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March 02, 2012

Humanity and the Illusion of Progress

The Impact of Scientific Thinking

Since the advent of empirical Science five or so centuries ago, our species has made spectacular progress in its attempts to understand and control its environment. Unfortunately that progress can now be seen to have been rather uneven: too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The most obvious result of our rapidly evolving technological prowess is a corresponding increase in the number of humans now inhabiting the planet; unfortunately, it's also likely that a majority are less content and more worried about their future than ever.

The reasons for that population explosion and its attendant discontent are both multiple and complex; my own opinion is that it's related to an evolutionary flaw in the development of the human brain, our organ of survival and cognition, which is also the source of the new ideas that have been impacting our planetary ecology at a progressive rate. The glitch I have in mind is the parallel evolution of our brain's emotional and cognitive centers, both of which had survival value and were thus retained in such close physical and synaptic proximity that an immediate emotional response to any cognitive stimulus ultimately became the human default, a concept first articulated by American neurologist Paul McLean in postulating the Triune Brain.

Pressure from Recent Developments

It's now generally accepted that the universe (cosmos) is more vast and timeless than could have been imagined even a few centuries ago; there's also increasing evidence that the survival of all species, including our own, has been shaped by unpredictable evolutionary processes that have been determining the survival of myriad complex organisms for at least 500 million years, a time span most humans still find either very troubling or impossible to believe. In any event, this rapidly accumulating flood of new information casts considerable doubt on still-extant religious beliefs in an omniscient deity primarily focused on individual human behavior.

The speed with which new scientific discoveries are forcing our species to confront complex and generally unwelcome ideas can be appreciated from the fact that the Darwinian intuition that led to the concept of evolution occurred less than 150 years ago and was validated relatively quickly; first, by Mendel's systematic studies of what came to be known as genes (although he would have disagreed with Darwin, had they ever met). After the structure of DNA was disclosed in 1953, progress became especially rapid; most educated people now have at least a nodding acquaintance genetic engineering, and the mapping of genomes. Some of the less predictable uses of DNA have tracking human migrations from Africa, and the positive identification of individuals, even down to providing unequivocal proff that we avenged 9/11 by assassinating Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last May.

In stark contrast to those achievements, we have not learned to live in harmony despite the obvious danger that our disagreements, when magnified sufficiently, can easily lead to war, or that war in the nuclear age runs the risk of nuclear winter. Although doubted by skeptics, the nuclear winter hypothesis was (fortunately) not tested by an exchange of missiles when the actual danger had been greatest. For what it's worth, some confirmatory evidence was supplied by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from recent history is how lucky we have been as a species to have flirted with disaster and been spared. I hope our good luck continues.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 2, 2012 04:47 PM