Don't trust your Stone Age brain: it's unsustainable

Don't trust your Stone Age brain: it's unsustainable

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    • #5845

      Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we have when we know we should invest in solar panels but the 46² widescreen TV wins out; we know we should catch the bus but we take the car anyway. It’s that sense of discord that arises when emotion and reason don’t get along. And unfortunately, it’s alive and well, sabotaging the climate change debate.
      We’ve evolved to feel a single sense of self, but our minds consist of multiple voices. Our emotional brain has first go at making sense of our world, instantly telling us how to behave and what to believe, based on instincts reinforced by upbringing. Sometimes our rational brain is then called upon to endorse our intuitions, which then become beliefs. Problems that are unusually difficult or surprising will recruit our rational brain, but reasoning takes effort and we avoid it when we can.
      Unfortunately our emotional brain is encouraging us to pursue perceived self-interest even if that means trashing the planet, leaving our rational brain to try and justify our actions, even while the walls come tumbling down and the temperatures keep rising. If we are to have any chance of a future we need to understand why our intuitions are so poor, and how we might temper them by engaging our ability to reason.
      We haven’t evolved to be successful in the modern world. Civilization arose only 12,000 years ago; in evolutionary terms that’s just the blink of an eye. Ninety-nine per cent of human evolution occurred during the Stone Age, so our evolved instincts, personality traits, and even some of our cognitive ‘short-cuts’ are much better suited to this Pleistocene world. Evolution didn’t care about the future; it was simply driven by those who survived and left the most descendants. So our ancestors were the ones who were best at competing for food and status, securing mates and having babies. They were materialistic, living very much in the present and rarely constrained by sustainability; they ate a broad range of foods, and if resources became depleted they could expand their territories or move on, behavior that led to the extinction of many animals and to extensive migration.
      Whilst a level of altruism did evolve, it was circumscribed by benefits to kin, expectations of reciprocal reward, and an obsession with fairness. Altruism can often therefore be trumped by self-interest. We might expect that intelligence and language would have been game-changers; they were, but not necessarily for the better. We learned to tame Nature and harvest her bounty, to build great cities, and to harness the laws of physics and chemistry. We may celebrate the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of modern civilization, but it also ushered in burgeoning overpopulation, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change.
      So if we evolved to exploit nature, and to be blind to the consequences, what now? Our only chance is to wrest control away from our emotional brain, and construct a new reality where our rational brain can take control.
      We need to design a new kind of democracy where many Government decisions are made cooperatively, with multi-party representation and the input of experts. Such think tanks must have strategies in place to promote critical self-analysis and to ‘frame’ policy to reflect the long-term reality. The cost of climate change mitigation can then be shown to be minute compared to the cost of inaction. If we value a sustainable world, the GDP must be replaced by a measure of a country’s wealth including resources, social capital and the cost of pollution. Costs should reflect the inclusive cradle-to-grave value of products and services, so that choices reflect out true long-term interests. Conspicuous consumption might be curbed further by offering workers the choice of more leisure rather than a salary increase, and by rewarding excellence with honours and privileges, rather than fat pay packets and obscene bonuses. Education must produce adults that can think critically and understand what’s at stake and why our judgment is flawed. To counter self-interest the Government should use incentives and disincentives to guide public behavior. We need to encourage altruism by instituting reciprocal, incremental improvements, and by showing leadership.
      We are at the crossroads. Unless we recognize the less adaptive aspects of human nature and devise ways of keeping them in check, the world we bequeath to our children will be a diminished one. We have the means to do this, but do we have the will? Evolution may have made us the most intelligent animal on Earth, but it makes no promise that we will be survivors.

    • #23837
      Tamizh Selvan

      Hi Helen, yes you are right. What you have discussed in really certainly true. Centuries later, the search for eternal life wasn’t much safer: In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died after blood transfusions from three healthy boys whose youth he believed he could absorb. A little closer to modern times, in 1868 America, Kentucky politician Leonard Jones ran for the U.S. presidency on the platform that he’d achieved immortality through prayer and fasting—and could give his secrets for cheating death to the public. Later that year, Jones died of pneumonia.

      But historical precedent hasn’t dissuaded some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Thiel, for example, has given $3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation. Aubrey de Grey, Methuselah’s co-founder, says the nonprofit’s main research initiative, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), is devoted to finding drugs that cure seven types of age-related damage: “Loss of cells, excessive cell division, inadequate cell death, garbage inside the cell, garbage outside the cell, mutations in the mitochondria, and crosslinking of the extracellular matrix.… The idea is that the human body, being a machine, has a structure that determines all aspects of its function, including its chance of falling apart any time soon, so if we can restore that structure—at the molecular and cellular level—then we will restore function too, so we will have comprehensively rejuvenated the body.”But SENS, which has an annual operating budget of $5 million, is puny compared with the Brin-led Project Calico, Google’s attempt to “cure death,” which is planning to pump billions into a partnership with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie. Google is notoriously secretive, but it’s rumored to be building a drug to mimic foxo3, a gene associated with exceptional life span.Then there’s the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, the granddaddy of modern antiaging initiatives, started by venture capitalist Paul F. Glenn in 1965. Since 2007, the foundation has distributed annual “Glenn Awards,” $60,000 grants to independent researchers doing promising work on aging. The Glenn Foundation also works to kick-start antiaging initiatives within large institutions (“It began at Harvard, and then we sought out MIT and then the Salk Institute and then the Mayo Clinic,” Mark R. Collins, spokesman for the Glenn Foundation, explains), and it puts more than $1 million per year toward grants by the American Federation for Aging Research, a charitable foundation dedicated to age-related disease.The Glenn Foundation also works closely with the Ellison Medical Foundation, a far younger institution (founded in 1997). Ellison’s passion project gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants each year to scholars pursuing research on, and remedies for, aging. Their decision to fund independent research—as opposed to creating grandiose, in-house programs—may be paying off. Relatively modest research projects funded by Ellison and Glenn appear to be developing into a verifiable means to stave off old age—for lab mice. The tantalizing question: Can those lab results be replicated to elixir of immortality for humans?

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