Evolution and Politics

September 15th, 2005

This essay is not about whether people believe in evolution; neither is about the teaching of evolution in schools. In fact, the causality in this essay is exactly the reverse of the normal direction. I want to consider not how politics affects evolutionary theory, but how evolutionary theory affects politics.

Let’s take a long view of politics – a really long view. Let’s think millennia, not years or decades. What will mankind’s political situation be a thousand years from now?

That’s difficult to imagine, isn’t it? It’s not too difficult to think in science fiction terms of a world a few hundred years from now where Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock zoom around the galaxy discovering strange new worlds with people covered with funny latex knobs and bulges. But what about a thousand years from now, or ten thousand, or a million years? After all, the earth will like continue to circle the sun for another 5 billion years. Do you think that we’ll still be arguing about abortion and gay marriage 5 billion years from now?

When you take a long view of evolution, you think in terms of species adapting to changing environments. Continents drift into higher latitudes, the temperature changes, and new species adapt to the new environments. Ocean currents are disrupted by continental drift, and the weather somewhere changes, leading to new species. It’s all part of the continuing process.

There’s also second-level evolution, in which species respond to changes in the environment created by other species. A prey species develops stronger legs so that it can flee faster, so the predator species also develops the capability for greater speed. A tree species grows higher to get its fruit out of reach of herbivores, and some herbivores learn to sit up on their haunches to reach higher. Species are constantly adjusting to their environment. Some species find themselves unable to keep up with the changing environment, in which case they go extinct. This is usually because the change comes too quickly to permit the species to adapt.

Most environmental change takes place slowly – a few percent change per century might by a fast change. Occasionally, however, there’s a dramatic change, such as a large meteor strike, and lots of species die off.

Humankind has wreaked a huge and rapid change in the global environment. We have cut down forests, built huge cities, converted plains to farmland, dammed rivers, and changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere. True, these changes have taken centuries, but that’s still really fast in terms of most environmental change. Moreover, the rate of change is increasing. We didn’t even begin releasing CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) into the atmosphere in any significant amounts until the 1950s, but by the 1970s these CFCs were already altering the atmosphere in dangerous ways, leading to legislation restricting their release.

The most commonly cited case of human-induced environmental change is global warming. The projections indicate that we are changing the world environment with our carbon dioxide releases. Already two scientific studies have shown that the $50 billion dollar cost of Hurricane Katrina may well have been due, to some degree, to global warming.

Humanity has developed a remarkable device for coping with dramatic changes in the environment: culture. Our instincts respond on a time scale of tens of thousands of years, but our culture and our technology permit us to respond to environmental changes on a time scale of decades. That is what has enabled us to keep up with the world that we keep changing.

But exactly how fast can culture and technology change? We can’t just snap our fingers and change our attitudes; we tend to cling to our old beliefs until we are forced to change them. What’s the time scale for cultural change? It’s certainly longer than a year; possibly longer than a decade; and certainly less than a century. If you look at the way that attitudes towards racism, sexism, and war have changed in the last 50 years, I think we can zero in on 10 - 50 years as the time range needed to effect a genuine cultural change.

The advance of the personal computer presents a good example of the time required for cultural change. The PC first appeared in 1980, and it didn’t really take over until the 1990s. Thus, it took about 15 years for society to embrace a change that was undeniably positive. There was no significiant downside to the PC, so the culture changed very rapidly. This gives us an idea of the fastest possible change.

An example of a slower change is provided by sexism. The women’s revolution started in the 1960s; while much progress has been made, the fact remains that women still face arbitrary obstacles to advancement. These obstacles are fading, so let’s say that it will take 50 years for the adaptation to complete.

These two examples provide us with upper and lower limits on society’s intrinsic ability to change in response to environmental changes. They’re not enough.

The environmental changes that humankind is generating are coming faster and faster. Consider global warming. We weren’t aware of it as anything other than a theoretical possibility until the late 1980s; since then, we have been accumulating more and more data demonstrating the reality of the phenomenon, and extensive studies have shown how dangerous it can be. Yet, politically, we’re still in denial. While most of the world is convinced that global warming is a serious problem, the American body politic insists that it’s all a fantasy. They will eventually come around, of course, but how long will it take? And how much damage will be done before we do come around? It’s likely that civilization will survive global warming, but how much injury will we inflict upon ourselves because of this inability to respond to change in the environment?

Our society is restrained from responding more quickly by the conservative elements in our society. I hasten to clarify that I do not mean conservative as opposed to liberal, right-wing as opposed to left-wing. Rather, I use the word in its formal sense of “resistant to change”. There is nothing about the right wing that is more resistant to change than the left wing; the issues that divide liberals from conservatives have nothing to do with the rate of change we make in response to environmental changes.

There are many conservative elements in our society. Educational establishments tend to be conservative. Consider, for example, that at graduation they dress up in 16th-century attire. These people have really got to catch up with the times as far as fashion goes. More seriously, academic institutions do tend to show some reluctance to change. Indeed, if you think about it, just about every institution in our society is resistant to change, to greater degree or less.

But there are other conservative forces that I think are more significant in shaping our ability to respond to new environmental challenges. I will put the finger of blame squarely on a major component of our society: religion and the emphasis on “traditional values”. The problem isn’t with religion per se or with values per se; the problem lies in the pigheaded anti-rationalism of some religious believers. There is no fundamental reason why rationalism cannot cohabit the same mind with spiritualism. However, some minds with a stilted sense of spiritualism reject rationalism when it contradicts their prejudices. And therein lies the doom of civilization.

Rationalism is our only hope for dealing with the accelerating changes in our environment. We must be ever more cooly logical in analysing our situation and developing our responses. There was a time when we could survive our irrationalism. Ten thousand fanatics armed with swords and spears can’t do that much damage; a handful of fanatics armed with nuclear weapons can wreak far more devastation. If people cut down too many trees in medieval England, there was plenty of time for the king to become aware of the problem and make laws protecting the forest. Bigtime technology can change our situation so fast that we have only a few years to respond. We need to recognize and deal with problems just as fast as we can create them – and we’re creating them faster and faster. As the deadlines get tighter and tighter, we cannot afford to indulge ourselves in quaint old customs. We have to come to the right solution immediately. Rationalism is the only mental tool that can do that for us.

Yet when I consider the level of rationalism in our society, I am driven to conclude that we are simply too irrational to cope with the increasing pace of change. We may wear suits and cologne, but emotionally we’re still pretty much cavemen. Look at the American response to 9/11: all outrage and patriotism and thirst for revenge. In our blind fury, we attacked a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. We didn’t even have a plan for what we would do after we conquered Iraq; the only thing that mattered was taking out Saddam.

But it’s not just one ill-considered action that proves our incompetence. It’s all around us. People have to be forced by law to wear seat belts. Some people view large corporations as the enemy, when those corporations are merely the products of the greed and hypocrisy of the consumer. Our political system is venal, our politicians corrupt, selling their votes to the biggest campaign contributors – and yet we fail to vote the rascals out. Year in, year out, stupid people continue to vote for the politician who waves the flag and promises them what they know cannot be done. Where’s the rationalism?

About ten months ago, perplexed by the support I saw for President Bush, I determined to investigate the matter. I wanted to talk to some of his supporters. First I posted an announcement on my website asking Bush supporters to engage me in a dialogue so that I could better understand their thinking. I had several exchanges, which still left me frustrated. These people seemed utterly beyond reason. So I embarked on an Alice in Wonderland journey through the world of political blogs and debates on the Internet. The great majority of these sites provide what I call “nodding head” discussions. These people don’t want to discuss issues, they want to reinforce their existing beliefs. So the discussion consists of nothing more than people nodding their heads in unison like head-bobbling dolls. I tried a number of experiments in which I oh so diplomatically asked a few questions that didn’t quite toe the party line. The result was always the same: some confusion at first, a few awkward efforts to respond to my questions, and then a group decision that I was a political alien, at which point the pile-up began. Insults and invective piled atop each other until there was no hope of rational discussion. No matter how diplomatic I tried to be, the result was always the same. People simply could not handle disagreement.

I did find one site that made an honest effort to provide robust, fair debate on political issues. I stayed with this group for a long time, probing its strengths and weaknesses. There were some fairly rational participants, but they were a minority. The group as a whole was certainly much better informed than the average American, but even so the quality of the discussion left much to be desired. On some issues, people simply dug in their heels and refused to budge, no matter how much evidence or logic was brought to their attention. Perhaps the best indication of the irrationalism lay in this little tidbit: I never once saw any participant change their mind as a result of the points made in the debate. (That’s excluding myself; I changed my mind three times as a result of well-made points by others.) Neither did I see anybody apologize for a slight offered another (again, I am the exception; I offered several apologies when I realized that my wording admitted an unintended pejorative interpretation. That’s what I get for using snazzy language.)

Here’s an even better example: consult the letters to the editor in your local paper. Evaluate the logic of each letter. Recently we had a spate of letters responding to the judicial decision forbidding the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools because of its use of the phrase “under God”. Despite the fact that the decision hinged solely on the religious reference, not one letter decrying the decision referenced this crucial fact. Every writer based his case on the declaration of allegiance, not the religious reference. All these people got worked up over something completely irrelevant to the issue. How can we cope with nuclear terrorism if our electorate can’t even correctly perceive the issue at hand?

The conclusion from all this is sad and clear: we are certain to destroy ourselves. We are like chimpanzees playing with a gun; it is only a matter of time before it goes off and kills us.

Apocalypse soon

I suppose that it is incumbent upon me to explain how our stupidity could lead to our demise. I do not see collapse happening anytime in the 21st century – I think we need to look further down the road. I expect that by 2100 the geopolitical balance will be dramatically different. America will certainly not be the dominant power; China and India will be much more powerful than they now are. Moreover, I suspect that America will no longer command the respect and obeisance that it now enjoys. It will be one of the top five powers.

The world of the early 22nd century will be dominated by a single overwhelming geopolitical issue: environmental degradation and resource limitations. People everywhere will be beset by a plague of differing environment difficulties. Many will find their lives disrupted by global warming issues that force them to spend billions on compensating measures. They will blame their problems on those nations that aren’t doing enough to stop global warming, in their view. It is likely that the USA will suffer from acid rain generated by Chinese coal-burning. And the Chinese will counter US complaints by citing its energy problems. Just about every nation in the world will have a legitimate grievance against other countries. I believe that cooperation will be impossible in these circumstances, and a kind of resource-environmental nationalism will take root everywhere. Each nation will attempt to maximize its control of vital resources, and will feel justified in ignoring the complaints of other nations deleteriously affected by its own activities.

This situation cannot be sustained; the earth cannot support 7 billion inhabitants at the standard of living that Americans enjoy. The conflict between the haves and the have-nots will dominate the 21st century and will lead to to disaster in the 22nd.

I do not anticipate anything so simple as a big war that kills everybody. Rather, what I foresee is a conflict of such magnitude that it leads to the collapse of the international order. Once that happens, the virtuous circle of global integration transforms to a vicious circle of global disintegration. Economies dependent upon imports will be unable to adjust to isolation, and will contract sharply. That contraction will lead to the collapse of national governments, further compounding the problem of economic disintegration. I don’t expect any of this to happen suddenly; it can take place on a leisurely time scale over decades. But one by one the nation-states of the world will collapse into smaller polities. Each collapse exacerbates the problem by advancing economic disintegration; as economies of scale are lost, inefficiencies rise and the economy is no longer able to support the population. This process continues down to the smallest level of social organization, resulting in the complete collapse of civilization.

The driving force in all this will be the population excess. The global economy right now supports 6 billion people at a fairly low standard of living. During the 21st century, the growing economy will lift billions to a higher standard of living, but their expectations will always exceed the economic realities, and as the long-term costs of environmental degradation begin to bite, the crucial question will be, “Who will suffer these costs?”, and of course, nobody will be willing to shoulder the burden. Thus, the economic expectations of the population will exceed the capacity of the economy, and nations will respond with circle-the-wagon strategies that will only weaken the global economy. Expectations will fall and the population will fall – but people do not suffer such losses stoically. At each step downward, populations will consider their situation desperate enough to demand desperate measures, and those desperate measures may result in a temporary and local respite, but they will also accelerate the overall decline.

Where does the decline end? What’s the stable resting point on which humanity will finally end its downward tumble? The answer is: very low indeed. Technology will not place a floor underneath our fall, because technology can only be maintained in large economy. The application of old technology will slow our fall but not stop it. We will bottom out when we can establish long-term self-sufficient social groups. My guess is that will be at the level of Neolithic agriculture, roughly comparable to what we had in, say, 5000 BCE.

Can anything be done to avert this catastrophe? I don’t think so. As I contemplate the stretch of human history, I find that we have in fact grown more civilized and more rational, but always slowly, and never fast enough to keep up with the times. And the times are moving faster and faster. Enjoy the next 50 years – it’s all downhill after that.