Denial with Cortical Columns

I just finished the new book by Jeff Hawkins titled “A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence”.

A bestselling author, neuroscientist, and computer engineer unveils a theory of intelligence that will revolutionize our understanding of the brain and the future of AI. 

For all of neuroscience’s advances, we’ve made little progress on its biggest question: How do simple cells in the brain create intelligence? 

Jeff Hawkins and his team discovered that the brain uses maplike structures to build a model of the world-not just one model, but hundreds of thousands of models of everything we know. This discovery allows Hawkins to answer important questions about how we perceive the world, why we have a sense of self, and the origin of high-level thought. 

A Thousand Brains heralds a revolution in the understanding of intelligence. It is a big-think book, in every sense of the word.

I’ve followed Hawkins for many years and he’s one of my favorite neuroscience researchers. He started as an electrical engineer and created in 1996 the groundbreaking handheld PalmPilot (which I owned 🙂 ), and then switched careers to his passion of figuring out how the brain works.

In his book he proposes a new theoretical framework for how intelligence works. I think he’s on to something important. So does Richard Dawkins who wrote the forward and compares the book to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

I see an opportunity to build on Hawkins’ intelligence framework to push Varki’s MORT theory forward by refining why and what we deny, and how denial is implemented in the brain. Some of my still rough ideas are presented at the end of this essay.

There’s a second aspect of Hawkins’ book that is also interesting.

After presenting his new theory on intelligence, Hawkins spends the last half of the book explaining how our old brain behaviors and false beliefs (aka denial) threaten the survival of our species, and he proposes several ways we might avoid these threats.

He’s clearly worried and knows we are in trouble.

Yet when discussing the threats to our species he is blind to the biggest, imminent, and certain threat we face: fossil energy depletion. Hawkins, like most polymaths, can’t see that the technology he loves, was created by, and totally depends on, rapidly depleting non-renewable resources.

So we have a world expert on how and why our brain creates false beliefs, that can’t see his own false beliefs.

We could ask for no better evidence that MORT is true! 

But wait, there’s more.

In the last chapters Hawkins obsesses over inventing a lasting means for our species to signal to other life in the universe that human intelligence once existed. As I was reading this I kept thinking, what the hell are you going on about? The odds are extremely low that other intelligent life will ever see our signaling satellites, and who the hell cares if they do? Then a light went on. His signal is a high tech version of an Egyptian pyramid, and is his brain’s mechanism for denying death.

So how could it get any better?

  • a well written enjoyable book
  • with an important new theory
  • on the most interesting aspect of a unique species
  • that may push forward Varki’s MORT theory on why we exist
  • by a brilliant polymath
  • that is blinded by the same denial that created his species

Following is a brief recapitulation of Hawkins’ cortical column framework for intelligence integrated with my musings on how it might be used to clarify and focus Varki’s MORT theory.

This hypothesis will be revised, possibly substantially, after I complete a 2nd more careful reading of Hawkins’ book and published papers, which I’ve just started. I’m also hoping to incorporate criticism from Dr. Varki which may improve or kill my ideas.

Downvoting the Cortical Column Death Model to Breach the Extended Theory of Mind Barrier

Version 1.2, April 17, 2021

Note: For the sake of brevity, every occurrence of “not die” should be read as “not die until viable offspring are produced”.

  • Genes evolve and collaborate to create bodies.
  • Bodies exist to replicate genes.
  • A body must not die to achieve its purpose of replicating genes.
  • The brain exists to help the body by choosing the best action to not die for a given set of sensory inputs.
  • The old brain uses simple static models to directly cause actions to not die.
  • The neocortex uses more complex learned models to indirectly cause actions to not die by requesting the old brain to execute actions.
  • Learning is moving: the neocortex learns by moving senses around the subject to create (up to about 1000) reference frame models.
  • Thinking is moving: concepts without physical form, like mathematics, are learned by moving between models to create new reference frame models.
  • Models have redundancy which makes knowledge more resilient and repurposable.
  • Models are stored in cortical columns.
  • The neocortex is composed of many nearly identical cortical columns.
  • Senses (and outputs from other models) are evaluated for matches by models.
  • Models collaborate by voting to decide our conscious reality.
  • The agreed reality is used by other models to select the best action to not die.
  • Evolution increases the number of cortical columns in species that benefit from more intelligence to not die.
  • Social species have the most cortical columns because modeling social relationships is hard.
  • The human neocortex has about 150,000 cortical columns.
  • There are two important thresholds on the continuum of increasing social intelligence.
  • “Theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns a model of another brain, and that model includes an understanding that the other brain can die.
  • “Extended theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns that its model of another brain also models itself, and that it can also die.
  • The extended theory of mind threshold may be difficult for evolution to cross, because it has happened only once on this planet.
  • A model that predicts possible death from injury and certain death from old age results in fewer actions to not die.
  • Fewer actions to not die is called depression.
  • Genes for an extended theory of mind thus do not persist.
  • To break through the barrier, evolution requires a mechanism to prevent the learned death model from evaluating true.
  • A mechanism consistent with the archeological record was to learn a model for life after death (aka God) which downvotes the death model thus continuing the actions to not die.

Modern Implications of the Death Model

  • Climate change acceptance combined with the common false belief that renewable energy can replace depleting non-renewable fossil energy, and the common false belief that technology can remove sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere, does not trigger the death model, and the false beliefs cause our species to take actions that worsen our overshoot predicament.
  • Awareness of human overshoot and its implications are present in less than 0.01% of humans, including most highly educated polymaths, because it triggers the death model. Most people deny overshoot with false beliefs that non-renewable resources are abundant.

By Jean-Marc Jancovici: Will technology save us from Climate Change?

Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.

If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.

spoiler alert: the answer is no

https://www.media.mit.edu/events/will-technology-save-us-from-climate-change/

Bio: 

Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change (www.carbone4.com). He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy (www.theshiftproject.org). Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.

Abstract:

The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?

Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.

Slides: https://fr.slideshare.net/JoelleLeconte/jancovici-mit-media-lab-23022021/1

The un-Denial Decision Tree

This post was inspired by a comment from reader Kira. She asked if denying climate change was the same as denying death. I answered as follows:

“I suspect there are 2 main groups of people:

One group is the 95% of the population that doesn’t really understand the science or the severity of the problem. They see bad things happening with the weather, but they also hear on the news that countries have signed an agreement to prevent the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees, and they see neighbors buying solar panels and electric cars, which they’re told by experts are solutions to climate change, so their optimism bias that comes from genetic reality denial leads them to conclude that the climate problem is being addressed, and they put it out of mind.

The other group is the 5% that does understand the science and the severity of climate change. These people have enough intelligence and education to conclude that we are already screwed regardless of what we do, and that any effective mitigation effort must involve a rapid decrease in population and/or per capita consumption. It is within this group that genetic denial of unpleasant realities is operating in full force. Most of these experts genuinely believe that climate change can be safely constrained, and economic growth can continue, by replacing fossil energy with solar/wind energy and by using machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These beliefs are so absurd, and so contrary to basic high school level science, that there can be no other explanation than genetic realty denial. In this group, maybe it is death that is the main thing being denied.”

Kira said she agreed and then suggested it might be better to let people, and especially young people, remain in blissful ignorance so that they do not become depressed and lose a sense of purpose.

I thought about it and created the following decision tree of possible paths to answer her question.

  1. Humans are in serious trouble
    1. Disagree (I believe in God or Steven Pinker)
      • path: Carry on and oppose anything that threatens your beliefs and lifestyle
    2. Agree (I believe my eyes)
      1. It’s too late to do anything useful (nature’s forces now dominate human forces)
        1. Agree (a reasonable position given the data, but only if you think other species don’t matter, and 8 billion suffering humans is no worse than 8 billion minus 1 suffering humans)
          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
        2. Disagree (there’s still time to make the future less bad, even if all we do is reduce harm to other species and/or total human suffering)
          1. Humans can’t or won’t change their behavior in time
            1. Agree (most of history says we only change when forced, and the coming debt/energy/climate collapse will be too severe for any good to come of it)
              • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
            2. Disagree (I believe Sapolsky that behavior is plastic and we have enough energy left to build a softer landing zone)
              1. Genetic reality denial blocks any useful change
                1. Disagree (I deny that I deny reality)
                  • path: Make yourself feel good by recycling your garbage, shopping with reusable bags, buying an electric car, and voting Green
                2. Agree (it’s not possible to act optimally without understanding reality)
                  1. Awareness of genetic realty denial will increase awareness of reality
                    1. Disagree (most people just want to pay their bills and watch TV)
                      • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                    2. Agree (most people want to learn)
                      1. Awareness of reality will cause positive behavior changes
                        1. Disagree (if the majority understood reality it would be Mad Max)
                          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                        2. Agree (most people want to do the right thing, especially if pain is shared fairly)

This tree of (usually subconscious) decisions a person must make to decide which path to take about human overshoot results in 7 possible paths.

Six of the paths do not improve the outcome. One of the paths might improve the outcome, but has a very low probability of success because it’s currently occupied by a single old uncharismatic antisocial engineer.

Most people who really understand our overshoot predicament would probably discard my complicated decision tree and focus on a single issue: humans can’t or won’t change.

This view was recently voiced by reader Apneaman in a comment:

But can’t/wont. Have not.

Why? Like Sabine says…………

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

No plan, no matter how spiffy & technically feasible, or logical argument can convince me that the humans are capable of collective change. I’ll need to see it to believe it. Same as God. Only Jesus floating down from the firmament & performing 10 miracles that are so spectacular they would make illusionist David Copperfield blush could convince me of the supernatural.

While true that it’s difficult to cause people to collectively do things they find unpleasant, or that conflict with the MPP objectives of their genes, it’s not impossible and not without precedent. I gave the following examples:

When the Canadian government says to its citizens:

  • Everyone must pay about 50% of their income as tax to operate the country.
    • Most citizens comply, and those that don’t are usually caught and forced to pay an extra penalty.
  • Germany has attacked our friend and we need our young men to risk their lives by fighting a war on a different continent.
    • Most eligible young men volunteered.
  • A virus threatens to overrun our healthcare system and we need citizens to stay at home except for essential activities which must be conducted with a mask.
    • Most citizens will comply.

Now if the Canadian government said to its citizens the combined threats of climate change and diesel depletion threaten our food security within 10 years, so we are putting in place incentives to encourage local food production and processing, and to decrease food imports, I think most citizens would support the plan.

If then after a couple years of further study and communication on the threat, the government said we don’t think there will be enough food to support our population in 10 years so we are stopping immigration and requiring families to have no more than one child, I think most citizens would comply.

The issue of course is that the Canadian government is not going to acknowledge or act on our overshoot threat in this manner.

Why?

I think it’s due to our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, whenever we can get away with it.

Taxes, war, and viruses are very unpleasant, but they’re in your face and impossible to deny.

Food shortages 10 years out are easy to deny.

How do we change this?

It has to start with discussing and trying to understand our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. Hence the path I’ve personally chosen in the above tree.

By Art Berman: Stop Expecting Oil and the Economy to Recover

This recent essay by Art Berman may be the best historical analysis of oil and its relationship with the economy I’ve read.

https://www.artberman.com/2020/09/03/stop-expecting-oil-and-the-economy-to-recover/

Here is my simplified summary of Berman’s analysis:

  • both supply and demand for oil have recently fallen
  • oil demand has fallen more than oil supply
  • this despite an all-time record amount of debt conjured to stimulate the economy
  • which means the global economy is contracting and is in serious trouble
  • the contraction was underway before the virus – the virus accelerated but did not cause the contraction
  • the problem began in 1974 when oil prices increased above the level that the economy can grow without debt growing faster
  • we’re not going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of people that can afford oil
  • the problem being geologic and thermodynamic in nature, has no business as usual fix, and will continue to worsen

Berman’s analysis is consistent with the conclusions of the other leading minds on the energy-economy relationship: Gail Tverberg, Tim Morgan, Nate Hagens, and Tim Garrett.

The most interesting question, by far, when viewed from 10,000 feet is why do none of our political or intellectual or business leaders understand the most important influence (energy) on the thing they care most about (economic growth)?

The answer of course is that the human species evolved to deny unpleasant realities.

As an aside, recall that Eric Weinstein, the brilliant physicist/hedge fund manager whom I recently wrote about as a case study in denial believes correctly that economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s, but he doesn’t understand the cause despite thinking about it a lot. It’s no wonder that the much lesser intellects of almost all economists don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Berman believes that our economy, being a dissipative structure, will either collapse or spontaneously re-organize itself into a simpler form that uses less energy. I suppose the virus lockdown is a good example of a spontaneous lower energy re-organization. I put my money though on some form of collapse in the not too distant future. Despite a surfeit of entitled citizens, we could weather a significant reduction in living standards because we in the developed world consume so much more than we need to survive, however, the unprecedented debt bubble we have created by denying reality blocks a civil contraction.

Berman concludes that as the economy necessarily simplifies and we live much poorer lives, our energy mix will shift to lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. My response to this is maybe. It’s more likely that Berman is denying the reality of his own analysis.

I can see solar panels being used for low power/high impact applications like, for example, LED lighting and pumping water into a gravity fed cistern. But it is unlikely and probably impossible that we will heat our homes, or cook our food, or cultivate and harvest our crops, or mine and smelt our minerals, or transport ourselves and our necessities with solar and wind.

When our solar panels and wind turbines wear out some decades in the future it is unlikely that the sophisticated factories and complex supply chains needed to manufacture and install replacements will exist. If some do exist to supply elite customers, like the military, most citizens probably won’t be able to afford their products.

I expect reality denial will prevent us from ever acknowledging peak oil and its offspring human overshoot. Instead, our consensus story all the way to a medieval lifestyle, at best, will likely be that there’s plenty of oil if the other tribes would stop using so much and we just need to elect someone tougher to deal with them and get our economy growing again.

Acknowledging our genetic tendency to deny reality would be a good thing because we might then focus on the best response to our overshoot predicament which is to rapidly reduce our population. Other wise responses can be found here.

Here’s the excerpted conclusion from Berman’s essay, but it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing for the data backing up these conclusions.

The Great Simplification

Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.

What is happening to oil markets and to the global economy is not because of a virus. The virus greatly accelerated what was already happening. Things won’t go back to normal when the virus ends.

The expansion of energy and debt have been leading toward some sort of reckoning for at least the last fifty years. That day of reckoning has been brought forward by coronavirus economic closures.

Oil prices had averaged $25 per barrel from the end of World War II until 1974 when average prices doubled (Figure 9). From 1979 through 1986, oil price soared to an average of $86 per barrel. These massive economic dislocations resulted in use of debt to maintain economic growth.

Excessive debt was the leading cause for the Financial Collapse of 2008. The crisis was resolved with more debt and monetary policies that ushered in the present era of central bank primacy in the world financial system.

Quantitative easing, near-zero interest rates and high oil prices led to the first wave of the tight oil boom. Over-investment resulted in over-supply and price collapse in 2014. By February 2016, WTI price reached $33 and investors rushed in to support the second wave of the tight oil boom.

WTI reached $72 by mid-2018 but by then, investors had begun to abandon tight oil as well as oil companies in general. The coronavirus economic closure brought monthly average prices to $17 in April, 2020—the lowest month on record. Unlike early 2016, investors weren’t writing any checks this time.

U.S. production may be 50% lower by mid-2021 than at year-end 2019. The implications for U.S. geopolitical power and balance of payments are staggering. It seems likely that the economy will weaken as government support for the unemployed decreases

I doubt that we are on the cusp of either a global energy crisis or the end of the oil age. It is more likely that both supply and demand will fall in tandem as the global economy contracts.

These observations are at odds with the mainstream view that both supply and demand are recovering. Some might concede that I am correct for the present but that things will improve and return to normal although it may some time.

Figure 10 shows credit growth and credit impulse for the United States from 1960 through the first quarter of 2020. Credit impulse is the change in flow of credit (debt) relative to economic activity (GDP).

Spikes in credit impulse correlate well with the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The extraordinary U.S. comparative inventory drawdown of early 2017 through the second quarter of 2018 also corresponds to credit impulse anomalies.

The chief feature of Figure 10, however, is that the magnitude of the first quarter 2020 credit impulse was more than twice as large as any previous increase. Moreover, GDP growth was either neutral or positive during previous spikes but was negative (-10%) for the first quarter of 2020. Also, oil prices were increasing during earlier periods but prices were decreasing in early 2020.

Ilya Prigogine was a chemist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on dissipative structures and self-organization. Dissipative structures are physical systems that release considerable heat as they consume ever-greater energy to support their growth and increasing complexity. A crisis occurs when growth can no longer be supported by available energy resources. The system either collapses or spontaneously re-organizes itself into a simpler form that uses less energy.

Empires, organizations and economies are dissipative structures. So is the human brain.

My friend Nate Hagens has applied some of Prigogine’s ideas to his own research about world energy, economics and ecology. He believes that we are on the cusp of something quite different from the scenarios suggested by Ahmed, and Goehring and Rozencwajg.

Hagens predicted a global economic decline in the 2020s and publicly expressed that opinion before the Covid pandemic. The main reason for decline, he stated, was too much debt undertaken to continue consuming and growing the economy. The virus has accelerated its timing and may result in contraction greater than the 30% drop during the Great Depression.

The Great Simplification will occur when the credit-supported part of the economy is removed. Economic activity will contract and less energy will be needed because it will be increasingly unaffordable to many parts of the population. People will be forced to adjust living standards downward and self-organize around energy with greater emphasis on local supply chains and regional economies.

I expect that the mix of energy sources will be similar initially. That will probably change as declines to meet the decreased carrying capacity of a society deprived of fossil energy productivity. Then, I imagine the world will move increasingly toward lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. A viable economy may very well be created based heavily on wind and solar. It will, however, support a much poorer world than we have known for many decades in the world’s advanced economies.

Most ideas and analyses about future trends in energy and the economy fail to recognize that they are the two aspects of the same thing. That is why they are so far off the mark. This basic misalignment is painfully obvious because the energy sector represents only 2.5% of the S&P 500 valuation but underlies probably 95% of U.S. GDP.

That is what Hagens calls energy blindness1.

1I call it energy denial.

Providing Alcohol to an Alcoholic

Symptoms of a High Functioning Alcoholic

OPEC backs biggest oil cut since 2008 crisis

OPEC agreed on Thursday to cut oil output by an extra 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the second quarter of 2020 to support prices that have been hit by the coronavirus outbreak, but made its action conditional on Russia and others joining in.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-opec-meeting/opec-backs-biggest-oil-cut-since-2008-crisis-awaits-russia-idUSKBN20S0TT

Notice that this and pretty much every other news report you read never explains the thermodynamic implications of what they report, because they are ignorant of, and/or deny, the relationships between wealth creation, credit availability, and fossil energy consumption.

Oil producers today cut production by about 1.5%.

Why? Because demand for oil is falling and the world has limited storage capacity. Oil must be burned at about the same rate it is produced. If they don’t curtail production prices will fall below the cost of production and everyone will lose money, except of course shale oil producers who have always lost money.

Why is oil demand falling? Because the oil powered machines that produce and deliver almost all of the things we use and eat are slowing down, which means economic growth is slowing or possibly declining.

What happens if economic growth stops or declines? Our banking system becomes fragile because the design of our debt backed fractional reserve monetary system requires growth to function.

Put more simply, money and debt retain value, and credit remains plentiful, only in the presence of economic growth.

Why are credit and debt important? Because our standard of living depends on them. For example, today you can save 5% of the price of a house, get credit for 95% in the form of a mortgage, and immediately enjoy 100% of the house. Your mortgage, in turn, funds someone else’s retirement portfolio. Without plentiful credit, most people will not enjoy their own home, or car, or iPhone, and most people will not be able to retire.

I explained the importance of growth and why we can’t have it forever in more detail here.

How have our leaders responded? Canada announced an emergency interest rate cut yesterday in the hope of stimulating economic growth. Our prime minister is planning to spend more printed money to stimulate growth.

Will it work? Does providing alcohol to an alcoholic work? Yes, for a while, unless he’s already too drunk, but doing so makes his bottom more painful.

How do you know when an alcoholic is too drunk? You offer him free liquor and he does not drink.

How do you know when an alcoholic has not yet bottomed out? He kills his hangover the next day with a drink.

How do you know when it’s too late to save an alcoholic? He dies from an overdose.

How do you know when an alcoholic is clean? He decides to promote and vote for a birth lottery.

<Edit Mar 8>

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the correction has begun that those of us with defective denial genes have anticipated since the rocket scientists that lead us “fixed” the too much debt crisis in 2008 with more debt. They’ll try again this time but I suspect the alcoholic is too drunk to drink. I don’t know if the drunk will respond if they try extreme measures like intravenous white lightning. Assuming he doesn’t, my guess is 20-50% of paper wealth will vaporize in this step down. There are more steps to follow in coming years until the alcoholic bottoms out when his preferred drink, oil, is gone. There’d be much less pain for all if he’d sober up now.

Ajit Varki: Our Only Hope is Legitimate Fear-Mongering

OK Now You Can Panic

Dr. Ajit Varki, the scientist who inspired this blog with his book, published a paper for a new book today, which expands on his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Varki, in the past, has been self-critical of his 2013 book feeling that it did not receive the time and polish that his theory deserved. It is clear that Varki set out to remedy the defects of his book with this paper because it’s beautifully written, concise, logically structured, and well referenced. I encourage you to read the paper in full here, or you can download a pdf here.

What follows are a few excerpts from the paper that I thought were noteworthy, and some new ideas from Varki. I also discuss any points where Varki and I differ.

Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species

Abstract
Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier,” that would arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM. Such individuals would observe deaths of conspecifics whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into mortality salience (understanding of personal mortality). The resulting conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction). This “psychological evolutionary barrier” would have thus persisted until hominin ancestors broke through, via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (reality denial and extended ToM) evolved in the minds of the same individuals, allowing a “mind over reality transition” (MORT) over the proposed barrier. Once some individuals broke through in this manner, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including our recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no remaining hybrid species. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the MORT theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on related subjects, including terror management theory. Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious current issues, ranging all the way from lack of personal health responsibility to ignoring anthropogenic global climate disruption, which now threatens the very existence of our species.

The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?”

—The Mahabharata

Perhaps because I’m an electrical engineer who specialized in operating system design, rather than a life sciences practitioner, I’ve never been totally comfortable with MORT’s focus on the evolution of an extended theory of mind (ETOM).  There are many unique properties of the human brain, in addition to ETOM, such as symbolic language and advanced intellectual abilities.

It feels more accurate to speak about a barrier to evolving a brain with higher computing power. We all know that a more powerful desktop computer can do more advanced things like speech recognition and video editing. Ditto for a biological CPU. A more powerful brain can better understand the thoughts of others AND extrapolate its own mortality AND implement complex speech AND read symbolic text AND calculate quantum mechanics AND fly to the moon AND invent technologies to dominate all other species.

This more general way to think about MORT does not change or invalidate Varki’s thesis because it’s the same mortality awareness barrier, but provides a clearer explanation of what probably happened when we broke through the barrier, or at least it does for this cranky old engineer.

I think reality denial unlocked nature’s ability to evolve a more powerful CPU, with the first enhancement being an extended theory of mind, and subsequent enhancements being other uniquely human intellectual capabilities.

In case you doubt that 1-200,000 years is enough time to evolve sufficient computing power to figure out the laws of physics and fly to the moon, recall that we created a Chihuahua from a wolf in about 32,000 years.

I also want to mention that there is another complementary theory for the evolutionary requirement that high brain power co-evolve with reality denial.

All life must obey the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) because life at its core is replicators competing for finite energy.

Any evolved behavior that might tend to override MPP, such as sufficient intelligence to understand Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, with wisdom to constrain offspring and consumption, will be weeded out by selection pressures. Put more succinctly, free will on behaviors relevant to overshoot, cannot exist.

If true, this means it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial, and MORT is one solution evolution has discovered to implement this. On another planet, evolution by natural selection might discover a different means of unlocking high intelligence with reality denial.

Varki has created several new graphics to help explain his theory. I particularly like this one:

Mind Over Reality Transition Extended View

 

I was pleased to see that Varki now draws a link between his theory and that of Trivers’ theory of self-deception:

It is also noteworthy that the ability to hold false beliefs, self-deception, optimism, and confidence might support a successful mating strategy, especially for males. This suggestion is congruent with Trivers evolutionary theory of self-deception that includes denial of ongoing deception, self-inflation, ego-biased social theory, false narratives of intention, and a conscious mind that operates via denial and projection to create a self-serving world.

Varki makes an interesting case that human physiological ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in that postnatal development mirrors the expected transitions to an extended theory of mind:

Human Psychological Ontogeny Recapitulate Phylogeny

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Varki, perhaps due to my encouragement, has drawn a stronger link between religion and his MORT theory:

Depending on the lens through which it is studied, one aspect of religion can also be considered as strong evidence in support of MORT. Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.

Not having to worry about farting in a sandbox filled with kids I have to play with every day, I go a step further and assert that MORT created God.

I also make a stronger claim that all religions, not just most religions as stated by Varki, have at their core a belief in life after death.

It is also a theory that appears to fit with all known relevant information, and is not apparently negated by any other facts, but also cannot be definitively falsified at this time by an experiment.

For me, MORT will be be falsified if we can find a single religion anywhere in time or place that does not believe in some form of life after death.

I love that Varki draws a link between MORT and the many peculiar things humans do to distort reality:

…could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial?

Varki introduces a new and very interesting idea that reality denial first emerged in males and an extended theory of mind in females, and that it took considerable time for the alleles to mix and stabilize:

MORT Gender Features

Assuming that such an evolutionary transition did occur, what might have been the contributions of sex and gender? As illustrated in the very speculative Fig. 8, human males are at greater risk of autism spectrum disorders, more prone to selective reality denial, systematizing, optimism bias, and risk-taking behavior. Conversely, human females are more prone to empathy, cooperation, theory of mind, depressive realism, and major depressive disorder. Considering these sex and gender differences (which are of course on a continuum, and affected by many cultural and genetic factors), could it be that the original evolutionary transition involved mating of males with a complex genotype manifesting as maladaptive reality denial––with females having an equally complex genotype, suffering from mortality salience due to an enhanced theory of mind? Although we cannot know for certain, could such mating have generated an unusual collection of alleles, as an explanation for the origin of humans? Assuming that generating and stabilizing the optimal combination of such alleles were was difficult, perhaps it took a very long time. Perhaps there was a prolonged interim state of recurrent cognitive instability, with ongoing dangers resulting from reality denial and/or existential angst, and possibly even high rates of suicide. Could this difficult transition explain the >100,000-year gap between the genetic origin of modern humans and archeological evidence suggesting our emergence in Africa and then elsewhere?

I personally think it slightly more likely that the 100,000 year gap can be explained by the time it took natural selection to evolve a more powerful CPU once the MORT barrier was breached.

I chuckled at Varki’s awareness of the reality that his theory will not be acknowledged as true in his lifetime, and I admire his self-confidence that it will be acknowledged after he’s dead:

The theory is also consistent with all known facts, compatible with all other related theories, and not negated by any currently known facts. On the other hand, it is not directly testable by experimental reproduction and not directly falsifiable by experimental approaches. Given also the counterintuitive nature and unusual origins of this theory, as well as the lack of expertise of the originators in many relevant disciplines, MORT is very likely to be attacked from many quarters, and resolution is unlikely during the lifetime of this author. Only the passage of time will tell if MORT is as important as plate tectonics or as completely fanciful as “phlogiston” (or something somewhere in between). Fortunately, concern for posthumous legacy is a largely meaningless exercise.

“I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain…..on these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.”—Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, shortly after Origin of Species was published.

I’m less confident MORT will ever be acknowledged as true because denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. If denial is ever acknowledged by the herd, the whole house of cards that defines us will collapse. Of course it’s going to collapse eventually regardless, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s too bad, tragic in fact, because with MORT awareness we could reduce future suffering, and retain more of our best accomplishments.

It’s also sad because MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin’s evolution by natural selection for explaining the existence of an extraordinarily rare type of life in the universe. Too many people drift through life without ever appreciating how amazing their existence is.

Varki concludes the paper by discussing the implications of his theory, and says that it’s time for legitimate fear-mongering.

I observe with some irony that the existential threats, besides climate change, that Varki lists are insignificant compared to the threats he does not mention, such as human overshoot and the depletion of low-cost non-renewable resources, and other limits to growth, that are currently roiling social unrest around the globe, and creating unsustainable debt growth, zero or negative interest rates, money printing, and a widening wealth gap.

Coda: Relevance to the Current Human Condition and the Future of Our Species.

The 2007 draft of Danny Brower’s incomplete manuscript that I modified and expanded into a co-authored book (Varki & Brower, 2013) included the following prescient observations: “We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”

Although many of our follies arising from reality denial can at least theoretically be eventually reversed, there are two that definitely cannot be turned back once they occur: global nuclear holocaust and anthropogenic climate change. Although not an expert on climate, discussions with such individuals lead me to the conclusion that the human-induced climate disruption is already occurring, and that absent major changes in current human behavior and/or human intervention there is a very high probability of irreversible global catastrophic climate disruption before mid-century (Gilding, 2012; Gore, 2007, 2013; Guterl, 2012; Hansen, Sato, & Ruedy, 2012; Mann, 2012; Wallace-Wells, 2019), i.e., a “climate holocaust.”

In other words, we are putting our children on an airplane with a very high probability of a catastrophic crash (McKibben, 2019; Rich, 2019). If this theory regarding the evolutionary origins of human reality denial is true, the first step to reversing the situation would seem to be a full awareness of our genetic tendency to reality denial by the media, and by our scientific and political leaders. Sadly, it is unlikely that rational discussion or scientific details will be sufficient to sway the average human to do what is right for the future of our species, let alone leaders who are focused on near-term political and economic goals.

The only solution then may be “legitimate fear-mongering ”! It is notable that it was such fear-mongering that once brought all the nations of the world together during the Cold War, to minimize the risk of a nuclear holocaust (Caldicott, 2017). The only other hope may be to combine fear with shame and guilt, imposed upon adult humans by adolescent school children, who can better imagine the dire future we are leaving them to face (Kjeldahl & Hendricks, 2019). As the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg said to the elites at Davos: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Of course, even if we manage to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, there are the other existential threats to our species that reality denial makes us prone to, such as widespread and indiscriminate applications of artificial intelligence (Müller, 2016) to the generation of “deep fake videos” (Stover, 2018) and other gross distortions of reality at a population-wide level.

If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise.

 

Varki’s last sentence captures the essence of this blog:

un-Denial = unmasking denial: creator and destroyer

 

I am very grateful, and pleasantly surprised, that Varki credited me in his paper despite the fact that this blog will probably be viewed by his colleagues as a cave for doomer whack jobs. 🙂

 

I Want You to Panic

On the Emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Denial to Domesticate (DtD) Theory

Bizarro.com on Evolution

In 1953 Watson and Crick wrote a brief letter to the journal Nature to lay claim to being the first to identify the mechanism for replication of genetic information.

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

I’m following Watson and Crick’s example to lay claim to a new idea here on this blog that is read daily by millions of people that are curious to understand the evolutionary origins of a religious fire ape that has used its unique intelligence and behaviors to dominate its planet, while at the same time denying its obvious state of overshoot and the damage it is doing to the ecosystems that sustain it.

About 1 or 2 million years ago our primate ancestors mastered the use of fire to cook food. Cooking increased the energy available from food thus enabling the evolution of a larger brain. These primates used their more powerful brain to cooperate and create technologies like stone tools and weapons that enabled them to prosper and expand their range.

Several hundred thousand years ago the evolution of increased brain power and associated social cooperation bumped up against a barrier. This barrier resulted from a reduction in reproductive fitness when the brain became powerful enough to understand its own mortality. Several different hominid lines were blocked by this barrier. Then about one or two hundred thousand years ago, one small tribe in Africa evolved a mechanism to break through this barrier. The evolutionary trick was to simultaneously evolve an extended theory of mind with a behavior to deny unpleasant realities like mortality. The two otherwise maladaptive features when combined became a powerful adaptive advantage by enabling the evolution of a more powerful brain with an extended theory of mind.

Having broken through the mortality awareness barrier, the tribe became what we now call behaviorally modern humans, with religions rooted in life after death, and exploded out of Africa to populate the entire planet, initially displacing all other hominids, and today is well underway to displacing many other species, including perhaps itself.

The cognitive barrier, and the mechanism for breaking through it, is explained by Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. I created this blog to explore and broadcast MORT because it answers many important questions for students of human overshoot.

Varki has shown that an extended theory of mind explains many of the behaviors unique to humans.

What Varki does not explain is why did humans use their extended theory of mind to cooperate more frequently than to fight?

I’ve recently read a new book by Richard Wrangham titled “The Goodness Paradox” in which Wrangham explores the paradox of humans having low reactive violence and high proactive violence.

As an aside, Wrangham is also the originator of the “cooking made us human” theory that I discussed above, and I recommend his earlier book on this topic.

Wrangham argues that the success of behaviorally modern humans is due to social cooperation which enabled more effective resource acquisition, defense, offense, technology advancement, trade, and the specialization of skills that are characteristic of our species.

Wrangham’s novel idea is that social cooperation was enabled by self-domestication. The self-domestication process was accomplished by tribe members ganging up on and killing any overly aggressive males in their tribe. Over time we thus became a kinder gentler species that can walk into a Starbucks filled with strangers and not be at risk of being torn limb from limb as would happen to a chimpanzee in the same situation.

Domestication of a species often results in many non-selected side effects such as neoteny, white patches of fur, and the floppy ears of dogs. Wrangham explores many characteristics of humans that may be side-effects of domestication such as our unique tendency to enter exclusive same-sex relationships.

Wrangham thinks the key enabler for human self-domestication was the evolution of an extended theory of mind that permitted tribe members to conspire and plot against their aggressors.

What Wrangham does not explain is what enabled the evolution of an extended theory of mind?

So here’s my big Watson and Crick like idea that I’m laying claim to for future generations to admire.

It’s called the Denial to Domesticate (DtD)™ theory and is a unifying bridge between the two brilliant theories of Varki and Wrangham.

DtD states that MORT enabled Self-Domestication.

More specifically, mastery of fire for cooking enabled a big brain, which was blocked from being used to its fullness by mortality awareness, which evolved reality denial to enable an extended theory of mind, which enabled individuals to conspire to kill aggressors, which self-domesticated our behaviors, which enabled large groups of humans to cooperate, which enabled us to take over the planet.

Readers of this blog will know that our core enablers, fire (think climate change) and reality denial (think peak oil, species extinction, etc. etc.), do not bode well for our future. We are fire apes that deny reality.

Being an electrical engineer well past his prime, and having completed the important work, I leave it to keen young geneticists to flesh out the details of my revolutionary DtD™ theory.

P.S. I’ll bet you a Starbucks donut that one of the side-effects of DtD will prove to be symbolic language.

P.P.S. 1905 was the big year for Albert Einstein, and 2019 may be my big year. I will of course offer to share the Nobel with Varki and Wrangham because without them I’d be nothing.

P.P.P.S. Note how an engineer can pack so much profound insight into a few words:

Fire to cooking to intelligence to denial to god to plotting to capital punishment to self-domestication to Apollo 11 to 7 billion too many.

Mashup

Keep Calm and Carry On It's Just a Mashup Mix

 

Notice the tight correlation between CO2 emissions per person and standard of living:

That’s not a coincidence as physicist Tim Garrett has explained:

https://un-denial.com/?s=Tim+Garrett%3A

So if we ever decide to do something effective about climate change (assuming it’s not already too late due to self-reinforcing feedback loops) then that solution must include some combination of a lower standard of living and a lower population.

When was the last time you heard a leader or climate scientist speak with such clarity?

Probably never because most are in denial as explained by Ajit Varki’s theory:

https://un-denial.com/denial-2/theory-short/

Unfortunately, reducing our standard of living is not as simple as tightening our belts because of the large amount of debt we use to support our lifestyles and economy.

Contraction means a depression at best, and more likely some form of crash:

https://un-denial.com/2016/01/30/why-we-want-growth-why-we-cant-have-it-and-what-this-means/

So the choice is severe economic hardship from a voluntary contraction, or collapse and possible extinction from climate change.

But it’s not so simple.

Our lifestyle and economy is totally dependent on burning non-renewable fossil carbon and we have already depleted the best low-cost reserves:

https://un-denial.com/2018/02/08/on-burning-carbon/

The best minds predict we will have 50% less oil to burn in 10 years:

https://un-denial.com/2018/07/29/on-oil/

This means our lifestyles and economy will contract soon no matter what we choose to do.

So the real choice is do we want to try to control our decline in a civil and humane manner, or do we want to let nature force an uncivil and inhumane decline?

The correct choice seems obvious:

https://un-denial.com/2016/06/27/what-would-a-wise-society-do/

The correct choice is even more clear when you consider the many other negative side effects of human overshoot besides climate change:

https://un-denial.com/2017/01/06/you-know-you-are-in-trouble-when/

But of course there is no choice because we are collectively unable to acknowledge or discuss our predicament due to the denial of reality behavior that enabled our unique brain:

Which probably explains why we have found no other intelligent life in the universe:

https://un-denial.com/2015/03/25/are-we-experiencing-the-peak-of-what-is-possible-in-the-universe/

It’s also probable that complex multicellular life, like plants and animals, is extremely rare in the universe because it depends on a rare “accident” to create the eukaryotic cell:

https://un-denial.com/2016/03/29/book-review-the-vital-question-energy-evolution-and-the-origins-of-complex-life-by-nick-lane/

Which means our planet really is special.

And you reading and understanding this essay is a miracle, but we don’t need God to explain this miracle, just physics and biology, plus billions of years and trillions of planets to enable several low probability events to occur:

https://un-denial.com/2016/11/14/on-religion-and-denial

To sum all of this up, if you have the rare ability to break through the human tendency to deny reality, then you should be in awe of being alive to witness and understand this rare event in the universe, and you should be grateful for the good food and other comforts we enjoy.

https://un-denial.com/2015/11/12/undenial-manifesto-energy-and-denial/

By Nate Hagens: Reality 101: What every student (and citizen) should know

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens just released a new video course titled “Reality 101” that he produced for honors freshman at the University of Minnesota where he teaches.

The course is backed by 15 years of research by Nate into our overshoot predicament created by the interaction of human behavior, energy, economy, and ecology, and distills his 45 hour university course of the same name into 4 hours of video.

I’ve followed Nate for many years and have posted some of his work here.  Nate is a rare multidisciplinary dot connector, and has one of the best big picture understandings of our predicament.

Nate differs from others doing similar research in that he retains hope and offers positive advice to young people for how they might help make the future a more desirable place to live.

I suspect this new video course will become a go-to resource for people seeking enlightenment on vitally important topics that are usually ignored, and when occasionally broached, are almost always misunderstood or denied by most educators, leaders, and news sources.

Nate can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.

Nate’s Facebook announcement of the video course:

I’ll be putting the entire Reality 101 course content (two 500 page books co-written w DJ White plus related content and videos) online for free this spring. In the meantime, the Honors Program at U of Minnesota asked for a ‘hologram’ of that material that could be watched in 4-5 hours (instead of ~150 hours of the course) for the Nexus One experience for all freshmen. They’ll watch this in 3 pieces: 1) Brain/behavior 2) Energy/economy and 3) Ecology/Earth systems/what to do/how to live during these times. The Energy videos (link below) are ‘finished’ (with a bunch of small errors to fix when I get time), The 12 videos are 1 hour 45 minutes total – as usual both too long for most peoples attn spans but too short to really get into some important nuances. Our culture is energy blind. This new choreography outlines the story of humans, growth, energy and the future in the most comprehensive way I could envision for a short(ish) summary. (thanks to Katie Fischer and Keegan L Robinson for tireless help and suggestions and to Katie for doing great work on the tech side)

Reality 101 full course description:

How is the economy like a hurricane? Where does money come from? Will economic growth last forever? What is wealth? How many hours would it take you to generate the same amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline? Why are you so confident in your own beliefs? Why do you spend so much time on social media? Why do we want “more” than our neighbors? What do all of these questions have to do with the environment? With your future? And what if our most popular societal beliefs about these issues turn out to be myths?

Reality 101 will delve into these questions and unify them as they apply to the major challenges humanity faces this century, among them: slow economic growth, poverty, inequality, addiction, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and war. The seminar will provide students with broad exposure to the foundational principles central to addressing these interrelated issues. The readings and lectures will cover literature in systems ecology, energy and natural resources, thermodynamics, history, anthropology, human behavior, neuroscience, environmental science, sociology, economics, globalization/trade, and finance/debt with an overarching goal to give students a general understanding of how our human ecosystem functions as a whole. Such a systems overview is necessary to view the opportunities and constraints relevant to our future from a realistic starting point. Though the hard science relating to sustainability will be surveyed, few answers will be presented and it is hoped that creativity and group dialogue will lead to emergent ideas on how these big themes fit together. While the class material is daunting and intense (reflecting our world situation), the course itself will be enlightening and deeply informative, with an open, engaging, and entertaining class atmosphere.

Dr. Nathan John Hagens worked on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers and closed his own hedge fund in 2003 to pursue interdisciplinary knowledge about the bigger picture of modern society. Nate was the lead editor of the online web portal theoildrum.com, and is currently President of the Bottleneck Foundation and on the Boards of the Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Energy and Our Future, and IIER.

 

 Section 1 – Brain & Behavior

Click here to play all 10 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Evolution, Natural Selection, and the Agenda of the Gene

 

Part 2: Sexual Selection and Social Status

 

Part 3: Dopamine, Supernormal Stimuli and Consumerism, Part 1

 

Part 4: Dopamine, Supernormal Stimuli and Consumerism, Part 2

 

Part 5: Our Social Natures, Part 1 (Groups and Tribes)

 

Part 6: Our Social Natures, Part 2 (The Superorganism and Culture)

 

Part 7: Self-Blindness, Part 1 (Cognitive Biases)

 

Part 8: Self-Blindness, Part 2 (Cognitive Biases)

 

Part 9: Time Biases

 

Part 10: From Self Blindness to Self Awareness

 

Section 2 – Energy & Economy

Click here to play all 16 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Energy Blindness

 

Part 2: Energy Surplus

 

3 – Energy Benefits

 

Part 4: Energy Scale

 

Part 5: Energy Impacts

 

Part 6: Energy Primacy, Part 1

 

Part 7: Energy Primacy, Part 2

 

Part 8: Energy Primacy, Part 3

 

Part 9: Energy Primacy, Part 4

 

Part 10: Energy Primacy, Part 5

 

Part 11: Energy Remoteness

 

Part 12: Energy Depletion

 

Part 13: Energy Fungibility

 

Part 14: Energy Transitions

 

Part 15: Energy and Happiness

 

Part 16: Energy and Our Future

 

Section 3 – The Big Picture

Click here to play all 8 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Intro

 

Part 2: Ecology and Systems

 

Part 3: Externalities, Part 1: Intro

 

Part 4: Externalities, Part 2: Heating and Oceans

 

Part 5: Externalities, Part 3: The Web of Life

 

Part 6: The Superorganism (short version)

 

Part 7: 8 Great Questions for our Time

 

Part 8: What to Do? (short list)

By Michael Mills: How to Avoid Population Overshoot and Collapse

Dr. Michael Mills

Thanks to James at Megacancer for bringing my attention to this 2011 essay by Dr. Michael Mills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles California. The interests of Dr. Mills include the evolutionary psychology of peak oil.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201111/how-avoid-population-overshoot-and-collapse

In this essay Mills demonstrates an excellent understanding of human overshoot, and uses his expertise in evolutionary psychology to offer strategies for shifting human behavior in a more sustainable direction.

 

As shown in the graph below, this is an example of a general phenomenon.  All species suffer population collapse or species extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity of their ecology.

Carrying Capacity &amp; Overshoot

This is also the fate that awaits bacteria growing in a Petri dish, as you might remember from your high school biology course.  Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them.  One bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population of bacteria doubles every minute — such that the Petri dish will be full by noon.

At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?

Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather  than with exponential, rates of growth.  The correct answer is 11:59am — which seems rather unintuitive. However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute)  the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am.   With just one more doubling, in the next minute, the Petri dish is completely full, at noon.

Anyone who perceives a linear rate of growth, but who is actually up against an exponential rate of growth, is likely to be very surprised at how the end comes very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. They will be completely blindsided.

 

Generally it is healthy to be optimistic, but optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems. We should not ignore ecological problems by assuming “someone else” will take care of it, or that “the free market” or “technological breakthroughs” will always come to the rescue in time. Solutions may not come in time, and we may get quite a rude Malthusian smack down later.

 

One example of resource depletion is the gradual depletion of fossil fuels, especially oil.  The amount of oil produced by a particular oil field, or a region, shows a regular pattern: first oil production increases, then it reaches a peak, and, finally, as the oil field begins to dry up, oil production starts to  decline.   World “peak oil” is when world oil production peaks, and then starts an inexorable decline as oil fields start to dry up.  Many experts believe that world oil production has already peaked, or that it will occur within the next few years. This presents us with a problem:  as of now, no combination of renewable energy sources can scale up quickly enough, or provide anywhere near the energy equivalent of oil.   We can anticipate that the world is about to enter a severe, worldwide energy shortage. Since food production is so dependent on energy production, following an energy famine will be a food famine.  Many poor people, especially in developing countries, will literally starve to death as oil energy depletes.

 

Optimists will be quick to rebut that shale oil has pushed oil production to record highs since Mills wrote this. I would remind those optimists that it took unprecedented zero percent interest rates, many trillions of unrepayable debt to force growth equal to only 25% of the debt, investors willing to pour money into unprofitable fracking companies, and a socially destabilizing increase in the wealth gap to achieve this increase in oil production.

 

The 1972 book Limits to Growth  also made some pretty frightening predictions back in 1972, as did the follow-up book in 2004  Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.  Using computer simulations, they predicted a world peak population around mid-century, followed by population decline.

Given that these predictions are now approaching 40 years old, how accurate were they?  Are they still on track today?

The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.”  To prevent this scenario, the Limits to Growth authors suggested that we must achieve ecological sustainability by 2022 to avoid serious ecological overshoot and population collapse.

Limits to Growth Predictions

 

Mills then gets to the meat of his essay:

Can evolutionary psychology provide insights to aid in our survival?

Can humans be “smarter than yeast?” Can we be the only species that can successfully anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot and collapse?  Issues of sustainability are psychological problems.  Are we sufficiently psychologically sophisticated to manage our own collective behavior to achieve sustainability on a finite planet?

One sobering answer provided by evolutionary psychology is that we, like all other species,  have no evolved psychological adaptations designed specifically to perceive, anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot. In fact, we have just the opposite.

One problem is that inclusive fitness, the “designer” of psychological adaptations, is always relative to others; it is not absolute.  That is, nature doesn’t “say,” “Have two kids (or help 4 full sibs), and then you can stop. Good job! You did your genetic duty, you avoided contributing to ecological overshoot, and you may pass along now…” Instead, nature “says” (relative inclusive fitness): “Out-reproduce your competitors. Your competitors are all of the genes in your species’ gene pool that you do not share. If the average inclusive fitness score is four, then you go for five… “In other words, our psychological adaptations are designed to not just “keep up with the Joneses” but to “do better than the Joneses.” This is in whatever means that may have generally helped to increase inclusive fitness, such as status, conspicuous consumption, and resource acquisition and control.

If we are to have a fighting chance to be “smarter than yeast,” we have to out-smart our own psychological adaptations; we have to “fool Mother Nature.” Garrett Harden recognized that the problem of ecological overshoot is the tragedy of the commons writ large.  He suggested that the way to solve the tragedy of the commons was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.”  That is, we must consent, collectively, to use our knowledge of our psychological adaptations to tweak them in the service of sustainability.

For example, we can use such knowledge to manipulate our own perceptions of status so that we actually compete to reduce our consumption of finite resources, such that we compete to “keep down with the Joneses.”

 

Mills thinks we can hack our behavior with psychological tricks if the majority of citizens understand our overshoot predicament and consent to being manipulated.

He then provides some examples of psychological techniques that have been, or could be, successful at changing human behaviors:

  • Foster competition (and status) for being more sustainable than your neighbors.
  • Manipulate women to prefer men with more sustainable lifestyles.
  • Use virtual reality to trick ourselves into treating all humans as if they belonged to our tribe.
  • Create psychological illusions that cause us to treat ecological issues as personal issues, and the entire planet as our tribal territory.
  • Use Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to change behaviors, like the successful campaign to promote seat belt use.

 

Mills concludes by saying we need a new sustainability movement that makes being a “consumerist” as toxic as being a “racist” or “sexist”.

A new social movement is needed – a sustainability movement.  This is particularly important for anyone who plans to live in the future. A grass-roots movement of the magnitude of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, is needed. Today no one wants to be called a racist or a sexist (but being called a “consumerist” does not yet sting). Those movements had clearly defined out-groups to vilify as the “enemy” — and that may have helped to mobilize and motivate activists.

But who is the enemy now?  There is no out-group. The enemy is us. We are fighting against ourselves — our base psychological adaptations to compete for relative status, mates and resources.  Evolutionary psychology can help by identifying which of our “psychological buttons” might be manipulated to promote sustainability.  But we must collectively agree to manipulate our psychological adaptations to attempt to “transcend” our self-ecocidal nature.  If we succeed, there may be a glimmer of hope of mitigating our own ecological overshoot, and the potential Malthusian nightmares of the future.

 

I like the creative ideas offered here by Mills and wish we would try them. Unfortunately it seems we must first find a way to break through our denial of overshoot reality before we can obtain the consent of citizens to be manipulated.

On the other hand, we allow ourselves to be manipulated every day without consent by the commercial advertisements and agenda driven media messages that crowd our daily lives. There’s a clear precedent here to proceed without consent.

Perhaps all we need is a wise government to get on with hacking our behavior to have fewer children and consume less.

But then we’d need a government that was not in denial, which means we’d have to elect genetic mutants, which I’ve proposed in the past.

Which brings us full circle to the core problem discussed many times on this blog:

Finding a way to pick our genetic reality denial lock is the key to any progress, and possibly the survival of our species. This is a hard lock to pick because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.

I wish Mills would study Varki’s MORT theory and write another essay.

As an aside, check out the comments left by the readers of Mill’s essay. They offer a nice snapshot of the human belief system. Several intelligent people attempt to poke holes in Mill’s thesis, and Mills then calmly and rationally responds with the facts on why they are wrong. Not one reader changes their views. Not one reader stands up and says “great ideas, let’s try them”.

WASF