Monday, March 17, 2014

Nasty, brutish and short--or not

The sky gods know

Will there be titanium-skinned creatures with oversized heads and bulging eyes running planet Earth in 500 years? Only Steven Spielberg knows for certain. I think the “leash” over the approximately next 50 to 100 years will be climate, religion and economics. What we do or don't do in these areas simultaneously will have a bearing on who or what will be our progeny.

Climate scientists, using such methods as geological analysis, ice cores, fossil remains and historical records, have determined that CO2 levels in the atmosphere remained between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm) for some half-a-million years, but in recent centuries (the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century) CO2 levels rose to at least 380 ppm. The greenhouse effect is not an obscure hypothesis recently put forward.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said that, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Artifacts of one kind or another at burial sites go back to at least 70,000 years ago. It hardly seems a mystery as to why we have religion. Among other things, religion binds groups, helps take the fear of death away, sanctions the killing of other groups and provides the “answers.” Today there are some 10,000 different religions all possessing the Truth. Religion at this point in time is a genuine obstacle to confronting a potential planetary disaster.

Last but not least is the economic system that entwines the entire planet. It's little more than a perpetual ponzi scheme, regardless of the “wonders” it may have helped produce—for some—in the past. Most important, it's unsustainable. It deserves to be tossed into the ashcan of history along with mercantilism and the “divine right” of kings.

Immortality and the Kurzwellian phantasmagoria

Superheroes are popular and ubiquitous across the globe and not just among children. Immortality, master-of-the-universe, infinite choices, exceptionalism, privilege, entitlement and certainly narcissism all beckon to even the most rational among us. Ca plus changes, ca plus la meme chose.

Ray Kurzwell, inventor and “technical” futurist, who now works for Google, believes that by 2045 machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence in all aspects, which he refers to as the “singularity.” For Kurzwell, human immortality is only a few blocks away.

Well, 2045 seems a bit optimistic, or pessimistic, depending on your point of view. Would Aunt and Uncle Sahelanthropus, whom we haven't seen in some 7 million years, still love us? Of course, many of these superhero dreams violate the known laws of physics. Gravity can be inconvenient, mass increases faster than the fundamental strength of our bones and we can't walk through walls even though the atom is mostly empty space. But … technology springs eternal, and Ray Kurzwell thinks he'll become immortal; after all, he demands to become a system.

Believing what we believe

Why do we do what we do? One of the most interesting new subject areas at the present time and yes, it's controversial, is the field of Genopolitics. Political beliefs may have a genetic component. Feelings about contraception, gay marriage, capital punishment, animal rights, climate change, etc are personality traits that could be ancient and way older than humans.

If the evolution of the human brain was driven by a need for more complex social cognition, then might the understanding of human biology in a “sociopolitical” context be of paramount importance, perhaps for our very survival?

The amygdala in our very old limbic brain is connected to the cingulate cortex, an area critical to self awareness. It is the cingulate cortex that “thinks” about the responses of the amygdala—threat, not a threat, your imagination and so forth.

What do we think we know now? Some research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have right-wing opinions. Oxytocin is released in sex and orgasm and believed by many neuroscientists to smother the amygdala responses, which may lead to increased generosity, trust, etc. Lower serotonin levels in the brain have been associated with criminality and anxiety. People with a less active MAO allele “tend” to be more impulsive and aggressive. No, there are no specific genes for criminality, but personality traits are heritable.

In a 1980s sexual preference study conducted by David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, it was determined that the top two qualities in a male for both sexes were kindness and intelligence, outweighing such things as money and physical appearance. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has suggested that our ancestors who were more intelligent and kinder attracted a higher quality mate thus creating our success.

Regardless of what Genopolitics ultimately uncovers, a better understanding of human behavior and how we make decisions is, it seems to me, not merely nice to know but absolutely critical if we want to get beyond the “reptilian” mindset and consider a future beyond something like the unrelenting nightmare of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Back to a future

Every part of the planet has warmed except for Antarctica and at this point in time it may have more to do with circulating winds and the hole in the ozone layer. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a minimum temperature rise of 1.8 degrees Centigrade by 2100. Some 120,000 years ago when it was 1 to 2 degrees warmer, sea levels were 5 to 8 meters higher. Three million years ago when the temperature was 2 to 3 degrees C higher, the sea levels were 25 meters higher.

It's called the tipping point and is a term that has been used in reference to climate change. Is there a point where the change is irreversible? Climate scientists have spoken about such things as a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C and CO2 levels going over 400 ppm. We have now reached CO2 levels of 400 ppm. IPCC estimates have been revised, perhaps because of the sudden collapse of ice sheets and a better understanding of “feedback loops,” which can speed up the process. Several decades of global warming are already in the pipeline. Time, where is it when we need it?

Some of us might recall friends and acquaintances “dropping acid” (LSD) some years ago and having spiritual experiences and “being one” with the universe. We know now there are hormonal and biochemical factors at work in the brain during many of those religious moments, resulting in such things as increases in dopamine levels and serotonin being released. “Spiritual” experiences can change brain activity. A book worth reading on this subject is by D.F. Swaab, a physician and neurobiologist, entitled We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, From the Womb to Alzheimer's

To believe that some supernatural entity gave us the planet and dominion over all life on it is both irrational and narcissistic to the extreme, but also more understandable today. We're also learning that extreme religiosity may be associated with such illnesses as schizophrenia, dementia and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Difficult as it might be, we have to move beyond the supernatural and magic. Even more important is finally realizing this planet is all we have--but--real spirituality is all around us. Turn off your I-Pad and move your head. You can even “friend” biodiversity.

Adams Smith, often cited as the father of modern capitalism, once said of the capitalists, “It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public...” What is striking today among the governments of the world is the apparent obtuseness, be they the corrupt autocrats in Beijing and Moscow, the feckless and uninformed politicians in Washington or many among the rising developing nations who claim it's “everyone else” who bears the responsibility. Our ancient short-term thinking is alive and well … and dangerous.

Mounting scarcities, growing ecological disequilibrium, expanding population, economic stagnation, increasing disparities between rich and poor, individual selfishness (including nation selfishness), human redundancy, unproven economic myths like the market's “invisible hand” are more than likely to lead to greater forms of coercion across the globe, and the amount of coercion can be an approximate measure of the system's validity. Once the system is deemed illegitimate, another tipping point has begun, this time rippling across the planet.

It is very much a matter of enlarging the global tribe and accepting the idea unequivocally of reciprocal obligation.


Gerald Crabtree, a Stanford University geneticist, believes our intelligence may have peaked some 2,000 years ago. It's been pretty much downhill ever since. Really?

Will the last remaining clan of Homo sapiens end up in a cave on Gibraltar squinting at the shadows of their cousins the Neandertals? Does it matter? After all, it's estimated that about 100,000 species are going extinct each year. What's one more, especially the most destructive predator the planet has known. Down deep, we know we're here “by the luck of the draw.”