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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Unraveling Humanity's Evolutionary Puzzle: Part 2 - Navigating Modern Challenges


This is the second part in a deep exploration of what is wrong with our world, the challenges that we have on our collective plates, and what we need to do about them. I realize that this is a very ambitious undertaking. I encourage you to read my very first blog on Medium, Finding Greater Peace and Joy in Our “Crazy” World to give context for how I am approaching this series. In a non-dualist way, with both conviction and humility, I will describe the root of our societal problems as well as the path that we must take moving forward.


As I’ve said before, I am not conflating what I believe to be true with Truth. My mind has been “connecting dots” in certain ways that, I am convinced, have profound and far-reaching implications. I have been connecting these dots (i.e., ideas, concepts, views) for many years now, but the process has accelerated markedly within the past year. It has reached “critical mass,” and I feel compelled to share these ideas with you. I will use multiple angles and create a logical, coherent flow to support these ideas and claims. While I acknowledge the possibility of being wrong due to life’s complexities not conforming to dichotomous right/wrongs, I am confident in the validity of much, if not most, of what I will be saying, regardless, I guarantee you that I will make a compelling case and create a fascinating, engaging journey for you.


I am considering writing a book on this material but, if what I believe about our world is true, the process of writing and publishing a book is far too slow. I do NOT mean I think we are doomed. However, I do believe that humanity has a tsunami of change heading straight toward us. I will lay this out as clearly as I can within this series because this is both important and urgent.


Humanity will need to bring our “A-Game” to rapidly unfolding sci-fi world that we are creating. More specifically, I believe artificial intelligence will be one of the most formidable challenges we have ever faced; in fact, I am 100% certain of this. I will lay out why I believe this is the case in ways that are not being covered by the media. I believe that if you approach this series with openness, you will recognize some of the same observations, feelings, and concerns within yourself.


While I aim to blow your mind, there will also be a familiarity about what I am saying. You might not be able to explain what you know in the same manner I will be doing, but I am confident that you know, or sense, these truths yourself already. My goal is to give voice to some feelings and thoughts you’ve been having about our world, but perhaps you just couldn’t put your finger on them. I’m not only going to put my finger on them, my goal is to yank these sobering truths about our world and future into full view. My conviction is that the light of truth will guide our way forward as we navigate through these challenges ahead.


The only way to solve a problem is to understand it, and understanding begins with an honest and open search for the truth, however painful that truth may be.” — C. P. Snow, British novelist and scientist


At this point, you might be thinking, “What is this raving madman going to say, anyway?” Well, follow me and find out, because each successive article will become more ambitious and thought-provoking. I am unleashing a torrent of “thought babies” within this series in which I connect some big ideas from diverse sources (e.g., science, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, religion, ancient wisdom, pop culture) to paint an interesting and compelling picture of our world’s problems and what we need to do about them. In future articles, I will no longer place caveats as these have been covered in my other articles within this series. I will mostly be describing the dots that I’m connecting.


As we covered in my previous article, What’s Wrong With Our World — Part 1: The Good News/Bad News, while humanity has made much progress we seem to be struggling more than we should in numerous ways on both societal and individual levels. Not only that, we have some incredibly complex and daunting challenges in front of us.


Ironically, much of our suffering that we experience on both individual and societal levels in this world of modernity is rooted in the evolution that got us here in the first place. What do I mean by this? In the next section, we’ll explore how this evolutionary legacy has led to many of the thorny challenges we face in our modern world.


Our Modern Problems Rooted in Our Evolutionary History

As strange as it might seem, the roots of most of our modern problems can be traced back to our evolutionary history. It cannot be emphasized enough how profoundly our evolutionary heritage, to this day, deeply influences our brains, bodies, mental health, and the way in which we experience life. We need to understand this because we are experiencing a technology-fueled acceleration of change that is straining our capacity to deal with the challenges of our rapidly-changing world.


As we move forward, let’s not split hairs over some of the details of our evolutionary story. The following description is “good enough” for our purposes. Moreover, I am focusing on particular parts of our evolutionary history that help explain why many aspects of modernity are such a challenge for us.


Our long journey into modernity likely started around four million years ago when our hominoid ancestors branched off from our primate relatives. From about two million years ago until the dawn of civilization around 12,000 years ago, our ancestors primarily lived as hunter-gatherers in tribes of about 100–150 people. Needless to say, these ancestors adapted to live in environments starkly different from today’s world.


As we adapted to the intricacies within our tribes and often harsh and unpredictable ancestral environments, our intelligence helped us to problem-solve, adapt, and survive. Thus, natural selection “selected” for the evolution of our intelligence. The “survival of the fittest” often meant “survival of the smartest.” In turn, we used these big brains to develop tools (around 2.6 million years ago), control fire (roughly a million years ago), and develop language (about 200,000–300,000) years ago.


Survival, Suffering, and “Goldilocks” Zones

Now, life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors was no picnic. Let’s not paint a rosy picture that they were living in some form of Eden or utopia. Our ancestors struggles to survive and thrive. They faced threats to their lives such as predators, the elements, diseases, accidents, hostile tribes, and the constant need for food and water.


To continue to exist is our most important evolutionary purpose, and this has been the case since our more humble beginnings. As biological organisms, we evolved optimal zones, or “Goldilocks” zones, within which we could best survive and thrive. While we are adaptive and resilient, when we were too far outside these “Goldilocks” ranges, we would begin to suffer. The suffering that we experienced when outside of these Goldilocks zones, from an evolutionary standpoint, served to motivate us to try to get back into the zones.


The suffering signals to the organism that we are living in ways which are suboptimal for surviving and thriving. We are motivated to make changes to re-establish the harmony, which relieves the suffering. Thus, the suffering can be considered to be part of an evolutionarily-determined negative reinforcement process that motivates us to live within the Goldilocks zones to enhance our chances of survival.


To look at from a slightly different perspective, when we live within these Goldilocks zones, we are living in harmony with our evolutionarily-based ancestral environments. When we begin to live outside of these zones, the disharmony (or incongruency or mismatch) leads to suffering. Living within these Goldilocks zones meant increased chances for survival. They meant life, and being alive meant that we had an increased chance of passing on our genes.


Language and Abstract Thinking

Language allowed us to think abstractly, exchange ideas and information, and work together more effectively. This facilitated even greater cooperation and the sharing of knowledge, experience, and wisdom. A related development that separated us from other mammals and primates is that we became “experience simulators,” a term coined by Harvard social psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert. That is, we could mentally time travel to the future and past to make predictions and learn from past mistakes.


The ability to think abstractly, and use symbolic language, is probably how we developed a sense of self, an ego. With language, we could communicate our wants, desires, and ideas using our newly developed sense of “I.” Now we had an abstract self that could time travel so we could learn from intuition and our imagination.


From this perspective, there was a enhanced survival value in having a time-traveling self use an experience simulator to test hypotheses rather than trying things out from direct experience (e.g., “Maybe if the hunting party chases this wooly mammoth off the cliff that would be better than a direct attack out in the open.”). Then, we could communicate such ideas to our fellow tribal members. All of these evolutionary stepping stones of progress helped us to become more successful as a species, as we multiplied and spread out across the lands.


Pleasure and Happiness

From an evolutionary standpoint, pleasure served as an incentive to encourage us to seek stimuli and engage in behaviors that enhanced survival (e.g., seeking/obtaining sweet fruit, refreshing water, sex, and comfort). Happiness or contentment became the reward, or evolutionary payoff, for effectively meeting our basic needs — such as food, water, shelter, safety, sleep, and social connection within our ancestral environments.


Conversely, as mentioned previously, we would begin to suffer when our survival needs were not being met adequately (e.g., thirst, hunger, fatigue, heat exhaustion, frost bite). In general, the degree of suffering would increase as the level of mismatch (i.e., out of the Goldilocks zones) became more extreme and/or chronic. In this sense, pleasure, suffering, and happiness (in the form of contentment/satisfaction) all served to motivate our ancestors to live in ways that enhanced the chances of survival so that we could successfully raise offspring and pass on our genes.


Emotions

Emotions emerged as evolutionary shortcuts that, in general, motivated us to take some type of action and/or communicated information quickly to other tribal members. For instance, if tribal member “Grug” played too roughly with your toddler, an angry reaction would let Grug know that he is crossing lines that would not be tolerated. In turn, those angry feelings arose because there is an evolutionarily-based survival value in protecting one’s children. As another example, sadness, grief, pain, and other forms of suffering were expressed as various emotions so that other tribal members could attend and console a fellow tribal member who was hurting. Conversely, feelings of warmth, affiliation, and even love could be said to have their roots in evolution to reinforce strong bonding and family/tribal cohesion.


Social Connections

Importantly, as social creatures, social connections were essential for our surviving and thriving, and they still are. Our big brains evolved, at least in part, to help us navigate social complexities and work cooperatively with our fellow tribal members. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and there is great strength in connection, unity, and cooperation. One might even say that human beings were “meant to be” in social relationships.


There is much research within attachment theory on how important our social bonds are to our physiological and psychological well-being. Strong, healthy attachments facilitate survival. This is why, once our basic needs are met, most of our happiness, and unhappiness, is determined by the health and strength of our social connections.


We can reflect on our happiest times in life, and these most likely involve good times with friends and/or family. Feelings of warmth, bonding, and even love can be explained as evolutionary payoffs for seeking, developing, and maintaining healthy relationships.

Moreover, our social relationships also greatly affect our physical health and longevity. After meeting our basic survival needs (e.g., food, water, safety), there is nothing more important for us than our social relationships. In fact, even our basic needs for food, water, and safety are met through these social relationships. Since we are all interconnected socially, this means everybody, in effect, “wins” when our social relationships are going well.


“Happiness is only real when shared.” — Jon Krakauer, “Into the Wild”


“If I have everything but do not have love, I am nothing.” The Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 13:2–3 of the New Testament


Conversely, when relationships are not going well, we tend to be quite unhappy and/or distressed. Conflicts, arguments, death, divorce, bullying, teasing, being alienated, ostracized, left out, and feeling lonely all take a toll on our mental and physical well-being. Indeed, chronic feelings of loneliness are associated with a shortened life span. We can reflect on our own lives to know the truth of this. Our worst times in life almost have to do with our relationships not going well.


Social Outliers and Rabble-Rousers

To be clear, our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers was not all roses and rainbows. Historically, while there was certainly competition within tribes for resources and status, ultimately, we had to resolve those fairly effectively or the whole tribe might not survive. In this sense, outliers and rabble-rousers were not tolerated too long, because they could jeopardize the survival of the tribe.


From this perspective, “extremists” within our evolutionary history, were the outliers and rabble-rousers. By definition, extremists were on the ends of the normal or distribution curve. Now, if extreme behaviors (i.e., those well outside the bell curve of “normal”) were tolerated as long as they didn’t affect the survival of the group. In fact, if an “outlier” engaged in an unusual behavior, like discovering a more effective way to hunt, they would probably have been celebrated by the tribe. However, tribal members would not have tolerated a particular individual for long if they consistently exhibited extreme behaviors that jeopardized the survival of the group.


For example, our ancestors might have become angry at a fellow tribal member for making too much noise on a hunt. In turn, the anger might have motivated the hunter party to silence the offending tribal member or perhaps exclude them from future hunts. If the offending outlier could not be managed, then they might have been cast out of the tribe or killed outright. “Grug” might have gone out with the hunting party never to return. Survival of the fittest could be harsh and cruel. However, the survival of the tribe was paramount importance because a tribe that was too disorganized, chaotic, or conflictual was less likely to survive.


The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the One.” — Spock, from “Star Trek II — The Wrath of Khan”


The Dawn of Civilization

Given our ancestry as nomadic, hunter-gatherers, the vast majority of communication would have been within tribes rather than between them. Thus, our growth and progress through the exchange of information would have been limited by the separateness of our tribes. This all changed with the dawn of civilization.


As we continued to evolve and cooperate within our groups more and more effectively, we made strides that gave rise of civilization. Perhaps the most noteworthy development was agriculture, which occurred around 12,000 years ago. With the advent of agriculture and the domestication of livestock, we began to leave behind the relative simplicity of our lives as hunter-gatherers. In addition, we also created permanent settlements, monetary systems, writing and record keeping, religion, and intricate social structures. While there were many benefits to such forms of progress, they were also a double-edged sword.


As we cultivated different plants and crops, we became more tethered to particular parts of land and protective of our resources. This also changed our diets markedly as well as how we used our bodies and our brains. As Yuval Noah Harari discusses in “Sapiens,” the dietary, living conditions, and lifestyle changes of early agrarian societies led to increases in health problems such as infectious diseases, repetitive stress injuries, malnutrition (from the lack of variety in diets), decreased bone density, and dental problems.


The dawn of civilization changed the way in which we socialized. As our numbers grew, we came in contact with people who had different customs, beliefs, languages, skin colors, and so on. While there was increased cooperation between different groups of people, our natural tribal loyalties also increased conflicts due to group differences. Societal-level problems also emerged such as widespread famines, wars, religious persecution, and pandemics that our evolutionary ancestors rarely, if ever, encountered.


The Dawn of Civilization Is the Beginning of Evolutionary Mismatch

The problems of modernity were sewn in our transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to civilization. The legacy of our hunter-gatherer brains and bodies lives on within us. This creates a gap between our biological evolution and our rapidly evolving cultural and technological landscape. This gap, known as evolutionary mismatch, highlights the discrepancies between our ancestral and modern living environments.


Simply put, we did not evolve to live in the world in which we now live. The impact of evolutionary mismatch has profound and far-reaching implications as we rocket forward into a sci-fi world that is being “techno-formed” before our very eyes. While we have been preoccupied with technological concerns about smartphones, video games, and TikTok, the 800 lbs. gorilla of artificial intelligence has entered the room. Humanity is about to experience an acceleration of “progress” unlike anything in our past.


While we are not doomed, humanity will need to bring our “A-Game” and work with a level of unity that we never have before in our history. To paraphrase the great Carl Sagan, extraordinary challenges require extraordinary efforts. Critically, a better understanding of the nature of our challenges lights up our way forward. Please join me next time as we connect dots about the nature of our challenges, and what we will need to do to skillfully navigate these uncharted waters ahead.

 

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