, or explosions. These forms of energy conversion from potential to kinetic could not feed directly into our biological bodies to drive some kind of super-biological evolution. But they can be exploited in machines that we invented as we explored what possible ways we could exploit water, wind, animals, tree, coal, oil, and nuclear fission. These high power energies can effect our minds, inspire our inventiveness, and as a result we act as the selective forces that play the evolution of culture. With enough excess energy available our artifacts need not be only functional (practical) but esthetic as well. Indeed a whole category of artifacts are only meant for esthetics. Culture evolved rapidly because of the availability of energy and the coupling between biology and artifacts through the human mind.

This raises an unpleasant thought. If evolution depends2 of increasing availability of higher power then we face a very unusual condition in the not-so-far-off future. Fossil fuels being the main source of power now (over 80% globally) and finite in abundance are starting to be harder to extract as a result of their depletion. This is reflected in the rising costs of extraction and decreasing marginal returns on investments and production. Eventually, and I suspect within the next decade, the cost-benefit ratio for fossil fuels will simply go to one (1) with the result that the energy flows to our culture (and hence to our biomass maintenance) will fall to zero from these sources. Cultural evolution will slow to a halt and afterward go into devolution (in the best case scenario).

Of course, humans will not react well to this decline of what they had come to know as “progress.” Their reactions will more likely cause a catastrophic decline of the further coevolution of mankind-cultures leaving whatever is left of the former with naught but the stone tools of our fore bearers of some fifteen thousand years ago.

At first glance this would seem to go against the picture of evolution producing ever higher levels of organization in these major transitions. From our perspective this looks like an end of evolution rather than a transition to higher evolution. But that is just from our perspective. Had the dinosaurs been at all sentient and knew something about progress they would have surely thought their extinctions would have been an end to the emergence of higher levels of organization. After all they were the norm. To their way of thinking they probably could not imagine the world going on without them. Wouldn’t progress have simply meant more diversity in dinosaur species?

But while a power reset to a lower value will degrade cultural evolution in its current form, it does not follow that all of humanity is lost. The bulk of human biomass does depend on technology to keep it alive. Without modern agricultural industry, more humans will go hungry and starve to death. Others will act violently to save themselves as best they can. However it is not a given that all human life will come to an end. There is some non-zero likelihood that some humans will survive and figure out how to maintain in spite of the collapse of societies and the radical climate changes that are ahead. Human beings are, after all, enormously adaptive. And all that is needed to provide the future basis of continuing biological and “mental” evolution of the genus Homo is a high capacity to adapt.

An Impending Transition

When considering some of the conditions prevailing prior to previous transitions it is intriguing to realize that most were in response to heavy stresses acting on components that would eventually combine to create the new structures at a new level of organization. In other words, the emergence of a new level, and the mark of a transition, were a result of strong selection against components but for combinations that were more adaptive than any one component by itself. Synergy is the result of components acting cooperatively to accomplish what no one, or even the aggregate of components, could do alone. Though much research must be done to validate this, a picture has been developing of the fortuitous symbiotic relations that developed between prokaryotic cells that gave rise to the eukaryotic forms. The process has been termed “endosymbiosis.” There is a suggestion that larger prokaryotes ate smaller ones but failed to digest them and they stuck around, having found a suitable safe haven. We don’t know exactly what the conditions were for some large prokaryote to engulf, say the precursors of mitochondria or chloroplasts (plastids that retain a significant working genome of their own), but we do know that relations between all of those precursors could have developed gradually and probably proceeded through a colony-like association before actual internalization. Mitochondria precursors, for example, might have supplied large eubacteria colonies with ATP supplements to their chemoenergy sources. Also what we know is that mutualistic relations develop between species when there is an advantage to cooperate and that such an advantage increases the fitness of both. And, finally, we know that such relations will be selected for even when there is negative selection operating on the individual members of one or the other species.

The growing abundance of free oxygen in the atmosphere and hydrosphere was just such a dramatic and increasing selective force. Respiration requires oxygen to “slow burn” carbohydrates to release energy packets able to supply synthesis machinery (e.g. ribosomes). Oxygen also kills anaerobic bacteria quite nicely so selection for oxygen tolerance was quite strong. It would have been greatly increased by the inclusion of a nice little bug that could fix oxygen to carbon and hydrogen while producing wonderful little batteries for use by other organelle (also likely prokaryote derived).

The transitions seem always to involve the evolution of sociality3. The new level of organization always involves the new kinds of interactions between socialized new forms. Molecules can undergo chemistries that atoms by themselves are incapable of. For example, protein catalysts (enzymes) are able to facilitate so many difficult reactions (with large energy hurdles) that no single atom, or even small molecules, could manage. The chain of amino acids in an enzyme cooperate by forming complex shapes that have kinetic properties suited to perform their collectivized function.

Even the origins of human sociality on the plains of Africa seems to have been in response to strong selection forces. Humans gave up claws and jaws in favor of posture and voice. They were no match for the carnivores of the environment. They were not even built well for being carnivores. They needed to evolve social mechanisms to support acting as a unit for hunting, gathering, protection, etc. The stresses of climate and competition acted to select those groups of humans (tribes) that best cooperated within the group. They were in competition not only with other species, but with conspecific tribes as well. The ones that did the best job of intra-group cooperation won the competition.

The reduction in the power available to human culture may mean an end to the kind of culture we have become used to. But it does not mean an end to human evolution. As long as there is sunlight some humans can and will survive, even thrive. But the stresses of survival in the brave new world could easily mean that the evolution of a new, greater level of socialization is in the offing. Current human culture represents what amounts to the first baby steps toward the kind of eusociality previously accorded to species like ants and naked mole rats. Our role in this transition to a sentient form of eusociality is merely as a transient species having some of the characteristics of both a semi-social (e.g. other apes) and a eusocial species. The latter is evidenced in the fact that we can, under nominal conditions, form strong cooperative associations even with strangers to accomplish some common goal. Evidence of the former is the level of cutthroat competition, selfishness with profits, and greed that are displayed by too many of our kind today. This is our ancestral reptilian brain at work. The cooperativeness that we display in our near eusociality is the result of our neocortex and particularly the large prefrontal cortex (orchestrated by the patch right behind the eyebrows called Brodmann area 10). We are the transition.

Humanity finds itself in the same kind of predicament early life (anaerobic bacteria) faced when those devilish little blue-green algae (actually cyanobacteria) started defecating oxygen! The impending stresses from reducing power flows and increasing climate changes promise to put us in dire need. We have to evolve or go extinct.


A Blessed Bottleneck

Transition in the biosphere is coming. There is no way to avoid it. There will be another great die-off and many species will exit the stage of life. We could be one of them. But I honestly don’t think we will. Rather I think the course of evolution already laid, its trajectory, will not be thwarted entirely. Our culture is not the defining property of our biological species, our capacity to build a culture based on cooperation is, however. The extent and kind of culture that humans can build will, of course, depend on the power available to them, but it is the act and process of building some culture that is the essence of our biology.

Regardless of who gets through the bottleneck event (roughians or sapients) I’m not sure it will make a difference. The forces that will drive the evolution of future species of Homo, I conjecture, will favor greater cooperation not less. Furthermore, the brain structural seeds of circuits that will support cooperativity are already sown. As future generations experience mutations that improve those circuits they will differentially succeed in the competition with poor cooperators by building adaptive cultures that can deal with the contingencies of the future.

The history of universal evolution is one of transitions to greater cooperativity (sociality) reacting to increases in stresses at lower levels. Think of it like what Per Bak calls self-organized criticality. A pressure builds up in a non-linear complex system. Mostly small evolutionary events occur. Every once in a while a middle sized event (e.g. origin of a new genera or loss of an old one) occurs. And on very rare occasions a really large event, a transition event, takes place, and nothing is the same afterward. I think this is where we are headed.

Do not weep for humanity friends. We are just players in a universal drama. It is a story of redemption even if the protagonist dies. Sentience will continue up the curve in Figure 2 for a ways more. It can happen not by increasing cultural complexity per se, but by raising the social complexity bar. After the transition (say ten thousand generations from now!) the cultural + social complexity can once again increase. Power alone is not the only thing needed for post-transition complexity. Mind, sentience, cleverness mediated by sapience is the key. Eusapient beings in that distant future may discover new sources of power to drive artifact complexity once again. But they will not be lured into creating complexity for its own sake (novelty and convenience). Nor will they be so foolish as their predecessors (us) to waste their environment in pursuit of that kind of complexity.

How Could Anyone Know What Will Come?

No one does, of course. I am speculating, to be certain. But consider this. The major patterns of universal evolution are becoming clear to us. Those patterns repeat themselves in different forms, but systemically they are the same. Competition drives inter-specific and conspecific incremental evolution. Cooperation emerges in response to the build up of competition-based and environmental forces (like climate). I have no idea what the details might look like, but I think I can see a broad picture emerging that gives me considerable hope. And joy. Humans in our current form will absolutely go extinct eventually. But, if I am right, it will be the death of a species giving birth to a new species that is more fit in the context of the planet as a whole system. It would be sad indeed if the extinction of Homo sapiens was the end of sentience on this planet, given the potential for that sentience to rise above mere sapiens‘ cleverness. It is certainly one of the outcomes possible but it would seem to me to have been such a waste of time and resources. Evolution has a history of purchasing new opportunities on the expenditures of prior species, genera, and higher. It has inexorably led to greater information/knowledge processing and complexity of organisms throughout its history. Why would it not be so in the future?

Indeed, as long as the sun produces an energy flow commensurate with life (light energy) there is still time for evolution to produce a much more highly capable sentience than are we. There is no law of nature to prevent it. We won’t be able to know what that sentience looks like (humanoid presumably). But I think we can take comfort in knowing that if it exists it will be the new and better us.


Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, New York.

Calcott, Brett & Sterelny, Kim (2011). The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology), The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Maynard Smith, John & Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford University Press,

McIntosh, Steve (2012). Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, SelectBooks, Inc.

Morowitz, Harold J. (2004). The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, Oxford University Press, NY.

Sawyer, R.Kieth (2005). Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

Simon, Herbert (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.


1. Complexity as used here refers to an indexed value based on the depth of the hierarchy, after Herbert Simon (1996). As components form stable complexes at lower levels, new interactions between those complexes emerge and new laws of organization take shape. This forms a hierarchy of realized complexity. The depth of the hierarchy (as shown in Figure 1) provides a measure of complexity.

2. And here I include the effects of population growth as part of the equation of evolution because larger populations support a possibly higher variability in genetics and ideas, thus the fitness of mankind plus culture has to lead to higher reproductive success for all!

3. Sociality is the term being applied to all forms of cooperation taking place at all levels of organization in the complexity hierarchy. Atoms are social in combining to make molecules. Molecules are social in combining by various bond forms to create complex shapes (like enzymes). Cells are social when the communicate with one another and form tissues, and so on.

Can Democracy Work in the Absence of Sufficient Sapience?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

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Published on Question Everything on October 5, 2013


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What is Going On in Washington DC?

If it weren’t so tragic it would be funny. I’m not worried about whether or not the government stays shut down, or even that the US should default on its promises. The return to recession is not going to be prevented by avoiding these possibilities. It is baked into the cake. No, I am worried about the implications of some of the most “powerful” people in the world acting like absolute idiots (on all sides). I see no evidence of even a small smattering of sapience in any of the decisions being made in Washington. In my opinion the Tea Party members of Congress are demonstrating the antithesis of sapience right now. But I see nothing in the balance of the Republicans or the Democratic leaderships either. And the president doesn’t get a pass either. The US government is broken because those people are there because of the democratic process that led to their selection.

What is most worrying about it is that the citizens who sent them to Washington seem not to have a clue. The people get the government they deserve.

In Feb. 2008 I ran a series of posts critiquing democracy and how it works as a system for choosing who will participate in the governance process. The first, “Might we have gotten it wrong about democracy?”, asked that question and examined a microcosm of democratic governance in the form of academic institutions. It considered how real people make decisions in situation where they are expected to have the competence (or so they think) but do not, in fact. I examined the way in which the academy’s “shared governance” model is failing to work. Using this microcosm as an example of the larger problems with democratic (or representative democracies) politics and governance. I concluded: “…government would work if people were wise.” If they were wise they would be able to meet the minimum requirements for an electorate to choose capable people to represent them in their governments.

The second post, “How is representative democracy working out for us in the modern world?,” pointed out some of the cognitive issues that produce obstacles to a viable democratic process. A big problem is the cognitive load, or overload, that modern people under due to the complexity of modern society and especially technology. I said, “The concept of democracy depends on citizens who understand the issues and the way things work.” The modern world is overwhelming to the vast majority of citizens. The coping mechanisms that have been adopted by so many have made it impossible for democracy to work.

Finally, I posted “If not democracy, then what?” In that post I introduced an alternate way to look at governance from the perspective of hierarchical cybernetic theory (and mentioned how it operates in many natural systems). In a separate series of posts, “Sapient Governance,” I followed up with a description of that alternate perspective. In all of these I have given evidence that the current system is failing badly given the context of the modern, technological world, overpopulated world. I have argued that the real underlying cause is that humans only evolved a primitive level of sapience (the attribute that makes us different from all other animals) that is simply inadequate in this world. Democracy depends on capacities in the electorate that are simply not being met, and the people they are sending to office are no better able to make good judgments.

A Knowledgeable, Informed, and Thoughtful Electorate

Democracy can only work if the electorate has these capabilities. Granted that the environment has a lot to do with how these are actualized. For example, to be knowledgeable depends somewhat on the education system. I say somewhat because I know many people who survived the modern school-based education system and came out knowledgeable in spite of it! A fundamental aspect of sapience is sensing that you do not know and then seeking information that helps you self-educate.

Nevertheless, the education system is responsible for literally squashing curiosity in the young minds while training them to simply memorize what will be on the test and calling it education. Notice I said the education system. There are many fine and capable educators out there who understand this problem from personal experience. But the system determines punishments and rewards to teachers. In the university we have student evaluation surveys at the end of each term. Students fill out a bubble sheet of Likert scaled questions meant to evaluate how the teacher has done and the quality of the course. Aside from the many obvious criticisms of this approach (its validity in measuring quality of teaching and curriculum) administrators rely on the outcomes when deciding on those rewards and punishments. The high schools have done a great job of teaching students that the game is actually teach/learn to the test, which is actually fairly straightforward and devoid of any real cognitive work on either the teacher or the student. When they get to college, they expect the same sort of system, one they now know how to game for the coin of the realm – grades. The most common question I get from freshmen is, “Is this going to be on the test?” The most common complaint I get, even from juniors, is that my courses are not structured enough (take a look at my syllabi and tell where they get that notion). The fact is that many of my colleagues seem to have acquiesced to this game and especially in order to get tenure and promotion they teach from the textbook to the tests. Those students generally give better grades to their teachers! Fortunately for me, I got tenure before the No Child Left Behind (at the bottom all alone – keep them all there) mentality with its standardized tests providing the measure of success, had yet had a major impact on students’ attitudes. The student evaluations from that time reflected that many students appreciated the greater rigor of college and expected to have to work at thinking and integrating knowledge. My scores while still an assistant professor reflected that. Even then, administrators were happy to take the expedient path of evaluating teaching on the basis of this one measure.

We now have seen several high school graduating classes come to college after the NCLB-standardized testing (high stakes testing) has left its mark on the culture of high school. And we have seen new junior faculty who need good evaluations in order to get tenured quickly pick up on how to play the game (this also goes for lecturers who have to get their contracts renewed). Indeed some of them actually went to high school as the transition to the game was underway and so know very well what to do.

So just how knowledgeable is the citizenry that has been emerging out of our education system over the last two decades? There are numerous studies now that indicate that most are not very well educated when it comes to critical thinking. Indeed they are not even educated about facts. I asked some freshmen how the three branches of government (US) interacted systemically as we tried to model a governance system. Over half could not remember what all three branches were let alone how they interacted. They would say things like, “the president, the cabinet, and the senate.” I don’t know but that doesn’t sound promising to me. When I corrected them and showed them the model they all then suddenly remembered that they covered something like that in civics courses, but it was so dull they didn’t pay attention. At least they were honest about their experience. But seriously, this same thing has been shown for college graduates and people who have worked for years after college.

So strike out one for democracy. Over forty percent of the American population don’t “believe” in evolution, as if it was an option to believe in. Though the number is growing smaller, at one point more than half of American citizens didn’t “believe” in human-caused global warming. But now that it is too late to seriously do anything meaningful about it, the freaky weather patterns that are taking over have got more of them believing. The point is that none of these people were in a position to critically evaluate the evidence and the science.

Strike out two — informed electorate. To have an informed electorate you need an information system that actually works. Here I would put much more blame on the modern main-stream media. It is supposed to be their job to detect the changes in our societies, analyze the causes, and report unbiased to the public. How does Fox News measure up to that? But Fox News is an abhorrent example. They are driven by ideology to begin with. The other networks, even including National Public Radio and TV are culpable for a slightly different reason. Their approach to reporting has been shaped by the markets. For-profit networks have to publish what sells to gain eyeballs and thus advertising dollars. PBS and NPR never have sufficient resources and so often rely on commercial news feeds for their content as well.

Let me give you an example of misinformation that has gripped the media of late and has had an influence on public media as well. For the past year or more the ideas of energy independence for the US and vast resources of oil and gas, albeit in tight shale plays, have been filling the papers and airways. The story is downright false. Even as I write this some of the early plays are winding down because the availability of oil or gas was tremendously over hyped in the media by the carbon companies because they needed to attract investment capital to stay in business. Those plays, which we were told by the media, would last a hundred years, are already in serious decline and will fall far short of the promises. The media’s role in this was to simply parrot what the so-called expert talking heads were feeding them. Those folks, in turn, were in the pockets of the major carbon players. But did anyone in the media stop to critically analyze what they were saying? Of course not. They played the game. Sell advertising spots. Sell viewer/listener support. Tell the audience what they WANT to hear. Even while these stories (which are still circulating even as the plays are starting to decline) were being foisted on the public, there were several researchers who had already determined, scientifically, that the tight gas and oil was just a hyped story. They had the data and the models to prove it. But did any of the media want to listen. Hell no. That isn’t the way to sell papers or advertising spots.

So the public’s information channels are simply dysfunctional. More misinformation than information is being spread. And in the area of political information it is even worse. The media people have absolutely no concept of critical thinking when it comes to presenting various ideological views. In the so-called interest of fairness to all sides they present Tea Party nut jobs as somehow equivalent to liberal politicians. Well, I guess, in some sense they are equivalent. But more often the liberals show a bit more respect for facts (and science) than do the right wingers.

Which leads to strike out three: thoughtfulness. We are a hedonistic species. Given the option of reading a knowledge book or a juicy novel, guess which one most people will choose. Given a choice between going to a lecture on the evolution of plants or going to a NASCAR race, again, which one will most people choose? Entertainment rules. And it really isn’t hard to understand why. Start with a pathetic education, a lack of motivation, and a spoiled lifestyle (too many energy slaves) and it isn’t really any wonder that people are basically just entertainment/novelty junkies.We do not teach people how to think. In a sense we really shouldn’t need to teach them. The human brain is a natural learning machine. But what we do is teach them how to not think, how to accept what the talking heads and prominent leaders say is true. Since they can’t evaluate claims for truth of subjects, competing claims cause a deepening division. Conservatives listen only to conservatives and liberals listen only to liberals. It is much easier than being thoughtful about the claims.

The world has become incredibly complex. And in a sense you can’t blame people for wanting to take the easy way out.

All of the institutions that are supposedly there to support citizen development are failing badly. And because they all interact with one another they form a reinforcing loop that is driving us deeper and deeper into ignorance, disinformation, and simple hedonistic responses, the antitheses of what it takes to be successful in democratic governance.

What we have ended up with is a governance system that is broken (in my opinion beyond repair). We get the likes of James Inhofe, senator from Oklahoma as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The guy consistently claims the global warming is the greatest left-wing hoax ever perpetrated on the American public. In order to make that claim work, of course, he has had to accuse the entire legitimate climate science community of lying about climate impacts and change. Explain to me how this could ever happen if our democracy is working.

As another example of the sorry state of affairs in government take a look at this article about Congressman Paul Broun, a member of the House Science Committee dismissing evolution. This is not an aberration, unfortunately. Most of the members of the House and many in the Senate do not understand or believe that evolution is the explanation for all biodiversity and our origins as a species of animal. Please explain to me how this man and others like him (and many her’s such as Michele Bachmann, a Republican representative who rails against homosexuality as being against god’s plan) can make thoughtful and knowledge-based decisions.


The Absence of Sufficient Sapience

You cannot point to any one aspect or institution and say, “There, that is the prime cause of everything else going wrong.” Everything ‘causes’ everything else. It is a great recurrent web of interactions and positive feedback loops that exist because the actors in all of these institutions are human beings — Homo callidus (formerly sapiens). We are so clever we can figure out, subconsciously of course, how to avoid facts that don’t support our a priori held beliefs and find pseudo-facts that support them. And therein is the problem. If there is a cause it isn’t the cultural and structural elements of the system, it is the actors and decision makers, and benefactors of the system and their lack of sufficient sapience to deal with this complex world that we have created. The few examples we have of more highly sapient beings are not selfish, hedonistic, narcissistic beings. They are more often cooperative, moral, selfless, and thoughtful. They care about others and they think about the future of everyone. They would desire to help make things better if possible. But they also recognize when the systems aren’t working. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people on this planet are inherently low in sapience and that is why they dominate the system.

But there again it isn’t even our fault! We didn’t decide to be low sapients. Blame evolution. Blame natural selection that led us to agriculture where a different set of selection pressures may have started us losing much of the sapience we had evolved up to that point. It does little good to bemoan our situation. It is what it is. I just would like to understand it better, I guess, to satisfy my curiosity.

I don’t write this stuff to point out what the problems are and thereby find solutions anymore. I have long ago realized that the system simply is what it is and it will continue in a dynamic that was set in motion by the evolution of Homo callidus and will lead to, I think, the evolution of Homo eusapiens in the distant future. You and I and our whole human-culture system are just milestones along the path. We can’t be saved, preserved forever. We should not be saved in the sense of preserving the population and going on with business as usual. The essence of humanness, the sapient, abstract symbol processing, tool making, creatures that evolved on this planet does not depend on the current species existing forever. But that essence needs to be saved (if we can). Some of our kind need to succeed in persisting beyond what will surely be a massive population bottleneck event so that the seed of a new, emergent species will be available when the time is right.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Meanwhile try to enjoy the comedy-tragedy that is Washington DC, and for that matter, every other national capital in the world. Washington is probably just the most dramatic because it was the most powerful capital in history. All good things must come to an end eventually.

Paradigm Blindness

Off the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler

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Published on Clusterfuck Nation October 7, 2013


Paradigm Blindness artwork by Sean Saint Aubyn Plunkett

 Paradigm Blindness

    Something is sucking the air out of the humid terrarium that is US politics, making the lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions within hyperventilate. That something is the vacuum of disappearing wealth. All the accounting fraud, statistical mis-reporting, price manipulations, naked-short beat-downs, high-speed arbitrage hijinks, and carry trade rackets can’t conceal the reality that the nation is going broke – at least 99 percent of the nation. The remaining 1 percenters, outside the terrarium, are swimming in a pool of notional wealth that is primed to go down the drain and leave them at the bottom, desiccated little husks of animal matter that the crows will feed on.

     The reason nobody seems to know what to do is because they know anything they do will make them look bad, so the only thing to do is nothing, with a sound track of lizard squawks and much darting of forked tongues. Nature is now in charge, not personalities, and nature is now leading a purblind humanity to the place it has to go, which is smaller, simpler, and local. The flailings and squawking of politicians can only avail to make the journey more painful and disorderly, but the march is on.

     Leadership in every realm — politics, business, the ivory tower, media — does not grasp that the terms for carrying on the human project have changed. The agenda now is to go medieval, and not in the Pulp Fiction sense, but in our arrangements for daily life. We are being asked by nature to say goodbye gracefully to the hubris known as the current edition of modernity. If we don’t do this gracefully, nature will kick our ass out of it and drag the stragglers along kicking and screaming into the next disposition of things. That is pretty much the true subtext of the struggle in government this season, but it is not being translated at the conscious level into a coherent narrative that the public can understand. The failure of narratives produces a failure of leadership. Failures of leadership lead to failures of action.

     I can especially understand this after being in a particular part of the USA for three days last week: Orange County, California, specifically the fiasco known as Irvine. This so-called “city” was once a ranch comprising hundreds of thousands of acres consolidated out of old Spanish land grants by one James Irvine, an Irish immigrant who made a fortune selling groceries and dry goods during the California Gold Rush and parlayed it into real estate — including eventually the nearly 200-square-mile tract of creosote bush and sagebrush forty-odd miles south of nascent Los Angeles. The so-called city named after Mr. Irvine — and still largely controlled by a private real estate development company he founded — prides itself on being rationally planned.  By this they mean that all the angles have been figured out for producing massive volumes of exquisitely-tuned suburban sprawl at a nice profit.

     One thing this demonstrates is that rational planning is not the same thing as intelligence because the end result on-the-ground is a nightmare of the most extreme car dependency in the nation, arguably even worse than Los Angeles. That it is also a nightmare of crushing uniformity, disconnection, boredom, and ennui probably matters less because the essence of the place’s character is that it has no future. There is absolutely no way that the American people can continue their Happy Motoring frolic for another generation, yet the Irvine Company is still busy slapping together new monocultures of housing pods, strip malls, and all the other usual furnishings with the kind of stupid confidence of people intoxicated on Rotary Club bullshit — which is to say zeal minus consciousness. It is the same frame-of-mind that produces the famous Orange County right wing politics.

     Orange County, and places like it, represent a tremendous tragic problem for this country. They were the products of emergent economic forces that humans only pretended to control with their vaunted rational planning. They almost certainly cannot be fixed. They’re too big and the money won’t be there; it’s the essence of our predicament that capital formation is crippled and that situation will only get worse.These places will enter a state of widespread crisis within the next ten years, and possibly much sooner. The people who live there will see their property lose all its value, and then they will have to make choices about where to move to. In the process, they will dig in their heels, cause an immense amount of political mischief, and eventually lose anyway.

     The emergent path of going medieval means living in smaller, tighter towns and doing some kind of business, or working some kind of trade, that is based in the economy of the town and its region. Under these conditions, things like the federal government are destined to wither. The dumbshow underway in Washington these days is just a symptom of all that.

Perspectives on Faith & Science

Off the keyboard of Ashvin Pandurangi

Published inside the Doomstead Diner on August 1, 2013

Discuss this article at the Spirituality & Mysticism Table inside the Diner


Finding the Proper Perspective on Faith and Science:

A Rebuttal of John Michael Greer’s, The Quest for Common Language

*All quotations attributed to John Michael Greer in green are sourced from the following two articles, and all emphasis on such quotations are mine – 1) Held Hostage by Progress ; 2) The Quest for Common Language

In two back-to-back articles, John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report has strayed away from his general rule to avoid making arguments about specific religions. Here is a clear case, in my opinion, in which rules are NOT meant to be broken…

In Greer’s view, conservative Christians who interpret the Bible “literally” are not accurately representing the Faith. Instead, they are inserting scientific assertions into the Bible where, in fact, there are none. I understand that this is a very common view among “liberal/progressive” Christians and religious non-Christians. BUT, I have yet to come across ANY Biblical evidence to support such an ahistorical and simplistic view of the rich Biblical traditions that have been preserved for posterity.

While denigrating the Christians who find scientific truths in THEIR religious traditions (i.e. the Bible), Greer seems to take great pride in alleging that HIS religious tradition promoted biological evolution before Darwin even came on the scene. Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not what’s good for the gander. As support, Greer quotes “part of a ritual dialogue” that features prominently in his religion:

“The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:

“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”

“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”

“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”

“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”

Greer then explains that this ritual continues on, but the above is enough to “give the flavor and some core ideas”. OK… now compare this ritual dialogue with the opening verses of Genesis Chapter 1 (NIV, 1-13):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.”

(like Greer’s Druid ritual dialogue, this descriptive narrative continues on at some length…)

Can anyone look at these two sources of religious tradition and honestly claim that one contains scientific assertions while the other does not? It strains all reason and credulity to claim that the author of Genesis did not INTEND to make positive assertions about the origins of the Universe, the Earth and life on Earth; assertions that are clearly within the remit of scientific inquiry. Contrary to prevailing opinion, the principle of “Biblical literalism” has always been centered on the INTENDED meaning of Biblical texts rather than a wooden interpretation of specific words used. Greer attempts to sweep away this centuries long-tradition of interpretation with the following claim:

“Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.”

The loosely constructed straw-man used above claims that the Bible is not a “geology textbook” – the implication being, anyone who finds scientific assertions in the Bible is treating it as such a textbook and failing to notice its primary theological purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any serious and considered reading of the Bible reveals that Biblical theology cannot be artificially separated out from culture, politics, history, science or anything else. While the theology may not “center” on how the Universe, Earth and life came into existence, those issues are certainly featured FRONT AND CENTER, and the Biblical authors make no qualms about doing so.

JMG wrote the following in his first foray into the hypocritical bashing of “conservative” Christians:

“Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis.”

Although Greer is specifically dealing with Darwinian evolution here, the implication is that Christians are going way beyond the scope of the Bible’s intended message when they make scientific debate a part of their evangelical ministry or mission. It makes you wonder, when is the last time JMG actually read the Ten Commandments??

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20: 8-11)

Who can read the above and yet still claim there is no connection between the origin narratives of Genesis 1 and the theological discourse of Exodus, specifically Moses’ interaction with God on Mount Sinai. Regardless of whether you believe any of what is described in the Bible actually happened, it’s nearly impossible to deny that the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus intended to communicate a great intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and God’s personal relationship with humanity. We find this intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and DELIVERANCE of humanity repeatedly reinforced throughout the traditions of the Biblical prophets:

It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness. I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward” (Isaiah 45:12-13)

On top of ignoring such clear assertions in the Bible, Greer, in what can only be best characterized as a gross neglect of Christian history, cites the “historic creeds of the Christian churches” as evidence that the Bible was not intended to contain scientific truths which reflect on core theology. He claims that conservative Christians should get back to the primary message of these creeds, but fails to mention the wealth of historic Christian theologians and scientists (usually both) who read their Bibles and concluded the exact opposite of what Greer professes. After all, the rallying cry of the Christian Reformation movement was sola scriptura – that core Christian theology is not based on the Creeds of any church, but rather on scripture itself.

Leading “natural philosophers” of the Reformation era, with increased access to scripture and confidence in God’s word, confirmed that the study of the natural world is not distinct from the study of God’s glory and love revealed in scripture, but instead that the pursuit of both studies are INEXTRICABLY linked together as we ask the basic metaphysical questions about human existence, nature and purpose. The following are quotes by some of those courageous Christians who were at the forefront of the Scientific Revolution.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it needs fly to Providence and Deity.”

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
“Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That share in it accorded to humans is one of the reasons that humanity is the image of God.”

Gelileo Galilei (1564-1642)
“It seems to me that it was well said by Madama Serenissima, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scripture cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
“Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation.”

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
“The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
“The human mind is placed above, and not beneath it, and it is in such a point of view that the mental education afforded by science is rendered super-eminent in dignity, in practical application and utility; for by enabling the mind to apply the natural power through law, it conveys the gifts of God to man.”

Robert Boyle (1791-1867)
“shewing that, being addicted to experimental philosophy a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian.”

The quotes above only scratch the surface of what these men believed about the role of God’s word in science and vice versa, and obviously the list of people and number of quotes could continue. The point here is not that the Bible is inerrant when it deals with scientific matters, but that, contrary to Greer’s assertions, it DOES deal with scientific matters. As proof of fact, we see that all of the scientists above relied heavily on Biblical assertions when conducting scientific investigation – i.e. that the material Universe had a distinct beginning, was created by an Intelligent Mind and therefore it was governed by fixed, uniform and intelligible laws that humans could use to understand its workings and, more importantly, personally relate to its Creator.

It was only the Modernist era which gave rise to the widespread (and dangerous) belief that science and religion must be kept in separate “containers” of consideration and discussion, where never the twain shall meet. Greer, perhaps without knowing it, is simply reinforcing this artificial dualistic or “binary” mode of thinking that he often laments when discussing other topics. The question is not whether conservative Christians are right or wrong about Darwinian evolution based on modern scientific evidence, but whether there is any Biblical basis for them to argue that certain scientific theories are in tension with Biblical theology, and therefore make such arguments a part of their Christian ministry or mission in life.

The answer to this question from Greer’s perspective is a resounding NO. His only support for this answer, however, is the artificial duality that he imposes on the Bible and those of faith. It is true that many Western conservative Christians ignore proper scientific inquiry and simply attack theories on the basis of what they have been taught to believe. That fact is clear enough from the widespread conservative Christian critique of Big Bang cosmology. This critique is just as harsh if not more harsh than attacks on evolutionary theory, despite the fact that Big Bang cosmology supports the Bible’s claim of a beginning to all space, time, energy and matter!

Many of them have simply been taught to equate the Big Bang with “evolution”, thoroughly mixing up the sciences of cosmology and biology in the process. So it’s true that such ignorance and blind passion is prevalent, but Greer’s assertion here is also trite and irrelevant. He is trying to base an entire argument about historic Christianity, Biblical interpretation, science and theology on this one trite observation. Therein lies the binary mentality he fails to recognize in his own thinking (the following is MY take on his thinking):

“Either you are ignorant and blindly impassioned like THOSE Christians, or you are ‘progressive’ and well-versed in modern science like US”…

“Either you read the Bible ‘literally’ like THOSE Christians, or you read it metaphorically and allegorically like US”…

“Either the Bible is a scientific TEXTBOOK or it has ABSOLUTELY NO relation to science at all”…

The truth about the Bible is not so dualistic and simple. Like most good literature, it contains many different genres and literary devices – historical narratives, biographies, apocalyptic writing, military accounts, love stories, poetry, parables, metaphors, allegory, etc. The intention is not to create fiction or obscure reality but to convey truths about reality in brilliantly impactful ways. There is no reason to say that these truths are limited to “theological” truths rather than historical or scientific ones, or that those fields do not overlap and complement one another in the Bible. Such an argument presents an artificial and unnecessary duality, one that was NEVER incorporated into the historic Christian faith.

On the contrary, and as the evidence above makes clear, the historic Christian faith held to by many “conservative” members of the Church today has made no qualms that its theological messages are deeply intertwined with its historical and scientific assertions (or data points, if you will). Nowhere is this Biblical truth made more evident than in the very heart of Christian doctrine – the incarnation, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the region of Palestine during the first century AD.  Christians assert that the entire Bible from front to back revolves around and points to this one God-man – the divine Logos, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), through whom “all things were made” (1:3).

Greer asserts that the core of Christianity is faith and grace, which is TRUE, but then requires Bible-believing Christians to greatly suspend their disbelief when asserting that the Christian faith is not compatible with, or cannot be based on, intellectual and rational inquiry into other fields of knowledge.

“This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms”

The above is an exceptional encapsulation of Modernist dogma regarding religion. Greer has now thoroughly associated himself with the thinkers and pundits of the last few centuries who have attempted to quarantine spirituality from logic, reason and empirical evidence. It should be readily apparent how absurd this dogma really is when stripped down to its bare essentials. But, seeing as how I stand on the shoulder of pre-modernist giants, I will conclude this rebuttal by quoting Paul’s famous argument in 1 Corinthians 15, which flatly contradicts much of what Greer has asserted in his recent articles. Paul takes Greer’s grossly misleading, ahistorical caricature of Christianity and puts the Faith back into its proper historical perspective.

“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (12-19)

The Quest for a Common Language

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on the Archdruid Report on July 24, 2013


Discuss this article at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

It was probably inevitable that my comment last week about the pseudoconservative crusade against Darwinian evolution in today’s America would attract more attention, and generate more heat, than anything else in the post. Some of my readers abroad expressed their surprise that the subject was even worth mentioning any more, and it’s true that most religious people elsewhere on the planet, even those who revere the same Bible our American creationists insist on treating as a geology textbook, got over the misunderstandings that drive the creationist crusade a long time ago.
While it’s primarily an American issue, though, I’d like to ask the indulgence of my readers elsewhere in the world, and  also of American readers who habitually duck under the nearest couch whenever creationists and evolutionists start shouting past each other.  As a major hot-button issue in the tangled relationship between science and religion, the quarrel over evolution highlights the way that this relationship has gotten messed up, and thus will have to be sorted out as the civil religion of progress comes unraveled and its believers have to find some new basis for their lives.
Mind you, I also have a personal stake in it. It so happens that I’m a religious person who accepts the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s not despite my religion—quite the contrary, it’s part of my religion—and so I’m going to break one of my own rules and talk a little bit about Druidry here.
The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:
“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”
“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”
“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”
“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”
Like most 18th-century rituals, this one goes on for a good long while, but the passage just cited is enough to give the flavor and some of the core ideas. Abred is the realm of incarnate existence, and includes “every form capable of a body and life,” from what used to be called “infusoria” (single-celled organisms, nowadays) all the way up the scale of biological complexity and diversity, through every kind of plant and animal, including you and me. What the dialogue is saying is that we all, every one of us, embody all these experiences in ourselves. When Taliesin in his great song of triumph said “I have been all things previously,” this is what we believe he was talking about.
There are at least two ways in which all this can be taken. It might be referring to the long biological process that gave rise to each of us, and left our bodies and minds full of traces of our kinship with all other living things. It might also be referring to the transmigration of souls, which was a teaching of the ancient Druids and is fairly common in the modern tradition as well: the belief that there is a center of consciousness that survives the death of one body to be reborn in another, and that each such center of consciousness, by the time it first inhabits a human body, has been through all these other forms, slowly developing the complexity that will make it capable of reflective thought and wisdom. You’ll find plenty of Druids on either side of this divide; what you won’t find—at least I’ve yet to encounter one—are Druids who insist that the existence of a soul is somehow contradicted by the evolution of the body.
Yet you can’t bring up the idea of evolution in today’s America without being beseiged by claims that Darwinian evolution is inherently atheistic. Creationists insist on this notion just as loudly as atheists do, which is really rather odd, considering that it’s nonsense. By this I don’t simply mean that an eccentric minority faith such as Druidry manages to combine belief in evolution with belief in gods; I mean that the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.
Let’s cover some basics first. First of all, Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be a theory, but evolution is a fact. Living things change over time to adapt to changing environments; we’ve got a billion years of fossil evidence to show that, and the thing is happening right now—in the emergence of the Eastern coyote, the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in East Africa, and many other examples. The theory attempts to explain why this observed reality happens. A great deal of creationist rhetoric garbles this distinction, and tries to insist that uncertainties in the explanation are proof that the thing being explained doesn’t exist, which is bad logic. The theory, furthermore, has proven itself solidly in practice—it does a solid job of explaining things for which competing theories have to resort to ad hoc handwaving—and it forms the beating heart of today’s life sciences, very much including ecology.
Second, the narratives of the Book of Genesis, if taken literally, fail to match known facts about the origins and history of the Earth and the living things on it. Creationists have argued that the narratives are true anyway, but their attempts to prove this convince only themselves.  It’s been shown beyond reasonable doubt, for example, that the Earth came into being long before 4004 BCE, that animals and plants didn’t evolve in the order given in the first chapter of Genesis, that no flood large enough to put an ark on Mount Ararat happened during the chronological window the Bible allows for the Noah story, and so on.  It was worth suggesting back in the day that the narratives of the Book of Genesis might be  literally true, but that hypothesis failed to fit the data, and insisting that the facts must be wrong if they contradict a cherished theory is not a useful habit.
Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.
What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game. They’ve put an immense amount of energy into something that does their religion no good, and plays straight into the hands of their opponents.
It’s a mug’s game, to begin with, because the central strategy that creationists have been using since well before Darwin’s time guarantees that they will always lose. It’s what historians of science call the “God of the gaps” strategy—the attempt to find breaks in the evolutionary process that scientists haven’t yet filled with an explanation, and then to insist that only God can fill them. Back in Darwin’s own time, the usual argument was that there weren’t any transitional forms between one species and another; in response to the resulting talk about “missing links,” paleontologists spent the next century and a half digging up transitional forms, so that nowadays there are plenty of evolutionary lineages—horses, whales, and human beings among them—where every species is an obvious transition between the one before it and the one after. As those gaps got filled in, critics of evolution retreated to another set, and another, and another; these days, they’ve retreated all the way to fine details of protein structure, and when that gap gets filled in, it’ll be on to the next defeat. The process is reliable enough that I’ve come to suspect that biologists keep an eye on the latest creationist claims when deciding what corner of evolutionary theory gets intensively researched next.
Still, there’s a much deeper sense in which it’s a mug’s game, and explaining that deeper sense is going to require attention to some of the basic presuppositions of religious thought. To keep things in suitably general terms, we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being. (There’s more to classical theism than that—you can find the details in any good survey of philosophy of religion—but these are the details that matter for our present purposes.) I’ve argued elsewhere that classical theism isn’t the best explanation of human religious experience, but we’ll let that go for now; it corresponds closely to the beliefs of most American creationists, and it so happens that arguments that apply to classical theism here can be applied equally well to nearly all other theist beliefs.
Of the terms in the definition just given, the one that gets misused most often these days is “eternal.” That word doesn’t mean “lasting for a very long time,” as when we say that a bad movie lasts for an eternity; it doesn’t even mean “lasting for all of time.” What it means instead is “existing outside of time.” (Connoisseurs of exact diction will want to know that something that lasts for a very long time is diuturnal, and something that lasts for all of time is sempiternal.) Eternal beings, if such there be, would experience any two moments in time the way you and I experience two points on a tabletop—distinct but simultaneously present. It’s only beings who exist in time who have to encounter those two moments sequentially, or as we like to say, “one at a time.”
That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future—they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future.  An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.
Now of course believers in classical theism and its equivalents don’t just believe in eternal beings in general.  They believe in one, unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. Set aside for the moment whether you are or aren’t one of those believers, and think through the consequences of the belief.  If it’s true, then everything in the universe without exception is there either because that being deliberately put it there, or because he created beings with free will in the full knowledge that they would put it there. Everything that wasn’t done by one of those created beings, in turn, is a direct manifestation of the divine will.  Gravity and genetics,  photosynthesis and continental drift, the origin of life from complex carbon compounds and the long evolutionary journey since then: grant the presuppositions of classical theism, and these are, and can only be, how beings in time perceive the workings of the eternally creative will of God.
Thus it’s a waste of time to go scrambling around the machinery of the cosmos, looking for scratches left by a divine monkeywrench on the gears and shafts. That’s what the “God of the gaps” strategy does in practice; without ever quite noticing it, it accepts the purely mechanistic vision of the universe that’s promoted by atheists, and then tries to prove that God tinkers with the machinery from time to time. Accept the principles of classical theism and you’ve given up any imaginable excuse for doing that, since a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent deity leaves no scratches and doesn’t need to tinker. It’s not even a matter of winding up the gears of the cosmos and letting them run from there, in the fashion of the “clockmaker God” of the 18th century Deists; to an eternal divine being, all of time is present simultaneously, every atom is doing exactly and only what it was put there to do, and what looks like machinery to the atheist can only be, to the believer in classical theism or its equivalents, the action of the divine will in eternity acting upon the world in time.
Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way, and this is as it should be. The universe of matter and energy is what it is, and modern science is the best toolkit our species has yet discovered for figuring out how it works. The purpose of theology isn’t to bicker with science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion. To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust.
Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith—a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god, the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on, since none of these basic presuppositions about the cosmos can be proven or disproven.  How do people decide between these competing visions, then?  As noted in the post just mentioned, when that choice is made honestly, it’s made on the basis of values. Values are always individual, and always relative to a particular person in a particular context.  They are not a function of the intellect, but of the heart and will—or to use a old and highly unfashionable word, of character. Different sets of presuppositions about the cosmos speak to different senses of what values matter; which is to say that they speak to different people, in different situations.
This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. To accept any such vision of the nature of existence is to define one’s identity and relationship to the whole cosmos; to refuse to accept any such vision is also to define these things, in a different way; and in a certain sense, you don’t make that choice—you are that choice.  Rephrase what I’ve just said in the language of salvation and grace, and you’ve got one of the core concepts of Christianity; phrase it in other terms, and you’ve got an important element of many other religions, Druidry among them.
It’s important not to ignore the sweeping differences among these different visions of the nature of existence—these different faiths, to use a far from meaningless idiom. Still, there’s a common theme shared by many of them, which is the insight that human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order, an order that we didn’t make or choose, and one that imposes firm limits on what we can and should do with our lives.  Different faiths understand that experience of universal order in radically different ways—call it dharma or the Tao, the will of God or the laws of Great Nature, or what have you—but the choice is the same in every case:  you can apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe, and accept your place in it, even when that conflicts with the cravings of your ego, or you can put your ego and its cravings at the center of your world and insist that the order of the cosmos doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of what you think you want.  It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?
What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive. It’s a teaching of Druidry that this manifestation of the order of things is of the highest importance to humanity, and not just because human beings have messed with that order in remarkably brainless ways over the last three hundred years or so. Your individual actions toward the biosphere are an expression of the divide just sketched out. Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?
Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)  Science can tell us how fast we’re depleting the world’s finite oil supplies, and how quickly the signs of unwelcome ecological change are showing up around us; it can predict how soon this or that or the other resource is going to run short, and how rapidly the global climate will start to cost us in blood; it can even tell us what actions might help make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, and which ones will add to the misery—but it can’t motivate people to choose the better of these, to decide to change their lives for the benefit of the living Earth rather than saying with a shrug, “I’m sure they’ll think of something” or “I’ll be dead before it happens” or “We’re all going to be extinct soon, so it doesn’t matter,” and walking away.
That’s why I’ve been talking at such length about the end of the civil religion of progress here, and why I’ll be going into more detail about the religious landscape of the deindustrial world as we proceed.  Religion is the dimension of human culture that deals most directly with values, and values are the ultimate source of all human motivation. It’s for this reason that I feel it’s crucial to find a common language that will bridge the gap between religions and the environmental sciences, to get science and religion both to settle down on their own sides of the border that should properly separate them—and to show that there’s a path beyond the misguided struggle between them. We’ll talk more about that path next week.

Is Science Another Failed Institution?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on July 14, 2013


Discuss this article at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

The Greatest Intellectual Feat of Mankind

I love science. All science and sciences. I’ve spent a lifetime reading every popular science book I could get my hands on in every imaginable discipline. And in fields in which I was intensely interested I read the textbooks and the journal articles. Science as a way to understanding has been my passion. It therefore gives me great pain to entertain the possibility that the institution of science is yet another failed institution of Homo calidus.

The recognition of the process of science and, in particular, the scientific method has to stand as humanity’s greatest intellectual success. The notions of objectivity, observation, empirical methods, data, analysis, and provisional interpretation as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge have been woven into a beautiful tapestry of process that has proven its value over and over again. Ideologies (beliefs without actual verification) and religious dogma served a purpose to hold groups together by sharing common ideas and beliefs when our species emerged from the basic biological nexus as sentient, social self-conscious beings. Some purely practical beliefs took their origin in observations of nature that were repeatable and therefore the basis of prediction. Where the game could be found, when the rains would come, where the predators lurked, all of these kinds of regular happenings were the basis for repeatability. Each foray out to hunt was an experiment testing the hypothesis of that belief. But the existential questions that came with self-consciousness were not answerable by observations of nature. It would take the discovery of Darwinian evolution by natural selection before we could even begin to approach such questions.

And therein is the reason that ideologies and religions still exist today; that and the likelihood that the further evolution of eusapience was stymied after the invention of settled agriculture.

Even so, agriculture provided a significant boost to what would one day become science. Observation of many variables associated with plant and animal husbandry, and the application of those observations in controlled ways was incipient science at work. Large-scale agriculture gave rise to number systems for accounting, and, eventually, writing — using abstract symbols to express speech. Both were essential for codifying knowledge gained. Number systems and accounting (plain arithmetic) gave rise to mathematics when architects were commanded to build complex monuments and cities. Science (observing and interpreting) and engineering (exploiting knowledge to design and construct artifacts) were already developing as practical but unconsciously performed practices. As civilization progressed it enabled more areas to come under scrutiny and, in turn, allow civilization to progress further. Astrology (an attempt at answering existential questions) morphed eventually into astronomy and enabled long-range navigation and exploration.

The greatest accomplishment for humans was the eventual recognition of the process and its formal codification, transforming it from natural philosophy into a rigorous disciplinary method for obtaining knowledge. There were many steps in this process over a number of centuries. Aristotle had advocated what would become the empirical methods of observation. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century would advocate further for empirical observation as the basis for gaining truth. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Scientific Revolution crystallized and science emerged as a recognized process distinct from philosophy or religion.

And what a revolution it was. Mostly in terms of the pickup of the pace. Discoveries and exploitation came at accelerating rates. The invention of the printing press made it feasible to get it all recorded and disseminated. The institution of science would rapidly evolve.

Today science is an established institution overlaid on universities, government agencies, foundations, and industry. Money flows to researchers who conduct peer-reviewed projects with definite goals laid out. The granting institutions decide what the worthy pursuits will be and the investigators compete to show that their projects are relevant and likely to succeed. If a neuroscientist pursues an National Institutes of Health grant to study some aspect of brain function, she is required (if she wants a chance to win) to mention how her research could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. Failure to delineate how a line of research is going to lead to solving the energy crisis or cure cancer is a death sentence in the highly competitive fields of the modern practice of science.

The line between science and engineering has become blurred. Today engineering PhDs need to do research, ostensibly applied, to push the boundaries of what artifacts they can develop and what those artifacts can do. As in the above paragraph, scientists doing ostensibly pure research are obliged to mention the practical applications. The gaining of knowledge has come down to a gaining of new forms of wealth and wealth creation, not of gaining understanding of nature. If that happens from time to time it is a by-product, not the main goal. Put simply the funding model has changed the purpose of science and turned it into Über-engineering — finding solutions to problems. Science is now an industry*.

The universities, for their part, are producing copious PhDs in sciences and engineering even while the corporations complain that there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough of the Über-engineers based on the fact that the level of competition in innovative product development is staggeringly high. Today what counts as science is a discovery of how to cram more transistors on a chip of silicon.

And as often happens when you over produce a product you turn it into a commodity. The crops of PhDs and Master’s degreed people coming out of second and third tier universities have flooded the markets. They look for jobs as adjunct “instructors” or lecturers rather than full time, tenure-track positions in departments with active research agendas. Thanks to the societal meme that everyone should have a college degree, the subsequent rapid expansion of higher education institutions, and the demand for instructors, this has resulted in a positive feedback loop that produces stamped out of the mold products (PhDs) who then take whatever job they can get. A PhD in a science is no longer about science or the level of intellectual sophistication that it had been at the beginning of the 20th century.

A Two-Edged Sword

Science has been used for good and evil for its whole history as a human endeavor. I count evil as those acts of violence such as wars that make humanity worse off. Science has given us medicines but it also gave us the means of maiming soldiers so that they would require those medicines. Radioactive isotopes and atom smashers have been extremely useful in medical and investigative work but nuclear bombs have been a curse. And now, industrial grade agriculture is feeding billions (though some not so well) it is also poisoning our bodies, our soils, our air, and our waters. And not just our species is suffering.

Up until the mid 20th century science was mostly perceived as a force for good and progress. Very few people could or would question this proposition. But a few started to wonder about the negative effects that they began to suspect and later observe. Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring” is a poster child of this thinking. But there were others and many even before Ms. Carson. The sword had become that of Damocles to them. We enjoyed the benefits of science and engineering, but most people were either ignorant of or simply ignored the threats hanging just over their heads as they sat on the throne of progress.

Unfortunately the warning voices were drowned out by the din of exclamations about the wonders of science. As I was just coming into more adult-level awareness, having been brought up on Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and (later) Star Trek, the Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58) was a site where adulation of our knowledge of atomic energy was on display. I had been born exactly on the day the first atomic bomb had been used to kill people in Japan 13 years earlier. So I found myself conflicted over the science of atomic energy; on the one hand producing such horror, and on the other producing what seemed, at the time, like a promise of prosperity. By my senior year in high school and continuing in my first years of college, I wondered how this could be. What kind of creatures were we that we could do this to ourselves?

Ironically I would come to live in Seattle, WA. less than a decade after the Seattle World’s Fair where the expectations of progress and the great promise of science was the major theme. I had grown up reading mostly science fiction tales about space travel. Men had landed on the moon just before I came to Seattle so it looked like we were on our way to the Gordon/Rogers/Trek era. The optimism surrounding what would be possible given our mastery over science was palpable throughout the western world (as long as you could suppress thinking about the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon). To this day I like to visit the Pacific Science Center on the grounds of that fair, with the towering Space Needle a constant reminder of the notion of progress. I still love science, with its ability to produce meaningful knowledge of how the universe works. But I have developed considerable doubts about its payoff for humanity given our propensity to see that knowledge as only valuable if it increases our profits or helps us kill our enemies.

The Failure

Science itself, as a means for gaining knowledge, is not a failure. As a process it is not inherently a two-edged sword. It is not evil. It is the use of science that has turned evil. I hinted at this above.

By evil I don’t mean in a spiritual sense. I mean in the effect on human life sense. As a species we are bound to protect our interests in survival so anything that does so in the evolutionary framework is good, anything that threatens us is evil. Unfortunately in mankind’s exploitation of the knowledge we gained from science we find increasingly more evil than good. The knowledge itself is, of course, neutral. It is just knowledge. The problem is that we do not have the meta-knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term benefit of humanity. We have, instead, learned to exploit science, through engineering, for immediate gains without thinking about the long-term consequences. So knowledge of heat engines is used to engineer machines that propel us rapidly from point A to point B. We individuals in the here-and-now “profit” by getting places faster. Our time is then in surplus, our personal energies conserved. Why should we worry about the consequences of burning fossil fuel to achieve this short-term profit? Isn’t it easy to believe this trend will go on and on forever, that our children, and their children, will have even more profit from science and technology?

Knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term good of humanity is wisdom. That knowledge is not explicit nor are we necessarily consciously aware of it when it influences our intuitions. It just comes up from our subconsciousness as a feeling about the right path to follow, the right thing to do. Wisdom is also veridical knowledge. It must be valid, consistent, holistic, and morally motivated. It comes only from the experiences of a lifetime that consolidate into mental models of deep reality. It is knowledge ultimately based on evolutionary truth. It cannot be otherwise since evolutionary fitness objectively requires the species to be operating in accordance with the rules of the environment.

Evolution itself is the wisdom of ordinary biology. For every prior species that has ever existed evolution made the strategic decisions through variation and natural selection. Species improved in fitness until the environments changed radically enough to require new strategies. Variation in the genetic pools provided the raw material for selection to cause both incremental improvement, to adjust the phenotypes to shifting environments, and novelty, when needed to launch a new line, so to speak. And if the changes in environments were too extreme, as in a major die-off, evolution started over with whatever remained — the rest went extinct.

Humans emerged as a species with an expanded capacity to imagine the future by taking into account environmental changes that were possible and feasible. They began to formulate their own strategies and improve their own fitness. They figured out how to control fire, how to make artificial fur out of animal hides. They learned how to survive in inclement climates. Cultures became the new ‘species’ (or sub-sub-species). But as with any emerging property or behavior, strategic thinking started out fairly weak and only a few variant members of a population ever achieved anything close to what would eventually be needed as the cultures continued to evolve. Group selection is now being recognized as the selection process that deepened our eusocial nature, but also promoted the ascension of a few wiser leaders in early human tribes. The tribes with the most dominance of cooperation and with the wisest elders were more fit than those who were less cooperative or failed to have sufficiently wise elders.

The basis of eusociality, primarily empathy and language, along with strategic thinking ability are the roots of sapience and wisdom. Stronger sapience (i.e. genetic variants that boosted expansion of the necessary brain components in fetal development) led to more successful groups, which in turn favored the increase in sapience. But it just didn’t progress far enough or fast enough to build the kind of wisdom — knowledge of how to use knowledge — needed to manage the growth and use of simple knowledge.

Ergo here we stand today, overrun with some knowledge of the natural world (including ourselves) and lots of knowledge about stuff (the human-built world) and we haven’t a clue as to how to use it appropriately to bring balance between the two realms. What passes as science today is a mere shadow of what it was and what role it played in discovering how the universe works. There are still, fortunately, a large number of scientists who keep to the old ways. But they are generally the older members of the community. Often they are the ones who have gained wisdom. They are the ones who tend to write books about what the science they practice means in the larger sense. But their voices are barely heard at all against the clatter and banging of the modern industrialized, politicized institution we call science.

Science, as it originated, still stands as an ultimate intellectual achievement. As a method for gaining knowledge, when practiced with wisdom it stands unsullied. It is the process that uses science, the low-sapient human society, that is failed. Society creates institutions that process information and use it for supposed human uses. Something has gone terribly wrong in the institutionalized science of modern times, and that something is the lack of wisdom in humans themselves.

* Lest I be accused of painting with too broad a brush I should hasten to point out that there are still many scientific fields that are pursued for the sake of gaining knowledge without a profit motive. I’ll name one, cosmology. I don’t think cosmologists and astronomers need to justify their grant proposals with anything immediately profitable or curing a disease. However, it has been getting harder and harder to get sufficient grants as national budgets are strapped and priorities increasingly focus on “practical” work. Ask any Republican congressman if he/she thinks it valuable for the NSF to fund a project to find out if there is life on other planets and see how they respond. Ask the same person how valuable it is to research the next major weapons system and you will likely get a totally different response. My feeling is that whatever funding is going toward pure research in these fields is on the basis of momentum and tradition more than choice.

Podcast: George Mobus Part 2- Sapience, Evolution & Eugenics

Off the Microphones of George Mobus, RE & Monsta

Aired on the Doomstead Diner Podcasts on July 10, 2013


Discuss this at the Podcast Table inside the Diner

In the second part of George Mobus, RE & Monsta discuss the role of Genetic Bottlenecks in species evolution as it applies to the Human Population at the end of the Age of Oil.

Why are we in the predicament we are in?  Is this a result of a lack of WISDOM to use the INTELLIGENCE Homo Sapience evolved over time?  George makes distinctions between the idea of Wisdom and that of Intelligence, and hypothesizes that attributes of Wisdom can be Identified and Selected for.

If a Genetic Bottleneck through Collapse is coming down the pipe, will there be a Selection Process involved, will Human Beings attempt to CONTROL that selection, and if so, what forms of selection will occur, and what will be Selected for here in the end?

Questions to ponder on further inside the Diner.

Coming soon to a Laptop Near You, Parts 3 & 4, where we discuss further with George the Energy problems and associated Monetary System Collapse issues, along with Community Values and Cooperation vs. Competition in the Evolution of Homo Sapiens.


Evolution: The Roles of Competition, Cooperation, Coordination, and Strategy

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on June 25, 2013


Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The typical view held by most lay people who “believe” in biological evolution is that species compete with one another for resources. Individuals within a species, likewise, compete for scarce resources. The winners of this competition have the advantage when it comes to procreation, and hence, their genes, the ones that made them more fit, are passed on differentially greater to the next generation.

Competition between conspecifics within a population, between individuals of different species whose econiches overlap, and between predators and prey has been taken as the main operating form of natural selection. Conspecific competitions include food and mates. In the latter case the role of sexual selection has been found to play a major role where, generally, males compete through courting and fighting behaviors to curry the favors of females. The case of competition for resources between species that have overlapping econiches is most readily seen when an invasive species out competes the native species, say for food. Competition between predator and prey is for the right to live. It is the only case that could be described, to some degree, by Tennyson’s famous (poetic) description.

Though the notion of competition as the main mechanism for evolution has enjoyed wide appreciation by the public, presumably because it is relatively easy to imagine, it is by no means the only mechanism. And, as it turns out, it may not even be the main mechanism. The more evolutionary biologists study the life histories of various species, the more they are coming to appreciate a more subtle role that cooperation and coordination play in what may surely be called “progress” in evolution. There is a rapidly growing body of knowledge about how cooperation and coordination act to stabilize a biological system. By that I mean the system as a whole becomes more able to exist and thrive in a much larger environment. Cooperation and coordination have been the main mechanisms involved in the evolution of eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, herds, and eusociality — the capacity of individuals to work collectively for the good of the group as a whole.

In this post I’d like to review the strength of the argument that cooperation and coordination are the principle means by which new levels of organization emerge that ultimately give rise to new entities (systems) and that those are better able to survive in a non-ergodic universe (see my earlier post in which I explain non-ergodicity and its relation with evolution). I will argue that, in fact, the ultimate of coordination is a necessary condition to increase the likelihood of any system achieving long(ish)-term sustainability. Unfortunately this argument also boost the claim that human society is not sustainable because it has not yet evolved such a level of coordination.


I probably need not say a great deal about this mechanism. Competition between two entities simply means that they will attempt to grab resources or clobber each other to the point that one wins and the other loses (a zero-sum game in game theory). The winner takes most if not all. Darwin’s (and Alfred Russel Wallace’s) genius was to recognize that every species will procreate far more offspring than could be sustained in the embedding environment. They would have to compete with one another for food and mates. As a result the stronger or, to put it more neutrally, the most fit, would out compete the weaker (less fit) and as a result have more offspring in the next generation. Differential fitness comes from variations in heritable traits. Darwin didn’t know what this might come from but recognized it in the field. We now recognize that the heritability of traits arises from genetic variation — differences in gene alleles that create differences in the phenotypes (which includes variations in behaviors). Those differences arise spontaneously in the form of gene mutations that generate different codon triplets at critical locations. Most mutations, it seems, do not affect critical locations in the transcribed protein, so are neutral (Carroll, 2006b). But every once in a while a mutation, either in a critical location in a protein-coding gene, or a regulatory gene, cause a change in the recipient’s physiology or development, with consequent changes in morphology or behavior (or both). If the change makes the individual more fit, then it will have a tendency to spread through the population in subsequent generations.

Ultimately a new species might emerge by one of several mechanisms. I will save the descriptions of those for another post, but eventually, with sufficient differentiation, populations emerge that do not interbreed and are counted as different species.

Generally speaking, if you acknowledge neo-Darwinian evolution as the mechanism for speciation (essentially sufficient descent with modification to generate different species) then you are already very familiar with this description of how it works. And, perhaps feeling satisfied in understanding it, have also assumed that this was all that was needed to explain the history of evolution as written in the fossil remains records and the genomes. But, as the story of life is anything but simple, it turns out this is not the whole story. Not by a long shot.


Over the last several decades evidence has been accumulating that cooperation between species, and between conspecifics is a much more important mechanism for fitness increase than had been realized. The number and kinds of symbiotic relations that are being documented attest to the widespread occurrence of cooperative morphologies and behaviors that lead to greater fitness for the mutualists. There are even cases of what were probably parasitic relations coevolving into mutualisms.

Cooperation evolves where two or more individuals have some form of specialization that can be brought to bear on, for example, a resource acquisition problem. Both individuals have capabilities that together improve the acquisition such that there is more than would have been available to each individually. A good example of this are the various forms of gut bacteria that operate in the rumen of cattle and other ruminants. They break down cellulose and through fermentation make nutrients available to the ruminant as well as themselves. Without these bacteria, the ruminant would not be able to digest the grasses anywhere near as efficiently.

Another good example is the relation between many kinds of corals and the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates known as zooxanthella. The former receive nutrition from the latter and the latter have a protected home.

Among conspecific examples there are many. Originally biologists were interested in altruistic behaviors as an example of cooperation. Altruism is described as the behavior of one individual helping another such that the former’s fitness is reduced and the latter’s is improved. Diminished fitness means the altruist has a lower chance of getting all of its genes into the next generation. The long standing explanation for altruism has been the degree of relatedness determines how likely an altruistic act will occur. Siblings are more likely to help one another than are cousins, for example. Parents (in species that nurture their young) will help their offspring, obviously.

While altruism plays some role in the evolution of cooperation it is not the actual starting point. It cannot explain individuals not related to one another are able to perform acts of altruism under the right circumstances (the good Samaritan behavior). Nor is it useful in explaining synergistic symbiosis. In fact the latter requires nothing more than standard evolution theory to explain it. If the benefit derived from two or more individuals, either of the same or different species, is greater for all parties than the situation before cooperation, then whatever genetic propensity that led to the adoption of the behavior will be selected for. The two (or more) are more fit in their mutual environment than either is independently.

Today the concept of group selection (Sober & Wilson, 1999; Wilson, 2013) is being rejuvenated to explain the phenomenon of eusociality, what E.O. Wilson describes as the behavioral propensity for groups of conspecifics to organize, specialize in work duties, protect a common nest, and, in extreme cases, centralize the reproductive function in one or a few individuals while the rest of the group acts to support that function. Ant colonies, Wilson’s expertise, are examples of such. But the same mechanism of evolution applies, according to Sober & Wilson (David Sloan, not Edward O.) show that group selection was a powerful force in shaping human tribalism.

Cooperation depends on individuals being 1) motivated to share responsibilities, and 2) being in direct communications with the others that are participating. The first requirement takes on multiple forms depending on the level of organization. For example, at the pre-eukaryote stage of evolution, when microbes were first starting to work in teams, the motivations were purely metabolic. Something about linking up for certain microbes (chemically) made living easier. When we get to people we get a whole plethora of emotional motivations as well as straightforward cognitive recognition of the advantages. I enjoy making quality spears and so prefer to spend time doing so. You enjoy hunting and so prefer to do that. You can see the quality of my spears and I can see the results of your hunting. You figure that having really good quality spears will improve your success so we work a trade. I make your spears and you provide my meat. Not too hard to understand.

The second requirement is captured in that last example. I can see what you do and you can see what I do. We can talk to each other. We can assess relative merits (utility) of each others’ work and arrive at some kind of trade bargain. Our communications are direct and efficient.

A market, as it is generally conceived in economics terms, is actually a mechanism for groups of specializers to trade goods and services in a mass cooperative process. Markets work when there is adequate communications between buyers and sellers AND adequate transparency into relative values of goods based on the amount of work that was done to produce a good or service. Buyers compound their understanding of that work with the utility they perceive of having that work done for them. The product or service must fulfill a legitimate need for the buyer. Unfortunately, as the nature of the work and the products have become increasingly complex and highly specialized that transparency is lost. Moreover, some products and services are touted for their novelty or hedonic sake rather than any legitimate utility. Thus establishing fair prices in an overly complex market environment becomes infeasible.

Competitive markets superpose cooperation and competition in the hopes that the latter will improve products and services and bring prices down as sellers compete for buyers. The so-called “free” markets are ideals in which evolution and fitness play a part in driving progress. It makes for a good story. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work out too well for humans. First, the market participants have a tendency toward cryptic behaviors. Motivated by a desire for profits and winning the competition for customers, producers/sellers are tempted to cheat for advantage. Dominators will always tend to arise in complex markets based on cooperation with competition thrown in for the sake of progress. The economic history of free markets has demonstrated this time and again. You would think we would learn but we don’t. This is ideology trumping reality. Our steadfast belief in this myth gets us into trouble over and over again.

In the kinds of natural systems I have been describing cooperation between near neighbors in a complex network of relations is still necessary. Indeed cooperation is essential for stability of an on-going producing system. But when systems reach a level of complexity where it becomes difficult or impossible for clusters of nodes that are cooperating locally to cooperate globally something more is needed to make it work. The evolution of systems like eukaryotes and multicellular organisms shows repeatedly that mere markets (cooperation) cannot long survive. Something more needed to evolve that would provide coordination services between those clusters. Something above the network of working processes was needed to ensure transparency of a kind, and adequate communications channels providing legitimate information flows. And it would have to minimize, if not eliminate competition in order to achieve an integrated whole that benefited all of the participants.


Cooperation, while a necessary first step along the path to eusociality, or eukaryoticity (if there is such a word), or multicelularity (again if there is such a word), is not sufficient to explain the high degree of interaction between components that had once been individuals but learned to work together (Bourke, 2011). Once an aggregate of cooperating individuals reaches a certain level of complexity there arises a need for something more reliable than the motives of the individuals to cooperate. For one thing with increasing complexity there is also increasing specialization and decreasing direct communications between all of the cooperators. When multicellular life forms were first evolving there needed to be a system of coordinating signals in addition to direct communications between nearest neighbors. The evolution of large-scale signaling systems, specifically the endocrine and nervous systems with their role of coordinating disparate tissues and organs made higher complexity possible. But then the higher complexity created a need for more refined coordination. The hierarchical cybernetic system I described in How does Hierarchical Control Systems Theory help us? is nature’s way of permitting more complex systems to emerge and thrive.

In the economics/markets system we actually are witnessing the emergence of a coordination mechanism arising from simpler cooperative mechanisms in the form of supply chain management. Supply chains depend on a lot of imposed transparency and communications if they are to work properly. This is supplied by the computer-based systems employed by members of the chain to coordinate the ordering and shipping of goods or provision of services. The Internet ensures the existence of low-cost communications and the programs provide the regulatory protocols for assuring communications of “truth”. The epitome of what can further evolve after the emergence of supply chain coordination is the optimizing power of the Just-in-Time flow process that minimizes inventory costs.

Unfortunately supply chains can be misused by human decision makers in near-monopoly (high volume) end users. Walmart, for example, takes great pride in their leverage over small supplies in driving down costs. The results of this abuse of the supply chain concept have made the news recently. The problem is that the supply chain is still embedded in a competitive environment. That environment has not yet coalesced into a unitary system like a whole cell or body. In fact there is a long way to go.

Nevertheless, the emergence of coordination mechanisms like supply chain management demonstrate that cultural evolution is very much at work. Other examples include regulatory agencies that attempt to enforce transparency and communications. These emerged as problems in commerce showed that the effects of cryptic behaviors, greediness, and cheating required some kind of governmental oversight. Human society is an evolvable system even if it has not really become a whole system. There is much emergence of mechanisms yet to be accomplished to make it so.

There are actually two kinds of coordination that takes place in whole systems. The first, an internal coordination, is called logistical. It deals with the coordination between internal work processes to assure the overall optimum. Individual work processes can be subject to variation in production. The logistical coordinator’s job is to regulate the flows of resources (like energy and matter) between those processes to balance the overall process. The work processes are not in competition with one another, even when there are redundant processes doing the same work. Such processes have no concept of profit so there is no reason to be in competition.

The other form of coordination is called tactical. This is actually the whole system coordinating its behaviors (like its final products) with its environment. It must monitor the status of its resource suppliers and its product/waste acceptors and continually adjust the work of special interface processors (e.g. ordering and receiving in the supply chain example) to make sure the whole system has enough and is not accumulating products and wastes. Living systems do this very well! Companies and many non-profit organizations do it well enough generally.

An important point to note is that coordination control is not the same thing as a planned economy as realized by communist societies. These were obviously flawed. But we should also recognize that the flaws came not from the propensity to want coordination but from the flawed minds of the implementors. Low sapient humans simply could not recognize how coordination could or should be achieved. For starters they simply did not understand the lower level work processes themselves so could not design an effective coordination mechanism that would be a service to those processes. This is the key idea. Coordination isn’t imposing an arbitrary “boss” on the work processes. It is evolving, or in the case of an intentional system, designing a regulation mechanism that serves the interest of all members while serving the interest of the whole. In the case of the Soviet Union, not only did they have many flawed understandings of their internal work processes, but their tactical coordination was based on that all too flawed human propensity to compete with physical power as opposed to simply doing a better job (the Sputnik space program being possibly the only near exception – it was still motivated by a desire to rule space for military purposes).

Coordination regulators provide a system with resilience. If they are using accurate models of the subsystems they manage (or the entities in the environment they interact with) then they can adjust the balance of flows in response to environmental stresses in order to mitigate those stresses (e.g. physiological adaptation). Resilience is a necessary condition for long-term sustainability, but as I argue below, it is not a sufficient condition.

When we look at the case of eusociality as it is emerging in the evolution of groups we find that coordination is still very much a factor. Some authors, writing, for example, about eusocial insects, like to emphasize the seeming lack of a top-down coordination of the whole colony or hive. They will wax eloquently about how termite hills emerge from the group actions of individuals even though there is no command center that instructs those individuals what to do. This has a romantic (and politically correct) feel to it but fails to recognize a simple fact. Each member of a colony (or hive) developed into the kind of worker, or scout, or whatever, under the influence of biochemical signals that ultimately started with the establishment of the colony. In fact the development of a colony is essentially the same as the development of an embryo to a fetus to a free-living individual (see: Development; note that the eggs laid by a queen correspond to the pleuripotent embryonic cells in that the biochemical environment they are subjected to during their development determines which caste they become). It is all under the command of developmental controls which determine the fates of cells (in the case of individuals) or individuals in the case of a colony. This is, in fact, a form of top-down coordination that is continually implemented in the pheromones that individuals of various types (or castes) exude. Those pheromones are the means of communication and they do coordinate the cooperation between individuals, but they are governed by biological coordination level mechanism. The termites don’t just randomly cooperate to build a nest. They are guided by the elaborate, biologically-determined, communications systems.

An interesting speculation I keep coming back to is that the evolution of Homo sapiens as a eusocial animal, and thus human social groups as units of selection, was driving our development toward the kind of whole entity-ship that we witness in eukaryotic cells or individual multicellular entities. These have succeeded in evolving successful coordination controls that make sure the internal subsystems interoperate most efficiently given the econiche that they occupy. Is it not possible that human groups were developing such coordination mechanisms under the pressures of group selection prior to the advent of agriculture? I think there is reason to believe it was so. Our development of symbolic language (including numeracy and math), our strong empathy, and other attributes of sapience all appear to provide internal mechanisms for members of a group to not only cooperate but to voluntarily submit to coordination for the good of the whole group. The human propensity to develop governance mechanisms as the complexity of a society increases suggests to me the embryonic formation of coordination regulation. It is our feeble attempts to realize what we are biologically programmed (even if poorly) to do. What is wrong with this is that the component parts, i.e. us individuals, had not yet evolved a level of sapience that would mitigate things like greed and cryptic behavior and make each individual more dedicated to the fitness of the whole. I suspect that at a sufficient level of sapience, what I have called eusapience, individuals would not only “feel” motivated to act in behalf of the whole group, but intellectually understand what to do, why they need to do it, and how it will benefit the whole. In other words, unlike the ants that mindlessly follow pheromone orders, humans will be intellectually eusocial, still realizing the consciousness of their self, even while willingly participating in a working society. They could achieve true resilience.


A strategy is a pattern of actions that an entity will follow to anticipate what the environment will do and, perhaps, be better able to preadapt to changes. This sometimes includes making significant alterations to basic operations to either mitigate a prospective threat or exploit a new resource. Commercial entities and armies have long recognized the value of strategic management. Strategies address how the entity will fit into a future environment, not just how well it fits in the current one.

In biological evolution, strategy is determined by selection for fitness in a given environment. No process or species “plans” for implementing changes in their fundamental operations (behaviors) either in response to substantial and long-lasting changes in the environment, or in anticipation of such changes. The econiche, including all of the behaviors in a species repertoire, constitute the “plan” for its future (where plan is in scare quotes for a reason). Species are evolvable (obviously) and it is chance mutations that provide a way to explore new options.

But something that I consider truly marvelous, but not mysterious, has emerged with the evolution of the genus Homo and especially the species sapiens. Human beings have brain functions not found to any appreciable degree in any other animals. They can think strategically at a far grander scale than any other animal including our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Strategies, for humans, are more a matter of choice than chance. A group of humans anticipating a cold winter can decide to spend more time stocking foodstuffs and making warmer clothing. This is fundamentally different from what a mere biological system can do.

Strategic thinking is one of the hallmarks in my definition of sapience (see the work at the above link). While there are small inklings of the ability in our cousins (e.g. chimps are known to “plan” to go to war with a neighboring tribe) it is nothing like what we are able to accomplish. Strategic thinking is a clue that evolution has reached a much higher level of organization than merely biological. Our eusociality along with the emergence of the capacity for strong strategic thinking and leadership abilities in a few members of a group are evidence, in my opinion, that humans had transcended mere neo-Darwinian evolution even as being bootstrapped to this level by that same evolution. As if to underscore this insight, consider that we humans are the first biological creatures on this planet to actually know about evolution. We are rapidly developing the kind of knowledge needed to explain and understand evolution. Someone once described mankind as evolution learning about itself. This is not anthropomorphizing as it is normally understood. This is based on these facts. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it is an anthropocentric viewpoint either. In fact, properly understood as a phenomenon, it immediately burdens humans with a responsibility that other animals do not carry. We have to regulate ourselves if we are to be truly fit in our Ecos environment. Thus far we have failed rather badly.

We, as a species, were on the path to higher sapience pre-agriculture. And while agriculture, with its requirements for mere cleverness (and not sapience) may have shifted the selection criteria, the fact that we had already passed the threshold means that we have a base from which to work. Continued reliance on a form of agriculture (my favorite is permaculture) need not preclude us from taking responsibility for what we do. And I submit that given our status as beings that understand evolution part of that responsibility is to get back on the right track to evolving yet higher sapience. Gene mutation based on pure chance is not the only way in which new capabilities might arise. Strategic thinking includes putting together intentional adaptations meant to address the future environment. We humans have learned how genetic mechanisms work and are now very close to understanding how regulatory networks in our DNA operates to modify (and enhance) existing phenotypes. I think we are very close to understanding the regulation of brain development. My own hypothesis regarding the role of Brodmann area 10 in providing strategic regulation to the rest of the brain, where intelligence and creativity and affect reside, might provide an insight into how to boost sapience. If our social fabric can hang together for another decade I am betting we will see this come to pass.

Unfortunately the prospects for the latter are looking dimmer, almost by the day. By my alternative plan to not practice an active genetic modification program, but rather rely on the fact that every trait has a greater or lesser degree of variability in the population and that if we could find very high sapient young people to form colonies prior to a bottleneck event, we would achieve the same thing in a more naturalistic way. At present I cannot predict which would be more likely to succeed. I guess I would now favor both. I realize there are significant moral implications to the intentional modification scheme. I can already hear the cries of “eugenics” by the limbic-controlled crowd. There would be questions about who gets to decide who gets modified and a whole plethora of others like it. My only defense is one of urgency and pointing out that we are not talking about designer babies being smarter or more athletic. We are talking about boosting wisdom itself. Surely that is a worthy objective.

The Whole

Whole entities achieve stable, resilient, sustainable existence when they are not merely complex, but have a hierarchical cybernetic system in place to coordinate the whole, and to be able to anticipate the future of the whole environment. If a human society is to achieve this status it needs to evolve greater sapience than we see at present in individual members. We have been so used to the classical view of economics with its myopic vision of the role of competition as well as its ratification of greediness that it is going to be very hard for most people to see there really is another, much more enlightened view of what successful systems look like. People will first fear what they perceive as giving up their freedoms (a deeply instilled Western cultural view). Individualism has ruled in the West, in its extreme form, the Ayn Rand libertarians, and in most other ideological versions no matter how supposedly liberal. Everyone in the West agrees that individual freedom is supreme.

The only problem with this is that true freedom isn’t the ability to do what you want when you want to. True freedom is freedom of the mind. Freedom from mental stress, freedom from false beliefs, freedom from lesser human propensities that lead to tyranny and destruction, and, most importantly, freedom to think about reality as it is, not as someone fools us into thinking it is.

Many Eastern philosophies do not even consider individualism as worthy of contemplation. They have evolved recognizing that humans are social beings and that what is best for society is also best for individuals living in that society. Western man simply got caught up in too much belief in human speciality of the wrong kind. We might be special, but we belong to the Ecos. We are not masters of it, we are its children. And we owe it our service.

If a small contingent of highly sapient beings make it through the bottleneck there may come a day when social organizations are modeled on the sustainable systems template. Communities of humans may achieve higher complexity and yet remain cohesive and free of most internal strife. Of course, just as cancerous cells run amok in our bodies occasionally, nothing is perfect and some of those societies may experience a similar loss of internal peace. But except for that it is not hard to envision social units existing in a way commensurate with the demands of the Ecos. Those groups might even engage in some new kind of competition (i.e. friendly competition) that would still be part of the evolutionary process of pushing progress.

Perhaps. It might be feasible. But only if some of us, now, can find a way to increase the likelihood of higher sapients getting through what is coming so fast.


Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, USA.

Carroll, Sean B. (2006a). Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Carroll, Sean B. (2006b). The Making of the Fittest, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Sober, Elliott & Wilson, David S. (1999). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Wilson, Edward O. (2013). The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, New York.

You Wouldn’t Be Here If…

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on May 7, 2013


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Consider This Conjecture

Over the years I have addressed the notion that human beings are equivalent to cancer in the Ecos because we are busily grabbing up every resource in sight and destroying the tissues of the Ecos, the various ecosystems of the planet. In several venues I have argued that this analogy is not really helpful because it casts our species as an evil for which the only cure is to cut it out. I have also argued that the analogy is not really apt in the first place because humans have not just destroyed. They have discovered some incredible knowledge, applied it to make life better for themselves, and created magnificent art and music along the way. Cancers don’t think about stuff they just eat. They don’t create works of intrinsic value. And they don’t create cells within that stop to ask, “are we being like cancers in the way we are affecting the Ecos?”

A lot of the argument hinges on the fact, undeniable, that we have gone into population overshoot. By definition that means there is some, much smaller, population size that should be sustainable. Cancers kill by first invading a tissue and then reproducing without bound while sucking up all of the nutrients, thus killing the healthy tissue. From the outside it does look like this is our modus operandi, I admit. However, there is evidence that with affluence comes a lowered birth rate, suggesting that there are some inherent, though not understood, balancing feedback controls in place. What has complicated the situation is that on top of expanding the population we are also increasing our consumption of resources per capita. The two combined lead to the kind of phenomenon we are witnessing.

But suppose that humans had taken a different course of evolution, had developed higher sapience along with higher intelligence and creativity, and proceeded cautiously when being inventive. Suppose they had developed the wisdom to recognize the dangers of over population and over consumption and had taken steps to prevent the population bomb and conspicuous consumption. What kind of society would we have today? And would it be in any sense better than we have produced?

Given a global carrying capacity estimated at fewer than five hundred million people society and the world would certainly look very different from what we have. Many of you, and I, probably think that would have been a much better world to live in. The only problem is that we would not be here! The only reason you, dear reader, and I exist is because the world of human cultures developed the way they did. If we hadn’t had population overshoot none of us would be here. There would be humans, of course, just none of US.

You may be thinking (very abstractly of course, because we are here) that that would still be a good thing. But here is another thing to ponder. Variation in the gene pool is a function of size of the population. The larger the population the more opportunities there are for a substantially better variant allele of any given gene to arise. Better still more opportunities for a better variant of a control element in the networks controlling the development of brains to emerge and lead to — you guessed it — higher sapience!

But That Alternative Evolution Didn’t Happen, So…

In other words, the world of mankind developed the way it did and that is a fact we have to accept. The brain structures necessary for higher sapience more than likely could not have evolved alongside intelligence and creativity because its emergence in the genus Homo came much later than the latter two. Indeed because of the way Broadmann area 10 interacts with all other areas of the prefrontal cortex, the emergence of sapience, minimal as it might have been, was probably like an afterburner burst to the existing circuits for cleverness. Brain circuits develop to larger sizes as much because of stimulation during development as of genetic predisposition. A new circuit stimulating lots of other circuits during embryogenesis may have well been part of what caused the brains of sapiens to expand so much.

There is no point in lamenting the way evolution brought us to this point. Either the further non-development of sapience was an accident of timing or a necessity, either way that is what seems to have happened and there is no use crying about it.

Of course it is true that we have a mess on our hands and that cleaning it up is what nature will get around to shortly. We can cry about that, but not as victims, just unhappy bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real question is how do we face a collapse of civilization and a more than likely (IMHO) bottleneck event with dignity and solace? In part, I think, we draw solace from recognizing that we are not a cancer per se, that things developed as they did because there was not another pathway open to evolution’s persistent exploration of design space. And because, as it turns out, the overpopulation situation actually makes it more likely that some very highly sapient varietals have already emerged. Wish them luck.

But if you want to stick with the cancer analogy then at least look at a phenomenon that more closely resembles how a cancer comes about in the first place – mutations in key genes in susceptible cells that then causes them to grow out of control. Specifically cast your eyes on capitalism as a meme that effectively mutates the thinking of people, turning them into over consumers and profiteers. It is the relentless drive to grow profits that pushes us to do what we do. And that meme has metastasized globally. That is the real disease.

The original capitalism arose as a means to aggregate enough excess harvest so as to re-invest in capital equipment (before formal depreciation entered the scene) for the farm or village. It quickly led to investment in growing the capacity of a community to support more people and have more stuff and that led us, eventually, to what we have today — unbridled avarice and waste. Our brains are not sufficiently strong enough to have resisted the temptation (though history records several attempts to do so).In today’s version of economics there are so many fallacious beliefs that stem from this early subversion of normal autopoeisis. For example, consider the accepted “fact” that everyone should get a raise to compensate for the cost of living inflation. But also consider the fact that when everyone gets a raise the cost of living is pressured to rise since labor had been a major component of most products and services up until recently. An endless cycle of inflation, compensation, more inflation. The only thing that may have masked the obvious was the increases in technology that helped drive some other costs down allowing the upward pressure to build slowly, but inevitably resulting in increases in prices. Why do you think so many corporations have sought cheaper labor costs through off-shoring? Ironically now the Chinese and Indian factory laborers are starting to want the same creature comforts as had by the Westerners who buy their goods; you know what that means vis-a-vis prices!

OTOH: All of our advanced technologies would not be here either. Inhabitants of the planet in this time (the NOT-YOU) would not be reading a blog by a speculating crackpot. Without capitalism’s peculiar motivation much innovation would probably never have happened in the time frame it did. Sure, humans might have eventually figured some stuff out. But wisdom often entails careful consideration of new things and the consequences of their uses before blundering in. While a lot of modern technology is really not very useful in the sense of producing happiness, it is really hard to make judgments about such things. I conjecture that to get the good stuff as rapidly as we did, you have to accept the worthless and even bad stuff as well. I guess you could call it collateral damage.

Humans and culture are locked into a coevolutionary, mutually causal spin. It is the way it is and that’s just the way it is. My hope is that once humans evolve greater sapience they will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff and get on with developing and using more sane technology. I’m betting iPhones will be left far behind.

I Say Rejoice in Evolution

Even when you don’t understand it of feel like you are the one being selected against!

We can’t really know what is going to happen. We only dimly understand (and more often guess) about how things got to be the way they are. But we can assume that evolution will persist and as long as the Sun continues to pour energy into our biosphere something more complex, but also more controlled will emerge. My money is on eusapience and real eusociality down the road a ways.

Can We Envision Future Homo Eusapiens?

Off the keyboard of George Mobus

Published on Question Everything on April 20, 2013

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Why Try?

Quite likely many readers will wonder why I spend time thinking about the distant future, why I would speculate about where human evolution might lead when I could never possibly know what will actually happen. Undoubtedly their questioning is well founded. I myself wonder what motivates me! There is no way I could ever find out if my speculations were in any sense accurate. Why even bother to write any of this down?

There are possibly three arguments I can offer, all of which may still seem weak to many, but then again, maybe they are enough.

The first argument is very personal. Thinking that there might actually be a future for the human genus is comforting. More than that, thinking it is highly likely fills me with a sense that our lives have actually meant something good, ironically as it is, even as we work furiously to destroy the environment that nurtured us. We all have a deep biologically-based need for this kind of sense being fulfilled. It is the basis for so many humans accepting theistic religious doctrines. One needs to believe that there is a universal story that has some kind of a plot, and that our contributions to it are meaningful, even if bit parts[1]. I offered “Does evolution have a trajectory” sometime back, expressing what I hold to be a science-based teleonomic[2] explanation of the story of the Universe in which the operations of the second law of thermodynamics and the evolution of higher organization, seemingly antagonistic processes, could simultaneously lead to both dispersal of energy and pockets of life and meta-life (see also What is the Universe Up To?).

The second argument is, perhaps, a bit more pragmatic; or at least it might offer some insights to help us face what I take to be the impending population bottleneck (Catton, 2009). And that might be viewed as a kind of plan for how our species can traverse the bottleneck in a way that positions it for progressive evolution to a more eusapient species in the distant future. If we actually can have a vision of what that might look like, we just might be more energized in working toward making it happen. I have presented the case for making sure highly sapient people differentially get through the bottleneck.

The third argument is motivated by the fact that one has to fight the good fight right to the end. I am a scientist (and maybe a little bit of a philosopher) and driven by a need to understand the phenomena I see before me. I have long been puzzled by what I see in humanity. There is so much that seems irrational when one buys into the notion that we are a smart species. I’ve written extensively about sapience, or lack thereof, of course. But now I think I see more aspects of our human condition. It is all related to sapience but connects more dots than that previous thesis attempted. Moreover, it is the basis of an explanatory story about the present extant species. And that helps to explain why we are so neurotic and all too often psychotic (or at least suffer antisocial personality disorders to one degree or another).

We have much to explain about current humans, their beliefs, and their natures. Psychology, even neuropsychology will have difficulty explaining why we act the way we do unless it is framed in the context of the universal evolutionary process. The story goes from the origins and evolution of the hominids, brings us to the current situation, and then must recognize that the plot is written by on-going evolutionary forces that will propel us into a future that we might be able to vaguely conjecture. Every story has an arc.

We build all kinds of models of systems as we find them for the purpose of generating plausible if not probable future scenarios for those systems. Consider my exploration of the human condition as attempting to build such a model, at least in a mental form.

Mankind in Transition

The extant human species is in a difficult transition. It has just emerged as a species possessing the capabilities of mind that make it much superior in cleverness to all prior animals and the beginnings of sapience. It is in a precarious position. A dangerous position. As I have conjectured, humans, as we are, posses only emergent sapience. We show the beginnings of a capacity to use higher order judgements to obtain ecological closure — to manage ourselves consciously to live in balance with the Ecos. The evolution of cleverness had long preceded sapience and so had, so to speak, a head start. The emergence of sapience acted to accelerate the development of higher cleverness which ultimately led to our being too smart for our own good.

Unlike previous species that continually had to be tested for fitness, and balance was achieved by external feedback loops (predation, diseases, etc.), humans have seemed to transcend the normal bounds of biology and have leapt free of natural selection as it is normally understood in biology. This is, of course, only an illusion. Natural selection never sleeps. It may be true that our population growth has escaped the normal kinds of controls, but that only leads to different forces of selection acting on our raw material. As we have seen, and I have endeavored to report in some of these postings, natural limits are coming swiftly into play to curtail humanity’s unreasoned exuberance and finally rein in human expansion beyond the carrying capacity of the planet for our kind. We are deluded by our seeming success and it will soon become apparent. Not only will our numbers be culled but that new regime of contraction will act as yet another new way for selection to act.

This illusion was created by virtue of our evolved cleverness. We are exceptional in our ability to use symbolic communications and reasoning along with our incomparable capacity to invent technological ways to adapt to changing and challenging environments. We were so successful as a species that our kind now inhabit every continent on the planet and every type of environment has been colonized. And that success has led us into the trap of thinking that cleverness trumps all else. Due to our weak, emerging sapience we could be aware of our accomplishments, but not wise about how to use our cleverness. Van R. Potter (1971) defined wisdom as “knowledge of how to use knowledge”. We tend to use our knowledge to solve vexing problems like how to make more lethal weapons, or grow more food without ever asking whether we should or not. We never really consider unintended consequences when seeking solutions that make life more comfortable or allow us to go faster from point A to point B.

But even over the history of our emergence as a species and development toward complex global societies we have demonstrated repeatedly that we are dangerous to ourselves and to the rest of the Ecos. We have demonstrated repeatedly that we carry demons inside that when unleashed cause us to behave abhorrently. Even so, as Steven Pinker (2011) points out we have also emerged with a more highly developed eusocial tendency that has allowed us to reduce the levels of violence that our species lived with for so long. Civilization depends on socialization, the ability for individuals to cooperate with one another in order to achieve things that they could not on their own. And sociality has a biological basis.

Homo sapiens is at a nexus of evolutionary progress in which seemingly competing forces push and pull in so many directions. In particular we have crossed a threshold of consciousness such that we are aware of our own awareness. We can puzzle at our own experience of phenomenal experience. Moreover we can think about it and everything else in abstract language. We can communicate with one another through symbols; even our acts become symbolic. We are both sub- and consciously aware that others are conscious in the same way we are and so, from a deep level to the light of our conscious experience, we can feel and know what others feel and know by reflection onto ourselves. We are empathetic in ways no prior beast has ever been.

Our evolved moral sentimentality, the general behavioral rules of conduct we are compelled to recognize and judge in ourselves and others, has moved increasingly in a direction that compels us to feel a need to cooperate more than compete. We have evolved the capacity to form alliances beyond families and tribes. And we actively seek to do so in many situations. Cooperativity is at the heart of group success and reproductive fitness, hence has evolutionary appeal. However we need to always remember that this is a trait that is expressed “on average”; the range of expression or non-expression of the trait is still quite high. Unfortunately it seems that those who express the trait least tend to also take commanding positions in a culture of capitalism.

Beyond cooperativity we have evolved genuine emotional bonding, friendships and loves, that exceed the necessary levels for family life. Camaraderie, social clubs, and such involve deep personal attractions to others. We experience love of friends and have strong need of the esteem of others.

These are a few of the ways in which we humans have evolved to promote sociality as the primary route to evolutionary success. Unfortunately we carry yet a tremendous amount of biological history of competition (intra- and inter-species) for resources, mates, space, etc. And that hasn’t gone away. Evolution works by accretion and remolding any redundant facilities for new purposes. The brain’s structures reflect this clearly. The fact of our wonderful neocortex does not eliminate the need for or functions of the limbic centers. The prefrontal cortex does not obviate the need for the sensory, association, action loop of the rest of the cortex. We are an amalgam of old behaviors and more recently evolved ones. And the more recently evolved capabilities will necessarily not be in complete control. Ergo, we so often seem to suffer from dissociative identity disorder. We are literally many people in one. Some aggressive, mean. Others gentle and kind. Some of those personalities seem to prevail, others wither.

This makes us dangerous.

Even so, as Pinker (2011) points out, the better angels of our nature[3], generally come out when the conditions warrant. The problem is, and has always been, how do we make sure the conditions do warrant? How do we avoid conditions where our worst angels prevail?

The emergence of sapience gave animal life a foot into the door of sentient eusociality — the possibility for highly intelligent beings to achieve living together in harmony with one another and with the Ecos without becoming ant-like automatons in a rigid social structure. It provides a pathway for individual consciousness to abide without individualism causing us to resort to unfettered competition. We can form communities that exist in a steady-state flow of energy, sustained so long as that energy flows. Sapience amplifies one more attribute of cognition that emerged in primate evolution, the capacity to think about the future and about aspects of the environment that might not even seem to be relevant to one’s existence — strategic thinking.

It was a weak attribute, in the population on average, to begin with. And it was probably weakened further as a result of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Something that isn’t used in biology generally atrophies, both physiologically, and, over sufficient time, evolutionarily (think of the eyeless cave fishes). Today the vast majority of people do not think strategically, not even some of the smartest people. They can be very clever at addressing immediate problems, and devise ingenious short-term solutions, but fail to see the long-term consequences of those solutions.


Eusociality is what Edward Wilson (2012) had originally defined (for eusocial insects) as:

  • Reproductive division of labor (with or without sterile castes)
  • Overlapping generations
  • Cooperative care of young

But more recently he has expanded the characteristics to include features that are common in species beyond the insect colonies such as the naked mole rats of Africa (see further discussion below).More recent thinking by social and evolutionary psychologists tends to apply the notion of eusociality to humans as well as a larger number on non-insect species. They hold that it varies in terms of mechanisms by which a stronger social network is constructed and maintained. But the end result is that individuals of the species have a compelling need to interact and cooperate with other individuals. In the case of humans this resulted originally in the tribal organization and more recently the larger scale of nation states. There is some doubt that the latter qualifies as a eusocial structure since regional and even local eusocial structures can often override the effects of the larger national structures. Nevertheless, the evidence that humans must operate in a eusocial structure in general is overwhelming.

Is it Possible to Imagine Future Evolution for Mankind?

In prior writings I have focused on the evolution of hominids that led to the emergence of sapience in the symbol-cognitive species we call Homo sapiens (see: Introduction or Evolution).

Sometimes the answers are right in front of you but you don’t see them for lack of perspective!

I will argue that there are three basic conditions of human existence that portend what future, highly sapient humans might be like that will achieve truly sustainable eusociality. By sustainable I mean that the societies of these future humans will be able to live in balance with the Ecos and not generate the stress on the environment, nor use up natural resources in consumption that the current species of humans has achieved by its attempts to grow.

I’ve been reading two very interesting books with greatly overlapping subjects but examined from different perspectives. My method has been to interleave readings from each so as to compare and find the common themes. They are The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson (2012) and Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins by Ian Tattersall (2012). Both books cover the evolution of humans, essentially going back to the presumed last common ancestor of humans and chimps. Tattersall’s interests lay in the evolution of the tribal structure the progression of species phenotypic forms, their distribution geographically, and the cultures of early humans up to the current species. Wilson’s interest is in the development of social structures based on the biological basis of eusociality. Both examine how human intelligence and emotional aspects have evolved to strengthen the level of eusociality. Below I mention a third book that I had read some time ago, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy. de Waal studies great apes, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos. His observations of the differences in social order and dynamics between those two were interesting. In an earlier book, Our Inner Ape, he explored the relations between human social interactions and those of bonobos, but particularly the comparison of sexual behaviors between the latter and the former. Humans are more like bonobos in many aspects of sociality and sexuality, namely, the latter is somewhat decoupled from mere reproductive purposes. In humans the decoupling appears to be even more.

The three conditions I alluded to above emerged in my mind from these readings on the evolution of Homo sapiens. They are: Language and shared abstract thinking; Empathy, the sharing of feelings and emotions; and Pleurisexuality[4], the evolution of sex as a mechanism for sharing pleasure broadly between all members of a group, decoupled largely from its reproductive role.

The suggestion I am going to make is that humans currently are caught between opposing forces of evolutionarily older behaviors and these three that have been emerging in us. And that is what makes us neurotic. Ironically, the evolution of sapience, which is strongly linked to these three traits, created this dichotomous tension. It will take a further evolution of the strength of sapience which is the mental capacity to quell the more primitive influences and allow these mechanisms for increasing eusapience to dominate in future humans’ behaviors. The future of human evolution may involve significant increases in these, and, hopefully, will lead to far less neurosis. Wiser people will accept the reality of how cooperativity can be strengthened by biological factors.

Let’s take a closer look at these mechanisms.


Language and Abstract Thinking

In my working papers on sapience, in particular, The Evolution of Sapience I have made a link between the evolution of language facilities and the evolution of the hierarchical management system of the human brain and social structures, especially the aspect of strategic thinking (see also: Sapient Governance III – Strategic Management). In order for human groups to achieve strategic management there had to be a means of having very abstract concepts of time, place, and relations of other systems in the environment and sharing those concepts between members of the tribe. The mental facilities for having such abstractions represented in neural networks gave rise to the capacity of tool making that our ancestors developed. The capacity to share concepts through language made it possible to construct mental representations of complex relations very efficiently.

Since I have written extensively about these subjects in the above references series of working papers I will not recapitulate that work here. Instead I want to focus on the impact of language on sociality and increases in cooperativity. Our languages are evolving in sophistication as part of our cultural evolution. Everyone experiences the problems of semantics when several people are saying the same words but mean different things by them. People can argue about a subject simply by talking past one another. But in certain fields or disciplines there has emerged considerable refinement of what specific words mean and how they are to be used in constructing complex concepts. I speak, of course, of the various sciences where there has been increasing consensus regarding the meaning of words and sentences owing to the background of how those words are invented and used in the practice of science. This shows how language can contribute to increasing cooperation. Even scientists who are competing for grant money can agree on fundamentals and even cooperate in advancing the state of knowledge while seeming to be at each others’ throats for publication priority.

In most other areas of life we tend to do OK most of the time. But as anyone who has gotten into a marital or familial dispute, or for that matter any kind of emotional dispute with anyone else knows language can fail. You can swear you meant one thing by something you said, but the other is failing to understand the intent, or what you really meant. This is partly a result of the inherent ambiguity that resides in much of language, especially in more complex constructs like sentences. So the facility of language for day-to-day interactions is still not sufficiently developed to support ordinary cooperativity to the extent we can imagine is possible, given the example of scientific communications. Here what matters is the further evolution of the human mind’s capacity for more precise representation that comes with increasing capacity for systems thinking. From my writing on sapience you would find that both strategic and systems thinking are features of a comprehensive capacity to develop tacit knowledge of how the world, including other humans, works. Weakly developed systems thinking leads to fuzzy concepts and ambiguous meanings and that leads to ambiguous language skills.

The evolution of stronger sapience should lead to a better capacity to use language and actually understand one another. This has to lead to a higher capacity to achieve cooperation and solve problems (the right ones) cooperatively. It should lead to an ability to describe problems abstractly and still ensure the concepts are shared among members. It should allow members to share proposals and arguments for/against without talking past one another. There need not be any further evolution of the language facility itself, only an improvement in the mental representations that languages communicate. Much of this involves the representations of others’ minds and beliefs. A more sapient mind would not harbor misconceptions about what someone else means by a phrase or word. If there were to be doubt, the simple solution is to ask questions until the meaning became clear. A sapient mind would be able to recognize that clarity when it emerged.




Empathy is the capacity to similarly experience (feel) another individuals emotional states (affective empathy) and to recognize how that other must feel (cognitive empathy). At a conscious level we perceive that other person’s condition and think about it. Coupled with moral judgement, an individual may be strongly motivated to comfort someone in pain or congratulate someone who has just accomplished something great. In other words we behave in highly socially beneficial ways as a result of the interpersonal connection empathy provides us.

Between spoken language and “body” language it should be clear that we humans have a fantastic capacity for understanding what is going on in our fellow beings, often even when the other might be trying to hide it. There is something about our brains that is pushing us to become entrained in the inner life of our fellow beings. Neuroscience is starting to examine this phenomenon inside living brains.

There is a growing interest in a neuronal network system in the brain called mirror neurons. These neurons are involved in brain activities both when the individual performs an action and when that individual observes another individual performing the same or similar action. Thus the term ‘mirror’ It has been hypothesized that this neuronal subsystem is responsible for mental understanding of others’ actions and intentions and may be the basis for empathetic thinking. The scientific jury is still deliberating on these ideas. But it should be clear that there is something going on in neural networks that shows relatively narrow tuning of activity correlated with specific actions on the part of the actor and those observing the actor. My own suspicion is that mirror neurons are not directly responsible for encoding these actions, but rather are active as a result of the activation of specific mental models (in the neural medium) that entail the synchronized firing of a large network of representations of all of the relevant attributes of the action. Since most of those attributes are likely to be external to the actor, but observed and recorded as part of the action, when the actor observes these attributes applying as a different actor than themselves goes through the action, then it is not surprising that specific neurons, participating in that learned network, should differentially fire. In other words these so-called mirror neurons do not cause action-features learning but are merely an effect of that learning having occurred. In my own version of neural network coding this would be no different than what happens when we learn concepts. Concepts are encoded in relatively isolated networks that receive input from the various low-level features that constitute the attributes of the concept. See my working paper on The Neuroscience of Sapience. Search for the section titled: Representing Concepts in Neural Networks. In my view concepts are concepts, and everything that we encode, no matter what level of complexity, is simply a concept.

The important thing to recognize is that our brains are capable of seeing others go through actions that our own internal representations of us going through those same actions generate internal activations of the concept models and cause us to “virtually” experience them. There is no fundamental reason why this should not be true of emotionally-tagged actions, like making facial expressions relating to an emotional state, as well as simpler motor actions (where most of the work on mirror neurons has been done). This being the case we see that the brain has a built in mechanism for making strong emotional connections between individuals[5].

Humans have evolved the highest level of empathy of any mammal and any of the great apes (de Waal, 2009; Wilson, 2012). Wilson notes that empathy and altruistic tendencies are at the root of eusociality in humans. According to Wilson, et. al, these mental capacities were under very strong selective pressures during the rise of Homo sapiens. The nature of the selection mechanism is multi-level, but with the main emphasis on group selection wherein cooperation within a group led to more successful exploitation of the environment and thus more successful competition with other groups that sought the same resources. Given the emerging picture of humans as living in small tribal communities of hunter-gatherers that required large territories for support, it is not hard to picture this arrangement favoring mental development that promoted empathy and desires to help one’s fellow tribesperson.

In my working papers I describe the relations between moral sentiment and affect (see The Components of Sapience Explained). Empathy comes from our deep motivation to connect with and understand one another. It is biologically determined though it comes in different levels of strength. Narcissists, extreme libertarians, and extreme sociopaths may have very little, even no empathetic feelings for their fellow beings. Facultative care-givers, on the other hand, tend to be highly empathetic. Sufficiently strong empathetic feelings provide the motivation (desire and drive) to cooperate with our fellows. Empathetic feelings can promote communalism (as opposed to individualism) but is also at the root of the us-vs-them thinking that leads to between-group conflict. This is what is left over from our evolutionary past.

Nevertheless, we see that we humans have been able to expand the circle of what we mean by ‘we’. We did evolve a capacity to include those who we originally considered outsiders as members of our group. We’ve witnessed groups coalesce, nation states form, and so many other forms of strangers becoming neighbors if not brothers that leads us to think that empathy itself has been subject to positive selection and has thus increased as the world seemed to shrink.

In any case, it will have to evolve further so that the ‘them’ category shrinks to nothing. Sapience allows us to view strangers as potential allies and to think we understand what they are thinking and feeling. Eusapience must involve having strong empathetic feelings for everyone with whom an individual comes in contact. Increase in empathy increases the desire to cooperate for mutual benefit, necessary for eusociality to be dominant in a human species.




Warning: what follows may come as a shock or even as offensive to some readers. We take the subject of sex and sexual behaviors for granted. We assume that what we do now, in terms of things like marriage (pair bonding), courtship, etc. are normal behaviors for our species. That is why it has been so hard to shift the currents away from a strict social norm of heterosexuality to allow recognition of homosexuality as natural and allow that same-sex marriage should be recognized. That most recent shift in the currents shows that the truth will out! We need to reexamine our socially-constructed assumptions about the whole subject of sexuality. The evidence for a completely different understanding has been building and must now be examined anew.

Has it ever occurred to you that it is awfully strange that we humans are so obsessed with sex? With one known exception, we are the only mammals that engage in sex regardless of the ovulation state of the female. Other animals are not really obsessed with sex except in mating seasons. The exception is interesting. It is not really obsessed with sex either because it freely practices sexual behaviors with abandon. That is the animal that is thought to be our closest living relative, the Bonobo. (Pan paniscus) Bonobos, or pygmy chimps, use sex as a socializing way to reduce tension, minimize aggression, and, apparently, to just have fun. Moreover, the sex they practice is plurisexual, that is it can be homosexual, heterosexual, oral, and group. It has even been reported that a few bonobo brothers and sisters practiced incest though it is not known if pregnancies resulted. The only assumed taboo seems to be mothers do not have sex with adult sons. They even have sex with members of other tribes and do not seem to engage in the same kind of aggressions between groups that are common in the standard chimpanzees. These are animals in their natural habitat who have evolved the use of sex as a means to reach social harmony. And, to repeat, they are our closest cousins! We shared a common ancestor that may have very well been similarly pleurisexual.

Not only are humans obsessed with sex in what seems an unnatural, or at least an unhealthy way, they are obsessive about the sexual lives of their fellow humans. What week passes without blasting news stories about how some prominent politician or celebrity has been caught with their pants down (homo, hetero, or some combination thereof)? How much news time did Bill Clinton’s transgression against sexual norms take up, let alone the obsessions of the Republican members of congress? How much political energy has gone into the supposed moral questions revolving around same-sex marriage, or abortion, or sex education. As a species we are completely dominated by sexuality, our own as individuals, and that of everyone else around us. And it is a deeply conflicted obsession for many.

What is sexual deviance? There really isn’t a clear cut definition that, say, the psychology community can agree on[6]. Pornography abounds because there is a massive audience for it. Homosexuality and bisexuality abound. Pedophilia abounds, apparently, even among classes of people who have sworn off sex. And what makes some people so obsessed with making sure others don’t practice what they consider deviant sex? Homophobia and the hate it generates are a case in point. Could it be that homophobes are simply suffering deep anxieties about their own sexuality? Might many people who are so vociferous about the evil of being gay are simply suffering from subconscious guilt at having found someone of their own sex, at sometime in their lives, attractive?

Put simply, human beings are caught in a struggle between two conflicting urges when it comes to sex. On the one hand we evolved, in our small tribes, to form pair bonds, males and females, long enough to rear offspring to the point they were autonomous, say ten to fifteen years (see below for the differences between us and bonobos). The bonding was not based on what we today call “love”, though it obviously includes many forms and levels of affection. It was simply the only practical arrangement. The way our species and their predecessors occupied the land, along with the need to nurture children for many years, mandated a certain amount of male-female affinity and group selection strengthened the tendency. Tribes were small and some evidence now suggests that the exchange of females for mating purposes were problematic given the territorial ranges and group separations that made contact between groups infrequent. Recent evidence based on deformities in skulls that resemble those that occur in inbred populations have suggested that incest may have been more common in early humans simply because our numbers were so few and groups were sparsely distributed in Southern Africa. Mating for extended time has always been a difficult but necessary behavioral trait. The real question is, does this mean mating for life is a biological given? The frequency of divorces in western societies suggests we should not assume it is.

What if our genes for sexual behavior are more bonobo-like than we would have imagined given our current cultural state of affairs. We all take this state of affairs (marriage being the primary sanctioned mode for sex and child bearing) as the biological norm, but if that were the case why all of the extra-marital affairs and high divorce rates? Prior to the agricultural revolution it is possible that humans were far more like bonobos with respect to sexuality than we see today. Exclusive mating for life may not have been our natural proclivity. It is useful while rearing children, but even today it is by no means a biological dictum. A large fraction of our fictional “stories” involve sexual treacheries as posed against a background of the assumed notion of marriage. The latter is actually a fairly recent social norm which I suspect arose more to reinforce the stability of the emerging agrarian-based states than as a natural biological function. How else do you explain the fact that we tell ourselves fairy tales of fidelity but practice infidelity, often on a whim. We are not just inconsistent. We are deeply conflicted. How many marriages end in divorce? How many end because of an infidelity? How many end because of a desire for a change? The numbers seem to make it clear that biologically-speaking, we are not a bond-for-life species.

Bonobos do not have the same problems that we have associated with child rearing, namely the long development periods for youngsters, that requires male-female pairing. Bonobos reach autonomy in just a few years. Plus they are born able to cling to their mother’s fur and have a certain amount of self-sufficiency from an early age. Mother bonobos are not as restricted from foraging and other necessary living behaviors as are human mothers during their children’s infancies. Human mothers, on the other hand, require more assistance from mates and extended family members (the grandmother hypothesis is illustrative). It is likely that pair-bonding for the duration of family rearing evolved in the genus Homo in response to the need for longer development periods for children. So various biological mechanisms, such as oxytocin release from kissing and fondling, as well as hidden ovulation and female willingness to have sex outside of an estrous cycle (heat in most mammals) evolved to reinforce male bonding to females for this purpose. But it does not mean that the possibly older proclivity for sex outside that bond was submerged or lost. In fact, the modern patterns of infidelity simply point to the fact that they were not. Humans are still easily tempted to have sexual liaisons outside of any pair bond and this is true for both males and females, though presumably in different proportions.

What if marriage and life-long pair bonding are merely recent cultural inventions that do not conform to our basic biology but reflect an imposed belief thought needed to pacify males and maintain the social order. What if our current turmoil roiling around our sexual proclivities is just the exposure of our basic biological nature attempting to break out of this artificial enclosure. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, the apparent freedom with which teenagers today “hook up”, the rising number of pregnancies out of wedlock, and the rising numbers of non-married co-occupying couples in Western societies may be telling us something about ourselves to which we might want to pay attention.

Let’s suppose another theory. Suppose that humans really are not biologically predestined to heterosexual, pair-bonding for life unions. What if we are inherently much more like bonobos than we imagined? It would certainly help explain an awful lot about our obsessions and mental conflicts. On the one hand we have invented a social construct called marriage seeking social stability through nuclear families extending for the lives of the partners. On the other we are deeply inclined to enjoy sex for its own sake as a way of forming many different kinds of interpersonal bonds (and I am not talking about anonymous one-night stands here). Is it possible that we are simply witnessing the results of this conflict between a social norm, invented as a response to the settled lifestyle of agrarian societies, and a biological proclivity, evolved to enhance social cohesiveness. The current human species is, indeed, caught in a tragic nexus of evolutionary forces if this is so.

On the other hand, suppose that along with an increase in empathetic consciousness and refinements in our language capacity to share knowledge we also evolved a greater capacity to use sexuality in the same way the bonobos do. What if the proclivities we see in humans today are simply part of the on-going emergence of greater plurisexuality that would allow people to enjoy one another’s company in infinitely more intimate and physically rewarding ways with no hang-ups whatsoever? What if everybody were capable of loving everybody else without jealousy or persecution or coercion? And in light of a higher level of sapience people were wise enough to use this gift to achieve greater social cohesion and cooperation?

The current human species lives in a hell of sexual tensions that exhaust our energies and provoke behaviors that are inhumane. Bonobos do not live thusly[7]. The argument that the future evolution of humans will once again be dependent on strong socialization both within and between groups may very well favor plurisexuality as a norm in behavior because of its potential to strengthen the bonds of caring between individuals.

An additional benefit of evolution in this direction is the near complete uncoupling of sex from reproduction that might be achieved. Sex for fun and stabilizing relations has been at the heart of the movement promoting birth control. People today want to be able to have as much sex as they desire without suffering the consequences of unwanted pregnancies. If we accept that this is just one more indication that we share some propensities with bonobos regarding the use of sex for social bonding then the question is why shouldn’t it run to the (bio)logical conclusion that sex need not be about procreation as a primary function. Indeed, this possibility may be a solution to the problem of population control. Imagine a eusapient society in which children were conceived on purpose and only when the group deemed it appropriate, i.e. to replace those that had died. At such times the role of pair-bonding for purposes of child rearing might prove to contribute to the fitness of the species. Parents could bond for the time it takes to rear a single offspring, perhaps not with the ferocious singularity that our practices promote, but with a genuine fondness for each other as they share the work of bringing up a child. This offers the potential for controlling population size and with that the opening into maintaining a sustainable society in balance with nature.

How a eusapient society might decide on who should be eligible for procreation is another opportunity for a process I have called social selection, the practice that we already are seeing in our species of making semi-conscious decisions about who should mate with whom. Some societies have long practiced arranged marriages within classes or castes. In this manner, parents and society are conspiring to produce the ‘best’ offspring based on social criteria. So our species is already behaviorally practicing social selection now (and no one calls it eugenics!). A future eusapient species might couple the notion of population control with the desire for the best outcome of matings by choosing those individuals that are among the best of their kind. By uncoupling sexual attraction from determining mating pairs, the society is free to pursue such a program that ensures that every child that is born is highly likely to be a good ‘specimen’! It is an opportunity.

The Evolution of Eusociality in Humans

Social selection coupled with population size control as described above puts humans squarely within the definition of eusociality that Wilson put forth. In other eusocial animals reproductive rights are given up by all classes but one in order to ensure that work gets done and the presumed genetic continuity of the group. This is described as altruism (though of a purely mechanical sort) and had been believed to be the basis of eusociality evolution (see Wikipedia: Altruism, Evolutionary Explanation). It is certainly true that some form of reproductive rights relinquishing among members of a group is found in eusocial groups. For example in wild dogs the alpha female will kill any other pups not her own in her pack, reserving the right to be the principle reproducer for the pack until she is too old, killed, or taken down by some of her rivals. In humans everybody has babies, or at least is not particularly prevented from doing so, with the possible exception of eunuchs. With social selection and limitations on when and who gets to reproduce it is altogether possible that this will act as a similar mechanism to what we see in other eusocial animals which would then reinforce the further selection for eusociality in the future.

We are already highly social. We already evolved to be eusocial-like if not eusocial in fact. But there is something yet missing. Still, too much of our interactions are based on competition where cooperation might actually be better for us and our world. Think of the difference between capitalism as currently practiced, based as it is on the an unconstrained profit motive, and non-profit organizations (including some ordinary businesses) that seek only to produce a product or service that helps society and sells that only at cost. The latter are generally not operating on cut-throat principles. Consider a world in which all social organizations operated on the principles of cooperation and through higher sapiences wise coordination. Imagine if people develop superior communications and thinking skills to help facilitate cooperation. Imagine if people can strongly feel what their fellow beings are feeling and are motivated to use that understanding to help one another. Imagine if people so enjoy one another’s company by being freely loving as they feel to be that they carry those feelings of warmth into all aspects of life. Would those people not lead happier lives? Would they not be potentially more productive of the things they really need to live?

According to group selection theory, groups succeeded because of intra-group cooperation and coordination (by the wise elders). Inter-group competition was a result of the standard evolutionary principle that all life will attempt to expand (grow) if not constrained by higher-order coordination mechanisms (e.g. hierarchical controls that keep cells from growing beyond a certain size or individuals from doing the same). A growing number of groups, due to a growing population, had to compete for limited resources. But if everyone in the species is part of the same group (just as every cell in your body — micro-biota and parasites excluded — are part of the same body) and that group (population) is under regulations against unconstrained growth, then the further evolution of the species depends on exogenous factors and social selection to adapt to those factors. We don’t need to compete with other members of our species to survive and evolution depends on how our gene pool adapts to the larger world as it changes.

I’m not a believer in omega points or singularities as final targets of the evolutionary process. I have stated that my belief is that as long as there is excess free energy available and flowing through a system, that system will continue to evolve toward higher organization. Thus it is unlikely that we could say what a final configuration for life, including what kind of species humans might “end up as”, but what I have argued here is that it might be possible to get a glimpse of what the next step along the path might look like. I’m not making predictions but casting out a possible scenario. Luck may yet be the deciding factor. There could be a planet-killer asteroid with Earth’s name written on it. Nevertheless, if we really claim to be even minimally sapient and sentient and understanding of evolution, do we not owe it to ourselves to consider the possibilities for the future. And if we see something that seems like progress toward a more harmonious Ecos (the kind that existed before humans broke the symmetry) should we not actively pursue the path implied?

I’m sure many readers will continue to adhere to the conventional wisdom that the loss of fossil fuel energy and climate change (the double whammy) will reduce mankind to his Olduvai status. Others will remain convinced that humans will go extinct, plain and simple (and should by some reckoning). But others may see the possibilities of which I have written. Maybe they don’t quite agree with some of my more unconventional suggestions (e.g. pluerisexuality) but basically hold out an optimistic view for the future of mankind, that is, a new kind of mankind. For those I ask, what might you do to help nudge us into that future? My standard opinion is that learning and practicing permaculture (and possibly some hunter-gatherer ways) and helping others who seem to be aware of the real state of the world learn these skills will certainly contribute to there being some future population for selection to work on. Knowing how to find the basics of life will become far more valuable in the long run than purely intellectual understanding of what the future might be.

For my own part, however, I think the intellectual aspects of life are important and necessary in the long run. The knowledge we have worked so hard to gain cannot just be tossed away as so much garbage. We worked too hard to get it. And we paid a dear price for it. Therefore I continue to work on ideas for compressing and encapsulating knowledge of systems science in such a way that it will be preserved long into the future against a day when humans may emerge from more primitive technologies to a new, more wise, exploration of nature and science. Some of you may have heard about recent advances in encoding and retrieving text in DNA molecules which is something I had been considering for a while now. DNA is a highly stable molecule even in its natural state (especially when bound in protective proteins and RNAs in chromosomes). We can now design molecular structures that further enhance that stability making it theoretically possible to store DNA encoded knowledge for many thousands of years. What I envision is a compressed form of “seed” knowledge encoded much like a self-extracting application file such that under the right conditions the language of systems science will unfold to enhance the intuitive systems thinking that eusapient beings would possess.

Look. At my age it is OK to tinker and dream about good possibilities, and hope that I stay in the realm of feasibility! Perhaps my kind readers will provide corrective feedback when I venture too far outside that realm. We can’t break any laws of nature, but we sure can have an impact on how those laws shape the future.


[1] Nihilism as a philosophical position rejects this notion, holding that life really is meaningless, the result of mere chance. Often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, (but sometimes wrongly attributed to him as a proponent – his thoughts on the matter were quite complex) who famously said “God is dead.” He saw those that adopted a nihilistic view had lost faith in a theistic god who, according to most religious views, but particularly Christianity, was the origin of morality and meaning. For those who mistakenly conceived of evolution as a purely random process — the prevailing concept at the time — there was no alternative but to think the evolution of human life a totally pointless, purely chance happening. While nihilism got some purchase as a philosophical perspective it also resulted in many people who succumbed to the notion falling into depression and despair, giving the common perception of nihilists as gloomy types. Today we would recognize this as a psychological problem. It would be hard to say whether people who are prone to clinical depression are prone to falling into the sway of nihilism, or people who start following the logical path of nihilism simply are led to the obsessive state that triggers depression is unknown. Perhaps its both. In any case, a strong belief in nihilistic ideas is seen as a sickness of mind. The majority of people cling to religious beliefs in order to avoid the conundrum entirely. A few of us look for meaning in the patterns of evolution that definitely show it to be progressive.

[2] Another term that may have bearing on the understanding of evolution is Earnst Mayr’s use of teleomatic to describe ‘automatic’ process that seem to have a purpose or end goal. I have been writing about what I call auto-organization as part of a larger view of evolution. Auto-organization deals with the way that entities (from quarks to people to galaxies) form interactive associations (networks) through forces and/or flows (by chance of proximity) that then are tested by whatever environmental competitive forces pertain. Stable, strongly coupled interactions persist in that kind of selection while weaker interactions are disrupted returning the components to the pool of potential interactors. When the interactions persist a new larger entity emerges from the process. In my view a distinction between teleonomic and teleomatic serves to describe certain details, but I consider the latter as a sub-category of the former. A universal principle of evolution involves chance interactions (e.g. phenotypic variations) being tested for stability by the embedding environment (e.g. selection). With aging the most fit entities are those that do persist. Biological evolution merely adds the mechanism of reproduction of the pattern (genotype) to amplify the process but is not fundamentally different.

[3] From the Wikipedia article about Pinker’s (2011) book:

The phrase “the better angels of our nature” stems from the last words of Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Pinker uses the phrase as a metaphor reflecting four specific human traits: self-control, empathy, morality, and reason.

[4] This is not a term currently in the dictionary! It is a word I invented to be descriptive of the nature of the form of sexuality as seems to be the case for humans and bonobos.

[5] Autism, for example, is one of a number of mental deficiencies in which normal emotional connecting is not occurring.

[6] The term paraphilia refers to what many would consider sexual deviant behaviors, of many kinds. However different cultures at different times have stricter or looser definitions of what is included under this term. That human beings as biological creatures even have to name and define a term like this is indicative of deep mental conflicts.

[7] Another interesting aspect of bonobo society is that the females tend to be the more dominant sex with respect to group governance. I don’t suppose anyone has noticed that in our species women are emerging as having more power in this regard. I suspect that stronger female influence and plurisexuality are linked biologically but this is just speculation at this stage.


Catton, W. R. (2009). Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Xlibris Corporation.

de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy, Harmony Books, New York.

Marean, C.W. (2010). “When the Sea Saved Humanity”, Scientific American 303, 54 – 61

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking, New York.

Potter, V. R. (1971). Bioethics: Bridge to the Future, Prentice-Hall, New York.

Tattersall, I. (2012). Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Wilson, E.O. (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.

For a larger bibliographic selection of books on consciousness, evolution of mind, and other related topics see Bibliography

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