By Ajit Varki: Mind Over Reality Transition: The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial

My hero and one of the originators of the most important idea since Darwin gave this talk on March 3, 2017 in which he explains the Mind Over Reality theory that he and Danny Brower developed and discussed in their book and which underpins this blog.

Dr. Varki, being a humble and cautious scientist, does not amplify the implications of his theory so I will do it for him here because I have no reputation to protect.

The Mind Over Reality theory explains the:

After reflecting on this list for a few minutes, and assuming that in time Varki’s theory is proven to be correct, you may begin to appreciate why I think this theory is THE most important idea for understanding our origin, our special place in the universe, and our destructive behaviors that threaten our existence. 

A pleasant fact I learned from the talk is that despite having a solemn demeanor Dr. Varki has a killer sense of humor.

Here is the abstract for the talk:

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 such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior––traits that should be maladaptive when they first appear as hard-wired 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 independently emerged 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 then evolved 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“.  This barrier is claimed to arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM.  Such individuals would then observe deaths of others whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into an understanding of personal mortality.  The 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).  The barrier would have 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) combined in the same individuals, to allow a “Mind over Reality Transition”. Once the barrier was broken, 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 recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no hybrids. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the 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 the subject including Terror Management Theory.  Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious issues, ranging all the way from personal health responsibility to global climate change.

Varki, A. Human uniqueness and the denial of death. Nature. 460:684. 2009.

Varki, A., and Brower, D. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve Books, New York. 2013.

Varki, A.: Thought Experiment: Dating the Origin of Us. The Scientist 27:28-29, 2013.

Varki, A.: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else? Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 113: E2354, 2016.

By Aaron Thierry: The Brutal Logic of Climate Change

A must watch. One of the best talks I’ve seen on climate change.

It’s not a future problem. We’re in the midst of an emergency. Dramatic action is required today.

Unfortunately, like almost every other climate scientist, he does not have a clue when it comes to energy and the economy and he veers off into woo-woo hopium land when discussing solutions.

We need fewer and poorer people. Also known as economic collapse. Nothing else will help.

On a positive note, fewer people improves every one of the many overshoot problems we face, not just climate change.

 

By Joe Barry: Over-population is the Real Cause of Climate Change

population-killing-us-may-16

Thanks to JH for bringing this article to my attention.

http://churchandstate.org.uk/2016/05/over-population-is-the-real-cause-of-climate-change-its-killing-us-all-off/

…if changing the way we behave requires a reduction in our living standards, then nothing will happen.

The remarkable thing is that the real cause of global warming is rarely mentioned. It is the elephant in the room. Everyone can see it but no one wants to speak about it, presumably because this subject is a contentious one and challenges the core beliefs of many religions.

The undeniable fact is that we, the human race, are the cause of our own difficulties and unless we reduce our numbers, we will self-destruct.

When famine struck in 1985 the population of Ethiopia was 36m. That famine eventually ended and their current population is now almost 100m. In 1960, there were only 11m in the entire country.

Like all animals, humans are programmed to reproduce and increase in number but like lemmings, which periodically breed beyond the carrying capacity of their surroundings, we are facing imminent disaster unless we change our ways.

In the past, wars, famine and plagues kept world populations in check. Happily these are now rare events, but if we continue to ignore the true reason for the environmental disasters facing us, we will rapidly pass the point where we can save ourselves.

 

By James Hansen: March 2017 Address to Young People

James Hansen is a great man.

In this wide-ranging talk he addresses young people saying they need to lead a peaceful revolution to create a new political party that will support science and reason, a carbon tax, and renewed investment in nuclear energy.

He argues that we are at a historic low point of leadership. All parties, left and right, are clueless and ineffective. Hansen has hope for political change because he has seen young people influence elections, and because he has seen in his younger years good leaders that did the right thing, even in the absence of popular support.

Hansen sadly concludes by saying to young people, “sorry to leave you such a friggin’ mess”, but unfortunately it’s up to you to fix it.

Hansen struggles a little in the talk, perhaps because he is tired, or perhaps because despite having worked hard to warn citizens about the dangers of climate change since 1981, every indicator and action by society continues to move in the wrong direction.

As an aside, I think Hansen makes a serious error by stating that a carbon tax will be effective without damaging the economy. A carbon tax will indeed reduce CO2 emissions, but it will also reduce our standard of living, as will any effective climate change policy. He should state this clearly to avoid a dangerous backlash when the truth emerges.

With regard to nuclear energy, it really is the only option that might maintain our modern technology, and I say might because it does not replace our vital diesel. I personally think the risks are unacceptably high that nuclear can be kept safe with proper maintenance and governance as civilization becomes simpler, poorer, and chaotic due to overshoot, the depletion of affordable oil, and the end of growth. But reasonable people could disagree on this, especially people who think modern technology should be retained as a top priority.

I wrote more about Hansen here, and you can find more on the implications of a carbon tax here.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

Here is this year’s Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.

By Geoffrey Chia: What you should not say in public…

Although there are no solutions to our predicament, I wrote a list of things a wise society would do here. I concluded the essay by acknowledging that our inherited denial of reality would probably prevent us from doing any of them.

Today Dr. Geoffrey Chia wrote a list of things a wise society would do and ended with a similar conclusion.

http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2017/03/01/what-you-should-not-say-in-public/

I am due to speak at the Griffith Ecocentre on 9 March and will run through the usual gamut of why things are fiendishly rotten in the state of Denmark and what to expect in the near future. “Denmark” is of course the metaphor for our besieged planetary ecosphere. It is a commentary familiar to Diners: why global warming will have consequences far worse than the mainstream population have been led to believe (but will NOT cause NTHE by 2026) and why the depletion of “easy” oil guarantees that the collapse of industrial civilisation will be complete within 20 years (a conservative estimate, based on falling EROEI and the ELM). However the fraud pervading our banks and sharemarkets will cause financial and economic collapse and the demise of our global industrial system much sooner. Not to mention all the other fun stuff ahead like mass human die-off, mass extinctions of other species, the rise of fascist extremists around the world, increasing conflicts between nations, increasing risk of global nuclear war, the possibility of pandemics etc. This is all old hat to Diners, but not to the general public. My purpose will not be misery mongering and nihilism however, but to encourage members of the audience to set up their own remote, climate resilient, off-grid homesteads to weather the coming storms. They must not look for salvation from without, but from within. Not everyone will succeed but some will.

I expect the majority will find my commentary repugnant and reject it. I expect the Q&A session will throw up the usual predictable questions such as “how can we fix these problems?” or “surely technofix A can solve problem B?” The standard answer, which Diners are familiar with, is that the issues we face are not problems for which there are solutions, but are predicaments (or conundrums) for which there are no solutions. The correct question at this late stage is not “how can we fix these problems?“, but “what can we do in anticipation of these events?“. Given the more than century long build up to these events, the sapients realise that global industrial collapse is unavoidable, as has been amply demonstrated by even the most optimistic scenarios modelled by the updated Limits to Growth analyses. We have fallen off the cliff and even though we may feel “fine” now, we will not feel so good when we inevitably and excruciatingly smash into the ground. Gravity is a bitch and there is no prospect we can invent an anti-gravity device before impact, or indeed ever.

Not satisfied with such an answer, there is usually the odd tenacious audience member who attempts to pose the same question in a different manner, such as “if you were King of the world and had unlimited policy power, what would you do to tackle these predicaments?” The unstated expectation behind such a question is that a benevolent “philosopher king / ecosystems guru” can find ways to keep 7.5 billion people alive, solve climate change, find a replacement for petroleum etc, etc. Well I ain’t no King and I ain’t no Guru, but for the sake of argument, let us play along with such fantasy based wishful thinking and imagine we can enforce the following:

  1. Abolish all nation states. Demobilise all military forces everywhere and re-employ all ex-military personnel for the refurbishment and maintenance of essential domestic infrastructure, for civil defence and for disaster relief. All nuclear weapons to be dismantled, all weapons manufacturers to be eliminated.
  2. Equitable redistribution of resources, which will require that people in the rich parts of the world give up their luxuries to allow poorer people to survive. This will also require that refugees from climate ravaged and war torn parts of the world be allowed to emigrate to more climate favoured areas.
  3. Impose a moratorium on all human reproduction for the next 30 years, following which we allow only one child per couple until the global population falls to perhaps 100 million and thereafter allow only for replacement reproduction rates. Draconian? Yes, but far preferable to chaotic die-off which could trigger nuclear war.
  4. Transform the existing predatory rapacious capitalist system to a steady state ecology based economic system which penalises polluters and “closes the loop” – to treat and use all waste as a resource.
  5. Stop all unnecessary “economic” activity which will include the cessation of all fossil fuel based tourism and the entire process of globalisation. Limit activities to essential ones such as the production and distribution of food and clean fresh water and the construction and maintenance of dwellings. Localise all economic activities, although international trade in non perishable goods can still occur by use of sailing vessels.
  6. Educate everyone that the main “solution” to our looming energy shortfall must be energy efficiency and conservation, not new whizbang technowizardry such as fusion energy. Cease all fossil fuel electricity generation and change electricity provision to decentralised renewable energy systems such as solar PV for individual dwellings or microgrids. Let the central grid rot or better still, cannibalise it for materials. Pursue research to determine whether we can manufacture and maintain renewable energy generators and batteries using only renewable energy sources.
  7. Phase out all industrial scale monocrop agriculture (which is doomed anyway as fossil fuel based fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and the petroleum to run mass agriculture will eventually become unavailable). Reduce meat and seafood consumption by more than 90%. Food security to be achieved by the establishment of hundreds of millions of local permaculture smallholdings providing a plant based diet with abundant protein from peas, beans and nuts and supplementary protein from eggs, dairy products, aquaponics and even farmed insects.

What is the likelihood of achieving even one of the above? We are, on the whole, moving in directions away from each and every one of the measures indicated above. So get real. Even if they could all be done, the following issues will remain:

  1. Additional global warming from existing GHGs in the atmosphere is already locked in place but is yet to fully manifest and will render most of the planet uninhabitable. All existing coastal cities will eventually (perhaps in 200 years) be submerged under at least 23 metres of seawater.
  2. We have no liquid transport fuel to replace “easy” oil at scale, which means that industrial civilisation as we know it is still doomed.
  3. Enforcement of the policies outlined above can only be carried out through edict and coercion. External imposition of policies on an ignorant and resistant populace will fail to address the primary underlying reason for all our planetary travails: the possession of advanced, destructive technology in the hands of a “trumped up” (pun intended) species of ape governed by their reptile brain. Cleverness without wisdom. This means that even if all the predicaments above could magically be made to vanish and we could magically reset human society and our planetary ecosphere back to, say 1950 before overshoot began in earnest, we will merely repeat the same patterns over and over again, in the absence of restraint and wisdom. Groundhog day with no hope of redemption, no matter how many times the scenario is replayed.

Semi-sapient people must abandon childish fantasy notions of what we would like happen, grow up and accept the reality of what is going to happen.

The bottom line is this, and I have said it before: the only hope for the continuation of our benighted species is that the survivors who emerge at the other end of this genetic bottleneck are truly sapient and adopt the principles of restraint (in resource consumption and reproduction) and vigorously protect any viable ecohabitats remaining (and cultivate new ones as icebound areas of the planet melt). It is possible, although by no means certain, that the impending cull of the global population may result in just such an outcome, especially if the sapient 0.01% of the population can be encouraged to save themselves NOW. The sapients should be advised not to grieve as future events unfold and they observe, from a safe distance, the morbid spectacle of billions of clueless sheeple killing each other, egged on by the 0.1% psychopathic sheeple herders who had promised to make them great again. Such is the nature of a cull.

13-Mar-2017 addition: Here is Geoffrey Chia’s talk…

 

 

By Nick Lane: Why is life the way it is?

Nick Lane, my favorite science writer, recently gave an updated version of his talk on the origin of life and why life is the way it is. This talk summarizes his most recent book “The Vital Question” which I reviewed here.

The big ideas are:

  • The emergence of life is probable and simple single-cell life, like bacteria, is probably common throughout the universe.
  • Complex life, like plants and animals, resulted from a one-time “accident” 2 billion years ago, and will be rare in the universe.
  • Increased energy played a key role in the emergence of complex life, as it does for human domination of the planet.

When you layer on top of this Varki’s theory, which explains the improbable singular emergence of the powerful human brain, our existence and its ability to understand this paragraph, becomes something to revere and protect.

The tragic irony is that we are not fighting to protect our special place in the universe because of the same mutation that enabled the emergence of our brain: denial of reality.