Saturday, February 4, 2012

What is a Smart Species Like Us Doing in a Predicament Like This?

This post by George Mobus, published on "Question Everything", goes to the heart of the problem; correctly defined as "predicament". We are simply not equipped to cope with the complexity we have created. Now, it seems that we can do little but watch the banquet of consequences.

Too Smart for Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth

Reviewed by George Mobus

A Paradox

Many years ago I believed, as do most people today, that intelligence was the key to solving all of mankind's problems (read: innovation, assumed by technocornucopians to overcome all problems). I spent no small amount of my life pursuing understanding of what intelligence is, and how the brain produces the abilities to solve complex problems. My childhood was spent watching the unfolding explosion in science and technology that culminated in, for example, the landing of humans on the moon. I grew up knowing there were these wondrous electronic brains called computers. Later at a still impressionable age, once the size and prices of computers came down, I got my chance to play with them. I fell instantly in love with a machine that I could program to rapidly solve problems that would have taken me days to accomplish. And I came across the works of Alan Turing regarding the idea that a computing device might be able to emulate human intelligence, dubbed “Artificial Intelligence” (AI). The “Turing Test” posited that we should accord intelligence to machines if in a blind conversation with a real human, the latter could not detect that s/he was talking to a machine. I set out to see how such a wonder might be accomplished.

Many years later I managed to earn a PhD in computer science by programming a computer to emulate not human intelligence, but the intelligence of a neuron with its adaptive synaptic connections. These, I assembled into a computational model of a snail brain, an admittedly moronic one, and showed how such a brain could control behavior and, more importantly, emulate animal-like (biomimic) learning through Pavlovian-style conditioning. Putting this brain into a computer controlling a small Braitenberg robot, I could show how the brain learned features of its experienced environment and adjusted its behavior to conform to the stimuli of that environment (run from pain-causing stimuli and approach rewarding stimuli). That academic exercise started me digging deeper into how biological neural networks in real brains work. I read every book I could get ahold of and many journal articles on various aspects of neuroscience trying to understand how it worked. The obvious goal of AI was to produce human-like intelligence in a machine. The strong version of this program even contemplated producing a conscious machine (e.g. HAL 9000 in A Space Odyssey). The field of AI has evolved from the earliest days and it has produced some useful computational products. And even though Deep Blue (IBM) beat world chess master Garry Kasporov and Watson (also IBM) beat the all-time Jeopardy champs at that game, the fact is that computers still only simulate some aspects of intelligence, and then only in limited expertise domains.

Throughout the evolution of the field, the idea of a machine intelligence spawned considerable interest among psychologists, neurobiologists, and philosophers. Debates about just what intelligence was in the first place were generated each time AI seemed to make progress. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the field was to show just how different real brains were from the way computers process data. And with each new accomplishment of computers, trying to master tasks that had previously been thought to require intelligence, it became clearer that the human kind of intelligence was far more complex and nuanced than our earlier models accounted for. My own claim that my robot emulated a “moronic” snail might have been valid for a very low level of intelligence, but it only served to underscore how far our computational approaches were from the real thing as far as human-level intelligence.

In any case my initial forays into AI via trying to simulate learning phenomena in neuron-like structures got me hooked on the notion of understanding the real deal. Both psychology and neurobiology had made such important strides toward grasping the nature of human intelligence and consciousness that I essentially ceased worrying about AI and turned my attentions more fully to the pursuit of real human intelligence as an object of study.

As much as has been elucidated, especially over the last few decades, about human intelligence, most of the world still holds that intelligence is our greatest mental achievement. Coupled with its twin mental capacity for creativity, intelligence is seen as the epitome of cognition; a genius is one who has ample portions of both compared with ordinary humans. The human brain is held to provide cleverness in solving complex problems. We often equate intelligence with rational thinking (e.g. deductive logic) and hold accomplishments in mathematics or science as evidence that we are an incredibly smart species. The mere fact of the existence of our technological prowes proves that we are smarter than any mere ape.

But there is a fly in the ointment of this palliative thought. If you try to objectively account for the state of the world today as the result of our being so smart you have to ask a very important question: If we are so smart, why do we humans find ourselves in such a terrible predicament today? Our species is facing a constellation of extraordinary and complex problems for which no one can suggest feasible solutions (see below). The irony is that these problems exist because our cleverness, our being so smart, created them. Our activities, clever as we have thought them to be, are the causes of the problems, which, collectively, threaten the very existence of humanity! This seems a paradox. We were smart enough to create the problems, but we're not smart enough to fix them. My own conclusion was that maybe smartness wasn't enough. Maybe something even more important to cognition had been missing that allowed this predicament to develop. That has been the thought that has been motivating my own search for an answer.

Craig Dilworth, Reader in Theoretical Philosophy at Uppsala University in Sweden, has asked this same question from a slightly different perspective, but comes to a similar conclusion regarding the role of intelligence in creating the predicament. In Too Smart for Our Own Good Dilworth masterfully pieces together the story of how humans, being so clever, but still motivated by our animal instincts and drives, have made a real mess of things. Put simply, he concludes that the evolutionary experiment called Homo sapiens is intrinsically unsustainable. He builds the evidence carefully and skillfully, though I have a few concerns regarding some possibly nitpicking details (to be discussed later). His arguments are both complete and consistent with observed reality. And he pulls no punches.

The Predicament and Proximal Causes

A good deal of Dilworth's book deals with the evolution of the current human species and, in particular, the residual components of human behavior inherited from our animal predecessors. In short, he elucidates the various instinctive drives that underlay all human activities and that demonstrate just how much of a biological creature humans really are. He carefully derives a set of principles from physics, chemistry, and biology that explain the evolutionary trajectory that leads quite naturally to clever apes. And then he claims that a threshold was passed. Along the line of genera Australopithecus and Homo cleverness produced behaviors that no previous animals had been able to perform, at least to the extent these clever apes were able to. In particular early humans (the term covering several species) learned to control fire, to become more efficient hunters and gatherers with tools that they manufactured, to protect themselves from the climate vagaries with manufactured shelters and clothing. That capability to invent and construct put them in a new biological relation with the rest of the biophysical world. It set them going on what Dilworth describes as the “vicious circle.” Humans can extract resources, both non-renewable and renewable, from the environment at a growing rate, both per capita and as the population grows, in absolute terms. We also consume these resources after turning them into usable forms, like clothing. Our consumption, plus the ravages of entropy, means that we are producing waste products at increasing rates in the same dynamical framework as the extraction rates. And we can't help ourselves. We are driven by biological mandates to consume as individuals and to procreate.

The part about us not being able to help ourselves is really the distal, root cause of all of our misdeeds and subsequent problems. More proximal to our current conundrum is a set of immediate causes and their consequences.

The global-scale threats are legion. Here is just a partial list of some of the more threatening problems, the human role in causing them, and their possible consequences. Any one of these could be incredibly troubling for mankind, but taken together, because they are all interrelated and feeding upon one another, I am convinced, as are a growing number of scientists, they spell certain disaster.

Population Overshoot

In all but a handful of cultures, and those are generally hunter-gatherer societies, and certainly among the so-called civilizations throughout history, the general sentiment of: “Be fruitful and multiply,” seems to have prevailed. Humans, like many animals, have a few, albeit weak, built-in mechanisms for checking the size of populations relative to the carrying capacity of the local environment. Many cultures have practiced various forms of population control and some still do today with varying degrees of success. These practices may be generally seen as part of the culture and have only more recently been seen as coming from some underlying biological drives. Some of these practices are considered barbaric and immoral to civilized sentiments. But, when they work they seem to work well.

Dilworth argues, however, that these internal checks are easily subverted by the more expansive driving biological instincts when the population perceives that 1) the environment can support more bodies, and 2) more bodies are needed to do the work needed to facilitate the extraction of resources. The turning point in human prehistory was probably the invention of agriculture. The latter, ironically, doesn't actually substantially increase the net energy per capita gain as compared with hunting and gathering, at least where the latter is done in environs that provide renewable abundance in game and food plants. Rather, it tends to decrease the uncertainty of food resource availability, which we humans seem to appreciate. Also ironically, agriculture takes more work per unit time to achieve reliable results, hence an actual reduction in net energy gain per unit of time spent in food production, per capita.

In other words, Dilworth appears to be arguing that the population increases that have been attributed to agriculture came not from an increased availability of food, per se, but from a diminishing of the strength of signals that would have triggered internal natural checks on population expansion enabled by the use of food production technologies. The working classes were allowed to just barely subsist and procreate sufficiently to assure a continuing or even expanding working class to support the higher classes. And, the taller the class hierarchy, the broader the base working class needed. But such expansion also included bringing more land into cultivation in order to support the growing population and still provide a steady flow of goods up to the higher reaches of the hierarchy. Growth of population and “economic” activity — originally farming — thus became a necessity and not just a consequence.

Diminishing Net Energy Per Capita

Of course, the problem is that there is just so much land that can be cultivated. We live on a finite world. Resources, including land, are finite. As growth consumes more and more of the area around the centers of the civilization hierarchies it eventually comes up against either competing hierarchies or marginal land that eventually cannot sustain a production quantity needed. There is an additional interesting phenomenon that occurs as expansion continues, even when the land might be productive. Under the conditions of travel by animal-drawn carts, it turns out that there is a natural distance from the center beyond which the net energy returns begin to diminish geometrically with linear (arithmetic) increase in distance. Horses and oxen need to be fed and can only carry so much weight. The strategy of growth as a way to keep the enterprise going may have seemed like a good idea to the overseers, but in fact there came a time when each unit of growth produced diminishing, and eventually negative benefits. This is related to the idea first advanced by Joseph Tainter regarding the collapse of civilizations due to increased complexity[1].

The phenomenon of a population exceeding its environment's carrying capacity, defined as the capacity of the environment to replenish levels of required resources at a rate that can sustain an average number of individuals (or more correctly the amount of biomass represented in a given species) and to absorb the waste products of that population without toxic overload, has been documented many times in ecological studies. The world works primarily on a steady but limited flow of energy from the sun. In the end, that flow of energy determines the rate of biological resource replenishment (all other factors being equal). All other animals are restricted to a relatively fixed carrying capacity, at least over normal life cycle times. But humans, in their ability to harness exosomatic (outside their own bodies) sources of energy, and their capacity for invention, found a workaround to this basic limit. They developed ways to appropriate more resources for themselves, leaving the sub-human species less for their needs. Agriculture, after all, requires taking over large tracts of land for the purpose of growing just a few crops of interest to humans, generally in mono culture. Too often this results in loss of habitat for many other species.

Once humans discovered and started dipping into the bank account of fossil sunlight known as fossil fuels, the explosion of population was inevitable. For the last several centuries, thanks to the high energy content of hydrocarbon fuels, the net energy per capita used to extract other natural resources and support greater consumption has been increasing. The energy return on energy invested in extracting fossil fuels started out so high that human ingenuity for finding ways to consume more were seemingly released from any natural constraints. The modern technological society emerged as a result.

Unfortunately, fossil fuels are exactly the kind of finite non-renewable resource that constitutes an upper bound on the extent of the population. No, actually it is worse than that. Because we have reached a point in which those fuels are diminishing in toto, and what we are extracting now takes more energy to do it, we have the equivalent of what earlier civilizations faced when they reached the geographical limits for net energy gain. We are approaching the point of zero gains (if we haven't already passed it) and from here on out every human being on the planet will be facing a decline in net energy available to stay alive. Income inequities make the variances cause increasing starvation at the low ends while the higher classes keep trying to appropriate wealth for themselves.

The human species, like other species under similar conditions, has gone into overshoot. The very typical outcome of such a condition, primarily because the dynamics are nonlinear, is a crash, a wipe out of the majority of the population[2]. Dilworth, in his conclusion, is in agreement with a growing number of researchers that this is the most likely outcome for humanity. We are animals after all.

Derivative Problems

Overpopulation, i.e., overshoot, and diminishing net energy per capita lead to a large number of secondary problems that will also play a role in an unsustainable future for humanity. We are running out of potable water in many regions. This is in part because of overshoot but also in part due to climate changes that, in turn, are aggravated, if not directly caused by, the burning of fossil fuels adding carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere and oceans at unprecedented rates. The globe is warming and this leads to the climate chaos we are starting to witness. It also leads to ocean level rises that will inundate many inhabited regions of the globe in the not-too-distant future.

From the time of early agriculture and the reorganization of societies, humans needed some convenient method for abstractly representing wealth. At first they needed some way to account for stored grains and other commodities that would be traded. Later they needed a convenient way to carry around representations of the wealth they controlled and trade those representations rather than carry around the wealth itself. Money was invented to accomplish this task. Not long thereafter a form of lending was invented to act as investment in new enterprises. Derived most likely from the dispensing of saved grains as seed to be used by new young farmers to get started, the idea of lending wealth to generate more wealth in the future took hold. Today we have debt financing of everything from homes to bets (Wall Street). This idea of using debt-based money to invest in a future increase in wealth production was workable, even when abused as has become clear in recent years. As long as the supply of net energy was increasing there was always an expectation that the economy would expand and that would allow the pay down of debt. This was the case for the industrial revolution and well into the 1950s the expansion of oil and other fossil fuel supplies was supporting the capacity to do more physical work in the future. That meant there could be more wealth produced in the future, enough to pay back both principal and interest (the rental cost of the money for the risk taken) as well as make a profit. But now that the net energy supply is starting to diminish the strategy of growth and debt-based financing (as opposed to savings-based, as was the case in lending excess grain to a farmer for seed) is failing. And because society went so far into a debt buildup in expectation that growth would just go on forever, the resulting bubble burst that has ensued (and is still in progress) has had devastating effects on global economies. And it will only get worse.

We humans have been incredibly smart in devising machines, methodologies, and abstractions that have exploited the availability of natural resources and especially exosomatic energy sources. Too smart.

But not, it seems, smart enough to think ahead about the consequences of consumption of finite resources. We were and are extremely clever. But we are not wise.

What Does It Mean to Be Smart?

All of the above problems might have solutions if we can just invent the right technologies and apply them in time to avoid pain and suffering. We should be able to do this because we are smart apes, right?

This is precisely where the argument turns. We are smart. Smart enough to create technologies like agriculture and machinery that seem to solve certain immediate problems. We seek more certainty in our food supply so we plant and tend crops. We have to settle down in one place to do this but that, at first, seems a side benefit. We want to get places fast, and do harder work faster so we invent machine-based tools that require external sources of energy to run. We solve a problem, the problem of increasing demand for the products, by making those products more rapidly. At every turn, the smart ape has solved a problem of immediacy and done so with extraordinary results.
What this ape has also done is ignore a meta-problem. Every problem solution carries with it the seeds of another problem of greater scope. Dilworth sees the pattern clearly. It turns out that the entropy version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains this situation[3].

In the process of humans inventing ways to do what is to them useful work (and solve problems) they are effectively decreasing the local entropy in their vicinity. That is, they are increasing the order (e.g. building functional structures and equipment) for themselves. But the Second Law tells us that every gain in order in a system can come only at the expense of an even greater increase in disorder (entropy) of the larger, embedding system — the environment. So even as humans increased the “value” of their human-built world, they did so at the greater expense of the environment. Order and organization on the Earth have decreased overall (think, for example, about biodiversity - a measure of organization/complexity), as the Second Law demands, but at a rate accelerated by the activities of humanity. The Earth system had been operating close to a dynamic equilibrium (Dilworth's first chapter provides insights into the meaning of this) prior to the evolution of humans. This is because the solar influx of energy had stabilized and even though the Earth was experiencing cycles (e.g. the ice ages) of ups and downs, on the whole, the biosphere was adaptively able to maintain its activities precisely because the rate of fluctuation was matched by the rate of evolutionary change in species. After humans got started, that dynamic state was forever disrupted, with greater energy dissipation and rejiggering of many of the large scale, long time geochemical cycles such as the carbon and hydrological cycles. All of this is now witnessed at a global scale. And it is very much the proximal cause of all of our other problems.

So here is the crux of the matter. We are smart enough to have created this situation by virtue of our capacity to increase the rate of entropy increase for the whole Earth system. But we are not smart enough to fix it. That is because of a simple fact. Smartness is for invention and solving local problems. Intelligence and creativity are great for finding new ways to increase entropy. In a perverse twist, this is exactly what biological evolution was all about! And we smart humans were simply fulfilling our biological mandates. Unfortunately, from my own perspective, that also means the greatest natural check of all, a negative feedback control, whereby humans destroy the very life support systems they need to exist, will correct the situation. Any time any system gets out of control it breaks apart. Why should the human-built system be any different?

The Vicious Circle Principle

Thus we come to Dilworth's vicious circle principle (VCP). Man gets smart enough to become inventive. He invents things that allow him to survive and through increased fitness produce more offspring. But as often as not he creates something like a surplus and nature abhors both vacuums and concentrations, so man begets more men to work off the surplus. Or he invents some variation on a need fulfilling tool that produces something men might want, even though it isn't strictly speaking in support of survival. After a while, those wants being fulfilled, man gets used to having whatever it is and it effectively becomes a new need. But then population overshoot reduces the availability of the whatever and a new problem exists. So back to the drawing board, invent something else that will fulfill the new need. And around we go again. I have not done justice to Dilworth's explication here. I only wanted to give the reader a sense of the direction the author is taking. Of course you should read his work to fill in the details. And there are many more details that he covers superbly.

This VCP, according to Dilworth's thesis, is the penultimate root cause of all problems that we are experiencing. It is the process where intervention would be needed to stop and reverse the predicament. But therein lay the greatest problem of all. The VCP exists because of our human nature and nothing short of changing that is going to allow an intervention that could halt the vicious circle dynamic.

I think that Dilworth has truly put his finger on the central problem for human kind. We are caught on a circle of activity that is ‘vicious’ in terms of creating and worsening all of the problems we face. But I have reservations about this way of putting it.

‘Vicious’ is a value laden term. This circle, which increases the Earth's overall entropy, appears vicious precisely because we are the victims, and we cannot help having an anthropocentric perspective. But looked at from the perspective of evolution there is nothing vicious about it at all. In fact the term vicious has no meaning at all in evolution. Would we have thought of the comet that ploughed into Earth 65 million years ago and appears to have been instrumental in killing off the dinosaurs as vicious? Were the climate changes associated with ancient ice ages that appear to have been instrumental in the evolution of the genus Homo vicious because they also created the conditions that made other species of primitive humans go extinct?

I have preferred to think of the phenomenon of man's cleverness as the emergence of a new phenomenon in exactly the same way we now think of the emergence of life from pre biological chemistry. Of course, taking this perspective means that the destruction of civilization and the potential bottleneck event for humanity[4] are fundamentally necessary. And that is the hard part to swallow. As a human no one could ‘want’ the demise of our species, certainly. On the other hand, if we are really so smart as to understand the full implications of evolution itself, perhaps we could come to accept the inevitability of this outcome.


Overall, I think Dilworth's book has added an important perspective to understanding humanity's predicament. That is to say, once one has acknowledged that humans are facing a predicament that may not have any resolution but one of collapse and demise, then at least Dilworth provides an explanation for how it came about.

I have just one technical issue with the work, and one philosophical difference. The technical issue has to do with the author's heavy reliance on the concept of karyotypology to explain speciation. He uses the karyotype as if equating it to the singular marker of speciation, i.e., two different species within a single genus would have differing karyotypes. The evolutionists and geneticists I've spoken to about this express puzzlement at this usage. Karyotypes refer to the structural forms of chromosomes, especially as they appear in metaphase of mitotic cell division. It is the case that different species within a given genera may have different numbers and shapes of chromosomes that are thought to interfere with hybridization (at least viable) but this isn't always the case. Species differentiation is most generally thought to be genetic based. Some genetic differences could, of course, be the cause of differences in karyotypes, but that is a side effect of speciation, not the cause. Even with this possible misinterpretation of cause and effect in speciation, Dilworth's overall narrative of evolution is functionally correct, so the heavy reliance on karyotypology doesn't materially detract from the story.

I am with the author insofar as the pathway by which we reached this crossroads point. I agree we are too smart for our own good. But, my own take is that this is not an indictment of intelligence and creativity so much as a recognition of an inadequacy, to date, for the evolution of a mentality that might be more fit to manage its own smartness. We are smart, but not adequately wise. And we are not adequately wise because our brain structures that handle higher-order judgment have not yet evolved sufficiently to manage our smartness. You have heard the old saw: “Just because we can do a thing doesn't mean we should do that thing.” Just because we figured out how to split the atom to generate unimagined energies didn't necessarily mean that we should build atom bombs or nuclear reactors. We did it because we could and there was no higher-order judgment providing intuitions about the dangers of progressing down that road.

The brain basis for higher-order judgment and intuitive, unbiased guidance for decision making is what I have called sapience. It is the newest brain capacity in evolutionary terms and is deeply related to the capacity of humans to form abstract representations, especially language. It co-evolved with intelligence but started ‘later’ in evolutionary history, so is out of phase with the former. It has to catch up. My story ends a bit differently from Dilworth's. I see the impending impasse as the evolutionary opportunity for this to occur. In other words, rather than just writing off the genus Homo as failed because it was too smart, I prefer to imagine that the bottleneck is an opportunity for sapience to expand and come to provide an adequate management mental capacity for our cleverness. I have developed a scenario for the further evolution of the brain structures involved in sapience that require surprisingly little additional brain matter — more an issue of slight reorganization and wiring. Of course this is highly speculative. But it is based on known neuroscience and evolution theory. It is not idle speculation.

Whether Dilworth is right, that the end is upon us due to being too smart for our own good, or I am right that this is just a stepping stone toward an improved sentience on Earth, is something none of us will ever know. Where we deeply agree is what the near consequences for Homo sapiens sapiens will be. And the value in attending to the consequences is in anything we can conjure to lessen the pain and suffering — to be forewarned is to be prepared. The real value of Dilworth's work is to at least find some intellectually satisfying (even if disturbing) explanation for why we are where we are.


[1] Tainter, J. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press.
[2] Catton, William (1982). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press.
[3] See: Schneider, E. D. & Sagan, D. (2006). Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, University of Chicago Press.
[4] See: Catton, William (2009). Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, Xlibris.

Also see my review of this book: Question Everything: Humanity's Impending Impasse.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)