By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

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

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

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

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

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

Varki’s MOR vs. Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I am reading Julian Jaynes‘ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and am trying to understand how it relates to Varki’s Mind Over Reality (aka Denial of Reality) theory.

Specifically:

  1. Is Varki a prerequisite for Jaynes, or does Jaynes stand on its own?
  2. Does Jaynes answer questions not answered by Varki?
  3. Does Jaynes conflict with Varki?
  4. Do the two theories offer different explanations for:
    1. the singular emergence of a brain with an extended theory of mind;
    2. the singular emergence of a brain capable of advanced physics;
    3. the singular emergence and universality of religion in the cultures of behaviorally modern humans;
    4. the reason that belief in life after death is the only common denominator between thousands of human religions;
    5. the reason that otherwise intelligent humans deny all aspects of their overshoot and the severe damage they are doing to the ecology that sustains them.

If there are any readers that have pondered these questions I would love to hear your thoughts.

I intend to write a summary and offer answers to the above questions after I finish the book.

Jaynes is quite a dense and unintuitive book so it may require several readings before I have the confidence to tackle a summary.

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

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

The big ideas are:

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

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

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

Tribes Trump Reality: War is Probable

About 100,000 years ago a small tribe of hominids experienced a rare double mutation for an extended theory of mind plus denial of reality, which switched having a more powerful brain from being a reproductive fitness disadvantage into a strong advantage, thus enabling the mutations to fix in the gene pool. That species then used its unique brain to take over the planet and to grow itself into a severe state of overshoot.

This first and only extended theory of mind to emerge in a brain increased the effectiveness of social cooperation through improved morality, communication, planning, and the invention and transmission of new technologies.

The denial of reality mutation was required to mute the awareness of mortality and its negative impact on reproductive fitness that the extended theory of mind enabled. The inherited denial of mortality caused each tribe to create a life after death story. Over time these stories were elaborated into what we now call religions (and political parties) which serve to define, unite, govern, and entertain tribes.

The tribe with its story was and is central to the success of the species. For most of history it mattered not whether the story was true. Today the survival of the species has bumped up against the laws of physics and truth does matter. This is a wicked predicament because tribes can’t easily change their stories, and inherited denial of reality tends to block unpleasant truths from being added to the stories.

Today we have two angry bickering tribes within the most powerful country on earth. Each tribe comprises about 50% of the population. Neither tribe has a story grounded in reality or truth. Each thinks the other is the cause of the very real thermodynamically based pain it is experiencing. Neither understands what is going on. Inherited denial of reality blocks each from learning what is going on.

The best and perhaps only method for uniting and distracting these two tribes would be to identify a third tribe as a threat. Fighting that third tribe will unfortunately accelerate the depletion of low-cost oil which caused the pain in the first place. So it may be necessary to identify a fourth tribe as a threat. And so on.

This will probably not end well.

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: Blindspots and Superheroes

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 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 

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: declining energy surplus a.k.a. energy extraction cost + debt

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

Citizens misunderstand the root cause of social unrest and wars because the media presents these conflicts as political or economic problems and ignores their underlying forces: biophysical constraints

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

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

History suggests that the consequence of not voluntarily contracting our economies as non-renewable resources deplete is an unthinkable war, so we don’t think about it: nuclear weapons

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

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

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 and more 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, but they ignore a problem: 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

A key component of our infrastructure appears durable but is not: reinforced concrete

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 large cities

The “green” revolution, which increased food production to enable 7+ billion humans, was and is entirely dependent on fossil energy, and has long-term consequences that will make a return to traditional agriculture very difficult.

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.