Human hard wiring

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

The species Homo sapiens evolved over about 200,000 years - that's 10,000 generations - when the consequences of the decisions they took had no impact on the global environment and thus their survival. It is only in the last single generation that our ecological footprint has exceeded the planet's ability to absorb the impact of our species' destructive behaviour. That is, we humans have evolved in circumstances where we have been able to make all our decisions as if the planet's resources were infinite. Another way of looking at this is to say that we are hardwired to avoid considering global perspectives.

Every other animal is similarly hardwired [5] and you see the effect of this with occasional plagues - which always end in a dramatic drop in the population of the plague species (locusts, mice, reindeer, algae etc.). You might say "Hey, what about me?" I'd say that you and I have exactly the same hard wiring; [4] however you and I have - to some extent - over-ridden some of the effect of this hard-wiring by the application of our intellect. We make conscious decisions to reduce our ecological footprint. But we reduce our ecological footprint only when we make conscious choices to do so. It doesn't come spontaneously and naturally; we need to work on it. We may even become habituated to it, but it's not a heritable trait. Thus, I walk to work, I work without an electric light when there's enough daylight etc. But do I eschew all use of electricity? All use of a car? [2] No way - the old hard wiring kicks in and enables me to easily rationalize my decision - any decision.

Notice a second bit of Homo sapiens hard wiring? My ability to deceive myself, my ability to rationalize my decisions to fit in with my beliefs and to hell with reality. For any sensible, Earth-friendly decision to be made in a democracy, the majority of voting citizens have to exercise their conscious intellect to counter their hardwired instincts. This is possible and it's sometimes done, but very rarely. In fact, in most cases it is done by a re-framing of the issue by those who can see the problems - so it is acceptable to the hard-wired brain. That is, rather than portraying the issue as a win-lose situation (win for the environment/lose for humans), a successful campaign will have to portray it as a win for humans, even if the campaigners have to employ deceit to achieve their victory.

"Pork barreling" is present in all societies, but it is deeply embedded in the American psyche and legitimized in their political process as "earmarking". Americans rejoice in their "frontier mentality" and the notions of "taming nature", "bending nature to human needs", and many others. Short term gain at the expense of anyone (except, sometimes, immediate kin) and everything is what all species do and it always worked - over the short term. Then the species overshoots, dies back and starts the cycle over again. This is what the "selfish gene" is about. [3] It is, at root, a biological problem, not a cultural problem that requires simply a change of attuitude. [11]

Our brains are hardwired with a propensity to avoid critical, rational [9], independent thinking by the individual, probably the result of optimized survival in a world that was either natural (biophysical and, to all intents and purposes, predictable on a day-to-day basis) or one where well-understood and accepted supernatural/legal beliefs filled gaps in understanding of the natural world and where uncritical compliance with these beliefs ensured the integrity and survival of the tribe. [7] The modern world is unlike the Palaeolithic one in that, to nature’s complexity (with its underlying consistency and general predictability), we are now confronted with more random, less predictable factors including novel and changing cultural artefacts which have no underlying consistency or relation to the familiar causes and effects of the natural world (mass society, money, mass media, the nation state, individualism, fashion, consumerism, organized religion, political ideologies, technology [10], manufactured food, belief in human exceptionalism etc.).

Arguments for "efficiency" are also potentially dangerous. If we become more efficient, this may take pressure off the environment (but it may more likely be at the expense of environmental services), but what do Homo sapiens do in the face of reduced pressure? Do they leave well alone? No way! We even have a phrase for it: "Nature abhors a vacuum". So humans will fill the area of reduced pressure with some other form of impact - usually by increasing their numbers. In so doing they reduce their options when the next crunch comes. Garrett Hardin identified this as "The Tragedy of the Commons" 40 years ago this year. It is one of the landmark papers in ecology. It explains so much about human behaviour that anyone who reads it and thinks through its implications rationally (not allowing their hard wiring to obscure its implications) sees the world - and the place of humans in it - very differently. The Jevons paradox is another expression of the same phenomenon: the proposition that technological progress which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. [6] (For an example, see note 8.)

Doug McGuff, in a You Tube video on erroneous thinking about fitness says: "We need a face-saving way to let go of our pre-conceived notions and the best way to do that is to understand how we make mistakes in our thinking. Thinking is really built for survival, not for truth; that’s how we made it as a species. Out thinking is programmed to be very efficient and to draw premature conclusions so we don’t spend too much time deliberating about ‘whether to run from the sabre-toothed tiger or not’. And that’s wired into us. The natural mistake of thinking is something called heuristics. This says that we like to tell comforting stories to ourselves to explain observed phenomena in our environment."[1]

I keep on campaigning in my way, being cheerful and helping others see reality, but not expecting to change the hardwiring of a species or to disengage the selfish genes in our species. Trying to help others not to fight biological reality (actually "biophysical reality", but that term's a bit academic) and hoping to establish a way for a sufficient proportion of humans to see this reality. Perhaps, if there is a stark shock, then hard wiring will waken sufficient numbers to seek ways to survive reality and lead them to answers that are consistent with our species long-term survival in this reality. It's a tough call, and - sadly for humans and many other species - may require repeated stark shocks to keep a sufficient proportion of humans behaving sensibly forever.


1. More from Doug McGuff in his book "Body By Science", McGraw Hill, 2009

2. Dmitry Orlov said: "Are we going to continue destroying the planet, just to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while?" Our species' answer to Orlov is a resounding chorus of "Yes!"  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   Back to text

3. The Earth isn't about keeping steady states of ecosystems. That's your genes wanting to keep an environment they are adapted to, that they find comfortable - it's nothing more than pure selfishness. Your political agenda, if you will.    Back to text

4. "The human tragedy," wrote Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), "is that circumstances change, but man does not."    Back to text

5. Tooby and Cosmides explain our hardwiring thus: "One of several reasons why evolutionary psychology is distinct from human sociobiology and other similar approaches lies in its rejection of fitness maximization as an explanation for behaviour. The relative degree of fitness promotion under ancestral conditions is simply the design criterion by which alternative mutant designs were sorted in the evolutionary past. (The causal role fitness plays in the present is glacially changing the relative frequencies of alternative designs with respect to future generations.) Although organisms sometimes appear to be pursuing fitness on behalf of their genes, in reality they are executing the evolved circuit logic built into their neural programs, whether this corresponds to current fitness maximization or not. Organism are adaptation executers, not fitness pursuers. Mapping the computational architecture of the mechanisms will give a precise theory of behaviour, while relying on predictions derived from fitness maximization will give a very impoverished and unreliable set of predictions about behavioural dynamics." The handbook of evolutionary psychology, 2005, p. 14. Chapter 1: the Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides

This means that in any given circumstances we are NOT driven to behave in ways that will increase the survival of ourselves or our gene line – that is we don't behave simply in response to the environmental signals. To behave this way would present us with a potentially infinite range of options and we would have to use our rationality (or some other thought process) to select the option that appeared to suit our perceived (conscious and sub-conscious) needs at the time.

It means, instead, that we DO draw on our existing bank of neural programs (evolved in the Pleistocene to deal with Pleistocene circumstances and events) to select from a very limited range of responses and that we execute the selected program (that is, we behave) in the way that best enables that program to be executed successfully. This program execution is automatic and has no recourse to rationality or to conscious contemplation of outcomes, survival or advantage, or even the difficulty of execution. That is, we don’t behave rationally according to the environmental signals, even when these – possibly – point to a behaviour that has a clear advantage in terms of our fitness. We might, in the space of a few seconds, sequentially draw on different neural programs as (a) the environment and (b) the effect of our execution of the previous neural programs gave us a new set of circumstances and, thus, pointed us to another neural program.    Back to text

6. This definition from Wikipedia 15 April 2010    Back to text

7. See my review of the movie Atanarjuat    Back to text

8. An example would be the introduction of hybrid cars to reduce carbon emissions. People who buy hybrid cars tend to drive longer distances, because they can now do so with a clear environmental conscience. The mere fact of their doing this leads to a society-wide acceptance of more motor vehicle use generally. It is also the case - though not an example of the Jevons paradox - that the production, maintenance and disposal of hybrid cars is more intensive than that of conventional cars. Back to text

9. Those who have 'faith in human ingenuity' (and many do, and it is 'faith' - just Google the term and follow the links to enter a Pollyannah-ish dreamland) assume humans will behave rationally in the light of factual information and scientific understanding. But look at the response to illnesses that have a lifestyle component. Most people who have type 2 diabetes, who smoke regularly or who are alcoholics have a good understanding of the main causes of their problems as well as a strong reasoned preference to recover. Many young women who regard themselves as obese, cry themselves to sleep in self pity - often after over-eating 'comfort food'. A few act to leave their problems behind, but despite the many programs to support recovery and help from friends, family and acquaintances, only a minority of these are motivated to sustain their recovery. "Giving up smoking is easy - I've done it lots of times"! Back to text

10. As well as 'faith in ingenuity' (see note 9 above), there is faith in technology. In response to my page on the maximum sustainable human population, a correspondent wrote in May 2010 to suggest that a population of 20 billion could be sustained "no problem" as "food needs will be supplemented by xeric crops and algae ponds which provide 60x food per acre as grains". I replied that these sources could never provide optimal food sources for our genome. (Remember, grains are seriously sub-optimal.) Furthermore, the average Joe would not appreciate the switch to a more prosthetic way of life - he'd revolt in the light of this change and the other changes that would also be imposed by arrangements which had taken us this far. I added that there are nations that are 'average Joes', nations that will not willingly adopt the many constraints implied by resort to an algal diet. More powerful nations will use armed force (directly or through puppets) to secure water, food and energy at a cost that enables their 'non-negotiable' way of life to continue on its present trajectory; their citizens would demand this application of force. Back to text

11. In 1973 Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) wrote Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. The article itself is not a breakthrough, but the message in its title is a compelling reminder that human behaviour is just like rat behaviour, reindeer behaviour or the behaviour of bacteria - a biological phenomenon. Back to text

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Essays on the future of life and humanity in the light of what we know about human evolution and the human situation in the 21st century:

Essay 1: Human = reindeer
Essay 2: Hope
Essay 3: I=PAT
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
Essay 7: The purpose of life and evolutionary psychology

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Page originally added 27 May 2008.    Page up-dated 10 May 2010