Why is humanity so stupid? A biologist tries to answer the question intelligently

1+1=0. The tale of two competing brains

I hope you’re not offended that I’ve just questioned your intelligence. This is the question that Greta Thunberg has been asking the adults of the planet for years now, so many years that she has become an adult herself in the process. And quite honestly, it is a valid question: “Can’t you look at the figures? Are you blind? What is the matter with you?”

As I try to answer Greta’s question from the perspective of a biologist, I won’t bore you with the obvious about why the world is not banding together due to corruption, vested interests, fear of rocking the boat, fear of rocking the almighty CO2 Machine called Capitalism that pays all our salaries. We all know this, and we know that our economic system was not made for Earth. It simply doesn’t obey basic physics laws. Our economic system was made for a video game where there are infinite chances to reach Game Over and start over, with a new planet each time that is fresh as a clean slate.

This essay is about our actual brain. And the quick answer to the question “why are we stupid” is two-fold: it’s part stupid, part asleep. Just think of a sleeping and stupid person walking down the street. Hold that image for a second, while we dig deeper.

Our brains evolved to inherently believe that the world doesn’t change, and cannot change

It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Most of our brains are programmed to always reject harsh truths that disturb our comfort. Being able to ignore the paralysing fear and bravely walk into the apocalyptic inferno is in many ways a valid survival mechanism, and so far in our history it has done wonders for us. So far. However much scientific evidence is put in front of us, we still refuse to believe in scenarios that we have no credible survival plan for, such as a climate Armageddon. This attitude is true for the vast majority of us, even for those who claim to “believe” in climate change. Once you talk to them, you begin to understand their inner denial voice: “But Earth has always changed” or “I just don’t think its going to be all that bad”. Our brain was not made for catastrophising and processing apocalyptic scenarios, unless we are blessed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Our default neural system came with an in-built, yet malfunctioning Hope button. However dire things may be, the button is permanently stuck in the On toggle position. Hope is the shortest, and surest path to delusion.

This is because our brains are designed to believe in stability, in an unchanging world. This is understandable given that they evolved in such a stability, in fact, in the most stable time on the planet’s history both in terms of climate and abundance of resources. There was never a need for “Apocalypse brain”. The Apocalypse does not even make it to the top 10 list of humanity’s preoccupations, and it is way further down than Beyonce. The Aspergers, the visionaries, the spiritual leaders are the only ones with the ability to foresee disasters and envisage successes. From Socrates to Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King to Greta Thunberg, we have always hunted these people down and thrown them into jail because of treason: they told us “inconvenient truths” that we perceived as personal threats, because our brains went into “system cannot compute” mode. We, evolved in a stability bubble. Any evidence that implies “the world is ending” or “it is not what you thought it was” is not part of the software that we came with, at least in the Human v1.0 brain.

Of course, we are incredibly “smart” in other ways, mostly involving data processing capacity. Our brain is a survival tool, first and foremost. A larger size brain evolved specifically because humans with larger brains had better chances of devising ingenious survival solutions. Whether it was making things like tools, getting ourselves out of dangerous situations, or doing a Michael Jackson moonwalk to attract a mate, the new brain gave us an unbelievable ability to connect different pieces of information and be able to imagine how they interact. This “scenario modelling”, also called imagination, is what increased our chances of survival. If only this ability to imagine was able to take things to the next level.

Our brain’s priority is to just get to live another day.

This new, ingenious brain had a major drawback. It was not made for long-term planning. It was made for finding solutions for problems in the present. From a survival point of view, the “right here right now” is much more important than 10 years from now, or even 10 minutes from now. One could argue that if evolution had created a brain that concentrated more on the long term consequences of our actions, we would all be a civilisation of Dreamers. We would be great at imagining a future world, but we would be at risk of losing the plot on today and not surviving another day. Dreamers may be intelligent but they are too aloof to pass on their genes. From an evolutionary point of view, long term planning makes no sense whatsoever as a survival skill. Survival is always much more important in the right here right now, than later. For this reason Evolution concentrated on selecting brains that were really good at literally “surviving for today”. Back in primitive times we were faced with immediate and urgent dangers almost on a daily basis. There was never a “day off” chilling at home watching Netflix, reading books, and writing apocalyptic dystopian fiction. Evolution selected a brain that could help us take care of the problems in the present. If we don’t survive today, there is no point in thinking about the future. The trouble with evolution is that it can only respond to current circumstances, not future ones. Evolution only selects genes and gene mutations to suit the current environment and ensure survival “for today”: the current predators, dangers, and climatic and living conditions. We are only as good as our last “working” version.

In fact, evolution is always playing a catch-up game with time, and is terribly inefficient at that. Selecting and eliminating mutations takes many, many generations. Most extinction events happened because conditions changed so suddenly that species were unable to adapt. This is precisely the problem humans are facing. The climate, as well as the artificial civilisation humans have created, are changing way too fast for both our bodies and our brains to evolve.

A War Between Two Brains

An moment of truth arises of course, when whatever solutions our brain has put together for surviving Today actually come in conflict with surviving Tomorrow. Fossil fuel is great for today, not for tomorrow. All of our “survival mechanisms” have short term benefits but long term punishing consequences: resource depletion, consumerism, elimination of other species and habitats, all have tremendously positive effects for humanity in the short term. This is a war between two brains: The brain of Today, and the inexistent brain of Tomorrow. It is very clear who is winning.

We may think we are intelligent, and we are indeed when it comes to seeing patterns in data, putting together models, and identifying solutions. But overriding all of this is the primitive survival brain focused on today. The same brain that led Nobel Prize economists across the world to conclude that there is no Financial Crisis on the way. All those sub prime mortgages will somehow get paid off. Even the climate scientist who knows what is coming will surrender to reality and go home every night to their kids, earn their salary, and focus on getting to live another day. We may be creating next generation iphones but we are still using Humans v1.0 when we should be on v5.0 by now. Climate Change will not be solved using old hardware. We are Kodak film. Out of place, out of time, and off topic. The irresistible urge to focus on right here right now is seen in many of our survival mechanisms. We seek instant gratification in unhealthy foods, drugs, and other habits because they make us feel good right here, right now. Denial is just a way to put off responsibility and for our brain to select between danger right now and danger later. We choose to live for the present, even though this might hurt us later.

Education can only partially overcome our brain inefficiency

Very few people have the basic training necessary to understand the quantitative concepts of scientific evidence and override their brain’s tendency to believe in “false stability”. Perhaps the most famous chart of all time, after Einstein’s theory of relativity, is the one above. It clearly demonstrates 1) the correlation between CO2 and temperature and 2) how CO2 is so “off the charts” right now that we cannot even predict where the temperature could possibly go. The sky is the limit, and it looks like it will be like the sky of Venus. The chart demonstrates that we are at precicely the point where the raw egg has hit a hot pan: the egg is not cooked yet, but this is only because we are looking at a freeze-frame of the first split seconds. The egg looks perfectly translucent and raw on the hot pan. Until it actually starts changing color we won’t believe it is cooked, because our “freeze frame” brain is focused only on today. Although in geological time scales this “freeze frame” represents a split second, it actually lasts for several decades in human years. This is the time it takes for the CO2 to circulate through Earth’s climate system and effect the temperature change that the graph predicts. We are living through the freeze-frame, which allows the climate sceptics to say “look, nothing is happening, its all a hoax, probably need to turn up the stove a bit, as the egg isn’t even cooking”. People struggle immensely with understanding this chart. Both the CO2 y-axis scale and the x-axis timescale. They don’t understand that there is a time lag between CO2 and temperature. They don’t understand confidence intervals, probabilities, extrapolation, and other mathematical and statistical concepts that tell us there is a very ominous future that is already upon us.

George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books

10 thoughts on “Why is humanity so stupid? A biologist tries to answer the question intelligently

  1. Yup…..good parallel to “Thinking Fast and Slow” and yes surviving long enough to pass on those genes is all that has mattered. Fire was actually important in making more calories available from cooked food as our working memory requires lots of energy and I understood that our brains were able to enlarge after fire not before….we unknowingly mostly use our system 2 ….slow, deliberate critical thinking to rationalize the System 1 – fast thinking/intuitive/obvious/emotionally convenient which is unconsciously running the show. Then there is the nobody wins because we our brains require material interdependence to feel secure/connected/belong…..vs. “I have my money and I have my car, so i don’t need you….I’m invulnerable (and totally loath and avoid knowing my vulnerability). Another good book is “The Denial of Death” (Becker).

  2. Normally we wouldn’t destroy nature because we depend on nature for our survival and we naturally have a deep love for nature. But if a poison had taken over our minds then we very well could destroy nature because our human intelligence gives us that capability.

    Money brings with it a euphoria that makes us think we need it. We’ve shown this need throughout history in our quests to conquer other lands for wealth, as the East invaded the West and so on. But when we began burning oil we found a power that would give us the ability to make more money than ever before. So then we used that power to build the concrete jungle that we see spread all over the world today. This concrete jungle is a picture of our destruction of nature.

    I’ve been looking at money as a poison for about 30 years and have seen that money itself has turned us from being the benevolent caretakers of the garden that we once were into fierce destroyers of the garden. And it’s done this without us really even realizing it. These are the effects of a poison.

    Knowing that money is a poison is also a wisdom because it points us in the direction of the road to life.

    Adam Soul

    1. Money is a proxy for power I would suggest. Look at the influence Elon Musk wields now he is mega rich. My addendum to this article and your comment is that some humans will anything to lead the pack (like other primates) and the rest of us pay the price. We may be technologically advanced but our primate brain still drives.

  3. Lead us not into temptation. Most of our kind is not very self aware or able to think for ourselves. I include myself in that group. I cried when I discovered Santa was a lie. The human supremacy story is a very clever myth that has seduced a majority of us. For me there was always a nagging suspicion that if something seems to good to be true it probably is. I also have not been able to ignore all of the side effects of our materialistic path to utopia. We finally know there is no free lunch. Cannot have your cake and eat it too. May we live in interesting times. George, you are super cognizant as usual. Love Rick

  4. Hello George, this discourse on the evolutionnary grounds of human reaction to global threats (or why we are living the Anthropocene rather than the Capitalocene or Technocene) is thrilling and though provoking, but it is very difficult to base on solid, consensual scientific facts in social science and biology. Thus, it’s more of a nice story than an explanation of what’s happening. Is capitalism or any kind of extractivism an inevitable emerging outcome of the way our brains work together in small or big groups ? Maybe, but we can’t tell for sure. Mythifying hypothetical prehistorical people thinking and link it to the current sins of civilisation is very hazardous.

    A lot of group thinking habits emerged in the meantime in various cultures, and maybe that is the determinant factor. Maybe survivalists brains lead to societies of dreamers if history is not completely deterministic. This should lead us to caution

  5. Have you considered the indigenous societies that used a concept of considering the impact over seven generations prior to making important decisions? Many have been colonized and suffered genocide but many still exist.

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