Full text of sociobiologist Rebecca Costa’s talk: The Greatest Discovery You Never Heard Of atTEDxSantaCruz conference.
Best quote from this talk:
“What we need now is an agency like NASA, that was developed to explore outer space, we need an agency to explore inner space.”
Rebecca Costa – Sociobiologist
Hello, TEDsters. OK, this is going to start out on a negative note, but it’s going to get better.
And what a hard act to follow, right? It’s not easy to be me on this stage right now. So be kind.
Let me be the first to tell you things have gotten too complicated. The other day, I had somebody try to explain to me the economics behind a national healthcare program. And I thought my head was going to explode. I should understand how we’re going to pay for it.
So I went to Alan Dershowitz, Bill Richardson, and some smart people that should know this stuff. And they said, “We don’t understand it either.” Yikes!
But it’s not just that. You know, I’m driving here in my car and I’m trying to load my CD player, and I’m trying to put the address in, the nav system and all that. And I realize, “Yeah, that’s why they made a log and it’s texting” because I can’t figure out, like there’s a limit to what I can do.
I’m too stupid, so they got to say, “You can’t drive and put your CD in and fiddle with your nav system, and text. What are you thinking?”
So, I got to thinking, “What’s going on? Why can’t we solve our problems?”
Maybe there’s a connection between why we can’t solve our problems anymore and the complexity of the issues we face, whether it’s climate change – we still have 65% of the people in the United States that don’t believe that global warming is happening.
Now, can I balance that against the 1.5 billion with a “b” measurements of the Earth’s surface temperature that we’ve taken since 1880. Now, if that isn’t enough data, I don’t know what it’s going to take.
OK, 1.5 billion measurements since 1880 – it’s not theoretical anymore, OK. It’s gotten really complicated.
So, what I’m going to do here in the next ten minutes is I’m going to try to show you why our problems are not political anymore, they’re biological. We’re up against an evolutionary limit.
Now, one way to think about this is two clocks. One clock is the clock of evolution, discovered by Charles Darwin 152 years ago. And every time the hand moves, it’s a million years. I need a new appendage to do all the stuff in my car, I’m not getting one. Neither are you. Can’t drink my coffee, drive, and work my nav system.
We’re not getting one for many millions of years. It doesn’t matter what you need, you’re not getting it, because we’re all in the same biological spacesuit, and this spacesuit can only adapt in million-year increments, it’s very, very slow.
Now, with the second clock is human progress. And every time that hand moves, it’s a picosecond, right? Apple’s already come out with a new version of the gadget you’ve just bought last week. Guess what? While we’re sitting here, there’s ten more free apps you can get. I don’t want any more free apps!
Let me be the first one to say, “I don’t want any more gadgets, I don’t want all the free stuff that came on my PC and I’m scared to take off because it might ruin my work. I don’t want any of that.”
What happens when complexity races ahead of the brain’s ability to understand it?
Well, we know by looking over ancient civilizations, we become gridlocked. We can’t solve our problems. One of the earliest signs is we begin passing them off from one generation to another, and we know they’re getting worse.
The world I am passing off to my children is significantly worse than the one I inherited from my parents. An uneven rate of change between biology and human progress causes a lag, causes a gap to occur. All of humankind, every government, Mr. Obama, you and I have hit a limit.
When we’ve broken down the human genome between our nearest ancestor, the bonobo monkey, in ourselves. I don’t know if you know this, there is only a 1.7% genetic difference between the bonobos. I think we’ve leveraged the hell out of that!
While I’m talking to you, the men are not trying to have sex with their chairs. You’re not throwing food at each other. If you’ve ever studied bonobos, that 2% difference is massive! We stay in our lane, we … my God! So, I’m really impressed.
But folks, there’s a limit to this. If you took a Neanderthal, you dropped him into Times Square today, he wouldn’t function very well. And if you put us in a time machine and jet us into some million years ahead, we’d look like a Neanderthal. We are a work in progress, and there is a limit to it.
And we can argue whether we hit that cognitive threshold today, or 50 years from now, 100 years from now. But eventually, if you’re logical, if you’ve got one logical cell in your body, you know those two clocks have to hit.
When complexity makes knowledge very difficult to attain, like the global recession, like global warming, like picking out milk, right? How many of you think cow’s milk is good for you? Raise your hand.
Nobody? Nobody drinks cow’s milk?
Well, it’s amazing, because there’s 22 types of milk at Safeway. 1%, 2%, non-fat, I don’t really know all the differences there. Acidophilus, lactose intolerant, soymilk – which is really soy juice, there’s no milk coming from soy. But you wouldn’t put juice on your cereal. Almond milk – interesting concept.
OK, we are an organism – when facts drop off, we switch over to beliefs. We just have this automatic governor. Think about the human organism as having two baskets. One basket is facts, gravity is a fact. The speed of light, a fact. I drop my keys – every time they fall to the ground, never once in suspended animation.
But when we don’t have facts, or we can’t grasp the facts, we switch over to unproven beliefs. Does anybody know who this is?
All those people that handed their money to Bernie Madoff, they were very sophisticated investors. Make no mistake, they weren’t people like me that have 100 bucks in the bank. These were very sophisticated investors, and they said, “The financial market’s just gotten too complicated. I don’t know how to invest my money. Here it all is. Here’s the dump truck, you take it.”
And we all know what happened, we follow false prophets. Public policy becomes shaped by irrational beliefs. When you’re not developing public policy based on facts, what are you basing them on? You’re basing them on beliefs.
And so you hear politicians say things like, “I don’t believe in global warming.” Or “I don’t believe the deficit is that dangerous.” “I don’t believe social security is going broke.”
Let me give you an example, one example going back to ancient history, the Mayan civilization.
You think early period of the Mayan civilization, when they were thriving, they nurtured both beliefs and facts, they were building massive reservoirs and underground cisterns. Because, for 3,000 years, they’d had a tenuous relationship with rainfall, and they knew that would do them in.