4. Consciousness, Society & Progress
What does it mean to be “human”? Isn’t it kinda cool you can even ask that question? Imagine a stone going “what is it to be a ‘stone’?” Okay okay I’m being unfair. Let’s pose that question to the next nearest intelligent life-form whose existence we are aware of. So next time you meet an orangutan ask the orangutan, “What is an orangutan?” You’ll probably have to use sign language since Orangutans aren’t well versed in English and.....oh wait, that’s right, Orangutans can’t even vocalise, let alone wonder what it means to exist. Clearly the gap between humans and any other lifeforms is ineffably vast. So what does it mean to be “human”?
To answer that question we must understand where we come from. We are all children of evolution. Evolution has wrought us, from the single celled organisms that appeared a few billions years ago we have been carried on the crest of evolutionary processes to what we are today, homo sapiens. What was this process that has seemingly performed a feat of magic? How can you get a human being from cells that are little more than bundled proteins?
To be quite honest, gaining a functional understanding of evolution is really easy. All the information that’s required to ‘make’ you is encoded in your genes. Approximately 99.9% of human genes are common to everyone and the remainder accounts for the differences. Genes change from generation to generation through several processes. The most familiar process is that of sexual reproduction. Children receive half their genes from each parent, giving rise to a combination of genes. Thus, each successive generation of a species has a different set of genes. This is called ‘mutation’ of genes. This means the species changes over time. These mutations in genes are random in nature. The individuals born of the new randomly mutated genes will exhibit corresponding random changes compared to the previous generation. Since these changes are random some of them will be beneficial and some of them will be detrimental. The organisms that receive beneficial changes will survive much better and have more offspring. Their beneficial genes will be spread to many more offspring than that of organisms with worse genes. Again those offspring will have a better chance of survival by virtue of their better genes and so on and so forth. This way beneficial genes spread and bad genes die out.
What I wish to point out about evolution is that it is blind. There is no intelligence to how evolution works. The adaptions that come forth are a product of randomness, and while they might solve the problems at hand, they could easily create problems of their own. This means that an adaption that seems like a good idea initially can easily turn out to have deleterious effects down the road. This is one of the key themes of this article. A great case in point - sickle cell anaemia. People who have sickle shaped red cells in their blood are granted high resistance to malaria. Great adaptation right? Not really, because the sickle shaped cells decrease life expectancy to mid-40s. It didn’t matter then, because humans never lived past 40 anyway, but now we all live past 40, and suddenly this marvelous adaptation of ours looks like one terrible idea. And that’s what I mean. Evolution isn’t perfect, it’s really far from it.
Ok...sure..evolution isn’t perfect. But what’s in it for you and me? Well, as humans we’re the pinnacle of evolution are we not? If we are the pinnacle of evolution, it also means we have 3.8 billion years worth of evolution’s mistakes to deal with. We have all that evolutionary baggage that comes with being human tacked onto us, and we carry it around everyday. You face this evolutionary baggage in every social situation, whether it’s ego (that of yours besides others), street gangs fueled by the desire to belong and gain an identity, power structures in society, or irrational stock market behaviour. You see it in the failure of the economic model that assumes people are rational. Indeed, this assumption that people are rational completely boggles the mind. From where did anyone get the idea that you could model humans on robots? The effects of evolution’s imperfections surround us, and blind us. More insidiously, these imperfections blind us to the imperfections themselves. Only by accepting that you are driven by sub-conscious impulse and instinct, and by examining your psyche for these impulses, can you discern these imperfections. I’m going to devote some space to some elucidation.
Ego - the point of possessing an ego is that you don’t get steamrolled by every second person around you, that you hold to what you desire, and live you own life. Unfortunately evolution totally and completely overcompensated with ego. Let alone not getting steamrolled by other people, ego now makes you want to steamroll others. It also makes you refuse to admit you’re wrong, refuse to listen to other people, and react sharply to anything that comes close to threatening you as a person.
Emotion - how did your brain make decisions before it was capable of reasoning? Hark back to few hundreds of thousands of years ago. How did our ancestors then make decisions? They could not reason, their brains were not capable of it. Emotion was evolution’s answer. Emotion prompted you to do something. The sight of a predator prompted fear, it made you flee. The sight of a child prompts affection, a desire to care and it ensures you take care of your children. The sight of poisonous creatures such as snakes evokes disgust, ensuring you avoid them. Emotions allow you to make the decision without having to think. It’s quick and easy - fast decision making for you. But it comes with a price, because emotional responses lack all subtlety. Your disgust of a snake cannot tell you whether a snake is poisonous or not, yet the majority of snakes are not poisonous. The disgust is an overcompensation, with no inherent ability to understand. To clarify I do not think emotion is bad. I feel we need to embrace emotion because emotion grounds us. Without emotion we are hollowed-out shells. However we must understand where emotion begins to overcompensate and spiral out of control. So feeling sorrowful is normal, but do not let it spiral into depression. That is where evolution is messing up.
Yet another example. We crave fatty and sugary food because millenia ago our ancestors scarcely could toodle across to the nearest McDonalds to tank up on fat and sugar. No, fat and sugar were scarce and provided vital calories. Hence craving them ensured our ancestors put in the necessary effort to obtain those sugars and get the calories they required. However, there was no control on cutting the craving once we had the required calories, and today we have the rising problem of obesity. Simply because evolution is blind and does not look ahead, it looks at the moment. Let’s take this further. Given, evolution’s near sightedness is responsible for obesity. But evolution can deal with obesity. Given enough time, there will be mutations in genes that reduce craving for fat and sugar. People with those mutations will live longer and spread their genes. Thus, evolution is self correcting, but over several generations, which is a simply too long a time scale for anyone reading this article. You and me, we both want change within our lifetimes, for ourselves. That’s something evolution cannot do, that we must do for ourselves.
Evolution’s most dangerous product has been the drive in humans to organize ourselves into groups. Because a group must necessarily be defined by whom it excludes as much as whom it includes, groups are naturally strengthened by designating “enemies” or “deviants”. Deviancy is a well-studied phenomenon in sociology, and I encourage those of you who haven’t heard of it to look it up. Groups may unite some of us, but they serve to divide humanity into factions and erect walls between those factions. Since a group will always have another group it views as “deviant” or an “out-group”, there will be a clash between groups. You see this in everything from clashes between mobs and police, militant atheists and religious extremists, conservatives and liberals, and so on. I call groups evolution’s most dangerous product because a group wields so much more power, and most wars have their roots in the desire to protect and enhance one’s group.
An aside, since I’m inveighing against emotion here, it is important that I spell out why emotion is valuable, lest I convey that emotion is unnecessary. This is an extremely important point, and much follows from this. There is a more fundamental aspect to emotion than the survival responses described in the previous paragraph, an aspect essential to the very existence of life. Emotion creates meaning. Our wants and desires create meaning. Through them meaning takes a concrete form. It is no longer an abstraction we quest after, but an immediate need to be satisfied, which lends our lives purpose and meaning. Without emotion we would accomplish nothing, because we would find not meaning in life to satisfy in the first place. Hence life cannot exist without meaning, and thus without emotion. Emotion creates meaning, and reason shows us how to satisfy that meaning. Emotion and reason complement each other, and to be fulfilled we need to have an abundance of both, using reason as a feedback loop to modulate emotion.
Back to the crux of my argument, that is, with evolution’s blind, slap-dash approach, we were saddled with the deleterious results of the mutations we gained. Then something happened. Consciousness happened. Consciousness is the ability to think rationally and logically, enabled by our prefrontal cortex. Thus consciousness is this ability the prefrontal cortex in humans confers upon humans. And this ability is that of logical, rational thinking. Once consciousness was achieved, it was no longer necessary to evolve any more adaptations. Humans simply used their consciousness to solve whatever situations came up through, for example, the use of tools and science. With the game changing gift of consciousness, evolution redeemed itself. With consciousness, we are now in-charge of our evolution. We grasp the reins firmly, no longer bound unto the whims and fancies of Nature capricious, no longer borne on a current we cannot see. Now all that matters is how capable our consciousness is. Now all that matters is how well capable our consciousness is.
But what does this mean? You already know the story of how we’ve evolved. My point is that with consciousness we finally have the tool we need to recognise all our evolutionary baggage and shed the baggage for good. We have the ability to look at ourselves critically, recognise how we’ve been shaped, see the flaws and the problems caused by our adaptations, and move to sever those parts of us. It is about being able to think and see clearly, and about getting rid of that which occludes our vision, which makes us unable to realise our full potential as human society can and must. Each one of us must introspect deeply, understand our own psyche first, and know ourselves. This individual development precludes a full integration into society, because only when you understand your psyche and concomitantly your flaws, will you fully understand these preceding paragraphs. After individual development, comes societal development.
One of the most important aspects of ourselves we need to change is our attitude towards candour. If only each one of us was honest with those around us, and if each one of us learnt to handle honesty, handle criticism and treat it matter of factly, much mis-communication and much heartburn could be avoided. Right now, we’re constantly thinking of how what we say will be perceived, and of how the other person will react to what we do. This just complicates things. We were better off as children. When we become adults we suddenly have this ability to actually know how other people are thinking, and then we realise they know how we’re thinking. And it makes everything go crazy, because now we have to always be on guard and always worry about what people are thinking about us. I think it would all be so much better if everyone just took it easy, and stopped taking stuff personally. Stopped judging. Candour and the ability to acknowledge it is essential to allowing our friends to hold a mirror unto us, because we cannot do that for ourselves. To recognise and move past our faults, we must first make other people comfortable with pointing them out to us. You can, in a few moments, learn as much about yourself from a friend as from hours of self-introspection, because your idea of yourself, and others’ idea of you are two completely different things. Embrace candour, cut through the nonsense, be frank and make life simpler and less stressful. Cut the binds that our human psyche has placed on us that we may make our communication that much more richer and meaningful.
There is just one more effect that consciousness and sentience brought with them we have really not understood. It is that of individualism. Every human being thinks of him or herself as an individual first and foremost, and their aim is to fulfill their desires. See my “Meaning of Life”article for my views on that. But what seems missing from this thinking is that individually we are nothing. While we think of ourselves as ends, we are most certainly not. Any accomplishment of yours is facilitated, nay dependent, on the human society around you. You can accomplish nothing without the active and essential cooperation of your fellow human beings. You cannot raise a child, you cannot obtain food, you cannot buy a house, you cannot earn your daily bread, without actively meshing with society. While consciousness overemphasises the individual, because of course, a consciousness begins and ends with itself, our lives would be impossible without the broader fabric of society that holds us in place. Every single person’s life is inextricably meshed with the lives of every other person through society, and to improve your lot you need to improve everyone’s lot. For each one of us to progress, society has to progress as a whole. To have a better standard of living, you need better food, better utilities, better homes, more energy, and so on and so forth, and each one of these requirements depends on the actions of hundreds of other people. The question is, can your lot improve without any improvement in that of all the people who help you attain your standard of living. If there is no improvement in the quality of work at the farm your food comes from, no improvement in the energy utility companies that supply your electricity, no improvement in the pay of teachers who teach your children, then does your lot improve, even if your job pays you more or your taxes are reduced? This question you may decide for yourself, I say no.
“Can this “societal” approach be applied anywhere?”, you may inquire. Yes it can. Now, more than ever. But I must digress to make an extremely important point. One that I haven’t seen made anywhere before, but which blew my mind. Just as your brain is composed of millions of neurons talking to each other forming a consciousness, society is formed of millions of human beings talking to each other forming a gestalt. In this manner, society is a far grander, richer consciousness. Human society makes the planet Earth shine brighter than the brightest supernova, an emerald hanging in space, glowing with a piercing awareness, because it bears the gift of conscious life, and the creation of the magnificent gestalt that is human society. This group consciousness of ours is, granted, primitive and far from being sentient, but it is nonetheless a thing of beauty and wonder. It is what makes us human. Urbanization, social media, the world becoming a village, increasing energy consumption, greater resource use, are all effects of the group consciousness growing, feeding itself, solving problems, progressing, taking decisions, and reaching.
Here's a poster I've made to illustrate my comparison of neural networks and society. We must think of human society in terms of it's information processing power.
In the evolutionary paradigm, we are all competitors. Indeed, I am your competitor. I compete with you to spread my genes and survive better. Evolution makes us cooperate only to the extent that the cooperation benefits us more than if we hadn’t cooperated. It doesn’t make us cooperate so that the human race can progress or stand to benefit as a whole. The evolutionary outgrowths of Ego and Group Behaviour directly push against such cooperation. My push is to use consciousness to understand this, and overthrow this paradigm. Consciousness must recognise that we are not competitors anymore, but we must cooperate to progress.
More than ever, we are faced with a host of problems that can only be solved by the cooperation that underpins society. Problems such as climate change, expansion into space, accelerated demand for resources can only be solved by all of society together because they are common across society and they must be solved on timescales orders of magnitude shorter than those evolutions operates on. Evolution cannot solve them, only a full application of societal consciousness can. Another problem underlies and underscores all these issues. We live in an age of Information Overload. As responsible citizens we are supposed to be educated on a whole host of topics including climate change, ethical trade practices, deforestation and the environment, how to manage our finances and invest, good diet, our health and wellness, and a whole host of other topics. It strains the intellect and requires tremendous amounts of time and effort for you and me to obtain a functional understanding of all these topics. The answer is, through the societal approach we cooperate, and delegate problems to specific specialised groups. This is already done, for example the FDA handles food and medicine, the EPA handles the environment and the FCC handles communication. To solve involved problems such as space exploration we will need cooperation on a much grander scale, between tens of countries, because of the cost and demands on technology. (A pre-existing example of cooperation in technology is the LHC where data from the accelerator goes to 34 countries). To solve Mexico’s drug problem, demand for illegal drugs must be reduced in America, through legalization, education or enforcement, the flow of arms to Mexico must be reduced, and the flow of drugs from South America must be negated. But the flow of drugs from South America depends on the availability of alternative economic opportunities there, and that in turn depends on trade with Mexico, America and other countries. Essentially, to solve one country’s problems, many other countries’ problems must be solved. We are all in this together.
So if the societal approach is adopted is it all fun and games? Is it the epitome of all that is good and beautiful and human? No, there is one pernicious aspect of it which I must point out, and which is already manifest in society. It is a simple out outcome of the law of averages being applied to society. In any situation where the number of units under consideration becomes very large, you can apply statistics. This definitely applies to society. What does this mean? It means that if decisions are formed via consensus then those decisions will reflect the average views of society. Society will self select towards mediocrity and not toward meritocracy. This is plainly evident in a democracy, where the politicians elected are not the ones who are the best, but the ones who resonate the most with the electorate. This, for me, is democracy’s weakest link. We must be aware of it and guard against electing those whom we just ‘like’ in favour of those who will be the best for the system. If, by a happy chance, the person we like and the person who’s best are the same, nothing like it.
Now, if we are to progress, what is next? Let’s see how far we’ve come. The major landmarks in human evolution have been -
In my opinion, the fourth one will be embracing technology fully and wholly. Right now, there are still places where we shy away from technology, largely stemming from a fear of the unknown and a lack of understanding of science combined. Great examples are nuclear energy and genetically modified food. People claim GM food will do all sorts of things, and I honestly don’t know where they get these ideas from or if they even know what they’re talking about. Even better are the crazy theories people come up with like vaccines cause autism, microwave ovens can give you cancer and whatnot. A lack of scientific education, plain and simple. But what gets me is the irrational fear of nuclear power, and this push towards solar energy. Nuclear power can easily open the floodgates to limitless energy, instead so much money is being invested in renewable energy sources like water and wind energy which will never come close to the scale and convenience of nuclear energy. Or take GM food. The moment people hear “GM” food, the fear of the unknown comes into play, with little or no knowledge of what GM food is about. Now the companies that market GM food, and GM food itself are two different things. Those companies do have unethical practices and I’m not talking about their practices. Just about the science itself. To increase crop yields what could be done has been done. GM food can give crop yields the new push we need to feed everyone and ensure food is cheap enough for everyone to afford.
The best example of this unscientific attitude would be the E.Coli outbreak in Germany. It was wholly preventable. All that needs must be done is irradiation of food before it is sent to market. If this was done there would be no E. Coli outbreak and no deaths to speak of. Why isn’t it done then? Because the moment people hear “radiation” and “food” you have a completely irrational, fear of the unknown reaction with claims that the food is “radioactive” and whatnot. As a result over 50 people died and thousands were poisoned all thanks to the public’s unscientific attitudes. Is this what you want? Clearly, unscientific attitudes are resulting in loss of life, and there is an urgent need to clear the air of them if society is to progress.
People complain scientific research, especially in the pure sciences, is a waste of taxpayer money. The cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan war to just the US taxpayer, not the other countries involved, is $1.2 trillion and counting. The LHC cost $16 billion. Science costs money, but so does other stuff. And the benefits of technology are immeasurable. Life expectancy before Science came into its own was what, 35 years? There’s a good chance you would be dead right now if it wasn’t for Science. You won’t even be reading these words if it wasn’t for Science, because there would be no Internet, no computers, no electricity, nothing.
Going forward, what I see is technology slowly replacing manual labour and taking over boring, soul destroying jobs. It’s been happening since the start of the Industrial Revolution and I hope it continues. Now, the first objection to this is that it’s job destruction. Firstly, yes it’s destroying jobs people hate doing anyway. Secondly, not completely! You need highly skilled workers to manufacture the machines and program them. Thus machines replace low wage, unsatisfying jobs and create high-wage, satisfying jobs. Yes, the net effect still might be a job loss. But the human population is fore-casted to plateau around 2080 at around 9 billion. It’s a known fact that birthrates drop as a country develops and the levels of education rise. Thus, as technology replaces jobs, the number of new jobs required will also drop as population growth eases. I obviously have no idea how the actual economics will play out, this is just what I think will happen. Extrapolating this to an extreme, one day we will have no manual, repetitive jobs left. All that will remain will be the jobs that require highly skilled workers. Everyone can look forward to getting a meaningful job. As technology takes care of more and more of our needs, perhaps each one of us will have more and more time to create and understand, and less time will be spent doing attending to the drudgery of daily life. Embrace technology, understand science, and make life better.
The fifth revolution will be the full integration of human society. This is very far away in the future, but I think it will happen. Urbanization will reach its zenith, all of humanity will live in conurbations, the already frenetic pace of communication will increase even further, and the flow of ideas (look up memetics) will increase and increase to a point where transfer will be almost instantaneous across social networks. This will result in the societal group consciousness becoming more and more sophisticated where ideas ripple across its surface, the pace of communication means these ideas will be debated upon in real-time, and society will react in real-time to these debates. These second order effects will similarly ripple through society, and there will be a growing awareness of how society is responding to itself, the environment and ideas.
The bottom line is, society is responsible for the human race accomplishing what is has done so far. Focus on society, not the individual. Cooperate and understand yourself and understand how humanity forms a group consciousness. Shed your evolutionary baggage, that you and the rest of us may reach our full potential and reach higher, ever higher. That we may crest with our heads among the stars and not founder and dash ourselves on the rocks of ignorance and folly. Our potential is vast, and it would be a crying shame if we squandered the precious gift of consciousness on the ersatz comfort of being locked within the walls of our primordial selves.