Speeding up Cultural Evolution

In previous posts I have discussed deficiencies in human thinking as described in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. The discovery and explanation of these deficiencies can reinforce pessimism. We might conclude that human thinking is so messed up that we are doomed to failures, confusions, mistakes that it’s a wonder we ever do anything right. Our economic theories are mostly crap; our democracy has been captured by the 1%; wars continue. Our understanding of human thought and behavior is wrong. Why bother to try to change or improve anything. Since our thinking is full of errors, confusions, illusions, delusions, conceits, and unwarranted optimism we would be foolish to try to fix anything that isn’t working or is working poorly.

If unwarranted optimism is bad, unwarranted pessimism is much worse since unwarranted pessimism leads to inaction, depression, and even death.

So how can we be optimistic after reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow”? We can be optimistic because we can see it as part of the larger process of cultural evolution. Groups of humans more or less working together — families, tribes, clubs, associations, corporations, towns, cities, states, nations, all organizations — change and evolve their social and individual behaviors by discovering, generating, assimilating new ideas through doing science and art and other social and individual activities. We invent new things, we make inspiring movies and videos, we speak and write stories and novels and poetry, we create images, symbols, illustrations and paintings. This is the process of change and evolution of human groups and of human cultures in general. Evolution is more than just change. Evolution builds on what came before. Change could be anything. The way cultures change is by building on what they already have. Thus cultures change through evolution.

Kahneman provides scientific facts about mistakes in human thinking he and other psychologists discovered by doing psychological experiments on groups of people living mostly in the last half of the twentieth century. Some of the mistakes in thinking he described may result from the physical structure of the human body and brain. Examples might be certain optical illusions and the fact that our memories do not store all the information about an event that we have at time of the event (see the cold hand experiment — Kahneman p. 381-383). A person might think that if a deficiency results from such structural factors that the error is then inherent to the nature of humans. But humans are adaptable. I am not saying that we can learn to store in our memories all the relevant information for the cold hand experiment (although I suspect we could with training), or that we can train our sensory systems to avoid sensory illusions. But we can, if are aware of dangerous situations, if we learn the categories of situations in which mistakes sometimes or often occur, then we can work around them, we can avoid them by thinking in a different way. As Kahneman said:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. This is how you will proceed when you next encounter the Muller-Lyer illusion. When you see lines with fins pointing in different directions, you will recognize the situation as one in which you should not trust your impressions of length. …” — Kahneman p. 417.   

So Kahneman discovers and spreads the word about deficiencies in human thinking. This is not bad news. It’s good news. Now we know more about mistakes we often make and so we can correct these mistakes, work around them, or otherwise avoid them. This is progress. This is cultural evolution at work.

Most importantly, this new knowledge, as it spreads through the human population, will speed up cultural evolution since cultural evolution depends on human creativity which depends on human thinking, human choices, human decisions. So if we can learn to think better, learn to make better choices, learn to make better decisions, this will help us create new useful and beautiful things, help us create more humane and just social arrangements, improve our own individual behavior both with respect to ourselves (improved physical and mental health) and it will improve our behavior with respect to others.

There are many other things which have speeded up and which will speed up cultural evolution in the future besides just improving our thinking. Some are: cooperation, competition, care for others, maximal individual freedom, democracy, art, science, engineering, many human inventions such as writing, printing, mechanized farming and transport, mass education, computers, expansion of interpersonal communications (cell phones, the internet).

And for the future, to speed up cultural evolution, very shortly after now, maybe directed non-violent revolution — a pushed non-violent evolution towards a world whose economic and political systems will more justly distribute the goods produced by humans as a whole so that each individual person has the basic human necessities in order to live and thrive. These include food, clothing, shelter, education, health, maximal individual freedom consistent with the freedom and well-being of others, all in accord with the earth’s limited resources and preserving other life on earth.

This is not impossible. We can adopt this goal and work toward it. We will modify our economic and political systems carefully, one step at a time, always with the goal in mind, evaluating each step (did it get us closer to the goal, did it cause harm, did it have any unintended consequences). Then repeat, repeat, repeat. This is trial and error. But trial and error is mostly all we have here or in any other human activity. The grand, glorious theories have failed. Forget them. Maybe take some parts of them, some smallish principles, and see if we can use them to modify our present systems and move us closer to our just distribution goal. Since this is a non-violent evolution we must build upon what we know now. If some idea from our present systems would seem to bring us closer to our goal, use it, try it out, test it to see if it actually does work to bring us closer to our goal.

But look for new ideas too. Especially those which look likely to speed up our directed revolution.

Perhaps the very idea that there is some grand and glorious theory that can explain, model, and predict human economic behavior is itself a monstrous example of the Illusion of Validity. See Kahneman, chapter 20, “The Illusion of Validity”.

The very idea that such theories exist, or must exist, or could exist if only we could find them leads to a lot of wasted time and mental energy. Worse this idea is pernicious for at least two reasons. First is that the current candidates for grand theory are so wrong that they cause serious harm in the real world. Second, when people glom onto one such theory as the correct theory, the one and only true way, they cut themselves off from the possibility of change, and they try to cut everybody else off from the possibility of change and improvement too.

These are reasons why the revolution must not glom onto any grand economic type theories. Discard them all: Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, etc. (What other “ism”’s are there?). At most take pieces, smallish parts, maybe certain principles, certain ideas from any of them which look like they might make sense, might work in a new pragmatic framework that is being evolved carefully from our present system, and then adopt provisionally, check, test, evaluate, to determine if this old idea might actually work in our new evolving system to actually bring us closer to our just-distribution system.

Down with Grand Theories. The only test for any modification of our systems, any policy change, any new law, should not be does it conform to some theory, but rather it should be: Does it bring our systems closer to our just-distribution goals.


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