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Are We Equipped for the Challenges of the 21st Century?

In their book New World New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich make a strong argument that when we came out of the trees and into the savannah, we were competing with animals that had already evolved to survive on land. As a result, we had to evolve quickly to adapt to our new environment. Being able to notice the dramatic and immediate (a movement in a bush, a carnivore taking special interest in us, etc.) would be more than an advantage, it would be necessary for survival.

Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that this evolutionary preference continues to this day. We observe the immediate and the dramatic and this preference is fed by the tabloid media. Our news shows the immediate and the dramatic and that’s why it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular.

The authors argue that this preference is not a useful preference in our modern environment. Few people today are in danger of losing their lives from an unexpected attack by another animal. As a result, the ability to observe the dramatic and immediate is more inhibiting when it comes to the problems facing humanity.

For example:

Human population growth

The effect of this on the environment

Water and food safety

Resource depletion and pollution

Nuclear proliferation

These problems are more slow and creeping than immediate and dramatic. Our understanding of these matters is more intellectual than experiential. We cannot experience human population growth in real terms in a lifetime, environmental degradation is not immediate, water and food security is not dramatic until it is extreme.

Ornstein and Ehrlich focus on two psychological preferences to make their case. These are:

• Preference to observe the immediate and dramatic

• Vanguard and recent (noticing the first and the last and forgetting the middle)

Fortunately that’s not the whole story

Critics might argue that by focusing on two preferences, Ornstein and Ehrlich are not discussing our full human perceptual capacity.

Observing the immediate and the dramatic could be loosely equated with the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) preferences of observing the aesthetic and the emotional. While there are people in the world who prefer to observe emotion and the emotional (And we are very lucky to have them, as many of them are nurses or work in industries that help people in immediate need), we also have a large population of people who prefer to observe the intuitive and the logical.

Looking at poverty statistics creates a different answer to looking at a person’s struggle with poverty. When we read that there are 1 billion people living in poverty and that 29,000 children die of poverty a day, it is easy to separate the issue because the numbers create distance between us and the issue. When you see a mother crying as she holds her malnourished, sick and dying baby, you’d have to be a sociopath not to feel something. Mother Teresa is (probably wrongly) credited with saying “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”

So this means that we have the ability to observe both the immediate/dramatic and the universal and logical. As a result, we have many people working hard to address the very issues that Ornstein and Ehrlich discuss.

Not everyone is tabloid-sucked

Our news shows the immediate and the dramatic and that’s why it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular. But that doesn’t mean everyone is tabloid-sucked. And not everyone prefers to focus on the immediate and dramatic. I think there would be some very hard workers in the UN, non-profits, NGOs, communities and grassroots organizations who might take offense to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s position.

There are many people working very hard to make the world a better place, and perhaps Ornstein and Ehrlich are ironically suffering from what they suggest is our biggest problem. The work done by a large army of NFPs, NGOs, volunteers etc. it may not be immediate or dramatic and therefore it seems that (and I only read the first two chapters) their efforts were wasted by the writers.

Underestimating the environment

Another point that it would be easy to disagree with the authors is that we are not only genetic, but also influenced by the environment. Once again I would suggest that the changes in our behavior to match the environment are slow and undramatic and therefore have been missed or underestimated by the authors.

If we travel back to ancient Greece, the most honored members of society were its fighters and it was considered shameful for a fighter to be seen in the marketplace or even know how to count. Travel forward to the modern United States and its most honored men are its businessmen. It would be considered a shame for these men not to know how to count or how the market works. Fortunately Jeffrey Skilling, Bernard Ebbers and Bernie Madoff didn’t try the “Yes, but if we were in Greece…” defense.

Fortunately there is a wealth of books that show that we can indeed change our behaviors as the environment demands. These include:

In sociology:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

Spiral Dynamics by Beck and Cowan

In economics:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner

In the story:

The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer Dixon

A brief history of Ronald Wright’s progress

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

A case for evolution

Ornstein and Ehrlich write that “Our human mental system is incapable of understanding the modern world. So events, in our opinion, will continue to be out of control until people realize how selectively the environment impresses the human mind and how it is determined our understanding of the biological and cultural history of mankind’.

While this may be correct, there is an assumption in this assumption that environmental control is preferable or even possible. This could be argued.

We could also argue that it has never been our ability to predict the future and yet we have already made amazing advances and improvements. I also understand that this is the “so far so good” argument, and perhaps with technology, research, study, knowledge, etc. we are better equipped to do this now than ever before.

Alarmist

Paul Ehrlich also wrote The Population Bomb, a contemporary essay by Thomas Robert Malthus on the origin of population. Both claim that we will eventually lose the battle to feed, clothe, house and employ the growing population. Critics attack its disturbing tone, among other things. The alarmist tone could have more to do with the fact that Ehrlich was one of the first people to popularize science through the media. In the 1960s television brought issues such as population into people’s living rooms.

That said… I get a little angry when I read a pattern like: “Cities lead to epidemics of overcrowding diseases and large-scale wars. Public health measures lead to further population growth and then, by allowing people to live longer, to an increase in cancer and heart disease. Cities also lead to universities and to the revelation of many secrets of the universe. And the revelation of secrets of the universe leads to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.”

Are the authors seriously suggesting that we should exterminate 9/10s of the population and the remaining few revert to being cave dwellers? When I read such sentences I can understand why Paul Ehrlich is such a controversial figure. A zealot is both your best friend and your worst enemy.

Examples of clear calm thinking

In response to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s argument, we could cite examples of when the human race has solved complex problems with clear calm thinking. For example:

• We’ve sent people to space and the moon… and brought them back.

• We have developed immunization and greatly reduced deaths due to diseases like plague, measles, polio etc.

• We have avoided nuclear war on countless occasions. For example: The Cuban Missile Crisis and perhaps many other times we will never hear about because of the clear and calm thinking of good people.

We continue to be able to create surplus food (Unfortunately much of it is wasted in the first world while people in the third world starve. Also the good work of NFPs and NGOs like the food bank.

At the end

I would agree that as humans and our cultures have evolved, the decision to act or not to act has affected an increasing number of people. In Africa’s Rift Valley 1 to 2 million years ago, decisions would affect a family or tribe. At the beginning of the common era, such a decision would have implications for up to a million people (the believed population of the city of Rome at its peak), whereas today a decision to act or not to act on certain issues could threaten all cultures, the real existence of humans and perhaps even the existence of life on the planet.

I would also agree that the evolution of our thinking is our ticket to a better world.

Where I disagree with Ornstein and Ehrlich is that they have been very selective with the human capacities they have chosen to make their case by focusing on just two psychological preferences and seemingly ignoring those that we have that help. I would also like to point out all the work that is being done right now and the good people who are already doing work and have completed tasks that have helped.

I would suggest that writers would do well to balance their approach if they want to broaden their reach.

And I also applaud them for contributing to the conversation in a much more useful way than talking about “Brittany’s Shock Baby Bump Rehab Horror Love Triangle.”

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