Close this search box.

We Must Look Forward

Humans are both hyper-cooperative and hyper-competitive. Often, at the same time.

(Picture from here.)

There’s a continuing discussion of human intelligence that goes something like this. Well, that is a quality that no other animal has. Therefore, humans are special. Oh, wait a minute. Other animals have something of that quality, so what we have isn’t so special, after all.

This is a completely specious argument. People just shouldn’t indulge in it. The horse “foot” is really an elongated middle finger. The “foot” is the last digit of that middle finger. The hoof is derived from the fingernail. So, in effect a horse is traveling on its fingernail. To say that since other animals also have the middle finger, the horse “foot” isn’t that special.

We have language, use tools, have society, cooperate, and compete. Crows communicate information using sound. Chimps, crows, and cephalopods use tools. Ants, bees, mole rats, chimps, and wolves cooperate. All animals compete. Individual qualities are shared across whole families and classes of animals. Species’ use of those qualities—species specialization—is local to that species. Crows and humans use tools. They evolved them separately. But the human use of tools puts us in a separate class.

So far as we know, no other earthly species has ever built a skyscraper or reached the moon. We did it using our curious mix of hypercompetition and hypercooperation. We seem to be unique in this sort of thing. We are excellent engineers given our limitations.

We are incredibly special. Keep that in mind for the moment. Now, let’s look at something a little different.

I first ran into this concept in an article from Michael Shermer, though I don’t think it was original to him. He posited that humans were inclined towards fabulation because of an evolutionary bias: nobody ever died as a result of thinking a lion was in the bushes when there wasn’t one. Conversely, people did die as a result of thinking a lion wasn’t in the bushes when it was. The bias is in favor of creating dangers when they aren’t there.

That was suitable for our ancestors several million years ago when we were the prey and other animals were the predators. It became less and less useful as we took over the planet. Now, it’s not suitable at all when fabulating a threat can be a menace.

My point is that the same beautiful engineering mechanism I so admire when we’re building a space shuttle or creating the internet—the same wonderful blend of cooperation and competition—can service a fabulated threat just as well as it can service something wonderful. We can mobilize that same frontal lobe computer for anything. The same frontal lobe that got us to the moon can create terrific scenarios concluding we fabricate it. As Larry Niven said in Protector: Intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again here: what got us here is not what will get us further.

By this, I mean that the traits derived from the evolutionary pressures of the veldt—the fabulation of facts, the determination of threats by what other people say are threats, the falling under the sway of a group, nation, or leader, the embracing of the exceptional nature of one’s tribe so that others are not considered true humans—cannot take us forward.

We want a good world. We want clean water, clean air. We don’t want to poison ourselves. We don’t want to starve. We want good long lives for ourselves and our children. Yet, when we pursue such things, the same obstacles get in our way: one group is pitted against another group. We follow the crowd we know and marginalize the crowd we don’t. Our group deserves those good, long lives but that group over there does not. Our group deserves to run things and that group should just shut up and stay where they belong.

I think this is, in part, the trap of story. We like stories. We revel in them. Heck, I write them all the time. I love stories.

Stories are by their nature simplifications of the world. To me, the best stories (I’m looking at you, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) are those that attempt to capture the complexity of human beings. Human complexity is inconvenient. As stories get simpler, they devolve from intricate portraits to caricatures and we end up with my group: good. Their group: bad. The problem is we believe stories before we believe facts.

So: get out of your comfort zone. Find sources of news that discomfit you. Prove them wrong—not by listening to your gut or your friends but by facts that can be verified. Question those you want to lead you. Trust sources not by how they agree with you but whether they can be verified. Leaven your trust—no source is completely right all the time. Test them by things you know to be true. I use science in this regard because it has the best track record. If a source says water is steam and you find that in chemistry text book, then that source has a track record. If a source says water is natural gas—well, find yourself another source.

Test sources that disagree with you. More importantly, test sources that agree with you—your own bias is the hardest obstacle.

People have a tendency to apply their intellect discriminately. I see a bad person from my group and that person is an aberration. I see a bad person from their group and it’s an example of the whole group. Don’t do that. Apply the same rigor to all things.

You can do this. You’re as specialized a species as a whale or a robin. You’re the species that invented critical thinking, objectivity, science, forgiveness of sins, loving your enemy. All things beyond what we did as walking chimps. No other species can do what you do. No other species has had to.

This is hard, honest work. It’s also a good way to alienate your friends and relatives.

After all, no good deed goes unpunished.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *