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.

One Strange Rock: A Must Watch

One Strange Rock 2018

One Strange Rock is a 10 part, 8 hour documentary produced in 2018 by Darren Aronofsky and hosted by Will Smith and 8 space station astronauts.

I’ve watched a lot of nature/science documentaries in my life, and I’ve probably seen most of the good ones, but I say without hesitation that One Strange Rock is the best.

The producers and writers found a magical blend of spectacular settings on and off the planet, fabulous photography, inspirational multi-cultural stories, solid yet easy to understand science, and an important ecological message that is neither depressing nor ignorant of our peril.

With regard to the history and science of Earth’s life, they hit most of the important points everyone should know, got none of them wrong, and missed only a few key points (not least of which the significance of reality denial 🙂 ).

The only segment I did not like was the bit on why we must and will colonize other planets. That’s wishful thinking (aka denial) and is not going to happen, but understandable because that’s their gig. Otherwise very well done!

With regard to beauty and inspiration, they hit a home run, without being sickly sweet. If you don’t feel some joyous emotion watching this, you’re not alive.

This should be mandatory viewing for every student on the planet.

If I ever meet someone in the future who doesn’t understand why they should care, I will point them to One Strange Rock.

If anyone would like to view this documentary but can’t find it, send me a message on Facebook and I will help you.

 

From award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky comes a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth—one of the most peculiar, unique places in the universe.

One Strange Rock is the extraordinary story of Earth – our curiously calibrated, interconnected planet – and why it is special and uniquely brimming with life among a largely unknown but harsh cosmic arena. Anchoring the series is an elite group of astronauts who see Earth’s bigger picture; they provide unique perspectives and relate personal memoirs of our planet seen from space.

Hosted by Will Smith, One Strange Rock reveals the twists of fate that allow life to thrive on Earth.

Part 1: Gasp

For those privileged few who have seen Earth from space, the very first thing they notice is the thin blue line of atmosphere that clings to our planet and sustains life. How our planet creates and regulates that oxygen is a mind-blowing story involving a flying river, a global dust storm, collapsing glaciers and the most important creature you’ve never heard of. It’s an incredible chain of connections that reveal just how truly wondrous our home is. Everything connects, so life and planet breathe together. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield

Part 2: Storm

Ever wonder how our planet got here? It was born in a cosmic storm and shaped by violence. Earth is a very lucky planet. We’re only here because of random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. They could have destroyed us, but instead, that violence constructed a planet from the rubble of the early solar system; gave us oceans in a bombardment from the heavens; and brought order to our world. Astronaut host – Nicole Stott.

Part 3: Shield

It’s a David and Goliath story — Earth’s relationship with its greatest threat: our seemingly benign sun. Hurling devastating particles and deadly radiation at us, the sun is the big violent boss of the solar system. Without several shields, one generated by our unique planetary core, another by our atmosphere, and a third by our interconnected weather systems, life on Earth never would have survived. Astronaut host – Jeff Hoffman.

Part 4: Genesis

Our rock is special; it’s alive. Though the building blocks of life are common across the universe, life is rare. What is it about Earth that sets it apart? This is the story of dynamic forces and crazy coincidences that took a bunch of dead ingredients and transformed them into something as wondrously intricate as life. And if it happened here, could it happen elsewhere? Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 5: Survival

Without the cycle of death and sacrifice, from cellular to planetary, life would not be here. From the deaths of stars to planetary scale mass extinctions and the sacrifice of individuals for a greater genetic good, this is the story of how life evolved hand in hand with death. Death drives evolution. It’s hardwired; from our cells to our landscapes, our colorful living planet is only possible thanks to it. Death leads to opportunity and biodiversity, which ironically ensures life on the planet is never wiped out. It’s not enough for our planet to be habitable; it also has to be lethal. Astronaut host – Jerry Linenger.

Part 6: Escape

Is it possible for intelligent life to escape destruction either from the planet or ourselves? Or are we destined for extinction like 99.9 percent of all species before us? Our best chance of survival may be to escape Earth and build another colony somewhere else. But there are real barriers: space radiation, microgravity and the bacteria inside us. And our DNA is coded for the conditions here on Earth, so if we ever manage to colonize another planet, those who are born there might evolve into another species. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield.

Part 7: Terraform

Ever since life emerged, microbes, plants and animals have all sculpted the planet’s surface and atmosphere in the strangest of ways: fish poop creates islands; dead animals create mountains; and plants help create continents. From rocks to rivers, life has crafted everything that makes our planet so special. But this power of change brings with it profound dangers. Life doesn’t just create. It can also destroy. Astronaut host – Mike Massimino.

Part 8: Alien

All life on Earth started as single-cell bacteria and stayed like that for two billion years. So even if we do find alien life out there, what are the chances of that life being complex like us? On our strange rock, it’s all down to a freak event, which accidentally happened when one cell ate another to create a kind of power pack for life. This almost miraculous event transforms Earth into a complex interconnected web based on a competition for food. And at the top of the pyramid sit we humans. Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 9: Awakening

Of all life on Earth, how come we’re the only ones with the smarts to leave our planet? For three billion years, nothing had a brain. Even today, over 90 percent of life doesn’t need a brain to survive. So, what happened? How did our planet set in motion the chain of nearly impossible events that gave us our unique intelligence? The greatest mystery of all may be right between your ears. Astronaut host – Leland Melvin.

Part 10: Home

After 665 weightless days in space, NASA’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, smashes through the atmosphere on her last journey home to planet Earth. With unprecedented filming on board the ISS during Peggy’s final mission and with the support of our other featured astronauts, we reveal how their time in space transforms their understanding of our planet’s wonders, insights that will change our perspective, too. There is no place like home. Or is there? Just how strange is our rock, and is it really unique in the universe? Astronaut host – Peggy Whitson.

 

On Apollo: The Most Impressive Human Achievement

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

I’m an electrical engineer that specialized in operating system design. I built my first computer in 1981 before the IBM PC was available. I designed an integrated circuit in 1983 for my Masters thesis. I managed large R&D groups for most of my 25 year career. I continue to be a technology geek in my personal life. As a consequence, I have a pretty good sense of what is impressive, and what is not, from an engineering perspective.

As readers probably know, I think net energy constraints have placed us at, or passed, the peak of all forms of complexity, including technology. I see evidence everywhere of peak technology.

The highlights of human engineering accomplishments for me include: steel, concrete, glass, Haber-Bosch fertilizer, diesel engines, turbine engines, turbine electricity generators, electric motors, electromagnetic communications, hydraulics, heat pumps, Panama canal, Golden Gate bridge, Chunnel, Concorde, Apollo, Hubble, Voyager, nuclear submarines, skyscrapers, deep-sea oil rigs, integrated circuits, microprocessors, magnetic storage, lasers, LED lights, internet, lithium-ion batteries, robotics, and DNA sequencing.

Notice that everything on this list is over 20 years old.  I can’t think of anything of equal importance that was invented in the last 20 years.

Gasoline and turbine engine efficiency gains have stalled. Diesel engine efficiency is going backwards due to new pollution regulations. Air travel speed plateaued many years ago.  The promise of too cheap to meter nuclear electricity appears certain to remain a dream. Battery performance barely creeps forward despite a hundred years of promises. My 3 year old smart phone works fine with no compelling reason to upgrade. Cameras were good enough many years ago. Household appliances are getting smarter, but their core functions are not improving, and they don’t last as long due to cost reduction pressures. TV resolution is increasing but few need it. LED lights are getting cheaper, but the technology was invented many years ago. Popular Mechanics magazine no longer writes about jet packs and flying cars.

It’s been 6 years since I built my current desktop computer. There’s still no compelling reason to upgrade it. If I spend the thousand dollars required to upgrade it, I will gain 25% performance. That’s nothing compared to the gains we saw 20 years ago.

I can see how a non-engineer might think otherwise. A computer in your pocket with a wireless connection to the internet feels like magic, but advances in the technologies used to build smart phones began to level off years ago. It’s not advances in fundamental technology that’s creating today’s magic. It’s thousands of small innovative apps, plus a few monster apps that leverage a 25 year old internet to connect us with friends and businesses, that creates the illusion of magic. Apps are software, and software is not new. There’s just a lot more software variety available to supply a much larger market created by everyone having a networked computer camera in their pocket.

For a long time I’ve felt our most impressive technology accomplishment occurred 50 years ago when we visited the moon. I vividly remember as an 11 year boy going outside at night and looking up in awe at Armstrong on the moon.

Over the years I’ve read and watched much about the Apollo program but never encountered anything that got into the details of Apollo’s engineering. I intuitively suspected there was a lot of impressive technology depth to Apollo, but never had the facts to back up my intuition.

I’ve just finished the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods and now I have the facts to confirm my intuition. The book covers all of the technical details for every phase of the mission from launch to splashdown. I love the clear, concise, and engaging writing style of the author.

What those 400,000 people 50 years ago accomplished over 10 years is breath-taking. Every step of the mission involved staggering engineering challenges and trade-offs.  Lives were at stake on prime time television. The scale is hard to fathom. For example, the power produced by the Saturn V first stage was equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the UK. More recent engineering accomplishments are not even in the same league.

Wood’s book answered all of my questions plus many I had not thought of:

  • how did the engines work?
  • how did they navigate?
  • how did they steer?
  • how did the stages separate?
  • how do you move from an earth orbit to a lunar orbit and back?
  • how did the lunar module land?
  • how did the lunar module take off, find, and rendezvous with the command module?
  • how did mission control track location and monitor systems?
  • what did the computers do?
  • what were the emergency contingency plans?

If you prefer to listen than read, here are some excellent podcasts with W. David Woods discussing the Apollo program:

Omega Tau 083 – How Apollo Flew to the Moon (December 15, 2011)

Omega Tau 097 – How Apollo Explored the Moon (June 18, 2012)

Omega Tau 176 – The Gemini Programme (July 18, 2015)

Omega Tau 239 – The Saturn V Launch Vehicle (March 12, 2017)

If you prefer to watch than read, here is a video presentation by W. David Woods in which the production quality is mediocre, but the content is strong.

 

If you are wondering why we have not accomplished anything even close to the Apollo program in the intervening 50 years, it’s because per capita net energy peaked around 1970, and has been declining ever since. In other words, our most complex achievement coincided with the peak of per capita net energy, as students of thermodynamics should expect.

I predict that the Apollo program will remain in perpetuity the most impressive achievement of the human species.

 

Per Capita Net Energy

http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/09/what-might-the-dynamics-of-net-energy-per-capita-look-like.html

 

On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

“We can’t cure a shortage by increasing the supply.”

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was a respected ecologist and philosopher who warned on the dangers of overpopulation. He wrote a famous 1968 paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” which you can download or view in full here.  More information on Garrett’s accomplishments and beliefs can be found at the Garrett Hardin Society site.

The central idea of the tragedy of the commons is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

The classic example, and one we have repeated many times since we came to depend on agriculture 10,000 year ago, is the overgrazing of a pasture shared by herdsman.

A more modern example is someone who emits large quantities of CO2 into the atmospheric commons by flying long distances on a regular basis to spend quality time with family members whose lives will soon be harmed by climate change.

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

I was familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons but I was not aware that Garrett Hardin was the first modern scientist to write on the topic until a friend recently brought his paper to my attention. I read the paper, learned quite a bit, and recommend it to others.

I was particularly impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking on the threat of over-population and what must be done to prevent it. Here are a few noteworthy excerpts from his essay.

The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds. But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus”.

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

  • Failure to control population growth will result in ruin.
  • Population control via appeal to reason or conscience, or threat of shame, will not work, and will in fact make the situation worse. Population can only be effectively controlled by coercion, that is, laws with penalties for overbreeding.
  • The key to passing population control laws is to educate citizens on the reality that if they do not relinquish the freedom to breed they will lose all of their freedoms, including eventually the freedom to breed.

Garrett Hardin was a wise and prescient man who attempted to warn his fellow citizens of a serious threat to their well being, and most importantly, told them what they needed to do and why.  Other great people have attempted to do the same, for example, Dennis Meadows and his collaborators on the 1972 Limits to Growth study.

Hardin’s essay was written 50 years ago when the world’s population was 3.5 billion, a level already far in excess of what can be sustained without abundant, affordable, non-renewable, finite, and depleting fossil energy.

Over the last 50 years the population more than doubled to 7.6 billion and many new overshoot threats backed by solid scientific understanding have emerged like climate change, net energy decline, and ground level ozone.

There’s been plenty of information and (opportunity for) education. We can therefore conclude that Hardin’s assumption that education is the key to preventing overshoot is wrong.

As readers of this blog know, I think the key impediment to changing human behavior in a positive direction is the fact that humans evolved to denial reality, as explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

How can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of the 7.6 billion people on the planet deny the existence of overshoot?

Much has been written by many people on the tragedy of the commons. Commentators typically fall into one of two groups:

The first group appreciates the centrality of the commons problem to human existence and spends much energy arguing how best to address the problem with the usual divisive, inconclusive, and unproductive positions of right vs. left, private vs. public, capitalism vs. socialism, libertarian vs. autocratic , etc.

The second group denies a commons problem exists, or thinks innovation and technology will solve any problems.

Where is the most important and missing third group?

That would be the group searching for an understanding of how an otherwise uniquely intelligent species can deny its obvious predicament. Brief reflection leads to the obvious conclusion that until we understand the genetic basis for our ability, on the one hand, to understand highly complex topics, like the laws of  physics that explain the creation of the universe and life, and on the other hand, to selectively deny much simpler and plainly obvious facts, like human overshoot and our own mortality, we have no hope of addressing the tragedy of the commons, or any of the other behaviors that threaten our species.

A few people have achieved some insight into our tendency to deny reality but I observe that they usually soon thereafter drop their pursuit of understanding.  I find this very curious because if you have a deep understanding of the human predicament there is nothing more import to understand and to raise awareness of than reality denial.

If you deny the existence or implications of overshoot, then it is logical to embrace one or more of the many arguments against a one child law, austerity, and conservation. On the other hand, if you embrace the reality of overshoot, then a one child law, austerity, and conservation not only become perfectly reasonable, they become the most important, ethical, moral, and rational things we must do.

There is an exciting (for me) passage in Hardin’s essay that hints he may have  understood or anticipated at least a portion of the MORT theory.

…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…  But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Hardin demonstrated a flash of denial insight by correctly identifying the key issue, but then neglected to explore further in his tragedy of the commons essay.  Unfortunately the reference for his comment on denial is the book “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control“, which is a collection of essays by different authors that Hardin published in 1964, in which Hardin himself contributed an essay titled “Denial and the Gift of History”, and is not available on the internet. I would be grateful if a reader has a hard copy of this book and would be kind enough to provide a summary of his essay.

My expectation is that Hardin did not elaborate on denial of reality because there was ample opportunity for him to do so in his other books, papers, and interviews that I downloaded and searched.

I did find this one excerpt from an interview but it is not very insightful and he clearly thinks the solution is more education:

RUSSELL: Okay. The idea of statistics and the population–I have no reason to really go over that. The other one, of denial and the gift of history, which was a fascinating idea. Our view of working at it, our immortality.

HARDIN: Yes. Well, I think everybody, as he grows older and accumulates more experience and more observation of other people–of himself, too–is impressed with how often we try to fool ourselves. It’s an inescapable human tendency. This is part of original sin, trying to fool ourselves, and always to make things look better than they are. The question is, since we’re so ingenious at pulling the wool over our own eyes, what contrary measures can be taken? It seemed to me that this is one of the great apologies for teaching history: when you see other people in the past, people with whom you have no connection, making the same mistakes, then you can, I think, be more objective about yourself, and say, “Well, maybe I’m just repeating what this guy did two- or three-hundred years ago.” And this, I think, is one of the great gifts of history. It gives us long arms for holding instructive examples far enough from our eyes.

A search also suggested that no one else in 50 years thought Hardin’s comment on reality denial was worth discussing. Many people saw and see merit in Hardin’s work, but all seem to have missed his most important point, including perhaps Hardin himself.

I also note that Ajit Varki, the only surviving author of the MORT theory, is no longer researching, or attempting to spread awareness of his theory. Varki is instead leading some research on Glycobiology, which with time, will prove to be insignificant compared to MORT.

Because we understand the dangers, we do not permit alcoholics, or epileptics, or schizophrenics, or blind people to fly our planes.

If we understood our genetic tendency to deny reality, we might not permit reality deniers, which by the way are very easy to detect, to run for elected office.

Many impressive scientists and leaders are working hard to shift the needle on human overshoot. All have failed, and all will continue to fail, if they do not embrace the MORT theory.

We need some scientists and leaders of stature to step up and push awareness of the MORT theory.

A cranky old retired electrical engineer writing a blog doesn’t cut it.

It is too late to avoid a lot of suffering, but with awareness of our predicament we could reduce future suffering, and we might avoid harmful emotional reactions like nuclear war or revolutions.

If we have a hope, MORT awareness might be our only hope.

First Man (2017 documentary)

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I watched this video today. It’s a dramatization of human evolution using actors in makeup and is quite well done. They covered quite a bit of detail on what is known about human evolution over the last few million years.

It was in the last 5 minutes of the 90 minute documentary that I became disappointed. They acknowledged that something important happened 100,000 years ago in one small group of hominids in Africa, and that group quickly displaced all of its many close relatives around the world, and then took over the planet. But unlike with other earlier important events like walking, running, hunting, tools, fire, and cooking, they did not even speculate what happened. Nor did they seem to appreciate its significance.

It’s amazing how many people miss the forest for the trees.

This documentary was ripped by MVGroup and is available at the usual torrent places, or you can pay for it here.

https://www.nilaya.fr/en/programs/first-man

Thirty million years ago a new group of creatures appeared on planet Earth: the great apes. From their ranks arose one family, gifted with exceptional skills: our protagonists.

This family would change the face of our world forever.

Moving upright in the trees, they were then lords of the canopy, reigning supreme over limitless forests stretching from Europe to Asia. They founded a new social way of life. They created a language. They invented education as a way of passing on knowledge to their children.

But the day came when the forest no longer sufficed to feed them. Little by little, they ventured onto the ground where they developed hunting skills, and tools to improve their skills.

This early family expanded in number, producing the need to become collectively organized. Politics reared its head. Power structures and warfare soon followed.

Some now decided to risk liberating themselves for good from the world of the trees.

Our ancestors were hungry for freedom. But on the savannah, the predators were absolute kings. So our ancestors invented weapons. And, for the first time, challenged the supremacy of the big cats. A new era had begun.

Man’s early ancestors set off to conquer the world, to explore the unknown, to adapt to every environment. And one day, to conquer fire – a discovery that made them invincible.

They built shelters. They transformed their environment. But still this did not slake their thirst for more. They sought to fathom Nature’s mysteries. They invented stories to explain the inexplicable. Now, they are Men.

Here, for the very first time in television history, is the saga of our origins, told through the story of one single family – an epic journey upon which the latest scientific discoveries shine an exciting new light.

video review: Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil by Richard Smith

crude-the-incredible-journey-of-oil

I’ve watched a lot of good documentaries but this one produced in 2007 by Richard Smith for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is among the very best.

http://www.abc.net.au/science/crude/resources/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1551617/

Usually, the more important a non-fiction work is, the more scientific disciplines the author integrates into a coherent story. In this case, Richard Smith does a remarkable job of weaving geology, chemistry, biology, thermodynamics, climate, history, and economics into a fascinating story that follows a carbon atom as it moves about the planet over the last 200 million years.

I often marvel at, and wonder how we were blessed with such a large quantity of crude oil which we have used to build an amazing civilization. This documentary does a very nice job of explaining how crude oil was formed 160 million years ago on a hot greenhouse planet with near dead and toxic oceans. The photosynthetic bacteria that converted CO2 and sunlight into the carbohydrates that later became crude oil acted to remove CO2 from the atmosphere thus cooling the planet and returning it to a healthy environment for complex oxygen breathing life like ourselves.

Humans are now reversing this process by burning fossil carbon and returning the CO2 to the atmosphere which may return the planet to an environment incompatible with civilization. Unless, ironically, we run out of oil first, which will also cause our civilization to collapse.

What’s different this time is that humans are doing in a hundred years what took geology thousands or millions of years in the past. This speed makes the outcome more difficult to predict but common sense suggests it’s unlikely to be good.

Given that 10 years have elapsed since the documentary was produced it’s a credit to Richard Smith that it’s still relevant and accurate, although it’s a concern to see how far we have unraveled in 10 years with melting poles, record temperatures, stalled economic growth, zero interest rates, money printing, failing oil companies, and global social unrest.

It’s also a concern, but expected in light of Varki’s theory on denial, that we collectively have not yet acknowledged our predicament, let alone taken any steps to make the future less bad.

Highly recommended!

If you’d like a higher quality version than what’s available on YouTube it has been recently ripped in HD and available as a torrent here.