Monday, January 26, 2015

Musk Ox Thinking

This article is ostensibly about nuclear weapons, but in reality it is about the root cause of nearly all our problems, including climate change and Peak Oil. Probably nothing here you don't know already, but it's very well put here:
How does evolution create our ignorance, thereby adding to our danger? Because its two forms — biological and cultural — are disconnected, and so are we, from our own self-interest.

Homo sapiens is the product of biological evolution — a painfully slow Darwinian process — yet we are simultaneously enmeshed in its cultural counterpart, a Lamarckian phenomenon which, by contrast, is blindingly fast and proceeds under its own rules. We have one foot thrust into the cultural present and the other stuck in our biological past.

Individuals, after all, do not evolve in the Darwinian sense; only populations and lineages do. And they are shackled to the realities of genetics and reproduction, since organic evolution is a process whereby gene frequencies change over time. Accordingly, generations are required for even the smallest evolutionary step.

By contrast, cultural evolution is astoundingly rapid. Acquired characteristics can be “inherited,” a la Lamarck, in hours or days, then passed along to other individuals, modified yet again before being picked up or dropped altogether. For example, in just a few decades (less than an instant in biological time), personal computers were developed, proliferated and modified. If they had “evolved” by Darwinian, biological means, as a favorable mutation to be promoted in one or even a handful of individuals, there would currently be only a dozen or so computer users instead of billions.

Just a superficial glance at human history shows today's world is vastly different from that of a century ago, which is almost unimaginably different from 50,000 years ago. And yet a Cro-Magnon baby, magically plunked down at birth in 21st century America, could very well find herself comfortably reading on her iPad, and offspring of today's technophiles could adapt to the world of saber-toothed cats and stone axes.

Consider that stone ax. The history of civilization is, in large part, one of ever-greater efficiency in killing, as in the progression from club, knife and spear, to bow and arrow, musket, rifle, cannon, battleship, bomber and nuclear-tipped ICBM. At the same time, the human being who creates and manipulates these devices has not changed much at all.

As a biological creature, in fact, Homo sapiens is poorly adapted for killing, given his puny nails, minimal jaws and laughable little teeth. But cultural evolution has made it not only possible but easy.

This biology-culture disconnect is especially acute in the realm of nuclear weapons. At the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Albert Einstein famously noted that “the splitting of the atom has changed everything but our way of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

He might have been talking about musk oxen. These shaggy Arctic beasts have long employed a very effective strategy when confronted by their enemies: wolves. They herd the juveniles into the center while the adults face outward, arrayed like the spokes of a wheel. Even the hungriest wolf finds it intimidating to confront a wall of sharp horns and bony foreheads, backed by a thousand pounds of angry pot roast. For countless generations, their behavior served musk oxen well.

But in more modern times, their primary threat hasn't been wolves, but human hunters carrying high-powered rifles. Today, musk oxen would do better if they spread out and high-tailed it toward the horizon, but instead they respond as previous generations always have — forming their trusted defensive circle — and are easily slaughtered.

Human actions changed everything but the musk ox way of thinking; as they clung to their biology they drifted toward unparalleled catastrophe, until another human action (conservation) intervened.

Humans also cling to (or remain unconsciously influenced by) our biology. That stubbornness is especially evident when it comes to thinking, or not thinking, about nuclear weapons...
Stubborn like a musk ox -- why Homo sapiens can't think straight about nuclear weapons (LA Times)

...or climate change, or environmental destruction or dysfunctional social systems, or arms races, or inequality, or the petroleum based high tech food system, or antibiotic resistance, or, well, any progress trap, really.

And, related: Technology is making us more vulnerable (Aeon)
...Which is to say, the same technologies that are making our lives easier are also bringing new, often unexpected problems. On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.


After all, it’s been a long time since we lived among those crippled by polio, or in communities wiped out by smallpox. The longer we go without direct awareness of a threat, the more desensitised we become to the reality of that threat, and the less seriously we take the safeguards put in place to protect us from it. As Henry Petroski notes in his book on engineering failure, To Forgive Design (2012), despite significant technological improvements, buildings and bridges still fail, and planes and cars still crash – not because of the technology itself, but because of the inability of designers to internalise the hard-learned lessons of previous generations. ‘Unfortunately,’ Petroski writes:

The lessons learned from failures are too often forgotten in the course of the renewed period of success that takes place in the context of technological advance. This masks the underlying facts that the design process now is fundamentally the same as the design process 30, 300, even 3,000 years ago. The creative and inherently human process of design, upon which all technological development depends, is in effect timeless. What this means, in part, is that the same cognitive mistakes that were made 3,000, 300, or 30 years ago can be made again today, and can be expected to be made indefinitely into the future. Failures are part of the technological condition.

Despite our progress and achievements, human civilisation doesn’t necessarily progress in the way we expect. If technology moves along a linear axis, it is complemented by a cyclical resurgence of human forgetting, folly and failure. We might not be in danger of lapsing into the Dark Ages, but we do find ourselves relearning the same life-or-death lessons each generation.

Just as technology pacifies once-dangerous events, sometimes the needle swings in the other direction. Call it a reverse sublime, a return of the repressed: a thing that was once safe becomes dangerous. Perhaps we already know this. Perhaps this is why our cultural imagination is suffused with apocalyptic disasters, from Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow, and we never seem to tire of stories of our own hubris, where the barest instance separates the banality from catastrophe. It’s as though we’re constantly reminding ourselves that everything we’ve built is at its core tenuous, and ready to collapse at a moment’s notice.
And now we've made all our money and our entire economy dependent upon complex computer systems that are vulnerable to attack. And just wait until everything is integrated into the "Internet of Things," a completely needless and unnecessary complication that has no other purpose than to become the next profit center for capitalism and corporate America. Just wait until the cyberattacks and viruses run wild on that. I think we've long since passed the diminishing returns to complexity.


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