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From Issue Six, January 2011 « Previous Article

The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

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(Vanguard Press, 2010)

“The greatest weapon of mass destruction ever known: the human brain.”

—from The Watchman’s Rattle

Scholars and scientists who study ancient civilizations cite environmental factors, overpopulation, wars, disease, politics, and energy and food shortages as the reasons for collapse. And although these explanations are factual, they also leave out the single most important principle of life on earth: Evolution. The process and rate at which biological change occurs between one generation and the next.

The principles governing the speed at which the human organism can biologically adapt offer us the single greatest insight into why civilizations succeed and fail as well as the most reliable preview of our own destiny.

Biological capabilities – the genetic features of each human organism – represent the only common denominator in every civilization and, therefore, must necessarily play a role in every civilization’s outcome.

Yet, despite knowing this, when it comes to explaining how and why civilizations decline, we continue to account for every factor except evolution. We treat the discoveries of Charles Darwin in 1859 as if they relate only to our cave-dwelling ancestors or animals crawling around the Galápagos Islands. Evolution has become marginalized – imprisoned in the backrooms of zoology departments, treated as the precursor to microbiology, and relegated to what we see in our rearview mirrors rather than what lies ahead of us through the windshield.

Why has evolution been left out of the conversation?

Because for more than 150 years, scientists have failed to show how the principles governing evolution explain the rapid progress of human societies for a brief period, followed by their paralysis and cataclysmic failure. Somewhere along the line, biologists handed the task of understanding the relationship between evolution and modern man to psychologists and sociologists, who quickly formed theories of their own. So the ramifications of evolution on day-to-day life, public policy, and persistent, irresolvable problems were never solidified. As a result, aside from a few enthusiasts in the ecology movement and their naturalist brethren, evolutionary principles have managed to become irrelevant.

Think about it. We never hear about the effect that evolution has on solving global problems discussed on Capitol Hill, or in corporate boardrooms, or in the economics, engineering, or physics departments of universities. No one mentions evolution during national elections, on television talk shows, or in a court of law unless it is in the narrow context of stirring up the tired, old debate between creationism and science. We act as if evolution is something that happened in the past or to other species and, therefore, plays no role in the follies of humankind today. In short, evolution has become a has-been– a pair of shoes that no longer fit, an aunt who moved to another neighborhood, an old dog asleep on the back porch.

Yet, to solve the highly complex, dangerous global problems we face today, we must first recognize the crucial relationship between evolutionary change and the modern human condition. To finally answer the question scholars have wrestled with for centuries – why do human beings compulsively follow the same pattern of collapse again and again and again – we must come to terms with how we are wired to behave, irrespective of nationality, race, intelligence, wealth, or political convenience. We must look to the physiological capabilities, as well as the limitations, of the human organism itself.

After all, modern man has vastly different abilities than our prehistoric ancestors of just five million years ago. And given another five million years, humans will develop talents that will make our way of life today seem equally primitive. Humankind is a “work in progress,” so at any point in time our biological apparatus can take us only so far.

But how far?

History makes it clear that we hit some obstacle that causes progress to slow long before the specific event(s) blamed for the collapse of a civilization – some recurring obstruction that is both natural and predictable: The uneven rate of change between the slow evolution of human biology and the rapid rate at which societies advance eventually causes progress to come to a standstill.

In the case of the Mayans, they became unable to “think” their way out of large, highly complex problems because they advanced to a point where traditional left- and right-brain problem-solving methods – which the human organism developed over many millions of years – were no longer sufficient to address their most dangerous threats.

Put another way, the intricacy and magnitude of the issues that the Mayans faced during their final hours – climate change, civil unrest, food shortages, fast-spreading viruses, and a population explosion – exceeded their ability to obtain facts, analyze them, innovate, plan, and act to stop them. Their problems simply became too complex.

The point at which a society can no longer “think” its way out of its problems is called the cognitive threshold. And once a society reaches this cognitive threshold, it begins passing unresolved issues from one generation to the next until, finally, one or more of these problems push the civilization over the edge. This is the real reason for collapse.

Think of the cognitive threshold in this way: The rate at which the human brain can evolve new faculties is millions of years slower than the rate at which humans generate change and produce new information. So, from a strictly biological standpoint, the human brain can’t help but fall behind. There is simply no way an organ that requires millions of years to adapt can keep up with change that now occurs in picoseconds.

John Stanton, CBS, ABC, and CNN commentator in Washington, DC, and author of Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience, summarizes the predicament this way:

The world that seems so familiar to you and me – a world with roads, schools, grocery stores, factories, farms, and nation states – has lasted for only an eye blink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history. The computer age is only a little older than the typical college student, and the Industrial Revolution is a mere 200 years old. Agriculture first appeared on earth only 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 5,000 years ago that as many as half the human population engaged in farming rather than hunting and gathering.

Stantonthen compares this rate of change to the pace of evolution: “Natural selection is a slow process, and there haven’t been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life.”

It’s curious that we are willing to accept physical limitations in every other area but the human brain. We accept the fact that a human can’t lift five thousand pounds, run a mile in thirty seconds, or stay under water for more than a few minutes. We also accept archaeological evidence that shows the human brain has been quickly evolving for the past twenty-five million years. We have museums filled with skeletal proof that our early ancestors didn’t enjoy near the cognitive abilities we do today. What’s more, most of us agree that the brain will continue to evolve in the future; it will adapt and mutate in response to rapidly changing environmental conditions, though no one can predict precisely how.

So, doesn’t it also logically follow that we have cognitive limits today?

It seems irrational to assume that the left- and right-brain problem-solving methods we have evolved to this point have equipped us to address highly complex problems such as climate change, terrorism, pandemic viruses, and nuclear proliferation, especially since all these problems share one obvious characteristic: They are multilayered, chaotic issues involving many, many variables acting in dynamic ways. In fact, our problems have become so large and so complex that experts rarely agree on what the problem is anymore. As a result, leaders have become completely dependent on sophisticated computer-based models – the kind used to make predictions in quantum physics – to run thousands of possible catastrophic scenarios: What if a dirty bomb makes it through our borders? What if a pandemic virus annihilates a major metropolitan area? What if water or food is contaminated by biological weaponry? What if both polar caps melt? No more simple cause and effect. No more quick diagnosis and remedy. And no more simple left- and right-brain problem-solving.

The bottom line is this: When it comes to the evolution of the human organism, it doesn’t matter if we are talking about the capabilities of the brain, how fast we can run a mile, or whether we have a sufficient number of appendages to drive, talk on our cell phones, and drink a cup of coffee at the same time. Our biological capabilities determine how fast and how far we can go.

Consequently, the difference between an advanced culture that survives and one that does not may simply boil down to whether a society develops new ways to triumph over a naturally reoccurring cognitive threshold. How well do we understand our physiological limitations, our biological predispositions, and the remnants of prehistoric drives and instincts? Do we take prophylactic measures to deal with them? Or do we set aside the principles of evolution and continue to repeat an unconscious pattern of complexity and collapse?

The study of early civilizations suggests that two telltale signs occur prior to the specific incident(s) blamed for their collapse.

The first sign is gridlock.

Gridlock occurs when civilizations become unable to comprehend or resolve large, complex problems, despite acknowledging beforehand that these issues may lead to their demise.

For example, we now know that the Mayans lived with drought conditions, civil war, and growing food shortages for thousands of years prior to collapse. However, foreseeing all these problems in advance was of little use. The Mayans lacked the ability to discern the complexity of their circumstances and, therefore, had little possibility of rectifying deteriorating conditions. Instead, they did what every great civilization does when it reaches a cognitive threshold: They simply passed their dangerous problems from one generation to the next as these problems continued to grow in magnitude and peril.

Then, as conditions grow more desperate, the second symptom appears: the substitution of beliefs for knowledge and fact.

When we are trapped in an undertow, we believe that if we simply step up our efforts and swim harder toward the shore, we will prevail against the current. Despite empirical evidence that this isn’t working, we refuse to abandon our belief and persist in swimming in a direct path toward land as we grow increasingly exhausted and panic ensues. No data, information, or facts will deter us from our conviction – not even the threat of death

When a civilization encounters a cognitive threshold and begins substituting beliefs for knowledge, the specific calamity that triggers collapse isn’t far behind. Whether collapse arrives in the form of drought, a pandemic virus, or war, the real culprit is a cognitive threshold that prevents dangerous problems from being rationally understood and acted on. Facts and evidence are set aside in favor of unproven remedy, and this triggers a rapid spiral of catastrophic events.

But here’s the reason the relationship between complexity and collapse is important for humankind to acknowledge at this time: The signs of a cognitive threshold begin appearing long before collapse, so there is ample time to act.

* * * * *

Reprinted with the permission of Vanguard Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

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  • Neon1 Jan 07, 2011

    I struggle with this question on a regular basis: What is the average length of time from the beginning signs of the onset of cognitive threshold till collapse is complete? Even if such a calculation is possible, today’s circumstance is quite different, and the result of such a question cannot necessarily be extrapolated to fit our crisis. The human brain—the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever conceived—has engineered machines capable of committing its own suicide. In the past, evolution had enough time to work its slow but deliberate magic, but I don’t think we’ve got any evolutionary time left in the bank today. Unless, civilizations simply loose their capacity for cognition altogether, in which case a slow decline into a new dark age might be possible, I think we’re in for an Armageddon-like event in the near future.

  • Neon1 Jan 07, 2011

    On another topic, I found it wonderfully confirming to read your comments about the practice of belief as a decelerant of progress. In just the last month or so I’ve developed a whole theory about it. Belief is basically a symptom of mental laziness. While it’s natural for humans to gather a group of comparable microstates into one manageable metastate, this unconscious practice has now become obsolete. In fact, considering today’s rapid acceleration of the need for cognitive insight, belief might be one of the most sinister factors contributing to our extinction.

    While in slower-paced times a Belief may have been a useful personal metastate, and a Belief System an equally useful cultural and social metastate, today there needs to be a complete and immediate review of all personal beliefs and their accompanying belief systems in order for our cognitive abilities to catch up and perhaps keep pace with our dynamic circumstances.

    Unfortunately, I don’t foresee such a possibility.

    “Hey! Wake up everybody! Dismantle all of your beliefs—quickly—or you’re all gonna die!” Ha! Even the reaction of most visitors reading this comment will be:

    “Uh… What?”

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    grannimaui Jan 08, 2011

    Why can't we marry our cognitive ability along with out innate inner wisdom?

    Our THINKING has led man to evolve to the present precarious condition. What if we had a shift in consciousness and evolved to use both mind (thinking) and individual inner wisdom to guide us thru this Cognitive Threshold. What if we all had a spiritual re-birth and remembered our true oneness with all that is?

    Who is for the inner wisdom, innate, within each of us?

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    Krishnamurti Jan 24, 2011

    to neon.
    please dismantle your belief that most of us wouldn't get what your posting.
    very disempowering.

  • Anonymous Icon

    vahidvmotlagh Mar 09, 2011

    I went through the The Watchman's Rattle and the point about a naturally reoccurring cognitive threshold which seems credible enough. But I wonder how these insights may deepen our knowledge about future evolutionary events considering the idea of "accelerated genetic development" that I usually raise it in my futures studies presentations. What if (thanks to biotechnology applications) future humans may go through a million generations or so merely in a 1000 or 100 years time frame?

    For instance, take a look at these two presentations which tries to factor in the most important driving force of the future, that is Evolution.

    Global Transitions and Asia 2060

    Global and Placeless Brains: A Third Culture Perspective

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