For the first time in publishing history, thought leaders from around the world — familiar names such as Trudie Styler, Richard Branson
, Edward O. Wilson
, Senator Bill Bradley
, Tina Brown
, Temple Grandin
, Wallace J. Nichols, and others — have stepped forward to endorse the release of a landmark new book by contributing multiple forewords. (The forewords — dubbed e-forewords because they will be published electronically — can be found here
.) I am pleased to celebrate the historic debut of The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction
by blogging for Powells.com this week.
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What if I told you that the most dangerous problems we face today — mounting debt, terrorism, the rapid depletion of the earth's resources, climate change, escalating autism, depression, cancers, and pandemic viruses — were not separate problems? What if I said that ancient civilizations encountered similar challenges, grew increasingly gridlocked, then also began passing their greatest threats from one generation to another as conditions worsened? And what if I told you that we now understand why this pattern occurs again and again and have the ability to stop it?
Would you listen?
No, I'm not talking about the battle between good and evil for your soul. Or the greed of a few at the expense of many. Or prophecies as foretold by the Mayan calendar, Nostradamus and Indian folklore. Our difficulties don't stem from corruption, politics, or religious zealots on the other side of the world. And surprisingly, they aren't a matter of money, oil, or power.
None of the above.
The problems we have not been able to solve for multiple generations all share a single, common denominator: they are all complex. That's right. They are multi-pronged, dynamic problems which are not only difficult to comprehend, but they have become almost impossible to get our arms around. Take global warming for example. The truth is we can't even agree on whether it's a problem or not. We may have mountains of studies and facts at our fingertips (thanks to the Internet) — but these facts often contradict each other, and many assertions are based on sloppy science. A person would need a leave of absence and a Ph.D. to get to the bottom of the issue — let alone come up with a solution.
So the central issue we must now face is this: what happens when the complexity of the problems we need to solve exceed the cognitive capabilities we have evolved to this point?
It occurred to me that over 151 years ago, when Charles Darwin discovered the slow pace of evolution, he also inadvertently uncovered the reasons why human societies progress rapidly for a brief period of time, then come to a standstill and collapse: civilizations cannot progress further than evolution will allow.
What do I mean when I say "evolution will allow"? I simply mean that at any point in time the human organism is a work in progress. If we dropped a Neanderthal into Times Square today, he would have a difficult time performing even the simplest of tasks. By the same token, if a time machine transported us millions of years into the future we would look like Neanderthals. That's because, at any point in time there is a biological limit to what we are capable of.
Then it follows that once we begin making new discoveries and inventing new technologies and procedures in picoseconds, the human brain — which requires million of years to develop new capabilities — can't help but fall behind. The two clocks are incompatible, so it is inevitable that a gap will occur.
The first sign of that gap is gridlock. We become unable to solve our greatest threats. Leaders and experts fumble while our problems exponentially grow in magnitude and peril.
The second sign? We begin accepting unproven beliefs in lieu of facts. As complexity makes facts impossible to discern, we have a track record of simply substituting irrational beliefs. In the case of the Mayans, as drought conditions worsened they abandoned rational solutions such as building reservoirs and underground cisterns and began relying on sacrifice to make the rains return — even to the point of sacrificing "unspoiled" newborn infants.
In The Watchman's Rattle I show how every civilization eventually hits a cognitive threshold beyond which they cannot advance. When this occurs they become gridlocked and irrational beliefs take over public policy.
But I will also quickly point out that we have weapons against encroaching complexity which ancient civilizations did not: effective ways of mitigating highly complex problems and, more importantly, breakthroughs in modern neuroscience which pave the way for the brain to catch up.
More about this tomorrow...