Sociobiologist Rebecca Costa warns that the accelerating complexity of our world problems – such as global recession, climate change, and pandemics – is outpacing the human brain’s ability to solve them. Costa is the author of The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out Of Extinction. She discussed her ideas about strategies to solve these problems and avoid collapse with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar
What is the “watchman’s rattle” that you write about?
In earlier times, the first police forces that humans had were called watchmen. They didn’t carry any arms with them, or weapons. They had these large rattles that would make a clacking sound in the middle of the night to alert the citizens to danger. It was really a summons for help. I wrote this book as a summons for help for those who are deeply concerned about problems that we have not solved for many generations, to come to aid at the sound of the watchman’s rattle.
What are these problems?
I don’t think it comes as any surprise to people that the same problems have been hanging around for many, many generations, and they’re exponentially growing in terms of their size and their peril. If we made a list of those problems, they’d be everything from deteriorating education, to problems with our borders, terrorism, climate change, the global recession right now. We seem to be in some kind of gridlock where we just, despite all our technology and all our knowledge, we don’t seem to be able to get on top of these problems.
You said that your book looks at earlier civilizations to see if there’s any pattern of human behavior that occurred long before the actual incidents responsible for their collapse – for example, the Mayans.
I don’t want to argue with historians, whether the Mayans collapsed because of drought or warfare or pandemic virus. I don’t think that to the Mayans, whose society fell apart, it mattered. But what I was curious about was, were there ordinary Mayan citizens walking around saying, for example, “Our government doesn’t seem to be able to solve the drought problem. And it seems to be getting worse from one generation after another”?
And in fact, what I did discover was that there were two early signs that a civilization was going into collapse. First, they became gridlocked and unable to solve their problems as their problems migrated from one generation to another, despite knowing those problems might do them in. Think of them as airplanes all stacking up in the sky trying to land on the same runway. Eventually, one’s going to get you. And the second symptom was that the worse their situation got, the more they began to rely on beliefs as their way out, as opposed to rational methods that were fact-based, empirically based.
What do you mean by “collapse”?
Today, collapse is much more dangerous, because in earlier times, civilizations were separated by a large geographic buffer. So the collapse of one civilization didn’t necessarily have an impact on another civilization. But today, all you have to see is the United States issue poor mortgages, and all of a sudden there’s a ripple effect. If you watch any stock market activity, watch the United States sink a hundred points, you can pretty much watch the dominoes go around every country as their stock markets sink with equal impact. We’re all very, very tied to one another and so goes one large, industrial nation, everyone else goes down with him. So we have to be very careful about the word collapse right now, because it really means the collapse of human civilization, not one particular nation.
But if you look at the Mayan civilization, for example, they knew for thousands of years about drought conditions. They’re known as major inventors, in terms of hydraulic technology. They built vast reservoirs and underground cisterns. They practiced water conservation and crop rotation. They were very sophisticated in terms of their use of water during times when water was scarce. But as the drought grew worse, and their government and their people were not able to solve that problem, they began shifting away from manmade solutions to fetishism and sacrifice. At first they were sacrificing enslaved people that they captured through warfare. Then they turned on their own people, and eventually over time they began sacrificing young women. As the drought got increasingly worse, in the worse days of the collapse prior to the collapse, they were throwing newborn infants that were unspoiled off the tops of the pyramids. They had completely turned their back on any way of solving their drought.
How is collapse different today than what you’ve describe about the Mayans?
I don’t think it is different. I think that if you asked most people in advanced nations, do we have a sense that we’ve become gridlocked? And even though we’ve have lots of technology and solutions and resources, more than at any other time in human history do we seem unable to solve our biggest problems? I think the answer that you would get back from most people is yes, we seem kind of stuck, despite all these tools.
And the second turn that we seem to be making now is that there’s a vast confusion over what are the facts surrounding a situation, and what are just glorified opinions being disguised as facts.
Let me just take one example – vaccines. People are arguing vaccines may be the cause of autism. I don’t really know if they cause autism or not. But there are also people that argue that if you don’t vaccinate your children, more children will die because they’re not vaccinated than children will get autism. So parents around the world, they don’t know what to do. Do you vaccinate your children or not vaccinate your children? Is climate change real, or isn’t it? We’re getting hit with one of the worst storms in American history right now, and I think that we didn’t do ourselves a great favor by calling it global warming, because clearly climate change doesn’t have anything to do with warming or cooling. But is that real, or is it something that the Earth periodically goes through? Well, for every study you can find that says that yes, climate change is in fact happening and it’s accelerating, you find other scientists that oppose it. How are people to move forward when we can’t tell the difference between a belief and a fact, a fundamental difference.
What evidence do you see of signs of collapse today?
Human beings have always harbored the pursuit of knowledge, scientific knowledge as well as beliefs. We need beliefs to function. There’s nothing wrong with beliefs, it’s only when beliefs overtake empirically proven science. If you think of the human being, we have two baskets we can pull from. We can pull from unproven beliefs. Take my example, I put my money in the bank. I believe it’ll be there when I write a check. I don’t know it will be there until I go to withdraw it. But I believe it will be. We have those kinds of beliefs. We have beliefs in mystical gods that will help us to become more fertile, catch larger prey, or make a lot of money on Wall Street, whatever. These beliefs go way, way back in human history. We are an interesting combination of an organism that relies on both empirical science as well as, when our knowledge drops off, we rely on beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with beliefs. It’s just when it overtakes rational thinking and starts to drive public policy.
The example that I always use is this last mid-term election. I had this epiphany moment where I was standing in the voting booth. I was looking at all the ballot measures. And I had to be honest with myself. I hadn’t had time to go through all the source material related to those ballot initiatives. So I found myself realizing that I was going to cast my vote on lawn signs in my neighbors’ yards and 30-second commercials. I knew that if I cast those votes based on those inputs that I was casting irrational votes, and therefore I had no reason to complain when public policy was becoming irrational, because I was a participant. I just simply don’t have time to get to the facts. So I’ve become very vulnerable to anything that anyone says. The best produced commercial is probably going to win my vote. I think that’s an illness that a lot of people are afflicted with at this point in time.
In your book, you suggest that there’s only so much that the human being is evolved to be able to comprehend and deal with at this point.
If you think of human evolution as having two clocks, one clock is evolution. A hundred and fifty years ago Charles Darwin showed us that it takes millions and millions and millions of years for human beings to develop new apparatus in terms of our ability to deal with complexity and solve highly complex and chaotic problems. So even if we need that capability, there’s nothing to say that we’ll just develop it tomorrow because we need it. It takes millions of years.
The other clock is working in picoseconds. We’re making new discoveries, making new technologies, and this new information is really being presented to us every picosecond. So at some point the brain has to fall behind. It biologically falls behind. And in The Watchman’s Rattle, I explain that eventually, every civilization hits a cognitive limit, in which it cannot solve the problems that it must solve, that it cannot deal with the complexity that society is then producing. When it does hit that cognitive limit, we can see that it hits gridlock, and followed by gridlock we begin to rely on beliefs to forge public policy. And this becomes the precursor to collapse.
Is there an example from The Watchman’s Rattle where science can be applied to some of these complex problems?
Well, let’s use the definition of complexity that comes out of Harvard University. A complex environment is one in which the number of wrong choices is growing exponentially relative to the number of right choices. So when we’re faced with a complex problem, the odds are stacking against us that we’ll call the solution right. In an environment like that, we have to go look for models that are related to high failure rates.
The model that I use in the book is the venture capital model. Many people don’t know that venture capitalists are actually experts at failure. They’re not experts at success. What I mean by that is that for every 100 companies they invest in, they expect 85 or 90 of them to not do well or to fail completely. But in spite of those odds, they’re able to be tremendously successful, because those companies that succeed, the success is far greater, it dwarfs and overwhelms the failures. Because of that, they’re able to have a high failure rate model that’s highly profitable and successful.
In that same way, when we face a problem such as the Gulf oil spill, where it’s chaotic and we need to take action right away, no amount of due diligence is going improve our odds of calling the right solution, and in fact, we called the wrong solution. At first we dropped a concrete box on the hole. And then we waited 30 days and discovered that didn’t work. And then we went to solution number two, which was to drill through the side and relieve some of the pressure. And that didn’t work. And 60 to 90 days out, we finally stumbled upon the static kill method. That trial-and-error is a form of problem solving, which we use to find lost luggage at the airport, doesn’t work when we’re dealing with a highly dynamic and chaotic model that’s very, very complex. And so what we need to do is to deploy models like venture capital, where we hit it with everything. We should have gone after that problem and the Gulf oil spill with 50, 100 solutions, and expected maybe 80 or 90 percent of them would fail. But the 10 percent of them that would have succeeded would have plugged the hole much more quickly than doing this through trial and error and allowing the clock to run out.
How do you want people to use your book?
The most important thing for me is that we have a different conversation. One hundred and fifty years ago, when Charles Darwin discovered evolution, he discovered the most important principal that governs all organisms on the face of the Earth. That includes us, human beings. Somehow we got away from that. We forgot that we’re trapped in a biological space suit that can only improve in million year increments. And somehow, we’ve ignored that fact. We don’t think that our brains have any limitation. But if we really think about it, everyone from Obama on down to you and me, we’re trapped in the same limited biological spacesuit. And it can only progress very, very slowly. So in truth, civilizations cannot progress any faster than evolution will permit. This is the breakthrough concept that we must begin to embrace. The very survival of human kind is dependent on embracing that idea.
What do you mean by breakthroughs?
We’re the first civilization since man has walked the planet that’s able to put a skull cap on a human being and watch what their brain is doing when they reach a complex problem that exceeds their capability. So we can watch our brains try to use left-side problem thinking, which is very deconstructive. We start out with lots of solutions and we keep narrowing them down, narrowing them down like a funnel until we get to one or two, and then we pick one.
Then we have the right side of the brain that uses more of a synthesis process. We use lots of clues and we connect the clues together to come up with a solution.
But every now and again, when we hit a complex problem that’s above the pay grade of left brain deconstructive thinking and right brain synthetic thinking, what we find is a little portion of the brain called the ASTG lights up like a Christmas tree and we have a breakthrough, or what neuroscientists are calling an “aha” moment. If you think about “aha” moments, “aha” moments are legendary. They’re a thing of folklore. We can talk about an apple hitting Newton in the head and suddenly he says “aha,” okay, there’s gravity. That explains a lot. Same with Archimedes, when he got into the bathtub, and the water spilled over the edges, and he discovered displacement theory. So we know that this exists, but for some reason we thought it was sort of random and couldn’t be controlled. And now what neuroscientists have recently discovered, and I’m only talking about in the last few years, I wish I could have written more about it in my book, is that all people have the ability to use insight to solve highly complex, dynamic problems; and that insight seems to search through all the content in our brain and only connect those pieces of information that are relevant to solving the problem and does it instantaneously. It’s a fascinating process, and the most wonderful thing about the discovery is that it seems to be a third form of powerful problem-solving, ideally suited to complex problems.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.