J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

What's Holding Us Back as a Species? (Part II – Unpacking Assumptions)

One way to look at it.

In a recent post I contrasted the utopian visions of the “Libertarian Space-Men” vs. “The Gaia Collective.

The “Libertarian Space Men” value free market principles, private property, technological progress, and personal freedom. This group defines human progress in terms of economic growth, (galactic) expansion, increasing intelligence, and an ever-improving capacity to understand, predict, and manipulate reality.

The “Gaia Collective” values environmental conservation and repair, sustainable living, peaceful coexistence, and spiritual growth. This group defines human progress in terms of ending war, lifting all people out of poverty, compassionate treatment of the young/old/infirm, humane treatment of animals, and a sustainable way of life with minimal impact on Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems.

The two groups are not so much opposed to each other as they are to “future-by-inertia,” which is the future we’ll get if we continue business as usual, pursuing short-term interests while ignoring long-term consequences. Almost everyone, including myself, is a member of the future-by-inertia group on at least some days. Like most people, I burn fossil fuels, use electricity, consume products, eat ocean-caught fish, and so on. Business-as-usual, which leads to a possibly dystopic future.

My best guess for what future-by-inertia looks like (the future we’ll get if neither the Gaia Collective nor the Libertarian Space Men have much of an impact) is a 100-year dark age during which energy demand outpaces energy supply. Not the end of the human race, but an ugly stretch that will include population decline, continued environmental degradation, continued poverty and war, and declining standards of living in terms of education, healthcare, leisure time, and expendable income for most of us (with many exceptions and bright spots).

What Beliefs Do We Hold Re: “What Has Gone Wrong?”

As a species, we’ve picked the planet’s low-hanging fruit. First we ate all the mega-fauna, then we chopped down most of the planet’s forests for fuel. We found and burned the easy-to-get oil and coal, we’ve eaten most of the fish. Lately we’ve noticed the atmosphere itself is warming up, with a strong possibility of disrupting stable climate patterns that we’ve become accustomed to.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to be hopeful. We know how to live with less environmental impact (even if we don’t always do so), most nations/tribes/groups peacefully coexist (and intermingle/share cultural wealth), and there are new technological miracles everyday that expand our understanding of reality, open up new creative spaces, and expand the realm of what is possible.

I’ve already looked at different concepts of “human progress,” including the possibility that all human progress is illusory. But what about “anti-progress”? What kind of assumptions do we hold about what’s holding us back as a species?

I’ve revealed one of my own assumptions by looking at the human timeline through the lens of reckless resource depletion (megafauna, forests, oil, coal, fish).

What are your own assumptions regarding what is “wrong” with humanity? What is preventing us from taking a great leap forward into an age of global peace, prosperity, and discovery?

Let’s unpack a few of the possibilities, and look at the evidence for each.

Genetics/Human Nature

Are we, as a species, too aggressive, cruel, and/or stupid to achieve any sort of global socio-cultural enlightenment? Given peace, will we find reasons to create war because we somehow need or crave it? Are we essentially a warlike, violent species?

Our primate cousins, the chimps, can be extremely violent killers. And almost any human being, if pushed to psychological extremes (starvation, threats to loved ones), will become capable of killing.

Still, our capacity for cooperation, tolerance, and impulse control is even more noteworthy. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, war and death from human violence has become steadily less common throughout history. If we are prone to violent conflict by our nature, this is mitigated by our own civilizing and pacifying social structures. We may be violent by nature, but we are not doomed to a life of violent behavior.

What about intelligence? Are we doomed to the hilarious dark future of Idiocracy, in which plants crave Brawndo?

No doubt the world is filled with knuckleheads, and always has been (what’s different about modern knuckleheads is that they have a voice — we read their tweets and see them on reality TV). But are there so many dumb people in the world that our entire global civilization is doomed to mediocrity?

Some ideas about intelligence are racially tinged. The authors of The Bell Curve argue that intelligence is largely inherited, that higher test scores by whites and Asians indicate that these are the more intelligent races, and that these “less intelligent” races have more children and shorter generation lengths (thus bringing down average genetic intelligence).

Viewed through a cultural lens, those same discrepancies in test scores can be explained by cultural emphasis on education and early language acquisition, prenatal and early childhood nutrition, access to early childhood education, stress levels from experiencing poverty and racism, and other environmental factors.

Clinical research has shown that some genes are associated with certain types of intelligence. Some narrowly defined racial groups, like Ashkenazi Jews, may have an edge, on average, in certain categories of intelligence (with slightly lower spatial intelligence). It’s almost impossible to determine if these differences have a genetic basis, or if they’re mostly due to a cultural emphasis on scholarship and learning.

Ultimately the evidence is weak that a lack of genetic intelligence is holding us back in any significant way. Reasons include:

  • There is still huge selective pressure for intelligence. The big one is  finding a mate willing to procreate with you (not just have sex) in the age of birth control. While a large number of pregnancies are still unplanned, this percentage is dropping. The influence of female sexual selection (with a bias towards higher intelligence) is growing. This bias works the other way as well — males might ignore intelligence in favor of looks for a sexual fling, but they’re unlikely to ignore smarts when picking the mother of their children. Before birth control this level of choosiness wasn’t an option.
  • Most human intelligence is still latent and untapped because of lack of access to quality higher education and top-notch instruction. This dynamic is changing because of education by internet. Applications such as khanacademy.org and MIT OpenCourseWare are bringing free quality higher education to anyone with an internet connection.
  • We don’t all need to be geniuses for civilization to progress. More important (in terms of having a functioning global civilization capable of progress) is widespread literacy, access to quality education regardless of class/race/gender, and cultural values that embrace learning, science and research, literature and the arts.

Environmental Destruction and Resource Depletion

One of the more fascinating graphics I’ve ever seen is in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. Two maps are overlaid, armed conflicts and deforested/environmentally blighted areas. The maps are nearly identical. While the association isn’t necessarily causative, the image is striking.

Can rapid leaps in standard of living be achieved by simple measures such as planting trees? According to the philosophy and results of The Green Belt Movement, efforts towards environmental restoration can have a positive ripple effect. Reduced soil erosion, healthier crops, more shade, and a restored watershed are direct effects, while indirect effects include community organization, improved rights for women and girls, and the spread of democratic values and processes.

The evidence that environmental destruction prevents and/or retards human progress is significant. When we destroy natural environments, we destroy the quality of our own lives. When we restore our natural environments, our lives improve by every measure. While many political and socioeconomic factors can lead to environmental destruction, environmental restoration is an actionable leverage point available to any community, however marginal or impoverished.

Corporatism/Corporate Control of the Political Process

Global corporate power is at near zenith levels, rivaling the monopolies of the early 1900’s before anti-trust reform. Most members of the U.S. Congress (and many international political bodies) are fully “bought,” and their voting reflects the direct interests of the corporations that fund their campaigns and keep them in (puppet) power.

Corporate interests include reducing corporate tax, relaxing regulations (environmental, worker safety, anything that protects the public and potentially reduces profit margins), starting and continuing wars that will generate business for private companies, and privatizing/profitizing functions that peform better and cost less in the public sector (like the prison system, police, the military, and schools).

The direct systemic effects of corporatism include an eroded tax base, less funding for public schools and public infrastructure, environmental destruction, poor working conditions, higher instances of unjust incarcerations, rogue mercenaries and war-for-profit (at the expense of the tax-payer), and an unaffordable educational system.

Do these actions erode the middle class and ultimately hurt the economy as a whole, thus reducing corporate profit margins in the long-run? Of course they do. But long-term holistic thinking is rare among corporate cultures.

The system is rigged, and everybody knows it. Countries without strong campaign finance rules and checks on corporate power have a dark future of eroding public schools and eroding public infrastructure (with ever-increasing for-profit prisons and for-profit mercenaries/”military contractors”).

Corporatism is holding us back — especially in the United States.

Growth-based capitalism/Consumerism/Non-sustainable Economy

Occupy Wall Street and other reactions to the global economic depression have many people questioning the very nature of capitalism. Is the exploitation of labor and natural resources to generate profit a good thing? Are there workable alternatives?

Historically, extreme forms of collectivism (no private property, no incentive to maximize efficiency and productivity) have failed miserably. Mass starvation in China is the starkest example of this failure.

However, the virtues of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” have been overrated. Unchecked free-market capitalism leads to wretched working conditions, mass poverty, monopolies, and destructive market bubbles. When capitalism “works,” it’s often because wealth is being siphoned/stolen from the less powerful via colonialism, slavery, rape of the environment, and destruction of the commons. (Marvin Brown’s book Civilizing the Economy explores this topic in depth.)

Anne Leonard provides an easy-to-understand critique of consumerism in her short film “The Story of Stuff“. This film was banned from some U.S. schools for being “too depressing.” Despite the misgivings of some parents, most kids already “get it.” They won’t be growing up in the same world of easy wealth, bountiful resources, and pristine environments of their parents and grandparents. That world is gone and may or may not ever return.

The other common critique of global finance-driven capitalism is that it’s an unsustainable growth-based system doomed to failure on a finite planet. We can’t keep growing the economy indefinitely — eventually we’ll run out of room, food, soil, fresh water, and so on. Human space migration, if it ever happens, won’t happen in time to head off this problem.

So where does that leave us? Even if it were possible, getting rid of global monetary systems altogether (and going back to a barter system, or local scrips) would be massively inefficient.

An ideal economic system preserves the convenience and flexibility of currency and credit systems, as well as the motivation and efficiencies created by private property and incentives, while at the same time creating public sector wealth for all citizens through modern infrastructure, public schools, public healthcare, environmental protections, and so on. As automation and digital replication makes stuff cheaper and reduces employment, public sector wealth becomes even more important.

Zooming out, what are the root causes of the current global economic malaise?

  • Colonialism is winding down, and the global economy is “flattening.” Poor “third world” countries are not as poor, and cheap labor is not as cheap.
  • In the U.S., corporatism has hollowed out the middle class.
  • In the E.U., less wealthy nations have lost economic flexibility due to premature implementation of the Euro.
  • China is hamstrung by corruption, as well as a lack of intellectual property protection.
  • Good and services are continually getting cheaper to produce and distribute (especially digital goods and services). This is great for consumers and some corporation profits, but terrible for employment and the economy in general.
  • Complex shadowy financial instruments obscure information from investors, hide risk, create giant bubbles, and lead to destructive boom and bust cycles.

Are there varieties of capitalism that are viable for long-term human progress? Social democracy might be one. Social democratic governments that encourage robust trade, protect the environment, and provide for the welfare of citizens less able to help themselves (including children) … we could do worse. Systems that preserve the “kernel” of capitalism (private property and incentives to increase efficiency and productivity) while integrating the best aspects of collectivism (free public services, cooperatives, large pools of public domain resources) may be the best way forward for our species.

Winner-take-all capitalism, corporatism, and consumerism are destructive forces, but the evidence is weak that a system of private property and regulated trade is preventing “a great leap forward” for humanity. Reasonably regulated capitalism is a great wealth creator (at least when compared to experiments in extreme collectivism).

The Nanny State/Diffusion of Personal Responsibility

The “nanny state” is a nickname for governmental systems that overly regulate and legislate, and interfere in what should be personal decisions for citizens. Governments have gained the “nanny-state” label by making smoking illegal in public places, regulating cell phone use in cars, taxing alcohol, and outlawing marijuana.

Beyond limiting personal choice, the idea is that the government interference and micromanagement in people’s lives leads to a “nanny state mentality.” Instead of taking responsibility for their own lives, people look to the state for guidance and support. State becomes parent, and the citizen never grows up.

This blog illustrates some of the concerns of those who fight against the “nanny state.”

I’m sympathetic to some of these complaints, but in my mind the line is clear. If a behavior significantly endangers other people or natural environments, the state is right to regulate. If the danger is minor and applies only to the subject, the state should stay out of it.

Want to buy and drink raw milk? You should be free to do so. Want to text on your phone in your car while going 75mph? That should be illegal.

While I agree in principle that the “nanny state mentality” exists in some societies, and that some people put too much trust in government, I just don’t see this as a fundamental problem on the same level as corporatism or environmental destruction.

Loss of Tradition/Loss of Moral Values

New York Times columnist David Brooks is big on this theme. What kind of people is society creating? What kind of values do they hold? Brooks worries that the reduced popularity of traditions like getting married, regularly attending a church, and raising children with two parents is leading to “loss of middle class values” in the U.S.

Evolutionary philosophers such as Richard Dawkins have done a pretty good job arguing that most people are good — even without a belief in God. Human beings are guided by conscience, a psychological mechanism that evolved to give our species a cooperative advantage. With the exceptions of sociopaths, we feel what people close to us are feeling. When others feel pain, our mirror neurons fire and we wince. When those we love feel sad or angry, we find ourselves sympathetically sharing those same emotions.

Most children of single parents turn out fine. Most people who never go to church turn out fine. Children are resilient — if they are loved, fed, sheltered, exposed to complex language, and taught to read, they’ll probably turn into decent citizens.

Could problems that Brooks ascribes to a “loss of values” in fact have economic causes? Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve infamy) notes in his book Coming Apart that white working and lower class Americans have lower rates of marriage, higher rates of divorce, and less than 40% of children live in households with both biological parents. Murray shows association but not causation. Did these working class couples delay or end marriages because they didn’t believe in marriage, or because they were broke and stressed?

It’s said that liberals want to create the perfect society, while conservatives want to create the perfect citizen. While I completely embrace a values-driven life for myself, I think any kind of political discussion of “values” is usually a red herring to divert discussion from more relevant issues like corporate control of government, radical income inequality, and environmental destruction.

Does a positive upbringing make better people, on average? From an early age we have “values” in two main flavors. One is the ability to control impulses and defer gratification, which can be measured by “the marshmallow test.” The other is empathy; observers can accurately spot people with “high empathy genes” simply by observing body language. So maybe we are the way we are. If we’re raised by other human beings (as opposed to wolves) does upbringing make no difference?

There may not be much measurable difference between an “adequate” upbringing and an “excellent” one, but an abusive upbringing can certainly bring out the worst in human beings. Individuals with dysfunction of the MAO-A gene are more prone to criminality when they’re abused as children. With a supportive upbringing, those same individuals may end up in a profession where aggressiveness or “ruthlessness” is a highly valued trait (stockbroker, athlete, attorney, etc.).

So in terms of “acquiring values,” it may not be important to send your kid to religious school or force them to read the classics, but it is important not to beat them up or psychologically abuse them.

Environment and upbringing effect our ability to delay gratification as well. As this article explains, the ability to delay gratification has everything to do with metacognitive techniques. Are we able to distract ourselves? Are we able to handle “hot” emotions without letting them control our behavior? These techniques can be learned. Among other things, the ability to delay gratification is associated with living with one’s father. “Traditional” family structure may be important after all.

I’m undecided on this one (in terms of how important an issue it is). Having a society with a high percentage of people who are able to delay gratification, and also have a highly developed sense of empathy, is probably a good thing (crime probably drops precipitously in such a society). But how do we get there? I don’t think lecturing or criticizing single mothers is an effective approach.

On the other hand, supporting families with public healthcare, childcare, early childhood education, and excellent public schools might encourage more couples to stay together, as well as reducing abusive behavioral patterns in families. You can make better individuals by making a better society. Just a thought.

And the winner is …

What’s the point of this post? I’m not trying to identify the one way humanity has gone wrong. We’ve gone wrong hundreds of ways in the past, and we’ll go wrong hundreds of ways in the future. Like many, I’m pointing to unchecked corporate power and corruption as a major problem of our time, but it may turn out to be a rather brief problem (compared to the hundreds of years the Catholic Church wielded enormous unchecked and corrupt power, for example).

Still, if I had to pick one, I would say corporatism is currently what’s holding humanity back from a great leap forward, and putting us at risk for a great leap backwards. U.S. corporatism is  especially unnerving in these sectors: private prisons, private security, private intelligence/spying, big oil, and banking.

This post is getting too damn long, but I did consider a few other areas as well:

  • bureaucratic complexity
  • modern leveraged finance/shadow banking system
  • racism/sexism/xenophobia
  • lack of abundant clean energy
  • overpopulation (which I’ve written about in-depth here)
  • global warming/mass extinction

You could argue that the potential for mass extinction caused by global warming and acidifying oceans is more serious than abuses of corporate power, and you’d be right. But corporatism paralyzes our collective response to serious environmental problems by buying off politicians, one by one. The problem isn’t that people don’t know or care about environmental problems that could kill us all — the problem is that corporations focused only on short-term profits do everything in their power to block all efforts to address these problems.

So what do you think? How would you define “progress” for humanity? What’s stopping us from getting there more quickly? What factors might cause (or are already causing) our global civilization to slide in the opposite direction?

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6 Comments

  1. Andrew

    I believe its is mostly unchecked corporatism that is holding us back, but also lack of personal responsibility and lack of community. I feel corporatism has isolated humans and dismantled community by targeting individuals with products and advertising; catering to any possible whim or desire a person can have (in the 1st world). We’ve been duped into an illusion of competition with one another. Who has the nicest car or biggest house or coolest clothes? Define yourself as an individual by buying products that reflect your tastes. This is the mindset corporations use to control people. Tastes and desires can be created through advertising. Rather than seeing what is good for the community at large, people see what is good for the individual.
    So corporations are plundering the planet and creating endless products for people to get caught up in and making astronomical profits by doing so. Kinda their fault for doing that, right? Everyone loves to point the finger. People don’t like to admit that they are wrong and it can be painful to take responsibility for your actions. Actions like driving that gas-guzzler everywhere, throwing away all that plastic, buying a new t.v. when your old one worked fine. Being isolated and not living communally allows one to think “well its just me, I don’t make that much of a difference.” This is poor, flimsy logic you can easily see through just by driving on the highway, but people resort to this type of thinking to protect themselves.
    If we lived in real communities we could better see out impact and make collective decisions which have more power to them. One person living alone sees X amount of trash they are generating. Six grown people living together see X times 6 amount of trash piling up (remember college guys?). How to go about creating community like this is difficult to say, But one thing is for sure. Either the corporations have to change their behavior or we do. I have control of my life. I do not have control over a major corporation, so the decision is simple.

    • I agree with your “if we you could see your trash” point, and also that it’s in the interest of corporatism to stoke consumer desire way beyond the point of need, and to use status cues as part of that mechanism.

      I’m not so sure about the link between corporatism and individualism. Corporate control of the political process and abuse of corporate power is alive and well in cultures with strong communal/collective consciousness (like Japan).

  2. Andrew

    i suppose you are right. Even if we had strong community here in america, the corporations could just as easily find tactics and methods to target those communities.

  3. Marcin

    When I feel sad about the world of peace and love coming to an end, I always remind myself about the OpenSource movement and how it’s expanding into the real world: http://opensourceecology.org/

    You wrote a great post on the topic J.D. Perhaps the end of capitalism is coming and if only it doesn’t come together with a world war, we can be optimistic.

    Do you have any links to info about private vs public education and why the latter is performing better? I have some hot disscusions with “space-men” (I’m rather on the Gaya side) on the topic and lack some hard evidence.

    Edit — link fixed.

    • Hey Marcin — I’m a huge fan of the Open Source Ecology project, and I really enjoyed your TED talk (if you are Marcin Jakubowski that is, and not another Marcin). I donated to your Kickstarter campaign and would love to see Open Source Ecology reach its goal of completing all the open source industrial designs.

      I don’t think public schools always perform better than private schools — there is a role for private schools (and public charter schools) to explore new ways of educating (like BrightWorks in San Francisco — http://sfbrightworks.org/).

      However shouldn’t there always be a public school option if a state wants to optimize the education of its citizens? In the U.S. there is no public school option for preschool, so many children just miss the opportunity of early childhood education altogether because their parents can’t afford it. To me that seems like a wasted opportunity, wasted mindpower, and ultimately lost wealth and prosperity. It also reinforces class divisions and income inequality, and squashes class mobility.

      In terms of hard stats, the US Dept. of Education looked at the private vs. public school question a few years ago. This article talks about the comparison in depth:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/19/opinion/19wed2.html

      Basically the private schools do better in terms of raw scores, unless you control for things like income inequality (the private school kids get more preschool education). If you control for class then the public schools do better in terms of student achievement.

      Keep up the great work and give me a heads up if you have anything to announce re: Open Source Ecology.

  4. Marcin

    Sorry, I rather ment this one:

    http://opensourceecology.org/

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