Our senses are flooded with information. We literally do not have the cognitive power to process all of this data, and so our brains take a short-cut. They discard most of the information, and focus attention on a small subset of the data.
Shankar Vedantam, “Useful Delusions”
For the first time, our species has the immense power to alter the conditions of life for every organism on Earth. This power imposes on each of us the responsibility to make the effort to try to see and to understand the world as it is, not how we intuitively imagine it to be.
Our brains have evolved over ten million years to quickly and easily identify and help us avoid the most common dangers facing our gatherer-hunter ancestors. Those natural dangers have, by and large, been replaced by other new and extreme dangers created by humans, mostly in the past ten decades.
Unfortunately our brains are still more easily alert to the old dangers than to the new ones of our making. It takes conscious effort to see and respond effectively to these new dangers. Our power to create these dangers forces on us the obligation to make the effort to recognize and defuse them.
Starting before the dinosaurs, the vast majority of the survival-filtering that led to how our brains and bodies work took place in our pre-human ancestors – fish, lizards, early rodent-like placentals, primates, and apes. Those creatures who had genes that built brains and bodies that quickly and reliably avoided danger and exploited opportunities (and who were also lucky), survived long enough to have off-spring who were likely also to have genes that allowed them (if their luck held) to have off-spring of their own.
The uniquely human features of our brains have emerged during the past hundreds of thousands of years, roughly 10,000 generations, shaped by how to survive in small groups whose most advanced technologies were fire, wood and stone tools, and language. Together these pre-human and stone-aged conditions have molded brains (and bodies) that have powers to efficiently exploit common opportunities and avoid common dangers in their environments.
Perhaps the most distinctive human power is our ability to invent not only tools, but also stories and ideas.
Many inventions have allowed our fore-bearers and ourselves to avoid dangers and death, and have led to1000-fold explosion of the number of humans in just 10,000 years, from roughly 5 million to almost 8 billion. But in doing so they, and we, have created dangers that have never before faced our species, dangers that our brains don’t easily recognize. Almost all of these new dangers have emerged since the birth of the grandparents of people alive today. Four or five generations is far too little time for evolution to affect how our brains work. We inhabit a modern rapidly-changing crowded world but still have brains that are innately tuned to deal with stone tools and tribes of 150 people.
To survive in this new strange world that we and our fellow humans have invented, we must look past – and sometimes even reject – the built-in short-cuts that our brains want to follow. This will take considerable effort and courage. At times it will be uncomfortable and disorienting. But the world we’ve created demands this of us.