Contrary to what humanity’s impressive technological milestones and achievements may suggest, the surprising truth is that we have never been in charge of what happens to us. As a biological organism aiming to maximize its chances of survival, all of our accomplishments and decisions were blindly driven with this primary survival objective in mind: economic growth, technological evolution, population increase. Whatever it takes, at whatever cost to us, or to the planet. From our humble beginnings as a monocellular life form and up to today’s complex industrial civilization, evolution has never stopped self-selecting for exactly the same traits in humans: greedy and exploitative tendencies, and the physical and mental skillsets that accompany these – given that, it is these precise skillsets which are the most likely to avert extinction in the short term. Our brain therefore was enlarged and optimized to become a resource exploitation logistical device: it was customized to “mine” all aspects of its environment for resources efficiently, quickly, and most importantly, at terrifying scale. The seemingly quantum leap in data processing power that evolution gifted us with is so immense, that its impact has still not fully been realized. Our brain is still able to keep up with any sophisticated technology we develop, just about. Humans with exactly the same brain as us, living just a few thousand years ago, would never have imagined that their brain can do all this, and keep up with it.
Humans aside, our greedy tendency is the natural, evolutionary driver of any species, whether it is an amoeba or a Nobel prize winner. However complex and sophisticated our DNA becomes, it will always self-select for attributes that favor its successful replication into the future. Social intelligence, philosophy and ethics cannot weed out greed, ever, simply because greed will always be supercharged by the evolutionary process. Therefore, although we often erroneously think of ourselves as the only species with true sentience and “free will” to take our own decisions, the reality is that we have never really been in charge. The most important factor in any of our decisions is, and will always be, our own personal survival in the very short term. This is a permanent, indestructible feature of our hardware that came with our factory settings: our DNA. This DNA codes for mental skillsets and hormonal responses which influence our attitudes and behaviors, and which our popular culture often likes to classify as social “norms” which are determined and shaped by our environment in different societies and timepoints in our history. While much of this is true to an extent, the big elephant in the room is the part of our greed which is DNA-based: it simply cannot be tackled.
Of course, this is not good news when it comes to addressing the apocalyptic catastrophe we have in store for this planet. Implementing any of the myriad of already existing solutions for stopping our self-destruction would require us being able to step outside of the context of economic growth and exploitation, which is so paramount to our identity. We simply lack the faculties to do this, and proof of this is that the more solutions to climate change emerge, the more conscious our discussions become on what it is we need to urgently do, the more obstinate our resistance grows towards implementing any of it. Undoubtedly our brain’s advanced processing power supercharged the way and scale at which we exploited this planet, yet failed to give us the wisdom to install our own limits on how, and how much of, these resources we use. While all species, when given a chance, can exhaust natural resources, only for humans did this become reality, and a foundational principle of an entire civilisation overcoming all natural limits to consumption that the ecosystem had put in place. Our greedy personal survival instinct is much stronger than any rational or technological solution which benefits the greater society or ecosystem. Are we introspective enough to recognize this, rise above it and begin to cultivate the mental tools we desperately need, despite this pre-disposition? It is a question of nature vs. nurture, and nature is overwhelmingly winning thus far, hands down, for the overwhelming duration of our history. Addressing climate change and the ecological apocalypse is not an issue of yet another technology or increased processing power, these have both run their course. It is an issue of truly, genuinely claiming our own destiny, for the very first time in our 200,000 years of existence as modern humans. The expectation is almost impossible, as much of humanity does not even believe we are responsible for what is happening. Those who accept no responsibility have already given up on their potential to make a difference in the course of events.
It is of course a profound disappointment, not to mention a paradox, that evolution didn’t know any better than select for some of the most ecocidal attributes in humans. But evolution is not an infallible process. Its drawback is that it can only operate based on current wisdom, that is, what it knows at the time of mutation. It is always completely oblivious to the future. We evolved in an era of abundance on the planet, which is not the case today. New evolutionary mutations, new species of humans are needed urgently in this new, depleted environment we have created. The life forms that evolve after we’ve wrecked Earth will probably have no choice but to be a bit more thrifty, at least for the first few million years. As far as humans go, we cannot simply redesign ourselves like a new iphone version. Evolution is a cumulative process and DNA code can only be amended, not rewritten. We have gone too far down the evolutionary path to remove greed out of our biological system. Crocodiles are much more ecological in comparison: they can go without a meal for 12 months, and don’t even get grumpy about it. They have more patience and Zen wisdom than our own Dalai Lama.
I know that many philosophers, environmental activists and economists will disagree with me. They believe that we have the power vested in us to take control of our destiny. I wholeheartedly hope that they are right, and that I am very wrong, but I come to this conversation from a biology perspective, and biology eats philosophy, economics and social theory for breakfast any day. Biology is the raw blood and bones of who we really are. Our hormones and our “wiring” do determine much of our behavior, unfortunately.
Look at today’s world. Despite all of this technology and sophisticated civilization, do we really think any of us are in charge of our lives? The same survival instincts still rule at large, the same irresistible “lifeforce” within each organism to greedily appropriate as much resource from its environment as it possibly can. The difference between humans and other species is that greed for us is as much an instinct, as it is an institutionalized, perennialized and sophisticated economic system that controls every aspect of our daily needs, and every corresponding natural resource catering to these. The irresistible survival instinct that all species have is, in the case of humans, harnessed and monetized by an organized economic system that has become impossible to escape, unless one goes off-grid and completely checks out of society. As an organized industrial society, we have long ago outsourced our future to this economic system, which supersedes any national or global political entity.
What is also unique to our species is that the survival of this economic system has become more important than the survival of humanity. The system only cares about propagating itself, and it does this by farming more humans and creating more consumer needs in order to increase its revenue. We are all strongly encouraged, and with the utmost urgency, to keep on consuming, polluting and having more children. Not for our benefit, but solely to prevent this toxic, unsustainable capitalist system from collapsing into itself any earlier than it will anyway. The industrial revolution, institutionalization of society and digital marketing all evolved with the same, common goal: to scale up consumption and create easy-to-manage identical humans, who all helplessly depend on this system like a hospital patient hypodermically connected to a drip feed. Modern human life is as unnatural as that of a chicken, living and dying under electric light in a chicken factory. We have relinquished control of our lives long ago to this factory, addicted to its hallucinogenic drugs and growth hormones and not knowing any better. Moreover, this system is completely watertight. There is absolutely no escape. The “chicken humans” do not even know what free-range means, growing up in a cultural context which legitimizes a completely artificial life, yet one that feels vividly real to all of us, given that it is the only reality we have ever known of.
From this dystopian but pragmatic perspective, human civilization is technically no longer run by humans. It is run by profit and algorithms, both completely selfish, non-human entities that have zero ethics or social and environmental conscience (arguably we lack these as well). Human or other life therefore already has no value within this matrix. We have effectively been hijacked, turned into working zombies, simply so that this system can continue, regardless of our own well-being or future. Just like true zombies, we have no idea that we are technically dead.
This system would have made sense to an extent, if at least it was a sustainable economic model that could continue into the future, securing our survival within a mutually parasitic/symbiotic relationship. But it isn’t, as it is based on the exponential leveraging of the very resources which it destroys. It is exhausting its own fuel, and it does so at an accelerating rate, much like stock market derivative instruments which rely on fake money. All of Earth, including its beings, resources, climate systems and all of humanity, is being parasitically exploited by a non-human, semi-sentient, self-destructive Ponzi scheme entity we shallowly call capitalism. It is now in full control of our lives, and of the planet’s resources. This is a sure death sentence for human civilisation, a large proportion of biological life on Earth, and, depending how bad things get, a significant hurdle to any new complex life forms who may try to emerge one day out of the planet’s radioactive ashes.
The system of course has evolved to give us the impression that we DO have full control and choice over our lives. But both the list of choices as well as the decision options are limited and prescribed. They represent different flavors of the same option, which aims to maximize returns for an economic system addicted to profit. Sentenced by birth to be stakeholders of this scheme, we are purposely miseducated and groomed to become greedy, insatiable consumers, running around all day working, purchasing, paying bills and destroying Earth in the process. We have not simply lost any rudimentary control over our lives, but our own lives simply do not matter. It is the preservation of the hard, cold profit indexes of the economic system that matters, and which all of us work for.
This Ponzi scheme of “wealth creation for wealth creation’s sake” has been an Armageddon of natural wealth destruction for the planet so far. Most of us are just not able to see it, as we think we were getting something out of it for ourselves. In reality, we abandoned all 8 million other species of this planet when we signed under the dotted line to join the ranks of this Ponzi scheme corporation, forgetting that we are one of these 8 million species ourselves. Ironically, the better the profit numbers look, the poorer we become, eventually stealing from each other in an oversubscribed betting scheme that is heading for collapse. We, collectively the stakeholders, will of course pay the full price. As for the “system”, it is non-biological, non-sentient, and will simply hibernate until the next big civilization it manages to hitch a ride with.
George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books
7 thoughts on “We Were Never In Control”
There are no “solutions” to the human predicament, but if you feel “technically dead,” a “true zombie,” then that’s on you. We can feel trapped by the gargantuan effects of the supersystem that rules life around us, but we still have a life of antagonism possible within our our minds, plus various quotidian yet immense advantages.
Being able to intellectualize our predicament is the curse. The simple minded winners of hierarchy are the happiest for the most part. The big picture is not one of benevolence. Ignorance is bliss. The evolutionary drama is just the creative process of energy both fluid and less fluid in form. Creatively propagating a stage play of stimulus response. As Shakespeare wrote all the world is a stage. The stage also consists of the entire known and unknown space. From our tiny perspective it appears as infinite dream space. We are fooled into believing we have agency. We appear to be acting out our limited biology in a self reinforcing feedback loop that goes against our wish for significance and immortality. We are a very interesting actor in the stage play but we are all just recycled enery a.k.a. form in the formlessness of what we call space. The big dreamscape will continue with or without us. There is nothing to control. It cannot be controlled. Control is another delusion/illusion. We don’t like our insignificance, so in order to feel significant we attempt control, actors hell bent on committing collective suicide,inadvertently. We have invented myths to harness our self interested pursuit of so called survival. To make our insignificance a bit more tolerable for our limited experience of what and why we are. Just part of a very clever hallucination. Love Rick
I feel you, Rick, thank you for that stream of consciousness. There is a deep rooted arrogance and supremacy delusion, born out of an ego that refuses to come to terms with how small and insignificant humans are in the universe. We have been in a struggle with the entire universe, hating so deeply our place in it, creating a cage of technology, false sophistication and civilisation around a rotten, black heart that was never really in the right place. Ungrateful, self-loathing, so complicated, addicted to unhappiness. We are affirming this by making the entire planet an unhappy place
Yes, that about sums it up. It is difficult to know if we were always this megalomaniacal. Thanks Rick Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone
The first part is solid. MPP (Maximum Power Principle) is operative in us as in all living systems.
The Maximum Power Principle – Ecosystem Theory – Ecology Center
When it comes to blaming a system humans created, vilification seems more emotional than logical. Our embodied baggage (heredity, and experiences since conception) encounter the present, and the best available *tools* to deliver the short term energy throughput are used. Over centuries, societies created trading and production systems to accomplish this. The ponzi developments eventually fail as they don’t deliver said energy. Our economy isn’t a headless horseman. It is a system developed by a hierarchy (part of our tribal make-up), and by technologies we developed to maximize throughput.
Steve Kurtz (Amherst MA)
What you say does not preclude being a Ponzi scheme or other loosely defined “fall off the cliff” self-destructive system. In fact the very maximisation of output you talk about is exactly what brings about the death of the system. The more you maximise, the faster you run out of resources (and damage regeneration ability), the faster it all ends. I’m neither vilifying or being emotional, this is math. Exponential function. This is a long term Ponzi scheme, not a financial one that banks can write off or quantitatively ease the next day. This is real Earth capital disappearing. Unlike money, once it goes, it goes for good. It is a headless horseman indeed I’m afraid, as they can’t see the cliff. There is nothing logical to me about hierarchies, technology, or social and trading organisations and systems. It is a failed civilisation and I’m an anarchist Doomer somehow cursed with being able to look at it from another universe. Thanks again for reading.
George, you misread me. Determinism rules. MPP is universal in living systems. It isn’t about maximum volumes. It is about maximum, short term energetic effects for the life form. The link didn’t travel correctly. Try:
Lotka and Odum were scientists and in no way cheering self-destruction. As you wrote, short term is the rule of natural evolution. You seem to be trying to make humans an exception to this rule. There are no exceptions according to system science studies. Free will is an illusion.