This is an ambitious work, like Graeber's The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity, building on the radical anthropology of prehistoric man, and Graham Hancock's Netflix Ancient Apocalypse, promising a radical rethink of both the how and why of homo sapiens. We need a 'new old' vision, linking us with the 80% of our history that preceded private property, slavery, war, and, oh yes, cities.
Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein use Chesterton’s fence as their central metaphor: try to understand things before changing them.
By disregarding the facts of evolved human nature, they argue, the modern world in all its novelty has destroyed the proverbial fence, leaving us miserable, sick and heading for social collapse. We eat junk food, prescribe too many drugs, raise and educate our children badly. Heying and Weinstein provide evolutionary advice to confront the mismatch between stone-age brains and hi-tech society.
They are not afraid of controversy, resigning from Evergreen College in Washington State in 2017, in a dramatic defiance of student radicals who were bringing the college to a halt. They accused them of immaturity, of being WEIRD (see below). But apparently they were adored by many students for their wild adventures in the jungle instead of 'sterile boxes removed from the world', one describing their classroom as 'an ancestral mode for which I was primed, but didn’t even know existed.'
They are not above a good harangue at times. As teachers, you either love or hate such dynamic, unforgiving thinkers. They used themselves, their children, and their students' personal experiences – disdaining a bulky cast for a broken arm, marveling at female students buried under a collapsed hotel in an earthquake in Bolivia, or Heather almost drowning near the Galapagos. They gave me pause for thought. Could I survive their unforgiving initiation rites? Their impatience with WEIRD American students and their postmodern cool is refreshing. I think I would risk the poison snakes.
Pulling no PC punches, they look back to our cultural origins, tested and put into practice over millennia, starting with the end of the last great ice age 10,000BC, and present a vision of robust social conservatism tempered by conscious collective and individual effort to deal with our many crises. For we are being forced into establishing a new cultural paradigm at this very moment.
It's during transitional periods in our evolution in the past 100,000 years (epigenetic, not genetic), that our cultural rituals were undermined and reforged by natural or manmade disasters. We can't afford to continue on autopilot during such crises. We have to use our rational thinking mode. It's much slower but collectively we can stumble towards a way forward. We are in a deluge of hyper novelty, without any of the culture of the past with its inherent wisdom. This time around, the stakes couldn't be higher.
The authors start with the provocative claim that the human evolutionary niche is niche switching, plasticity. Paradox: we are both generalist and specialist. By unravelling the human paradox, we can unlock a conceptual framework that allows us to understand ourselves, and to navigate our lives with intention and skill.
How did we become know-it-alls about everything? We really are nature's ultimate solution to … everything. We have all the comparative advantages, are specialists at everything, live everywhere, and steal everything from all other creatures and poor mother Earth herself! And without paying the usual costs of lack of breadth, or paying back anything at all to the rest of the world. How and why did we become so all-powerful and totally selfish?
Where did it really start?
Sitting around the hearth, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the convergence point of individuals with different experience, talents and insights. We share via language. Fire and language. Our connections allow us to transcend individual limitations, cooperate; hence division of labour. Understand ourselves to navigate lives with intention and skill. As a species we excellent at many things. At the boundaries between individuals, we consciously innovate and share ideas, then reify the best ideas for the current moment in the form of culture. For millennia around the campfire. Today's equivalent is our flat screen computer or better, iPhone, the 21st century meeting place, hearth.
The tools the authors forge start with the tension between consciousness and culture. Individual consciousness developed with collective consciousness (culture) in parallel. Your consciousness is for communicating what's happening. That means theory of mind, my ability to know what you're thinking. No other animals have language, fire, and very few have a theory of mind. It's highly developed only in elephants, toothed whales, crows, primates.
In humans, it is at its highest state, allowing us to pass along information via our breath and vibrating throat (language). Using our theory of mind, it also allows us to outsmart others, think a few steps ahead, to checkmate without the opponent evening knowing s/he's playing chess! Usually we don't think about any of this, operating on autopilot, but when times are bad, we have to consciously look at our situation, question our culture, traditions. Are they failing us? Should we really be trying to fool everyone all of the time? Shouldn't we be on the alert for how to solve our mounting crises?
How we became so brilliant
Genes are not the only form of passing on heritable info. Our collective consciousness, culture, serves genes, shapes our epigenetics (inherited behaviour), i.e., the way the genome is expressed. The same rule governs both molecular and cultural regulators in genome expression. The genome is in driver's seat, but just barely, as we now accelerate cultural change, but without the eons and wise hand of nature keeping our fantasies of omnipotence in check.
Culture is universal in birds and mammals. It isn't free. In humans it takes on an outsize role and that means its home, the brain, must be big too, and that means expensive to run. It is prone to error, frequently blocks off fitness-enhancing opportunities (e.g., 10 commandments). It effectively parasitizes, colonizes the genome. The nature vs nurture is a false dichotomy. All is evolutionary.
The Omega principle explains culture. Epigenetic regulators (culture) are more flexible and can adapt to change in the environment more rapidly (via switching off/on genome expression). Culture serves the genome and any long lasting cultural trait should be presumed to be adaptive.
Corollary 1: if it ain't broken, don't fix. I.e., long-term cultural traits/ traditions are presumed adaptive.
Corollary 2: Chesterton's wall precautionary principle: evaluate the risk of any action.
How we became so evil
Sucker's folly: concentrated short-term benefit obscures risk and long-term cost. We are consuming more and more, resting on our cultural laurels, but in reality speeding toward disaster, lulled into a false sense of security, our sense of a collective consciousness faltering. Our many brilliant specialists lose track of where we're going, in fact, have no idea where we're going. The computerized campfire is a false simulacrum, dividing people rather than bringing them together to solve our collective problems.
Adaptive evolution improves the fit of creatures to their environment. But we have focused only on a) reproductive success and b) profit for fitness as a species. Short term fecundity and profit (sucker's folly) risk failure, i.e., extinction. It's persistence that shows real success, and neither more individuals nor profit from exploitation of nature and man are factors in the persistence equation.
Handbook traced our lineage from the first multicellular individuals 600,000,000 years ago from which we descend (always a tonic to remind ourselves). The paradigm from the get-go: stealing energy from others. All animals (and plants) are parasites. And with sex (love?), the result?
The wild and crazy plant and animal kingdoms are of unbelievable diversity, with man sitting on top, the king of parasites. Some traits evolved along the way and stuck, i.e., they have universal value. Once nature evolved a bony internal skeleton, it didn't regress. Also neurons, hearts. Mammals, birds evolved new self generated insulation as endotherms, and REM sleep. Lizards undulate sideways. Mammals up/down to run and breathe at same time. But all this costs more energy.
Fast forward to humans. We can look into future even when natural selection cannot (or can it?). We have evolved via culture to assist in even hardwired evolution (CRISPR, GMO, i.e., playing god directly). Our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, give us a choice of violence (Hobbes's bad anarchy) or peace (Kropotkin's good anarchy). How can we move towards what we would like to be as a species, not blindly rushing into armageddon, which nobody is seriously calling for, except maybe a few WEIRDers?
WEIRD vs NORMAL
Handbook contrasts WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) countries vs the rest of the world, which I presume makes the latter NORMAL. WEIRDers (or if you prefer WEIRDos) are in the driver's seat in our world of corporations, but in fact are less capable on the whole, living in a WEIRD environment. Science now in WEIRD, psychology based on undergrad behaviour is WEIRD. Who would have thought that a fetish for right angles from running wood through sawmills would distort our perception?* Handbook points the finger at each of the western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic, the WEIRD social formation, and dissects each attribute. That the WEIRD are presumably the pinnacle of human evolution gives lots of pause for thought about our likely future (or lack of it).
Our science and medicine is riddled with WEIRDness. We are awash in scientism -- turning everything into fake numeracy, where anything countable is used. Hence eugenics, social darwinism, people as machines with fixed rules, codes. Calories are the diet gold standard, though calories from carbs, protein, fat, alcohol have very different effects. Rather we should look at what we have been and done in past. Exercise in our sedentary lifestyle is the most important medicine to bring us back to the health of hunter gatherers, who almost never got sick. We mistake understanding how for why, mistake identifying effect for understanding the effect.
Antibiotics and vaccines are examples of this reductionist tradition (we are machines). They zero in on one pathogen, promote a human-made cure, and have saved millions of lives. But they are overapplied, and side effects are evidence that nothing is without consequences.
Sucker's folly: If we engage in only proximate questions with a bias to reductionism, our medicine is blindered. We think surgery, antibiotics, vaccines are magic bullets. There are no magic bullets.
WEIRDers no longer have a local cuisine, tastes being arbitrary rather than following a 'tried and true' tradition. We've torn down all our culinary walls. We can't rely on culture anymore. The logic of commercial culture is what makes profit, what sells, not what is good for us as individuals or as a species, intending to live for millennia. More sucker's folly. We as 'consumers' need conscious decision-making on what to eat. On everything! Profit is not any kind of 'gold standard' for human health. Only for the production of more gold.
We have to willfully overcome evolutionary impulses (i.e., gorging on fat), be on the watch for manipulation, so we don't suffer from untested and probably harmful hyper-novelty. Our survival strategy involves hard conscious effort, will, to move towards a more ascetic lifestyle. Hyper-novelty and moral confusion call for consciousness on a scale that we have never seen before.
There is some sharing of insights among wolves, dolphins, crows, baboons. A form of theory of mind. But not in tree frogs, octopuses, or salmon. They are isolated individuals who meet only for mating and never see their offspring. In contrast, even on supposedly anonymous public transit, we people watch, fantasize what kind of guy, gal is so sad, so happy, and why. We are social by instinct. No man is an island. Nor is s/he an octopus. We are the ultimate social animal. That's our only hope.
We have pretty well used up our historical frontiers, i.e., geographic (exploring), technological (temporary positive sum, allowing greater exploitation), transfer of resource, (imperialism, theft). The 4th frontier is consciousness. We must consciously agree on a social equilibrium, zero growth. Make a new culture. We are built, programmed, to have early vigor and then deteriorate, so our 'goods' should preferably last 100 years (or more if our children inherit and keep using them). And we must consume less of them. That is the only solution.
But we and the market want short term gratification. Markets explore, innovate, just like we do, but also manipulate, conspire, just like we do as helpless infants. Hunter-gatherers lived in small groups which minimized manipulation because group interests were one. So that's a tall order. No more new territories to steal. Only conscious innovation and management of Mother Earth. Energy-wasting consumption appropriately expensive, but in the up side, we are freer to do interesting stuff, resistant to manipulation, not easily betraying core values.
Mayan civilization lasted 2500 yrs. Their city states were connected, their culture thriving when Socrates et al were creating what became our WEIRD group think. Both the Romans and Mayans peaked in 4th c AD. It was more Greek, not monolithic, like Rome. It too left behind giant public works, which over the millennia absorbed the surplus (in worship), controlled and motivated the population. But this was precapitalism. Can we make capitalism work for our conscious ends?
CO2 has no smell but the body can detect it in high concentration, which triggers panic, essential when you lived in caves. We have that survival instinct, intuition, to ward off existential threats. As we choke on CO2 on a planetary scale, we must switch into consciousness mode (i.e., PANIC) to address the ecological, population, war threats.
Our throughput society depends on insecurity, gluttony and planned obsolescence. Sensitivity to existential threats is a long-standing adaptive trait. There really is no choice. We must all 'come together, right now.' Society is obsessed with short term safety, as short term harm is relatively easy to detect. Sucker's folly. Imagine a Carrington event that cooks all our electronic gadgets in the twinkling of an eye.
Perhaps that's the only way we can cut through the Gordian knot of a robotized late capitalism. But you will look back fondly on monogamy, so despised by WEIRDos, as such a world devolved physically will surely be polygynous and brutal. Is that enough of an existential threat to get us into proactive consciousness mode?
We still haven't gotten to the 'why'? Why we are here, the most conscious of all God's creatures? Heather and Bret don't really get there either. They are very secular, though their subject matter is steeped in spirit, soul, sacredness. We need a religion. They agree that religion is an adaptation, a costly one so it must serve an important purpose. They warn about ignoring religion as an 'efficient encapsulation of past wisdom wrapped in an intuitive, instructive and difficult to escape package.' But that sounds tone-deaf. Their epilogue, their family's new Hanukkah rules, reads like a boy scout's manual, handbook.
Love is all you need
Such a study, handbook, needs grounding, ontology, belief. It's not enough to posit a state religion like Rousseau or Robespierre. While there is much food for thought here – I definitely recommend reading – it still feels like a draft. It's hopefully a harbinger of more new-old charts to navigate our murky waters. Their prescription fits Islam, the most robust religion around today, though they don't mention it. Caring for nature is man's God-given responsibility, keeping market relations honest but separate from worship, following the 'straight path'.
The World Economic Forum conspiracy, the golden billion club, is happening, for sure. Designed for a capitalist elite, with population control for the wage slaves. Which means the need to outsmart them, like we first did gaming mommie and daddie for attention as 6 month old babies. Will our ability to manipulate beat our instinct to panic if there's too much CO2? We were forced many times in our 100,000 years to deal with the threat of extinction, and survived, but this time could be the last.
It's hard to place Heather and Bret politically. They state quite boldly that liberty is 'emergent, not a single value, a consequence of having fixed the other problems' (justice, security, innovation, community, stability). Children/ students should 'boot strap their own program so they can become individually conscious.' 'Equality should be focused on the equal valuation of our differences. Not a bludgeon for uniformity.' They are big on competition. They remind me of Jacques Cousteau or Leni Riefenstahl, romantic social conservatives worshipping nature, anarchists at heart.
It's a handbook, a new Whole Earth Catalogue. But we need to be grounded, have an ontology, a base to build on. Love is that ontology of the spirit. And it's not just epigenetic, culture. It starts with the divine spark entering matter, the real incarnation of God. God's touch to Adam is that spark. Consciousness.
Biology is not competitive a zero-sum game. It is fractal, holistic, cooperative. Right down to the atomic level. The same positive sum logic is at work in humans too. We start by becoming conscious, imitating the divine love. It becomes sex, family, friendship, agape, embedded in cultures, all the time yearning to reunite with divine love.
Recent archeology has discovered a civilization that existed in present day Ukraine, 8000 years ago, urban but not too urban. Donut shaped urban formations with the hole the meeting place. Hunter-gatherer with light market gardening. Egalitarian, no slavery, no writing or monoliths, so no history, and archeology tricky. Our mythical garden of Eden? Such sites, including rock formations like Stonehenge are being found in Siberia, Finland, Asia. Whether we have time to learn their secrets before we fry is moot.
Conscious future - Heaven or Hell?