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Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

November 17, 2011, 12:00 AM
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What's the Big Idea?

What are the ways our civilization might collapse, and how might the human race become extinct?

According to sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, the answers are all staring us straight in the face. Just look at current events. Costa writes in her book The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction that human existence is threatened by "a global recession, powerful pandemic viruses, terrorism, rising crime, climate change, rapid depletion of the earth's resources, nuclear proliferation, and failing education."

Fortunately, Costa argues we are remarkably equipped to counter these threats today, due to our current understanding of the "biological reasons for the ascension and decline of civilizations." The problem, as Costa describes it, is that humans are governed by two clocks: the very slow-ticking clock of human evolution and the fast-accelerating clock of technological progress. The result of these two clocks not synching up is the human brain (and the public policy our brains generate) is unable to keep up with the complex environment around us. According to Costa, we're then left with "paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology." Put all those in the blender, and look out!

So how do we stave off our collapse? The solution involves what Costa calls the most (surprisingly) controversial word in the English language: evolution. Costa asks why, if Charles Darwin's theory is "the most important scientific principle governing life on earth," we don't utilize it as a relevant tool to solve our problems today? In other words, why is evolution "the greatest discovery you've never heard of?" Costa sounded her 'watchman's rattle' recently at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Watch the video here:

Costa's argument is really a story of six big ideas: Darwin's theory of evolution, genetics, sociobiology, memetics, neuroscience and the explosive rate of technological change. Here is how Costa describes each one, and how they relate:

Evolution

Darwin uncovered "the slow, continuous pace at which all life-forms, including humans, respond to their environment to increase their opportunities for survival."

Genetics

When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix in DNA they "unlocked the mechanics of how Darwin's theories worked, and for the first time it became possible to trace the biological genesis of all living organisms."

Sociobiology

E.O. Wilson argued in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) that human beings are not born "blank slates." Rather, we are born "with hardwired predispositions and instincts" aimed at assuring the survival of our species.

Memetics

Richard Dawkins argued in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) that individual gene pools, not species, are fighting for survival.

Neuroscience

Three neuroscientists, Drs. Michael Merzenich, John Kounios, and Mark Jung-Beeman "independently published landmark research on how we adapt to accelerating change and complexity.

Technological Change

Costa worked in Silicon Valley and personally witnessed how "computer hardware and software were changing by the nanosecond," and new technology was being "adopted faster and faster." To this Costa adds a note of caution: "no one stopped to question whether this explosive rate of change was sustainable. We all just assumed that it was."

What's the Significance?

Costa explains in The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction that she is not particularly interested in what happened to the Mayans or the Romans or any other civilization that collapsed before us. Rather, she is interested in the question of why. In other words, "did these societies adopt any behaviors--and ways of thinking--that made them vulnerable to failure? And if they did, are we repeating that pattern today?"

Costa sees a common pattern of collapse among many advanced civilizations. These societies would thrive when "both beliefs and the pursuit of knowledge" peacefully coexisted. And yet, over time, accelerated complexity made it too difficult for a society to solve its problems. Costa writes: "Then society begins passing looming dangers from one generation to the next, as conditions worsen and survival grows more tenuous. Eventually, the society becomes dependent on short-term mitigations and unproven beliefs for remedy."

Examples of this abound. Take climate change. Is it real? Just look at the evidence. Some choose to look at beliefs instead. When you can't get the facts straight, how good can you possibly be at solving a problem? Costa argues that the rational solution becomes obscured while a whole number of bad ideas rise up in its place (the Mayans, for instance, resorted to human sacrifice; terrorists fly planes into buildings).

And yet, Costa is sticking to the same cognitive tools that helped her diagnose the problem. She notes that we clearly understand "the uneven rate between evolution and social development." And so, she argues, we must be able to act. But will we?

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan

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