In yesterday's blog I explained how, over 151 years ago, Charles Darwin
may have unknowingly uncovered the reasons why advanced civilizations progress rapidly for a brief period of time, suddenly encounter gridlock, and then collapse.
The recurring pattern of the ascension and collapse of great societies may be nothing more than the inevitable outcome of two incompatible clocks: the slow clock of evolution — which dictates how fast the human brain can develop new capabilities — and the rapid rate at which we make new discoveries, produce new data, invent new technologies, procedures, institutions, and so on. At any point in time the human organism is a "work in progress" and we cannot advance further than the biological spacesuit that we are trapped in will allow: we cannot run a mile in 10 seconds, we cannot flap our arms and fly, and we cannot lift 10,000 pounds no matter how much we may want to.
So it follows that the reason leaders, experts, and governments eventually become gridlocked (we witness the same symptoms occurring everywhere: every country, every large corporation, every individual) is because the complexity of the problems that must be solved begin to exceed the capabilities that our brains have evolved to this point. If this is true, then it doesn't matter of you put your faith in a Republican or a Democrat, a Washington insider or outsider, a man or a woman, a staunch Catholic or a radical Muslim, the result will always be the same because each of their cognitive capabilities — from a strictly biological standpoint — are virtually the same. If the central problem is that we have hit some "limit" to our cognitive abilities and this is now preventing all of us from solving our most complex problems — problems such as climate change, mounting debt, escalating pandemic viruses, autism, obesity, pharmaceutical drug addiction, and the rapid depletion of the earth's resources — then the key to reigniting progress is to examine how the brain reacts once it approaches a stalemate.
We have now discovered that when facts are not available, or become too complicated to get to the bottom of (think ballot measures, arguments over climate change, where to invest your retirement portfolio, the complicated side effects of taking multiple pharmaceuticals), we begin adopting unproven beliefs, one after another. We begin to become confused about what are proven facts and what are beliefs and opinions.
Okay, that's a lot to think about. How about a concrete example of this phenomenon:
Whether you were in favor of the Iraq war or not, you must admit that the empirical evidence the United States had for the existence of weapons of mass destruction was thin. The reason I say thin is because, in the end, there were no weapons. So, working backwards, there could be no concrete evidence about something that didn't exist.
But that's hindsight for you. So just for a moment, let's look at what evidence the U.S. actually did have in its possession prior to the war (now confirmed by any number of primary sources, from Colin Powell to Hans Blix): the decision to invade Iraq boiled down to a few fuzzy satellite photographs waved in front of the United Nations, and one intelligence operative on the ground in Iraq whose reports could not be confirmed. That is pretty much it in a nutshell.
Looking back, that hardly seems like the kind of evidence that warrants one nation marching into another.
But try to remember the climate of that time. The aftershock of 9/11 was still reverberating in every home in America and we were not only poised to respond, we needed to respond. We were no more rational than the Mayans who needed to believe that human sacrifice would make the rains return. In our case, we believed that if we eliminated Saddam Hussein, the world would become safe again and we could return to life as we knew it.
Against this backdrop, American leaders were primed to substitute beliefs for proven empirical facts, so they voted almost unanimously, on very little evidence, to go to war. From both a historical and hysterical perspective this can be shown to be a normal human reaction when there are no facts, or when facts are too difficult to discern.
But the Iraq war is just one example. Take any dangerous problem we face today and ask yourself: why has our response to that problem become increasingly irrational?
The answer is that we have hit an evolutionary cognitive limit and this has caused public policy to be based on beliefs rather than rational thinking.
If the culprit is the amount of complexity the human brain has evolved to manage to this point, then the answer to all of our unresolved threats lies in our ability to (a) effectively mitigate in order to buy time, and (b) catch up the brain to complexity.
How do we do that? How can civilization begin to move past the cognitive threshold?