The 2008-09 economic crisis and evolutionary psychology

I have written to correspondents, publications and internet forums brief essays and briefer comments on life, the future of humanity in the light of what we know about life, human evolution (including evolutionary psychology) and the human situation in the 21st century. A list of all the essays is at the foot of the page.

Early in January 2009 I was sent an e-mail for my comment that included the following extract from Australian economic commentator Bob Connolly:

“As I have said before, many intelligent and informed people saw this whole global mess coming from a long way out. You did not have to be prescient; a simple understanding of the basic fundamentals of our unstable financial system was enough. No matter what the arguments for and against future property appreciation here in Australia, [this has been] the ultimate driver of our unsustainable debt burdens. Before long I believe we will witness an irreversible change in attitude as consumers make a long awaited return to frugality. ... I have long studied the lead up to the credit crisis and believe we as a nation cannot dodge the bullet. Anybody jumping in and buying property now is on a fool's errand. Ignore what is happening beyond our own shores at your own peril. The demand and supply argument will fall flat on its face when our overly indebted consumers rediscover the emotion of fear.”

My reply follows:

In my opinion Connolly’s right in some respects but not all. He appears to be one of the surfeit of specialists whose feet are firmly planted in the assumption that the recent past is a good guide to the future and who don't have the knowledge or willingness to step outside their specialty (especially in public, where they will be fully accountable and exposed to judgement of their professional peers) to look for contributory causes in disciplines other than their own. He leaves out human neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian evolution, peak oil, consumerism, the level of technology, climate change (and, hence, food and water insecurity), human over-population and overshoot (with its corollary, societal complexity) - and much else.

There are two points to make here about this simplified list of 12 causes: (1) Life is this complex, so why shouldn't explanations of complex reality also extend to the same breadth? [1] (2) Human responses to these dozen causes is the fundamental factor that will determine our future, and these human responses are not framed by economic considerations, political ideology, scientific knowledge, religious faith, optimism, hope etc., but by the way Homo sapiens think and how they manifest their thoughts in action [2].

Essentially, I see the timing of the present financial crisis as stemming from all the above - in varying proportions (but primarily the economic 'property cycle', as predicted as early as 2001 and 2005 by the Georgists). Overshoot and peak oil are in there as major contributory causes, but they weren't yet at the point where they could preciptate the crisis themselves.

The magnitude of the crisis, however, I see as deriving primarily from societal complexity, peak oil and the psychology of Homo sapiens [3]. Stephen Boyden's concern about inadequate biounderstanding (and the absence of applied biounderstanding at societal and governmental levels) across and throughout our species is also relevant to our species' overshoot.

As to the duration of the crisis, Connolly says he has studied past crises, and this leads him to assume, without question, a recovery. He talks of a 'long awaited return to frugality' - but how long did general returns to frugality last after previous economic downturns? Our species simply won't - can't - desire frugality: we always want to be more comfortable [4] and 'fit' in the Darwinian sense and this innate desire leads, inevitably, to the opposite of frugality. We can't help ourselves. (Walter Jehne refers to us as Homo hubris, but he uses the term to describe a passing cultural maladaptation; he doesn't see it as a fundamental, unchangeable part of our species' make-up.) A few of us can decide rationally to live frugally, but even when we do so we are fighting against our deeper and more powerful a-rational 'lizard brain' which we all have and which pushes our species towards behaviours which totally ignore the risks of overshoot.

The present crisis is basically the beginning of a permanent decline. There may be a brief or small recovery, still driven by the powerful property cycle, but by 2012 [5] there will be a lot of disappointed people and by 2015 the reality that there will be no recovery like those of the past will begin to sink in widely. The complexity of the causes - each with different timelines and impacts in seemingly unconnected aspects of the human experience - will prevent most people from ever understanding what's going on [6]. I don't claim to be doing more than scratching the surface, but events so far seem to fit my analysis - perhaps more will become clearer as time passes.

The economic crisis and human health - On 11 March 2009 the BBC reported on a survey of 2,102 people in the UK in which over half of respondents declared food price is now the main criterion they use in food purchase and a quarter said the recession made healthy eating less important to them than previously.


1. There is an infinite number of causes circulating in popular discussion and talkback radio. 'Greed' is commonly heard from politicians of the left (they are partly correct, but the point to note is that they are interpreting the information in the light of their ideology, not the data). 'Clinton's laws' requiring poor Americans be given easy access to housing finance is heard from the American right (again, these laws may have helped marginally to trigger some sub-prime lending, but not the way Wall Street and ratings agencies managed debt and the way individuals in Europe and elsewhere invested their savings). 'The Chinese' are accused of dumping their goods on western consumers and accumulating a surplus which they should have been spending (explanations that blame a racial/ethnic/minority group are to be expected in any crisis). Evolutionary psychology encourages us to look behind these explanations for reasons the 'causes' are being proposed (Homo sapiens prefer simple explanations, even simplistic ones - epitomised by the 'sound bite' - because they are easier to deal with mentally) and why others are being avoided (Homo sapiens tend to reject internalizing complexity even when they may profess to accept it intellectually, they find it difficult to deal with overlapping timeframes, they prefer to avoid acknowledging and confronting their own complicitness, they seek cheap and easy comfort in attributing blame). The search for 'causes' is leading to the reinvigoration of interest in human evolution. [7]

2. "The attribution of human motives and emotions to animals used to be considered sloppy science. The underlying fear was that such thinking might erode some of the respect that we felt we were owed as a uniquely sentient and rational species. That particular academic taboo is less rigidly observed these days, yet in a perverse sense it remains entirely sound. Indeed, no animal displays human behavior. Quite the reverse. Humans display only animal behavior. Watch the action without the sound track and this truth becomes obvious" (evfit emphasis). From page 14 of Plague Species by Reg Morrison. The American edition is titled The Spirit in the Gene.

3. The implications for our future of the relationship between peak oil (and human use of energy generally) and human evolutionary psychology is explored in this paper by Jay Hanson which is discussed on this Yahoo group.

4. Dmitry Orlov poignantly asks “Are we going to continue destroying the planet, just to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while?” The human response to this question can be read in what our species does, not in what our species says. If we were honest (which we are not, which we cannot be - because we are always jockeying for political advantage) the answer to Orlov from around the planet would be a resounding "Yes! Yes! Yes - please!" Pentti Linkola makes a similar point in his Can Life Prevail?: "The foundational argument for technology is that it makes life easier: easier and easier, invention after invention. In reality, man has been dominating the globe without rivals ever since the discovery of the stone axe, and our life has been unnaturally and hopelessly comfortable. Since then, our only real problems have been our physical ease, meaninglessness, rootlessness and frustration." p 145

5. Much to my embarrassment, I have recently (months after writing the above) become aware that 2012 is being cited by doomsday/apocalyptic cults as the year of "end times" according to some Mayan traditions. I find such desperate retreats into mysticism laughable and lazy and hereby distance myself from them in all possible respects.

6. On 31 January 2009 I was sent a smart solution to the economic crisis. Technically it was flawless, the logic was tight. In his final paragraph the author wrote: "Comments welcome - especially interested to know why people think this wouldn't work (except for the political reality that the US oligarchs would lose out big time)." I replied, telling the author that the reason he himself gave for why it would not work (political) is even more convincing that the reasons he gave for how it could work (technical). This is the same general problem we have with solutions to climate change etc: technical solutions are blocked by political expediency - and political expediency is driven by the way humans think (which is explained by our evolutionary psychology - we are fundamentally political animals). Scientists who focus on the technical solutions without addressing necessary political steps (and for this they need to understand the evolutionary psychology of the species Homo sapiens) are doing less than half the job they believe they are doing.

7. The economic crisis has unsettled many individuals and a large proportion of them have looked for reasons, scapegoats and new ways of understanding their lives and their relationships. This unsettling has spurred a wider interest in what people see as 'going back to basics' and for some this will include examination of their lives in the evolutionary context. Back to text

List of the essays on the future of humanity:

Essay 1: Humans = reindeer
Essay 2: Hope
Essay 3: I=PAT Environmental impact = Population x Affluence x Technology
Essay 4: Evolutionary psychology and climate change
Essay 5: Conservation - the passing of the word and the idea
Essay 6: The 2008 economic crisis and evolutionary psychology (this page)
Essay 7: The purpose of life and evolutionary psychology

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Page up-dated 20 July 2009