You know you are in trouble when…

Examples of denial are both profound and unacknowledged.

The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth

The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption

All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity

Most citizens have no idea how fortunate they are to be alive at this point in history: A Guide to Being Human in the 21st Century

The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, peak oil, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline 

There is evidence that feedback loops are taking over and causing some problems to go exponential: climate change, CO2 emissions, ice loss, sea level rise, debt

The previous year’s worst case predictions are tending to become this year’s most likely prediction: sea level rise

Actions that improve the long-term worsen the short-term: air pollution masks 0.5C of warming, austerity and debt reduction, renewable energy, population reduction 

The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction

The only possible permanent solution is too slow to avoid the worst problems: population reduction laws

Countries fortunate to have a low birth rate often cancel their good fortune with immigration: Canada

Citizens have wildly different beliefs about our predicament: there is no problem; there is a problem but it’s not caused by humans; I don’t want to think about it; technology will save us; it’s in the hands of God; I’ve already done enough; someone else needs to do something first; my actions won’t make a difference; someone else will consume whatever I give up; it’s too late to do anything

Despite wildly different beliefs about our predicament, there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: I don’t want to change my behavior

The few people who understand the severity of our problems do not set good examples in their personal lives: leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists

The quality of our leaders is declining because those people with high intelligence, wisdom, and integrity do not want to be in charge of our predicament, and because citizens are feeling the impact of overshoot, do not understand what is going on, and are angry: Trump and Clinton

The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump

The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter

We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil

Low energy prices have led citizens to believe we have a glut of fossil energy when in fact: all types of energy have peaked

Citizens believe the exact opposite of reality: technology creates wealth and energy rather than energy creates wealth and technology

Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: energy extraction cost + debt

We do not discuss or act on economic history research that shows countries always get into serious trouble when they permit an important ratio to exceed a threshold we long passed: debt to GDP

Bankers, the creators of money, do not understand the one thing that creators of money should understand: thermodynamics of wealth

The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists

The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett

The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists

The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities

All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines, and mining machines; plus natural gas for fertilizer

People who think the shale revolution will make America prosperous and energy independent ignore one thing: facts

Intelligent people who understand the climate change threat, like James Hansen and Bill Gates, and who want business as usual to continue, know that nuclear energy is the only option: peak uranium

If climate deniers continue to win elections and try to maintain the existing electric grid they’ll find that strategy may not work for long: peak coal

Citizens most vulnerable to a fragile global supply chain with only a few days of inventory experience the strongest illusion of abundance and security: inhabitants of rich cities

Most citizens are not even vaguely aware of the invention that enabled their existence and created about 50% of the nitrogen in their bodies: Haber-Bosch conversion of natural gas to fertilizer

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without understanding the source of all that they cherish in modern civilization: fossil energy

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without realizing that many fossil energy companies are going bankrupt: ExxonMobil

A solution frequently advocated makes things worse by accelerating growth and decreasing system resilience: efficiency

The best solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is being harmed by the same activity that creates CO2: planting more trees which are then injured or killed by ground level ozone

All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)

We have not acted to prevent a predictable and very dangerous side effect of trying to maintain business-as-usual with low interest rates: increasing wealth gap

We still enjoy historically vast surplus wealth that could be deployed to improve our future lives but we are squandering it: military, airports, highways, new cars, high rises, etc.

Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars

The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet

Many people are hurting and lashing out in anger because they do not understand the cause of their pain: Brexit, Trump, Syria, Venezuela, etc.

The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news

Few people study or heed the best predictor of the future: history

None of our schools teach skills useful and relevant to our future: growing food and other forms of lower complexity life skills

The thing that enabled the evolution of our high intelligence and its ability to understand and act on problems is the same thing that causes our problems and prevents us from acting on them: denial of reality

The theory that best explains our existence and our self-destructive behavior is ignored by everyone, including those people seeking to understand our problems: Varki and Brower’s denial of reality theory

Readers are encouraged to submit additions to the list.

book review: On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote this most famous book in 1859 so I had modest expectations given how much we have since learned about evolution and genetics.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book has stood the test of time very well.

Darwin had an excellent mind and writing skills. Highly recommended.

After completing this book I recommend you read Varki’s book where he builds on Darwin’s theory to explain the singular emergence of an intelligent species with full theory of mind, and some of our constructive and destructive behaviors.

On the Origin of Life

Here are a few fabulous talks on the latest thinking regarding the origin of life.

By Eric Smith : Inevitable Life? (2007)

 

By Eric Smith: New Theories on the Origin of Life (2015)

 

By Michael Russell and Bill Martin: Origin of Life Animation (2010)

 

By Nick Lane: The Origins of Complex Life (2009)

 

By Nick Lane: Is Complex Life a Freak Accident? (2012)

By Nick Lane: Why is Life the Way it Is? (2015)

 

By Nick Lane: Matter and Energy at the Origins of Life (2016)

 

By Michael Russell: Origin of Life Through Convection and Serpentinization (2013)

 

By Michael Russell: On Life (2012)

 

By Sean Carroll: What is the purpose of life? (2016)

book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane

Nick Lane has long been one of my favorite science writers, setting aside Varki of course who will always have a special place in my heart.

Nick Lane’s last book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” discussed the 10 most important inventions of evolution: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. I read the book 4 times, was enthralled each time, and no doubt will read it again.

An earlier book by Nick Lane, “Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World” discussed the amazing transformation of our planet by photosynthesis. After reading this book I look at grass with different eyes. And I love to tell the story of oxygen to any soul who will listen.

In his latest book “The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” Lane has outdone himself.

The book is sweeping in scope, tackles the most cosmic question, as well as some important earthly questions, is beautifully written, and reads like a page turning mystery thriller.

There is so much here, where to begin?

Lane presents the latest science on the origin of life and makes a compelling case that prokaryotic (simple single cell) life is probably common throughout the universe because all that is required is rock, water, CO2 and energy, all of which are found within alkaline hydrothermal vents on geologically active planets, of which there are 40 billion in our galaxy alone, and probably a similar number in each of the other 100 billion galaxies.

Life emerges as a gradual and predictable transition from geochemistry to biochemistry. Life is not some spiritual mystery, but rather a predictable outcome of the fact that the universe abhors an energy gradient, and life is its best mechanism for degrading energy.

This theory elegantly explains why LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life) and all life that followed is chemiosmotic meaning that it powers itself with a strange highly unintuitive mechanism that pumps protons across a membrane.

The human body, for example, pumps a staggering 10 to the 21st power protons per second of life.

If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

Lane then turns his attention to the origin of complex life: the eukaryotic cell. All of the multicellular life on earth that normally interests us such as plants, animals, fungi, and hot girls or guys, have a common eukaryote ancestor, and it appears this ancestor emerged only once on earth about 2 billion years after the emergence of simple life. Lane considers this the black hole of biology. A vital but rarely acknowledged singularity that requires explanation.

Lane presents a theory to explain the emergence of the eukaryote and shows that unlike simple life which is probable and predictable, complex life is improbable and unpredictable. It depended on a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) somewhat analogous to a freak accident. The resulting LECA (Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor), having 2 genomes that needed to cooperate and evolve in harmony, was probably fragile, sickly, and vulnerable to extinction which forced it to evolve many unusual characteristics common to complex life such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, programmed cell death, germline-soma distinction, and trade-offs between fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, and ageing and death.

As the endosymbiont (cell within the cell) evolved into mitochondria (the energy powerhouses), eukaryotes were able to break through the energy per gene barrier that constrained the morphological complexity of bacteria and archaea for 2 billion years. Suddenly there was enough energy to power the evolution of complex structure, multi-cellular life, nail salons, and the iPhone.

How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is.

This theory will be particularly satisfying to students of human overshoot who understand that abundant non-renewable energy is the main reason for the size and complexity of today’s human civilization.

The universe, life, and complexity are all about energy.

I am a fan and student of Varki’s theory that human success is the result of a rare simultaneous mutation for denial of reality and an extended theory of mind.

Combining Nick Lane’s theory with Ajit Varki’s theory, and an understanding of our place on the overshoot curve, leads one to an amazing and almost mystical conclusion.

Intelligent life with an extended theory of mind is the result of a rare and unpredictable double mutation, layered on the emergence of complex cells, another rare and unpredictable accident. Intelligent life in the universe is therefore rare and will probably exist for only a short time before its intelligence fueled overshoot, and denial thereof, causes it to go extinct.

The fact that we are alive to witness and understand a very rare peak of intelligent life in the universe is cause for genuine awe.

We should savor it while it lasts.

Here is Nick Lane talking about some of the ideas in his book. I much preferred the book because the subject is too deep to be covered in a 30 minute talk but it’s a taste if you don’t have time for the full meal.

Here is an excerpt from the book’s epilogue.

All life on earth is chemiosmotic, depending on proton gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism. We have explored the possible origins and consequences of this peculiar trait. We’ve seen that living requires a continuous driving force, an unceasing chemical reaction that produces reactive intermediates, including molecules like ATP, as by-products. Such molecules drive the energy-demanding reactions that make up cells. This flux of carbon and energy must have been even greater at the origins of life, before the evolution of biological catalysts, which constrained the flow of metabolism within narrow channels. Very few natural environments meet the requirements for life – a continuous, high flux of carbon and usable energy across mineral catalysts, constrained in a naturally microcompartmentalised system, capable of concentrating products and venting waste. While there may be other environments that meet these criteria, alkaline hydrothermal vents most certainly do, and such vents are likely to be common on wet rocky planets across the universe. The shopping list for life in these vents is just rock (olivine), water and CO2, three of the most ubiquitous substances in the universe. Suitable conditions for the origin of life might be present, right now, on some 40 billion planets in the Milky Way alone.

Alkaline hydrothermal vents come with both a problem and a solution: they are rich in H2, but this gas does not react readily with CO2. We have seen that natural proton gradients across thin semiconducting mineral barriers could theoretically drive the formation of organics, and ultimately the emergence of cells, within the pores of the vents. If so, life depended from the very beginning on proton gradients (and iron–sulphur minerals) to break down the kinetic barriers to the reaction of H2 and CO2. To grow on natural proton gradients, these early cells required leaky membranes, capable of retaining the molecules needed for life without cutting themselves off from the energising flux of protons. That, in turn, precluded their escape from the vents, except through the strait gates of a strict succession of events (requiring an antiporter), which enabled the coevolution of active ion pumps and modern phospholipid membranes. Only then could cells leave the vents, and colonise the oceans and rocks of the early earth. We saw that this strict succession of events could explain the paradoxical properties of LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of life, as well as the deep divergence of bacteria and archaea. Not least, these strict requirements can explain why all life on earth is chemiosmotic – why this strange trait is as universal as the genetic code itself.

This scenario – an environment that is common in cosmic terms, but with a strict set of constraints governing outcomes – makes it likely that life elsewhere in the universe will also be chemiosmotic, and so will face parallel opportunities and constraints. Chemiosmotic coupling gives life unlimited metabolic versatility, allowing cells to ‘eat’ and ‘breathe’ practically anything. Just as genes can be passed around by lateral gene transfer, because the genetic code is universal, so too the toolkit for metabolic adaptation to very diverse environments can be passed around, as all cells use a common operating system. I would be amazed if we did not find bacteria right across the universe, including our own solar system, all working in much the same way, powered by redox chemistry and proton gradients across membranes. It’s predictable from first principles.

But if that’s true, then complex life elsewhere in the universe will face exactly the same constraints as eukaryotes on earth – aliens should have mitochondria too. We’ve seen that all eukaryotes share a common ancestor which arose just once, through a rare endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. We know of two such endosymbioses between bacteria (Figure 25) – three, if we include Parakaryon myojinensis – so we know that it is possible for bacteria to get inside bacteria without phagocytosis. Presumably there must have been thousands, perhaps millions, of cases over 4 billion years of evolution. It’s a bottleneck, but not a stringent one. In each case, we would expect to see gene loss from the endosymbionts, and a tendency to greater size and genomic complexity in the host cell – exactly what we do see in Parakaryon myojinensis. But we’d also expect intimate conflict between the host and the endosymbiont – this is the second part of the bottleneck, a double whammy that makes the evolution of complex life genuinely difficult. We saw that the first eukaryotes most likely evolved quickly in small populations; the very fact that the common ancestor of eukaryotes shares so many traits, none of which are found in bacteria, implies a small, unstable, sexual population. If Parakaryon myojinensis is recapitulating eukaryotic evolution, as I suspect, its extremely low population density (just one specimen in 15 years of hunting) is predictable. Its most likely fate is extinction. Perhaps it will die because it has not successfully excluded all its ribosomes from its nuclear compartment, or because it has not yet ‘invented’ sex. Or perhaps, chance in a million, it will succeed, and seed a second coming of eukaryotes on earth.

I think we can reasonably conclude that complex life will be rare in the universe – there is no innate tendency in natural selection to give rise to humans or any other form of complex life. It is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity. I can’t put a statistical probability on that. The existence of Parakaryon myojinensis might be encouraging for some – multiple origins of complexity on earth means that complex life might be more common elsewhere in the universe. Maybe. What I would argue with more certainty is that, for energetic reasons, the evolution of complex life requires an endosymbiosis between two prokaryotes, and that is a rare random event, disturbingly close to a freak accident, made all the more difficult by the ensuing intimate conflict between cells. After that, we are back to standard natural selection. We’ve seen that many properties shared by eukaryotes, from the nucleus to sex, are predictable from first principles. We can go much further. The evolution of two sexes, the germline–soma distinction, programmed cell death, mosaic mitochondria, and the trade-offs between aerobic fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, ageing and death, all these traits emerge, predictably, from the starting point that is a cell within a cell. Would it all happen over again? I think that much of it would. Incorporating energy into evolution is long overdue, and begins to lay a more predictive basis to natural selection.

Energy is far less forgiving than genes. Look around you. This wonderful world reflects the power of mutations and recombination, genetic change – the basis for natural selection. You share some of your genes with the tree through the window, but you and that tree parted company very early in eukaryotic evolution, 1.5 billion years ago, each following a different course permitted by different genes, the product of mutations, recombination, and natural selection. You run around, and I hope still climb trees occasionally; they bend gently in the breeze and convert the air into more trees, the magic trick to end them all. All of those differences are written in the genes, genes that derive from your common ancestor but have now mostly diverged beyond recognition. All those changes were permitted, selected, in the long course of evolution. Genes are almost infinitely permissive: anything that can happen will happen.

But that tree has mitochondria too, which work in much the same way as its chloroplasts, endlessly transferring electrons down its trillions upon trillions of respiratory chains, pumping protons across membranes as they always did. As you always did. These same shuttling electrons and protons have sustained you from the womb: you pump 1021 protons per second, every second, without pause. Your mitochondria were passed on from your mother, in her egg cell, her most precious gift, the gift of living that goes back unbroken, unceasing, generation on generation, to the first stirrings of life in hydrothermal vents, 4 billion years ago. Tamper with this reaction at your peril. Cyanide will stem the flow of electrons and protons, and bring your life to an abrupt end. Ageing will do the same, but slowly, gently. Death is the ceasing of electron and proton flux, the settling of membrane potential, the end of that unbroken flame. If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

This energy flux is astonishing and unforgiving. Any change over seconds or minutes could bring the whole experiment to an end. Spores can pull it off, descending into metabolic dormancy from which they must feel lucky to emerge. But for the rest of us … we are sustained by the same processes that powered the first living cells. These processes have never changed in a fundamental way; how could they? Life is for the living. Living needs an unceasing flux of energy. It’s hardly surprising that energy flux puts major constraints on the path of evolution, defining what is possible. It’s not surprising that bacteria keep doing what bacteria do, unable to tinker in any serious way with the flame that keeps them growing, dividing, conquering. It’s not surprising that the one accident that did work out, that singular endosymbiosis between prokaryotes, did not tinker with the flame, but ignited it in many copies in each and every eukaryotic cell, finally giving rise to all complex life. It’s not surprising that keeping this flame alive is vital to our physiology and evolution, explaining many quirks of our past and our lives today. How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is. May the proton-motive force be with you!

It’s Really a Shame

I’m almost finished The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

I may write a book review but the punchline is that bacterial life is probably common throughout the universe.

Complex eukaryotic life, on the other hand, is probably very rare.

And human-like intelligence will be even rarer if Varki is right.

We are wrecking a very special thing.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

un-Denial Manifesto: Energy and Denial

This essay attempts to summarize every important topic discussed on this site, and is a work in progress that I frequently correct and expand as my understanding of the world improves. You might want to check back from time to time to read the latest version. I would appreciate readers pointing out any errors or omissions.

This is the story of the two most important things that enabled the success and possible demise of humans: energy and denial.

Simple single cell (prokaryotic) life emerges as a gradual and predictable transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, in the presence of rock, water, CO2, and energy, all of which are found within alkaline hydrothermal vents on geologically active planets, of which there are 40 billion in our galaxy alone, and probably a similar number in each of the other 100 billion galaxies.

Simple life like bacteria and archaea is therefore probably common throughout the universe. Strong evidence for this is that prokaryotes appeared 4 billion years ago, as soon as the earth cooled down enough to support life, and never once winked out despite many calamities throughout geologic history.

LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor), and all life that followed, is chemiosmotic meaning that it powers itself with an unintuitive mechanism that pumps protons across a membrane. This strange proton pump makes sense in the light of its hydrothermal vent origins. For a sense of the scale of life’s energy, consider that the human body pumps a staggering 10**21 protons per second of life.

The transition to, and existence of, complex multicellular life, like plants and animals, is much less predictable and certain. All of the complex life on earth has a common eukaryote ancestor, and it appears this ancestor emerged only once on Earth about 2 billion years ago. This is a vital but rarely acknowledged singularity in biology.

The eukaryote cell was created by a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) somewhat analogous to a freak accident. The resulting LECA (Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor), having 2 genomes that needed to cooperate and evolve in harmony, was probably fragile, sickly, and vulnerable to extinction which forced it to evolve many unusual characteristics common to complex life such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, programmed cell death, germline-soma distinction, and trade-offs between fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, and ageing and death.

As the endosymbiont (cell within the cell) evolved into mitochondria (energy powerhouses), eukaryotes were able to break through the energy per gene barrier that constrained the morphological complexity of bacteria and archaea for 2 billion years. Suddenly there was enough energy to power the evolution of complex structure, multi-cellular life, a symphony of fungi, plants and animals, and one single hominid with an extended theory of mind that took over the planet.

The magnificent and varied life we enjoy on Earth may not be unique in the universe, but is probably very rare, and our existence and ability to understand and discuss the origin of this life, is extraordinarily rare and precious.

Life at its core is chemical reactions that consume energy to replicate themselves. There is a minimum quantity of energy required to sustain life. This subsistence energy supports growth to sexual maturity, finding and winning a mate, reproducing, and feeding the offspring. It also includes the energy for shelter and clothing to create a hospitable environment for the chemical reactions to operate, energy to power the muscles used to evade or fight threats, and energy for the cells to repair damage from sickness or injury.

All of this subsistence energy must come from the surplus left after using energy to gather, hunt, grow, steal, or purchase energy. In other words, life must obtain more food than the food it takes to obtain food. Otherwise it dies. For example, if a coyote burns 2 rabbits worth of energy to capture 1 rabbit then it will die. If on the other hand, a coyote burns 1 rabbit of energy to capture 2 rabbits then it might be able to produce offspring that survive to repeat the achievement. Similarly, an ape that sells life insurance and uses its wages to buy food must be employed by a life insurance company that makes a profit. Without a profit the ape will lose its job and ability to buy food. Profit is an energy surplus.

Energy is required to produce anything and everything. For example, your coffee mug required diesel-powered machines to dig up and transport clay to a factory that used natural gas-fired furnaces to fuse the clay into a durable ceramic container that was then transported by a diesel-powered ship and diesel-powered trucks to a store that you drove to in a gasoline-powered car and purchased with wages your earned from a company that generated a profit by using energy to create something worth more energy. Money is a token we can exchange for real things. Therefore money is a claim on energy.

If a species finds a way to capture more energy than is required to subsist, then its probability of survival and population increases. Additional surplus energy is first used by life to increase fertility and decrease mortality. This makes intuitive sense because the chemical reactions at the core of life are replicators that replicate until some resource shortage constrains them. The most important resource, by far, is energy because with sufficient energy many other resource shortages can be overcome. For example, a well fed coyote can range farther to find water, and an ape can use natural gas generated steam to extract oil from sand.

Until recently all species obtained their energy from the current flow of sunlight (e.g. grass) or the recent flow of sunlight (e.g. wood). As an aside, a few species use instead chemical energy from geothermal processes but I will not discuss this since the ideas are analogous. An ape that eats a cow uses current solar energy via the photosynthetic grass eaten by the cow to produce flesh, and recent solar energy via the wood used to predigest (cook) the meat.

The sun shines at a relatively constant intensity and the earth is a fixed size at a relatively constant distance from the sun. Therefore the available sunlight on earth is finite and fairly constant. If one species captures more energy it must come at the expense of a different species. This tension is the driving force behind evolution.

The competition for finite resources as governed by the laws of evolution has created many amazing variations of life. For example, trees that grow tall to capture more sunlight than its neighbors, cheetahs that run faster than their prey, giraffes that eat high leaves, and birds that migrate with the seasons. One species emerged with a unique capability to out-compete all other species for available sunlight, and then used this same capability to break through the sunlight barrier.

About 100,000 years ago there were several intelligent social species of hominids in Africa, all with about the same brain size and power. For some period of time, perhaps several million years, these species bumped up against evolving an extended theory of mind, which would have been advantageous for these social species because it enhances cooperation by enabling an individual to understand the minds of other individuals. Each time an individual was born with a mutation for an extended theory of mind they would have observed, through the normal course of daily activities like hunting and childbirth, other individuals being killed or injured, and therefore would have come to understand their own mortality. All animals have a very useful inherited behavior that causes them to fear and avoid injury, and therefore mortality awareness caused fear, depression, and risk avoidance, which reduced their reproductive fitness, and so the mutation for an extended theory of mind did not fix in the gene pool.

Then one day, through random chance, a member of one tribe was born with a mutation for an extended theory of mind plus a mutation for denial of reality. Suddenly, what was a reproductive fitness disadvantage became a powerful advantage. The genes from that individual became fixed in her tribe and the resulting improvement to the tribe’s ability to communicate and cooperate increased the success of the tribe.

Having broken through the mortality barrier, it now became advantageous and probable for natural selection to evolve a larger and more powerful brain with complex symbolic language, planning and analytic skills, and increased memory capacity. An additional fortuitous side effect of denial of reality was the optimism bias it created which the intelligent species used to advance technology, hunt dangerous animals, wage war, and explore new continents.

This new species that emerged from a small tribe of hominids, that we now call human, and that is sometimes referred to as the chosen people, used its new abilities to out compete all other hominid species.

The mutation for denial of reality, which was essential for dampening the inherited fear of injury and death, caused each new human tribe to create life after death stories which served to define, unite, govern, and entertain the tribe. Thousands of different stories, which we now call religions, were created by thousands of tribes, with their one and only common feature being, due to its genetic foundation, a life after death subplot.

Over this same period of time, and probably even longer, there were other intelligent social species like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and crows that were bumping up against the mortality barrier to evolving an extended theory of mind. Some of these species achieved partial theory of mind as demonstrated, for example, by behavior consistent with mourning their dead and revenge, however because of the improbability of mutating an extended theory of mind simultaneous with denial of reality, these species never evolved brains similar to humans.

The enlarging human brain soon became constrained by the size of the birth canal and associated pregnancy health risks. Because of the strong fitness advantage a larger brain provided, evolution found a clever way to work around the birth canal constraint by delivering babies with undeveloped brains. Therefore, as humans became smarter, parents were required to care for their offspring for a longer period before they became independent and able to breed. This led to other behavioral and cultural changes, such as pair bonding, and religions with stories that discouraged adultery.

The humans used their intelligence and social skills to develop technologies to capture a larger share of solar energy. Examples of these technologies include mastery of fire for cooking, heating, and land clearing; domestication of animals initially for protection and hunting assistance and later for transportation, agricultural labor, and sources of food; metal for weapons and tools; projectile weapons for extending its lethal range; replacement of indigenous plants with cultivated food plants; redirection and storage of water; methods and vehicles for migrating to all available continents and islands; shelter and clothing to survive in all climates; architectural structures for defense; and written language to store and transmit the technologies.

The human population increased rapidly and spread to all continents. Large prey went extinct everywhere shortly after the arrival of humans, except in Africa, where the large animals co-evolved with early humans. All of the humans’ close relatives were out-competed and went extinct. Human civilizations like the Egyptians, Romans, Mound Builders, and Mayans, experienced cycles of growth, overshoot, and collapse as they bumped up against the barrier imposed by finite solar energy.

Then, 200 years ago, humans used their intelligence to discover a new technology that fundamentally changed the rules. Humans learned how to exploit a new source of energy to augment finite sunlight. This energy is ancient buried biomass commonly called fossil energy. Unlike sunlight that is constrained to the real-time flow from the sun, fossil energy accumulated over millions of years and therefore acts as a giant solar energy battery. Now humans could not only exploit current solar energy (e.g. grass) and recent solar energy (e.g. wood) but also ancient solar energy (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas).

Because energy is the master resource that can be used to extract other resources, including more energy, fossil energy created a positive feedback driven 200 year period of explosive population, wealth, and technology growth. With surplus energy available to replace human labor with machines such as tractors and combines, fewer humans were required to work on subsistence activities and more humans could specialize in a wide variety of scientific, engineering, and cultural domains.

Food production was increased through the use of natural gas derived nitrogen fertilizer, oil based pesticides, diesel-powered tractors, combines, and irrigation, and diesel-powered trucks, trains, and ships to deliver it. More food enabled the population to increase from 1 billion to 7 billion. New technologies that used the surplus fossil energy improved the quality of human life such as housing, drinking water, sanitation, medical and dental care, communications, transportation, labor-saving machines, and entertainment. Humans used the surplus fossil energy to make amazing advances in science and technology including traveling to the moon and understanding the origin of life and its respiration, replication, and photosynthesizing chemical reactions, and invented light speed digital networked communications technology to share and discuss this understanding with other members of the species anywhere on the planet.

Some side effects of the new technologies also reduced the quality of life for some humans. These included health problems caused by pollution and the new abundance of delicious but unhealthy foods such as sugar that were evolutionarily scarce.

Almost all other species, except those cultivated or domesticated by humans, and those that piggyback on the success of humans, like rats, suffered from the success of humans. The rate of species extinction increased to unprecedented levels. Rather than using fossil energy to replace sunlight energy, thereby freeing some energy for other species, humans used fossil energy to add to the solar energy they already commanded, and most wild species declined. Fast and powerful fishing boats capable of scooping and scraping all life from the ocean anywhere on the planet are one of many examples.

The purpose of the universe, if it can be said to have a purpose, is to increase entropy. The universe abhors an energy gradient and life is its best invention for degrading energy gradients. Humans are the champions of life at degrading energy, and from this perspective, may be the universe’s pinnacle of invention.

Conflict between tribes is a persistent feature of human history with periods of calm and periods of extreme violence. The inherited denial of reality enables a high level of violence without the temper of empathy because tribes with different gods are viewed as lesser humans. For example, one large civilized tribe exterminated millions of “inferior” humans using gas chambers. Another large civilized tribe routinely kills innocents labeled as terrorists with automated drones to protect sources of fossil energy while telling itself it is spreading democracy.

There are three dark clouds looming over human success.

First, climate change and pollution.

The use of fossil energy releases CO2 into the atmosphere which acts as a blanket to trap solar energy which increases the temperature of the planet. Human released CO2 has already increased the earth’s temperature by about 1 degree resulting in many problems including droughts, storms, ice loss, and sea level rise. The CO2 already released by humans guarantees another 1 degree of rise, even if all fossil energy emissions were stopped today. It is now clear that the 2 degree limit agreed by many countries is not a safe target and is in fact very dangerous for civilization. Worse still, probable future human emissions will cause a 4-6 degree rise which raises the possibility of human extinction.

Sea level rise predictions from melting ice on Greenland and the Antarctic increase with each new study. At least a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century is now probable and subsequent predictions are expected to worsen. This is a significant problem because much important land for agriculture and cities is near sea level. There will be heartbreaking refugee migrations, starvation from decreased food production, and loss of capital property this century.

CO2 also acidifies the ocean which harms many species such as shellfish and corals, both of which are in sharp decline. Another large and widely unrecognized problem is that byproducts of fossil energy combustion create ozone which harms plants and trees. There is evidence that trees are in global decline. This should concern humans for many obvious reasons. One not so obvious reason is that planting trees is one of the few things humans can do that might succeed in removing CO2 from the atmosphere. If trees are being killed by the same activity that puts CO2 in the air then this strategy will not work.

Climate change is a wicked problem. A rising temperature creates other self-reinforcing feedback loops such as ice loss and methane release which act to further increase the temperature. At some point these feedback loops may dominate over human influences thus eliminating any ability for humans to affect the outcome. No one knows for sure, but we may be near or passed this tipping point.

Choosing to act on climate change in a meaningful way will also create new problems. Wealth is proportional to energy consumption. More specifically, $1 US adjusted for inflation to 1990 equals about 10 mW of energy. Over 90% of our energy comes from fossil energy. Therefore any meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions must shrink the economy, and because we have a debt backed fractional reserve monetary system with a large and rising quantity of outstanding debt, a meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions will probably cause an economic depression, at best. Thus a political platform promising to actually do something about climate change is unlikely to be elected, or re-elected.

Furthermore, a decline in economic activity will result in a rapid reduction of aerosols that currently mask some UV radiation resulting in a warming impulse of about 0.5 degrees thus making climate change worse in the short-term.

Second, finite and non-substitutable fossil energy.

The fossil energy that supports 7 billion humans is finite and rapidly depleting. The easy oil is gone. The oil that remains is hard and getting exponentially harder to find and extract, and to make a profit doing so. Each year it takes more energy to produce the same amount of energy meaning each year there is less energy left over for society. This is why people who think we have an energy glut are wrong.

The fossil energy that remains is also dirtier and creates more pollution and CO2.

Civilization as currently configured cannot afford the extraction cost of the remaining fossil energy. This is the root cause of the worldwide economic problems that started in 2008 and persist today. Humans have used their creativity to delay the day of reckoning with near zero interest rates, exponentially increasing debt, and a form of money printing called quantitative easing. These are temporary solutions that will soon be overridden by the laws of thermodynamics and mathematics, and will most likely end with an economic depression more painful than that had we chosen to take our medicine in 2008.

Think of a coyote forced, because rabbits are becoming faster, to burn 2 rabbits worth of energy to catch 1 rabbit. Even though there are plenty of rabbits, the coyote is in serious trouble. The coyote could switch his diet to mice (solar & wind energy) but then he’d have to burn 3 mice of energy to catch 1 mouse. The coyote is able to lead a fairly normal life for a while because he burns fat (debt) that he built up in previous good years. The coyote knows it could make do with less food if it quit fighting, played slower games, and had fewer pups, but prefers not to change its lifestyle. Over time, the coyote becomes weak and sick, and then decides to change, but no longer has the strength to catch even mice.

Debt can be viewed as future energy. Humans are using debt they cannot and will not repay to purchase energy they could not otherwise afford and therefore are consuming energy that might have been available for their grandchildren to enjoy.

Depleting fossil energy is a wicked problem. A law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created. The battery we have been relying on is running low and will take millions of years to recharge, and may never recharge unless the planet’s biological and geological processes realign in the necessary and fortuitous configuration that created fossil energy the first time.

Renewable energies such as wind and solar do not have the density, scalability, or storability necessary to replace the fossil energy humans currently depend on. Most importantly, we do not have a viable replacement for the diesel that powers our critical life support network of trucks, trains, ships, tractors, combines, and mining machines. If trucks stop running, for any reason, all of civilization will be in immediate and extreme danger.

Renewable energies cannot stand on their own without fossil energy to create, install, and maintain their materials and infrastructure. For example, wind turbines use large quantities of concrete, steel, and copper that cannot be made without fossil energy. Renewables are at best fossil energy extenders. At worst they accelerate economic growth and burn up the remaining fossil energy faster to capture some wind or solar energy with equipment that will wear out in less than 50 years when there will be little or no fossil energy needed to replace the equipment.

Nuclear energy has the required density and scalability but lacks the storability necessary to replace vital diesel discussed above. In addition, current nuclear technologies rely on non-renewable and possibly peaked uranium fuel, plus non-renewable fossil energy for infrastructure, materials, transportation, construction, and maintenance. Future nuclear technologies might address these shortcomings but are many years and trillions of dollars away from deployment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the combined threats of climate change, fossil energy depletion, and limits to growth caused economic instability, make it a very dangerous bet that we will be able to properly govern and maintain nuclear facilities in the future.

Third, denial of reality.

Humans succeeded as a species due in large part to their evolved denial of reality. This behavior is now a disadvantage because it prevents the majority of humans from recognizing and acting on climate change and fossil energy depletion. It is noteworthy that there is not one senior leader in any country on any continent that has publicly communicated an understanding of what is going on and what we should be doing at this time, even after leaving office. Likewise, all groups including climate scientists, climate deniers, fossil energy experts, renewable energy experts, environmentalists, capitalists, socialists, communists, conservatives, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Scientologists, you name it, everyone is in denial about human overshoot. This is of course what we should expect given the genetic basis for denial. But it is nevertheless a concern.

The human brain, the God it believes in, and the overshoot it enabled and denies, all resulted from the same improbable genetic mutation that occurred about 100,000 years ago.

What should we do?

There are no painless solutions to our predicament. The problems are wicked and politically intractable:

  • problems are complex and difficult to understand;
  • there are no easy or short-term solutions;
  • solutions that improve the long-term are likely to worsen the short-term;
  • solutions usually conflict with evolved human behavior;
  • some problems are out of our control.

We are in a severe state of overshoot which guarantees some form of bottleneck and collapse. Our aim should be to slow the descent and prepare a softer landing zone.

Despite the depletion of fossil energy we still have a lot more surplus energy than is required for subsistence. Remaining surplus energy should be redirected from activities that have no future such as air travel, automobiles, military, and advanced technology; and towards infrastructure and skills that will be required in a simpler low energy world such as local food production, resilient water supplies, and energy conservation.

Policies should be implemented to reduce the population as quickly and humanely as possible. Paraphrasing Albert Bartlett, there is no problem on the planet that does not improve with fewer people.

After the inevitable economic reset, a new monetary system will be required, preferably an energy-backed full-reserve system,  as we move into a long-term energy constrained contracting economy. Wealth redistribution and rationing policies should be developed in anticipation of their need.

Citizens should be proactively educated on the root causes of our problems to avoid inappropriate blame and wars which will only worsen the situation by accelerating the depletion of non-renewable resources.

What will we do?

Evolved denial of reality will probably continue to block any constructive discussion or proactive action. When a crisis forces action we will probably blame the wrong actors. Our responses are not likely to be rational or optimal. Expect chaos.

A few people have broken through inherited denial. So it is possible. But scaling this to the majority will be a challenge.

The singular emergence of human intelligence, and its ability to write and read this paragraph, evolved in a gene controlled machine with an unusually powerful computer, that was created by an improbable simultaneous double mutation for an extended theory of mind with denial of reality, and whose complexity was enabled by the increased energy per gene provided by Mitochondria, that resulted from an accidental endosymbiosis of two cells, powered by an unintuitive chemiosmotic proton pump, that pumps 10**21 protons per second to maintain human life, that originated in an alkaline hydrothermal vent, on 1 of 40 billion planets, in 1 of 100 billion galaxies, and that planet had an improbable store of photosynthesis and geology generated fossil energy, that the species leveraged to understand and appreciate, the peak of what may be possible in the universe, before it vanished, because it denied the consequences of its success.

A good place to go next is You know you are in trouble when…

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens

I thought I found some support for Varki’s denial theory in a new book by Yuval Harari titled Sapiens.

Harari makes the case that humans dominate the planet because we cooperate and we cooperate because we are uniquely able to construct and believe fictional stories.

This is no doubt part of the story but misses the bigger picture and lacks a satisfying explanation for why.

We dominate for many reasons. Cooperation yes, but also sophisticated symbolic language, ability to manage many relationships, forward planning, analytic skills, long term memory, learning ability, etc. All of these things fall under the umbrella of CPU power.

The important question to be answered is, why did only one small tribe of one breed of one species in Africa evolve this higher CPU power, despite many similar species being exposed to the same selection pressures?

Varki provides a plausible answer. Harari does not.

And of course, why with this exceptional CPU power do we believe in wacky economic theories and even wackier religions but not climate change or ozone tree death or peak oil or almost anything that matters?

Again, Varki provides an answer. Harari does not.

Here is an EconTalk interview with Harari:

Yuval Harari on Sapiens

Here is Harari’s TED talk titled Bananas in Heaven.