Albert Einstein is famous for many reasons, and left behind many memorable quotes about all manner of intelligent subjects. That said, my favorite quote of his, by far, is this:
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of this quote. Walking down the street. Driving. Reading posts on Facebook or Twitter. Wars, mass shootings, moronic politics. Observing people, anywhere, it is constantly obvious…
Humans are incredibly fucking STUPID.
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Humans are also creative, and in many ways truly brilliant. No other species on our planet has, or is even remotely capable of, accomplishing what we’ve accomplished. And our future potential is virtually unlimited.
But herein lies the problem, this juxtaposition of stupidity and brilliance.
The brain evolved for survival, for procreation and self-defense…but it evolved in a time when everything was trying to eat us, and where our literal survival was a daily concern.
But the brain evolves slowly. A small but significant evolutionary change can take thousands or even tens of thousands of years to develop. A huge change can take hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.
For the first few million years of “human” existence, that was fine. Daily life, and the threats we faced, remained largely constant across immense measures of time. Hunt, gather, eat, sleep, procreate, try not to get eaten, or poisoned, or injured. Good times.
This slow and measured pace was probably fine up until a few thousand years ago, when large groups of people began living together, and the dawn of civilization as we know it began to take shape.
There’s some evidence that part of the evolution of the human brain stemmed from living and working in groups…but historically those groups were very, very small, usually less than 100 people. We’re not well equipped mentally for larger groups, and Dunbar’s number is a thing for a reason. We’re good for small villages, maybe 50-150 people give or take. More than that, and things begin to fray.
So here we have Root Problem #1 – too many people, too close together, breeds conflict. Us vs. them. Haves and have nots. Our planet has WAY too many people, divided into WAY too many factions, with many living WAY too close together.
What’s wrong with that you say? Diversity is a good thing you say?
Sort of. In some ways, diversity is great. Genetic diversity seems to be a good thing. Diversity of thought as well, as curiosity drives most innovation. But the level of diversity we have, well, it’s become more divisive than simply diverse.
Because of our small group wiring, the further we are mentally and emotionally from another group, the less like us, the less “human”, we perceive that group to be. This is known as Dehumanization, and it’s not a good thing if you’re trying to avoid conflict.
And again, back in the day, when resources were scarce and your group was your literal lifeline, that made sense. But we live in an age of true abundance, and this cognitive holdover is no longer appropriate.
Now, another evolutionary peculiarity of the human brain is its optimization for efficiency. The brain makes up 2% of your body weight, but consumes 20% of your calories. It consumes 10x more energy by weight than the rest of the body…and that’s after all of the developmental and cognitive tradeoffs evolution has made in the name of “efficiency”.
What sort of tradeoffs? Oh boy, where to start. It’s a loooong list, but you could break it down into 3 key buckets: awareness, memory, and shortcuts.
First, the brain achieves a degree of efficiency by filtering out a large portion of stimuli from ever hitting conscious awareness. This is called latent inhibition.
Your senses process way, way more input than you ever become consciously aware of (an estimated 11,000,000 bits of sensory data with just 50 bits of that hitting conscious awareness), and what little sensory data does pass through is often skewed for a variety of reasons.
Your brain consists of two main “systems”, to use the terminology from the amazing book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1, the lizard brain, is highly efficient and handles the majority of routine tasks. System 2, what we think of as “conscious” us, is not energy efficient, and is called on primarily to handle new and potentially important information.
In the name of efficiency, System 1 tries to involve System 2 as little as possible. System 2 thinks it runs the show, but in reality System 2 has no fucking clue what’s going on most of the time.
Thus, your awareness is greatly limited, without you ever being aware