Apes with Nukes

TLDR: Although we aspire to be much more, at heart humans are slightly-evolved apes with brains and morality unsuited to handle the massive responsibility of the technology we’ve created. By using our brains to create a complex society, we’ve made our own brains obsolete, and it is crucial that we seek to modernize them.

We don’t often stop moving long enough to think about the biggest, heaviest things. Life. Death. Humanity. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize that our seemingly urgent day-to-day concerns are tiny specks in the larger context of life. But it’s surprisingly difficult to resisting being consumed by life’s trivialities.

So, for a moment, just stop. Take a breath and notice the present moment. A illuminating (if somewhat morbid) quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn is the following:

The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it’s as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. So you don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.

The point is to reflect for just a moment on our unimportance relative to the workings of the vast world around us, which can be surprisingly freeing. There are many billion of us humans on this planet, after all. So while you and I are each unique in many ways, our ultimate impact on this planet is likely to be relatively small. There exist forces larger than us as single individuals that tend to shape the world, like large unions of humans such as countries or companies, or powerful ideas like democracy or capitalism.

Thinking about Humanity’s Situation #

This line of thought leads us to consider things larger than ourselves, our friends, our family, and even our own country. For a moment let’s consider humanity as a whole. As a species, is our situation promising? What is the current state of humanity?

Admittedly, it’s a pretty broad concept to summarize in a paragraph. Our situation as a species encompasses everything about us: Our technologies, our politics, our well-being, and how we treat each other. We can observe many good trends affecting humanity, like our increasing ability to cure diseases, and advances in technology that allow more people to live in increasing luxury. Furthermore, overall a smaller percentage of people are dying violent deaths over time. Yet there are some troubling trends as well.

For example, despite having enough food to feed the world, many still die of starvation. Isn’t that strange? What an awful way to die – what a terrible meaningless death many face. What’s worse, the same wondrous technologies that enable us to travel to space or generate plentiful energy from plutonium, they also enable weapons of unparalleled destruction. The invention of atomic weapons has recently granted us the nightmarish ability to entirely destroy our own planet. This is a heavy, heavy, responsibility for us humans to bear, one that few would say we are in fact ready to bear.

Natural Evolution is Slow #

So – the question is, why, if we’ve uncovered so much knowledge and wisdom as a species – why, if we have the potential to live harmoniously in a world where technology could provide plenty for all – why, then, are we as humans still in basic conflict with one another, and in danger of extinguishing ourselves? We still fight wars, cruelly pitting our young against each other in mortal combat. We still develop increasingly extreme weapons. We still are short-sighted, greedy, vengeful, and hungry for power.

Interestingly, it turns out that a large amount of strife in the world can be explained by a single simple insight: The world that humans have created is much different from the one in which our species evolved. In effect, by using our brains to create a complex society, we’ve made our own brains obsolete.

The crux is that the pace of natural evolution is much slower than the pace of human society evolves. Natural evolution acts over many, many generations – tens of thousands or even millions of years. Yet we are changing our world at an accelerating pace. For example, who can predict what technologies await even our own children? As a result of evolution’s slowness, our brains have become increasingly poorly-fit to the world they must navigate within.

In other words, our brains are not much different from those of our caveman ancestors. Yet clearly the caveman world was much different than the world we currently live in. The end result is that in essence, we are apes with nukes. Imgar Persson and Julian Savulescu put it this way. in their book Unfit for the Future:

For most of the 150,000 years or so that the human species has existed, human beings have lived in comparatively small and close-knit societies, with a primitive technology that allowed them to affect only their most immediate environment. So, their psychology and morality are likely to be adapted to make them fit to live in these conditions. But by science and technology humans have radically changed their living conditions, while their moral psychology has presumably remained fundamentally the same (on an evolutionary time-scale), especially in the last centuries.

The human population on Earth has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution, so most humans now live in societies with millions of people, with an advanced scientific technology that enables them to exercise an influence that extends all over the world and far into the future. We shall argue that human beings are not by nature equipped with a moral psychology that empowers them to cope with the moral problems these new conditions of life create.

The Modern World Vs. Outdated Brains #

In other words, our brains are just not well-equipped to deal with modern society. We aren’t good at long-term thinking, or at delaying gratification, or at thinking about the massive numbers of people outside our own country. Our morality evolves at a slower pace than our technology: We have atomic bombs, but not the moral responsibility to ensure that we, or some rogue terrorist group, will not wreak terrible destruction with them. As Einstein said: “It has become exceedingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Still, all is not lost. The first step towards fixing a societal problem is often to become aware as a society that there is in fact a problem. We as a species can learn and acknowledge the limitations of our caveman brain. We can become aware of those situations in which our caveman brain falls short. And with that awareness, we can apply deliberate effort in such situations to make better decisions. As a trivial example, I know through experience that if I go out and drink two beers, I won’t get any writing done later that night. So, although it goes against my natural desire, if I need to get writing done, most often I’ll deliberately turn down the kind bartender’s offer to refill my beverage.

But perhaps this sort of stop-gap solution isn’t enough. There may not be enough willpower in the world to reign in our mal-adapted brains. Indeed, many great moral teachers have come and gone, and our moral progress as a society remains glacial compared to our technological progress. We may need to take more drastic steps. Perhaps our technology, the same that grants us powers we have difficulty wielding morally, might somehow even save us: Could technology be exploited to improve our morality? Can we enhance our own morality through medication, or modification to our genetic code or our brain? This of course, is dangerous, because we are talking about tinkering with what makes us human; and yet, it’s clear that some aspects of humanity are destructive and outdated.

In the end, I don’t have any miracle solutions on offer. What I do know is that it’s important for us as a species to seriously consider our future from time to time. It’s important for us to understand not only the boons of technological progress, but also the potential trap: More powerful technology just means we can manipulate the world more forcefully, whether or not we are responsible enough to handle that additional force. Already, our morality is lagging behind our technology. It’s time to examine carefully if catching up could be essential to our continuing existence as a species.


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