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 called you stupid, myself included. Because this is the question that, between the lines, Greta Thunberg has been asking the adults of the planet. And quiet honestly she is asking a valid question. Can’t you look at the figures? Are you blind? What the fuck is the matter with you? I’m only a fucking child and I can practically feel the edge of the cliff against my toes, and you’re telling me you see nothing but a haze?

As I try to answer Greta’s question in this essay from the perspective of a biologist, I won’t bore you with the obvious about why the world is not banding together because of corruption, vested interests, fear of rocking the boat, and fear of rocking the almighty CO2 Machine called Capitalism that pays all of our salaries. We know all that stuff. We know that our economic system was not made for Earth. It doesn’t obey basic physics laws for one thing. It was made for a video game where there are infinite chances to reach Game Over and start again, not a real planet.

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 while we dig deeper.

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

https://time.com/3660258/mlk-childhood/

It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Most of us are “set up” to always refuse to believe harsh truths that disturb our sense of status quo. However much scientific evidence is put in front of us, we still believe the climate surely won’t go through the Armageddon scenarios. This is true for the vast majority of the population, even those who say they “believe” in climate change. Then once you talk to them they start saying “but Earth has always changed” or “I just don’t think its going to be that bad”, without any logical justification, and rejecting the overwhelming scientific evidence.

This is because our brains are made to believe in stability, in an unchanging world: they evolved through the most stable time on the planet’s history in terms of climate. This climatic stability is what allowed us to evolve, and for our brains to take this stability for granted: to believe that there is an abundance of resources, and a stable climate that supports the regeneration of these resources and our survival.

The visionaries, the advocates, the spiritual leaders are in the minority of the population and 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 they told us “inconvenient truths” that we perceived as a personal threat.

Our brains evolved in a stability bubble. They will resist any evidence that implies “the world is ending”

Ok.. but surely we are incredibly smart in other ways?

Yes. Our brain is a survival tool, first and foremost. A larger size brain was selected by evolution specifically because humans with larger brains had higher chances of survival. Whether it was making things like tools, getting ourselves out of dangerous situations, or improving existing processes like using fire to cook, the new brain gave us an unbelievable ability to connect different pieces of information together and be able to imagine how they interact. This “scenario modelling”, also called imagination, is what increased our chances of survival. This same creative skill propelled us into developing technology and civilisation. Everyone reading this essay has this incredible skill.

But there is one catch: our brain’s priority is to just get to live another day.

This new tool was not made for long-term planning however. Rather than Fridays for Future, it was Fuck the Future. 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.

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 not surviving another day. Dreamers may be intelligent but they don’t get to pass on their genes because they missed the obvious detail right in front of them.

From an evolutionary point of view, long term planning makes no sense whatsoever as a survival skill. If survival was the purpose of evolving a large brain, then survival is always much more urgent right here right now, than later.

For this reason Evolution concentrated on selecting brains that were really good at literally “surviving for today”, as back in primitive times we were faced with immediate dangers almost on a daily basis. There was never a “day off” chilling at home watching Netflix and reading books. 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.

Wasn’t Evolution supposed to be a great thing?

Photo by Stephen Leonardion Unsplash

Yes and it still is. But evolution 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 and become more forward-thinking, more visionary in order to avert the catastrophe ahead.

A War Between Two Brains

Of course the problem arises when the solution our brain has put together for surviving Today actually comes in conflict with surviving Tomorrow. This is the problem we have today. All of our “survival mechanisms” have short term benefits but long term punishing consequences: resource depletion, consumerism, elimination of other species and habitats to make more space for humans, all have tremendously positive effects in the short term.

This is a war between two brains: The brain of Today, and the brain of Tomorrow. It is very clear who’s 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. 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 V 1.0 when we should be on V 5.0 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 Now, even though this might hurt us later. It seems that this may be part of our Survival Brain’s programming.

Finally…

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 colour we won’t believe it is cooked. Of course it is too late by that time

Photo by wenping wangon Unsplash

What trips us is that 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 go 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”

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 ahead.

to be continued…

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4 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

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