Individual Theoretics

Morrison, Jane Gray, Tobias, Michael Charles | February 20, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Bhutanese Monk | Photo © J. G. Morrison

The purveyor of biospheric calamities and human notions of hope at once confronts a dizzying chasm: the global exertion of an ecological strangle hold that remains our baffling legacy. Time is running out to alter the profile of that one surviving hominin who made certain Neanderthals die out (save for as much as 2.6% of their DNA surviving in today’s European genomes) and who has managed, according to numerous war historians, to kill off some quarter-billion of one another since the time of the Western Renaissance. That same ape who now threatens by way of the Anthropocene a pandemic of extinctions equal to, or in excess of any of the past five known planetary extinction syndromes.

Paleontologists argue how many previous human-like species or sub-species have gone extinct, a number between seven and nearly thirty. But the entropic gulf separating our current behavioral modalities from that of all other species enlists the most potent dangling modifier in the annals of binomial nomenclature. In our recent book, The Theoretical Individual: Imagination, Ethics and the Future of Humanity (Springer, January 2018) we write:

Who we are as individuals is somehow separated, more and more, from what we are as a species… If a convergence were possible (between individual and species), one would assume we would have had enough time and practice by now to get it right. We have not. One might also argue that it would not serve goodness for the minutely differentiated, nearly seven-and-a-half billion of us (and quickly increasing in numbers, still) to become a uniform force. That might easily backfire in one particularly galling and immediate manner, namely, our total self-destruction, the result of an unquestioning and monolithic choice made on behalf of our entire species: a single mood swing by someone with a sufficient bulwark of power to ignite a nuclear war, to take the most obvious [current] example.

“Whereas our varieties of experiences and genes, our proliferated handprints, make of every different cave wall a new and possibly wonderful illumination that works against the outbreak of Hitlers and Pol Pots and others.

“Yet, despite declarations of hope and courage, this schism persists with aging vehemence. The royal we are destroying Earth, challenging our alleged humanity to somehow make a difference in time to save the majority of individuals, both among humans, but even more pressing, among the Others who are so fast vanishing. Seen as a moral crisis [the moral crisis] of the moment, but lacking the ‘boldness’ and ‘genius’ Goethe referenced in his Faust, we may well find that our species is capable of analysis in the absence of an actionable momentum. Lingering in the philosophical purgatories of our wish fulfillments, the paroxysms accompanying the evolution of individual departures from the norm – across a time frame of tens of millions of years – depriving us of the catalyst that might yet richly infect a stubbornly inward-dwelling species, we stagger and foment atop the lost cliffs of Kurosawa’s ‘Ran,’ his haggard and betrayed daimyo/King Lear forcing his face into the gusty Eumenides, incapable of imagining family reconciliation.”

Traffic in Downtown New Delhi | Photo © M. C. Tobias
Traffic in Downtown New Delhi | Photo © M. C. Tobias

Upon that cliff we come to the penultimate cliff-hanger. Many years ago, in a New York Times cover story, E. O. Wilson asked whether humanity was not suicidal? We ask, what parameters would need to change were human beings to empower a salutary, rather than annihilatory story-line? This is where deep demography and epidemiology combine to render a new narrative, whose objective commentaries read of individuals of a species effecting species-wide alterations. In our case, such changes are conceptual and ethical. While some data suggests recent physical changes in our jaws and teeth size, the evolutionary chronicles marking our kind during the past 30,000 years or so have been mental, not morphological. The likelihood of our hybridizing with any other species appears to be biologically unlikely, certainly within the much tested world of Carl Linneaus. We do not enjoy the reproductive latitude of a wolf, a dog or a coyote. Our zoological cul-de-sac is real and, by all evidence, final.

So, of great importance is the question whether a new consciousness is biologically plausible; a scenario in which rapid evolution may act upon a human cultural set of ethical priorities. Perhaps those same imperatives also happen to favor, for example, the kind of land ethic an Aldo Leopold advocated, or of more than half-century of wilderness-and-endangered species-related legislation.

Of course, if that is a possible scenario, it might be morally problematic for a species which is also straying with ever more deference across this Solar System and beyond. We may not have the level of maturity in terms of evolutionary consciousness to differentiate between the importance of revivifying redwood trees or saving blue whales from extinction, and the terraforming of Mars. Certainly, the more comforting, ecologically intimate and likely permutation is to be a transfixing ethic with critical mass amongst Homo sapiens here on Earth, not in earth-orbit, where we have already seen a pile up of space junk, and poorly conceived schemes.

Population Expert Bob Gillespie Standing Before the U. S. Supreme Court | Photo ©M. C. Tobias
Population Expert Bob Gillespie Standing Before the U. S. Supreme Court | Photo ©M. C. Tobias

There is no evidence to suggest that natural selection is altering the anatomy of our brains. Rather, in real-time we are seeing extraordinary examples of conceptual alteration, whose ultimate ambassadors are lodged in the domain of the choice. When you begin to see the same species making a large number of good or bad choices, there is certainly room for rendering philosophical conclusions. When the accumulation of those choices spells success or doom for that species, one can begin to see a picture of natural selection acting upon cultural memes and paradigms.

In our new book we looked at what kinds of choices humans are making, the power of those choices, and their origins. We do so recognizing that quite possibly such outcome-oriented deliberations are the only antidote to human-induced destruction. If natural selection works upon individuals, as well as communities, then altruistic genes [1], beneficent characteristics of our organism – with its billions of pieces of DNA, progressive ideas and hard-earned ideals – no matter how dissimulated and rare their viable expression – ultimately matter. The biosphere in which expressions may declare themselves is increasingly stressed and undermined, traditional synthesis and gradualism falling into step with a far more accelerated near-term genetic future in which survivors are taking geographical sides, and making frantic, do-or-die decisions.

One area of particular interest for us is what has been termed the “readiness potential” to ignite a decision, to effect a choice, to change course, to alter one’s mind and to act upon those ignitions. The trajectories from choice are unlikely to leave a fossil record but they may leave us sufficiently unscathed in order to live out our lives with some measure of joy and dignity, should we get it right.

The notion of “readiness potential” does not invoke some set of arcane psychological statistics, but, rather, compelling argument in favor of human brains coming up with massive archetypal transitions and qualified bifurcation points. If, as has been ascertained, we make over 773,000 decisions in our lives – an adult making 27 judgments every day – we have yet to map the distribution of such judgments or their net worth in terms of ethical suasion. But we know there is great moral weight there, a cartography of pain points, but also of pain amelioration, and that lurking within the origin of every judgment is the potential for great change, the readiness potential.

Based upon studies suggesting that some 9% of all human genes are rapidly evolving, we looked at some of the work of the psychologist Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) who scrutinized the actual time-frame between the subconscious buildup of a decision in humans and the ultimate response acting upon that mental consensus within the individual, the decision point. Libet’s subjects showed that each member of our species, on average, needs approximately 200 milliseconds (two deciseconds, or two-tenths of a second) to move from a thought to an action, something Libet termed the “Bereitschaftpotential,” or the aforementioned readiness potential. This potential is equivalent to a catalyst within a perpetually ready sphere that Libet characterized as the “conscious mental field,” a coherence of neural and subjective connections. The emergence of that coherence may occur more slowly than within two deciseconds –in as many as seven seconds– before we even know that we have made the decision. But the decision will be taken and we know that it is possible to effect change based upon conceptualization. By turns, this leads inevitably to what may well be the makings of a new nature, a set of forces in sync with ethical and conceptual selections. It is still evolution at work, but conscious evolution.

Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan | Photo ©M. C. Tobias
Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan | Photo ©M. C. Tobias

However fundamental these attributes of the human behavioral arsenal might seem, at first, in our concluding remarks we find such testimony quite crucial. We write, “Hence, the sum total of choices and that community of like-hearted predilections – tied to members of the only biosphere we know of, at present – whose origins and present tense behavior all suggest some kindly organism.” And we continue, “…of organisms that behave decently; that act resiliently and, as the situation doth demand, selflessly, out of true love, a wondrous phrase mightily overused such that we might be tempted…to hazard some other linguistic or conceptual embodiment in so confusing and magnificent a world. An entirely different paradigm of original characteristics. But, to be clear, there isn’t one.” True love captures best whatever it is our species is capable of.

This “readiness potential” in humanity’s odyssey could not be more relevant and timely, corresponding with massive ecological protection, restoration and a universal emphasis on re-wilding, habitat liberation and widespread efforts to stop the slaughter of innocents. The theoretical individual may well be that embodiment of a set of conceptual catalysts spread out over multiple communities, all subject to the most harmonious evolutionary instincts and impulses, whose time has come.

[1] Reuter, Frenzel, Walter, Markett & Montag. 2010. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Investigating the genetic basis of altruism: the role of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison are President and Executive Vice President of the Dancing Star Foundation. You can learn more and connect with the Dancing Star Foundation through its MAHB Node. © M.C.Tobias and J.G.Morrison

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  • Michael Bostick

    When thinking about the “theoretical individual,” it points to beings who are capable of theorizing, or creating theories about who they are. However, what seems fundamental about this capacity of mental process, is that one cannot typically create ideas about who one is without considering one’s place of being, or one’s relationship to the place of being. Therefore, the idea of place, or one’s home in the self/world continuum is clearly an ecological process. Thus, as theoretical individuals, we live immanent in nature or a natural interdependence of creative ideation. Regardless of the world’s external traumas and effects of human bluster and blunder, the world of our perceptual involvement enables the possibility that consciousness is fluid and free of physical boundaries. Hence, the notion that we, as evolutionary participants, can potentially manifest and collaborate, with all species and life forces, the realm of “re-wilding,” as Tobias and Morrison called it, or paradigmatic wilderness, which can liberate us from the strictures of understanding we seemed compelled to identify with, limited by the theories of self that have yet to hold up to the light.

    • Thoughtful and compelling. We really appreciate your input.

  • Rob Harding

    Dear Jane and Michael,

    Thank you for this article, along with your other great work. I have been particularly inspired by “No Vacancy” in my own work and follow the Dancing Star Foundation’s continued efforts.

    Within the context of a Great Transition Initiative for the sake of planetary health, as Andrew Gaines highlighted in his recent comment, I have spearheaded an international campaign with the goal of establishing a UN Framework Convention on Population Growth — one akin to the Paris Agreement for climate change with Nationally Determined Contributions in pursuit of a sustainable population in every country — emphasizing gender equality, education, health, informed choice, environmental stewardship, and humility.

    I encourage you to read the MAHB article introducing this initiative and hope we can talk more offline soon.

    Since publishing the article, it’s worth sharing that I have been invited to attend a climate restoration conference at the Vatican in April where I’ll have the opportunity to showcase this UN treaty proposal.

    As you highlighted in this article, I am considering “the question whether a new consciousness is biologically plausible; a scenario in which rapid evolution may act upon a human cultural set of ethical priorities.” I am also convinced that “altruistic genes, beneficent characteristics of our organism – with its billions of pieces of DNA, progressive ideas and hard-earned ideals – no matter how dissimulated and rare their viable expression – ultimately matter.”

    Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards,

    • Thank you Rob. We read the UN Framework Convention on Population Growth piece and certainly concur that it is a superb idea that could further serve to galvanize effective voices within the UNFPA.

      • Rob Harding

        Thank you, Michael. I appreciate your support and can keep you posted on any major developments. All the best to both you and Jane.

      • stevenearlsalmony

        Hello Michael Tobias,

        Is there some chance the Dancing Star Foundation can provide any kind of support to

    • William Dowling

      Rob, I am very pleased to see that you have promoted your UN Framework Convention on Population Growth initiative here..
      We can only hope that many established organisations, outside of those directly involved with population concern, will recognise the huge benefit your initiative will gain from their organisation also formally endorsing It.
      I hope they will all come recognise that we really could use their help, in not only getting it up to UN Convention level, but in getting it listened to attentively when it gets there,

      It isnt just about population growth. It echoes all the other environmental concerns in the Union Of Concerned Scientist’s second warning to humanity. .
      Many, if not all, of these same concerns are worrying nearly every environmentally concerned NGO in the world. Population growth makes most of these problems much harder to solve; and, left alone, ultimately they will impossible to solve.

  • Andrew Gaines

    Picking up on your phrase, it would appear that we have
    massive analysis without actionable momentum. This is disastrous; we are
    chronicling our own demise. There are many reasons why we do not have
    actionable momentum, one of them is that people do not have a vision about how
    to do it. The other there are powerful interests that do not want us to make
    the changes necessary to become ecologically viable. The two are not

    I’ve given some thought to how to build actionable momentum. I
    think the core of any vision at a scale adequate to our existential emergency
    must be the intention to transition to a life-affirming global culture. The
    challenge for the environmental-progressive movement is to seed this intention
    into mainstream culture, and enable people to grasp what is involved in making ‘the
    Great Transition’ to a life-affirming culture succeed.

    The Great Transition Initiative ( is a
    platform to support a multitude of groups and their members acting as self-initiating
    citizen educators. It includes a module, Looming Disasters, it is designed to
    meet William Dowling’s (see comment above) call:

    “How can we best make everyone aware of the dire situation
    we are all in?”

    Communicating to inspire mainstream commitment to
    transitioning to a life-affirming global culture is not only actionable, I
    believe is essential if we are to have any hope of reversing humanity’s
    disastrous trajectory.

    I invite everyone who reads this to go to our website, explore
    the Resources section, an act as a Great Transition Champion through your own
    initiative. You do not have to join anything. Knowing what is needed, we just
    get on with it.

  • Bill Van Fleet

    So what can the individual do? I have spent several thousand hours now (being a retired psychiatrist and someone interested in philosophy), working on a project that involves our species coming together all over this planet to develop a basic ethical philosophy for our species, that involves now a new tool for that purpose. The concept being offered is Humanianity, and its website is at The new tool is the Humanian Belief Manual. Think of it as a Bible for Bible study, but instead of it being handed down to us, it is being continually developed by all of us, with the method of sharing and comparing our ethical beliefs and the reasons for them, and seeing statistically what progress we are making, and with the goal of increasingly coming to agreement, but always with the possibility of further revision of our current thinking. I would be very grateful if some of you would critically evaluate the project by participation in it. No cost, no ads. My observation is that a very large percentage of us are quite pessimistic about our species becoming far better than it has ever been so far. I, for one, consider our species just a toddler compared to what we may accomplish in the future, unless our pessimism prevents us from putting forth any effort. Even if the odds are low, they are not zero, and I want to be one of those who at least tried. Please let me know what you think. Thanks!

    • Thanks. We appreciate your response. Will look forward to going through your website.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      It seems like there are more than a few thoughtful individuals, who are contributing to a better world by coming up with guidelines, standards, rules….all designed to serve a common good. It gives me hope that we humans will find a way to get on the same sustainable, life-affirming page.

  • Geoffrey Holland

    It seems like corrosive self-absorption has become as acute as it’s ever been. We have ravaged our only planetary home to an unprecedented degree, that continues to get worse every single day that goes by. When the authors talk about ‘Readiness Potential’, one has to wonder if the power of the social media can be a catalyst for the kind of brilliant human murmurations that are sorely save the biosphere we all depend on. Could the teen students in Parkland, Florida, who experienced mass gun murder first hand be the ones to unleash the ‘readiness potential’ to force a change in how we deal with gun violence? If starlings by the thousands can weave in graceful harmony together in the sky, we humans should be able to find a way to emulate that kind of disciplined dance.

    • It would be interesting to study social media from the perspective of epidemiology.

  • William Dowling

    With 7.6 billion of us humans already overpopulating and overconsuming the planet’s finite resources, the best thing (if not the only thing!) we can all do right now is to try to persuade every woman to avoid having more than one child.from now on.
    More challenging stiil, we must all also try to persuade every man to avoid putting any women in the position where they give birth to more than that!
    Actually, the real problem we have to overcome first is:this:
    How can we best make everyone aware of the dire situation we are all in? e.g. As depicted here by the Union of concernerd scientists, backed by 15,382 Scientists in 184 countries?
    Because, given a good understanding of the real situation first; it should only be a simple matter of persuading people to use their common sense, and accept that some considerable “voluntary” restrictions on their ” free choice” behaviourr are now absolutely essential.
    Once we have got the population down to a far more sustainable number like under 4 billion, (which, at a global average of 1 child per woman, will take us up to 2100 at the earliest) we can consider what to do next.
    We can either restore the existing ill-advised “free choice” behaviour that has got us all into the dreadful sitiation we are in now; or, alternatively,do the sensible thing and switch to a “stop at two” mantra – i.e. replacement level.
    Which is what we should have done 40 years ago when we had 4 billion on the planet -and had still left a reasonable amount of unspoilt planet, other species and resources in reserve for the future.