Not Handling Existential Threats

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been somewhat discouraged over the last few years.

Let me explain.

I’m convinced that everything that we are is biological in origin. By this, I mean that the capability of human beings for music, culture, pair bonding, civilization, all originate from our brains. Our brains are the product of our heritage and evolution.

Evolution is, to put a complex thing simply, differential reproduction. I.e., in our past, smarter people reproduced better than dumber people. At some point, we spun off physiological adaptations into culture and technology—when it got cold instead of growing thicker pelts, we invented clothing. That sort of thing. And we had to get smart enough to do that.

From evolution’s point of view, what we do with our brains may or may not be meaningful. But the fact that our brains can do what we do with them is.

One of the advantages of pushing required adaptation from the “hardware” (fundamental physiology) to “software” (culture and technology) is the ability to respond creatively and imaginatively to changing conditions. Evolution isn’t intelligent design. But what humans do is. This has the effect of adding leverage and efficiency to a system that stumbles as often as it walks.

That said, the people that drive that culture and technology are the same people that invented it. We are not all that emotionally different from our ancestors that invented the Folsom point and the bow and arrow. Whatever psychological needs they had that were satisfied by their culture are the same needs we have to satisfy now.

All this is a long-winded path to say that what got us to this point might not get us much further. As Larry Niven said in Protector, intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.

Humans are incredibly smart. They are also incredibly able to manipulate their environment. The synergy of a large, socially organized, intelligent brain and exquisitely utilitarian hands is hard to overestimate.

But, what drives that intelligence and those hands isn’t always that smart.

The same brain that created Lithium-ion batteries also created the microchip conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine. That brain could easily reside in the same person.

When I was in graduate school, I studied a lot of science history. I was studying neurophysiology at the time. Thus, I read a lot about the history of neurology. It was pretty inevitable I’d run across lobotomies. You can read the history and technique from the link. The surgical intention of the lobotomy was to disconnect the prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain. Later, it was determined that only the disconnection to the thalamus was required.

The prefrontal cortex is one of the fundamental organs representing the brain’s ability to perceive, understand, and abstract data—what we typically call, “intelligence”, though that is a very imprecise term. This organ is singularly developed in human beings. The thalamus, on the other hand, is an ancient part of the brain. The cortex, prefrontal and all, is often called the neocortex—the new brain. The thalamus, and its associated components, are part of the limbic system, and are called the paleocortex. Old brain. The limbic system is deeply involved in memory and emotions.

My advisor pointed out that lobotomized patients had no real reduction in cognitive ability. What they did have was an impairment in the significance of actions. The cognition system had been disconnected from the system that determined the importance of actions. This meant, to him, that intellect was in the service of the emotions.

This is a quality of human beings. It’s not bad—our emotions tell us what is important and we want our intelligence in service of that which we think is important. That beautiful cognitive engine knows how to think. A primitive emotional system tells it what to think.

Intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.

That’s not a show stopper. Human beings overcome their limitations all the time. We can’t run sixty miles/hour so we invented cars to do it for us. It is extraordinarily difficult for us to think past our emotions so we invented science and the scientific culture to help us—we used our cultural ability to create a social technology to handle our egos and short sightedness in order to generate objective knowledge.

We see people pull together in crisis. A hurricane or an earthquake hits and we plow money into it, send troops, hospital ships, doctors, etc. I had thought that as the obvious signs of different existential threats began to show (I’m looking at you, climate change) that a similar principle would begin to show. After all, when we are threatened as a group, we respond as a group, right?

I had not counted on the politicization of fact.

There’s been a lot of discussion of something called a “post truth” society. I think that is the wrong term. “Truth” is subjective. There is religious truth. Ethical truth. Facts are not subjective. When someone dies from a disease, it is a real death, not some subjective reality. We do not live in a video game, much as we might wish to.

But facts are hard to nail down. If you pick up a rock and it falls to the ground, that’s a fact. If you do it again, how do you know you’ll get the same result? That’s where a culture of science steps in, using increasingly reproducible evidence until we agree that the result represents a “fact” to the limit of our knowledge.

I think we are living in a “post fact” world. By “fact”, I mean agreed upon objective results. “Post fact” means we ignore evidence in favor of what we find convenient to believe.

I can’t think of a worse time to be in this state. We have serious existential threats to our nation, human population, and our civilization. Nationally, we’ve fallen into a place we every fact is subjective to at least a sizable minority. Just ask a room who won the last election? Are the COVID vaccines safe and effective? Is there climate change? These all have factual answers based on evidence—as knowable as any fact can be. Yet, because these answers are inconvenient, some people deny them. Or, worse, there is money to be made denying the inconvenient—and money does make people rotate.

Let me be absolutely clear about the facts I’m referring to:

  • Trump lost the last election—Biden may not be what some want in a president but he is president for good or ill.
  • The COVID vaccine is saving thousands of lives right now. If you don’t take it, you are putting yourself at grave risk of death or long term mental and physical impairments. Not to mention the risk you create for others. So: get vaccinated or wear a good mask.
  • Unchecked climate change is going to ultimately kill half or better of the human population in the next century. If we don’t stop dumping greenhouse gases into the air and pissing in our own nest, the resulting planet will not support the population size we have. A lot of people are going to die.

These are facts to the best of our knowledge. Grow up and deal with them.

I mean, I knew this was a problem a while back. I just never comprehended the scale of the issue. I never understood we could actually be destroyed by it.

In many ways, we are still our Neolithic ancestors. But now, we need to pick and choose which Neolithic qualities we wish to retain. Emotional empathy to members of our species? Check. Emotional empathy to the environment? Check. Selfishness towards our tribe at the exclusion of all others? Uncheck. Selectively choosing personal excess at the cost of the tribe? Uncheck. Seeing what we want to see instead of what’s actually there? Uncheck.

There are some signs of hope. Pretty much all of the coverage of this hurricane season has been reported in the context of climate change. The same is true for the western wildfires and the heat waves. Five years ago, that would not have happened. To solve a problem, you first have to recognize it exists.

I take heart in gay marriage. When I was growing up in the USA, it was illegal to be gay. People caught acting out went to jail. Some were murdered. Some were murdered recently. The idea of two people of the same sex marrying was unheard of. Impossible. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court said denying same sex marriage was unconstitutional in that state. Congress replied with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. DOMA went down in federal flames in 2013, struck down as unconstitutional. A similar pattern erupted across the world.

My point is that in twenty short years we went from something being impossible to being the law of the land. All it took was a change in will.

I tell my son that his generation is smarter, clearer, less prejudiced, and more ethical than mine. (I’m not just saying that. See here, here, and here.)

If anyone can pull this out of the fire, they can.

All it takes is will.





Not Handling Existential Threats — 2 Comments

  1. Good points. I needed that bucket of cold water thrown over me. Some days I know I am useless and hopeless in the face of the political climate of denying FACTS because they are inconvenient. Then I see tiny rays of hope in the next generation. Thanks for the reminders.

  2. I can’t give up, no matter how very tempting it Is to do so. I have to find hope (watching old movies with my kids and remembering the ways in which it was not only standard, but unexceptional, to watch women and POC be belittled and tormented, helps a lot).

    I try not to lay the burden for fixing everything on my daughters’ generation–I remember when I thought our generation was going to fix everything, and that 1) was a huge burden and 2) didn’t exactly work out the way I hoped. But I do believe that, as Doctor King said, the arc of justice tends upward. I just hope we can survive as a species long enough for it to continue to do so.

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