QoD: “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies”

E.O. Wilson, a biologist whose work on the social insects I’ve long read with admiration (though I’m less enamoured with his recent work on kin versus group selection) provides today’s quote of the day. It is taken from an article from the Irish Times titled Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change:

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature Climate Change.

Thus I’m not impressed when anyone states “I believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in climate change”. It has nothing to do with faith – for me at least. I recognise by cognitive limitations and defer not to the expertise an individual, but to the collective knowledge of the world’s scientific community.

I am personally ill-equipped to “prove” or “falsify” climate science: which is why I don’t debate the science. I will read the research in order to deepen my understanding, and ask questions and – yes – even be sceptical. But I believe I have the humility to acknowledge my limitations, unlike some.

The Wilson quote reminded me of the long running discussion that has been raging on my post on countering the denial movement. In response to a question from Sundance, a regular commentator here, on the question of “human nature” I noted:

We are pattern seeking animals, it is what marks our species as distinctive. And is foundational to our survival. Agreed. There is a difference between politics and human behavior, but one informs the other.

I’d also note the “flight or fight” response is also essential to survival (actually that’s a very crude way to describe a complex range of adaptive behaviors, but lets treat it as shorthand). It is near universal among all animals. Deep within the structure of our brain is the amygdala – associated with modulating fear, aggression and memory consolidation. But the flight or fight response can also be maladaptive.

The point is this: the interaction between our psychology, individual values and the norms of our community and society will temper how we react to the world quite profoundly. I have a hunch that the climate change debate is less about left versus right and more about our species and its ability to problem solve.

We evolved in the plains of Africa, and for hundreds of thousands of years lived in extended family groups as hunter gatherers. 5,000-10,000 or so years ago we started farming and building the first cities. In the last 100 years the world’s population has grown from 2bn to almost 7bn. We’ve been to the moon, invented writing and developed complex societies. Our cultural evolution has been stunning, and yes worth celebrating. I celebrate the achievements of our civilisation.

And [all the] while evolution has continued its slow, iterative pace. The cognitive skill set we have is perfectly adapted to foster the individual’s survival instincts has changed little. Put crudely, the problem is beyond the scope of the individual and even groups of individuals.

That’s what makes climate change seem overwhelming – terrifying even. Thus an individual’s reaction in either denial, indifference and at the other extreme fatalism (the world is doomed!) is understandable. Everyone will grapple with these basic emotions – including myself. I have no special knowledge, but I have meditated long on my own response and sought out the best information to ensure I am informed.

Flight or fight responses can be maladaptive: to give but one example of fight or flight misfiring, think of the zebra standing frozen before the lion unable to react.

Climate change is a civilisational challenge that transcends the individual’s ability to both fully understand it’s risks and devise potential solutions. This is why we may be at such a stalemate.

The scientific method is one of our tools in understanding the world, but also recognizing and explaining risk.

Climate science is the early warming radar of civilisation: we can pay attention to the looming danger on the screen, or scream at our instruments in terror and frustration. We can choose to dismiss one set of instruments, and claim it broken. But when all the instruments and all the warning systems are screaming “code red” to ignore them is denial. It’s flight or fight gone awry.

Then we are no different from the zebra standing transfixed in the face of a predator.

Readers here appreciate I am very much focused on exploring and even countering arguments from climate sceptics – this is part of the political debate and the discussion over values. I’ve always acknowledged that. Indeed, my values and centrist politics are stated on the “about page”.

But I see this debate between sceptics and proponents of the science as a tiny component of a much larger, richer and more complex problem of mitigation and adaptation.

And for me that is what is both fascinating and tragic. 

However I think Wilson’s quote sums it up beautifully, and far more concisely than I could.

I am also reminded on a beautiful scene in one of my favorite films, 1993’s Gettysburg (see above), based on the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Sharma – a fictionalised account that famous battle from the US Civil War.

The scene contrasts our capacity for genius and our frequent descent into barbarity: “What a piece of work is man…”

4 thoughts on “QoD: “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies”

  1. Tony Duncan says:

    I have to say I disagree quite strongly with the conclusions you come to in that long quote. I have studied evolution quite a bit over the last 30 years, and am proud to have met and argued with Ernst Mayr, a mentor of both Wilson and his somewhat ideological opponent Gould. I am a great admirer of all three of their works and considers Mayr’s efforts in constructing the modern synthesis to be one of the key foundations of my views on life, science and human nature.
    But in studying childhood development and adult education theory, especially Vigotsky and the amazing work out of Reggio Emilia, I am quite convinced that our “paleolithic emotions” are actually one of our most modern features, and intimately connected with our intelligence and flexibility in thinking.
    the PROBLEM comes in how children are raised and social structures that both enhance and limit intelligent thought in development. the reason people are not able to cope well with distant threats is not because of our primitive emotions, but because of inhibiting and destructive social practices that force children to conform to a somewhat dysfunctional society (and develop corresponding dysfunctional emotinal reactions). If you read writings of anthropologists, small tribes of hunter gatherers are often very adept at dealing with abstract problems that effect their society. They usually do not have the resources to solve them, and there are almost always cultural blind spots or taboos that limit their reactions, but I would wager that looking objectively they are often much more intelligent, flexible, and creative in responding to them than our current huge culture. This is a very simplisitcv ecxplanation, but I think one needs to be cvery careful discounting the actual part that emotions played in how human intelligence was molded both biologically and culterally.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      I actually agree with you!

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. And I’m familiar with Reggio Emilia. In addition I would also suggest the work of Jasper Juul whose work on the integrity of the child and the role of familial and social relations has profoundly influenced my parenting and world view. Too often, as you have correctly noted, cultural practices and behavioral norms inculcated into children are maladaptive. Emotions are indeed the basis of thinking and viewing the world – I by no means argue for a cold rationality of the Spock kind. Indeed, without emotion we may not be able to reason.

      So much of this has to do with that crude term “emotional intelligence” and the ability to manage one views of themselves, the world and their response. Having the psychological flexibility to manage oneself under different situations is an art that takes time, and one that too many children never learn. In fact, think how many adults can’t manage their well being and retreat into substance abuse, over consumption of food or problem gambling or lack the ability to have meaningful connections with others or their community?

      Those children often go on to struggle in life.

      Now… human potential?

      There is a rich, complex area for discussion. But could we as individuals and a society be doing better? Yes.

      Would that profoundly change how we react to the threat of climate change – or any other? Absolutely. But given that societies evolve primarily in iterative steps and non-directed ways – and cultural change is measured in generations… well there’s a good question. And the problem.

      Nature? Nurture? Ah that old chestnut first explored by Rousseau…

      I do take the long view, and I mention the raising of children and education in passing here: https://watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/to-pilot-a-planet-the-future-of-the-climate-change-debate/

      The question is complex, and hard to put into a single response and would take many, many posts to detail. But yes – in principle we are in agreement.

      Agree – hunter gatherer societies are adept at problem solving. One can also marvel at the linguistic “genius” of many, as fluency in several languages is the norm. I’m not across all the literature, but please feel free to recommend. When it comes to resource management and treading lightly upon the Earth there is much we can borrow and learn from the indigenous communities.

      Wilson’s work on sociobiology is indeed important – in fact, I’m staring at a well thumbed copy of his original text on my shelf. It has also shaped my world view – but I think his recent work on group selection theory is controversial to say the least.

      But thanks for you post – please hang around for discussion. Good stimulating intellectual debate is welcome. No, really thanks!

      Mike @ WtD

  2. Skeptikal says:

    “I will read the research in order to deepen my understanding, and ask questions and – yes – even be sceptical.”

    Oh, don’t do that. You’ll be labelled a ‘denier’.

  3. […] E.O.Wilson, feature image quote (also found here) […]

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