Monday, September 20, 2010

The Evolved Human Mind

In our species, intelligence is the most important adaptation. But our intelligence is not logical; it is an emotional intelligence, as any fan of Spock on Star Trek knows. Despite the amazing capacities of human minds, our evolutionary legacy has limited them in a way that may make us unable to respond adequately to our current crises such as climate and economic collapse. Here are some examples. You can probably think of a lot more.

First, our minds have an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. We see what we expect to see, and if reality and expectation do not mesh, we accept the resulting cognitive dissonance. Even when we can look ahead and see that our resources are running out, we can hardly bring ourselves to conserve those resources. We will become frugal only after disaster has struck. I thought of this as I drove past a tract of huge houses, built in Tulsa during the housing bubble. Block after block of them. This is what the buyers wanted, and they deceived themselves that the national, and their personal, economies could grow forever. Realtors would rather sell one big house than three small houses—less work for the same money. Nothing but a crash will get people to become frugal. The good news is that, once the crash has occurred, people are pretty good at frugality. We may not, however, have a long enough transition period to reorder our lives into a contented frugality.

Second, our minds continually readjust to current circumstances. This is the “shifting baselines” phenomenon. My generation is probably the last one to be richer than the preceding generation; people of my daughter’s generation cannot expect the kind of riches their families had while they were growing up, and cannot expect to find jobs even if they are qualified. The mindset has shifted to something more like survival, and we are all beginning to feel that this is normal. We have already almost forgotten about a world in which we could just go buy things on credit and count on personal finances to slowly pay off the debt.

Third, our minds are social; we will not act until society changes. Despite the clear evidence that humans are causing global warming, and despite the fact that most Americans (and even more citizens of other countries) know this to be true, societal inertia has prevented meaningful change. It will, as I said above, take a crash to get a society to live frugally. A frugal life (we have to start thinking of this as a good word) is the best, perhaps the only, way to reduce our carbon emissions and disruptive climate collapse.

These mental characteristics worked fine in the Stone Age; but we must transcend them today. Is this even possible?

This essay will also appear on my website.

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