Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Post No. 137f: A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the Forum (Part 6)

This is a continuation of our daily excerpts taken from “New World New Mind.” This is the sixth excerpt in the series. For an introductory explanation of why we have chosen this book to share with you, click here.

[Please keep in mind that this book was published in 1989. All of this is copyrighted material, and we are simply sharing portions of it with you.]

Chapter 1 – The Threat within the Triumph (Continued)

“Next month, the world population will increase by more than the number of human beings that lived on the planet 100,000 years ago, a time when evolution had already produced a human brain almost indistinguishable from today’s model. In the next 4 years alone more people will be added to the Earth than made up the entire population living at the time of Christ. It is difficult to comprehend this kind of world, and most people, too many, have been unable to do so. Human inventiveness has created problems because human judgment and humanity’s ability to deal with the consequences of its creations lags behind its ability to create.

“• There is now a mismatch between the human mind and the world people inhabit. This mismatch interferes with the relationships of human beings with each other and with their environments. Our species did not evolve to comprehend the problems associated with gigantic numbers of people – yet 5 billion humans now occupy the Earth.

“Human beings, like all other organisms, have to adapt to the environments in which they live. For most of the history of life our ancestors evolved biologically, as do all living things. (Biological evolution consists of changes in the information encoded in our genes. It typically operates over thousands of generations.) Then, for the relatively brief period of human prehistory and history – a few million years – adaptation took place primarily by means of cultural change: the development of language and tools; the invention of agriculture, cities, industry, and high technology.

“Cultural evolution can be much more rapid than biological, for it involves alterations of information stored in minds or books, tools, art, and other artifacts of societies. Cultural evolution can make significant changes in a matter of decades or less. But the rapid changes human beings are making in the world now have made the pace of most cultural evolution far too slow.

“As a result we are losing control of our future. The serious and dangerous mismatch is this: civilization is threatened by changes taking place over years and decades, but changes over a few years or decades are too slow for us to perceive readily. That is a time scale too leisurely for a nervous system attuned to bears, branches, burglars, and downpours. At the same time, the changes are much too rapid to allow biological or cultural evolutionary processes to adapt people to them. We are out of joint with the times, our times.

“• The rate of change in the world around us is increasing. Humanity is refashioning the world so quickly now that each decade’s environment differs dramatically from that of the last. Each triumph of technology contains new kinds of threats. With the advent of television and other modern communications, we can even feel threatened by events, such as terrorist acts, occurring thousands of miles away.

“The psychological tendency is to respond to them immediately, as if they were local emergencies, while at the same time we ignore some occurrences such as the gradual increase in homeless people or thinning of the ozone layer, that really are serious threats to us or our neighbors. Thus our old mental system struggles and often fails to distinguish the relevant from the trivial, the local from the distant, just as the ability to make such distinctions is becoming increasingly crucial.

“• The human mental ‘hardware’ – our senses and brains – is effectively fixed. That hardware equips us with what we call the old mind. Although we are evolving, our mental machinery will not change biologically in time to help us solve our problems. The same mental routines that originally signaled abrupt physical changes in the old world are now pressed into service to perceive and decide about unprecedented dangers in the new.

“In saying this we don’t mean to downgrade our accomplishments; indeed it is human inventiveness that causes our major dilemma. Our minds now conquer challenges and tasks that appear to have no parallels in our evolutionary past; we read and write, learn more than one spoken language, use word processors, and design and fly aircraft. But none of these tasks represents a break with the standard animal pattern of planning to reach short-term goals.”

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