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Thinking About Thinking

Here's the opening of a work in progress....

Seventy-four thousand years ago, humanity nearly went extinct. A super-volcano at what's now Sumatra's Lake Toba erupted with a strength more than a thousand times greater than that of Mount St. Helens in 1981. Over 800 cubic kilometers of ash filled the skies of the northern hemisphere, lowering global temperatures and pushing a climate already on the verge of an ice age over the edge. Genetic evidence shows that at this time – many anthropologists say as a result – the population of Homo sapiens dropped to as low as a few thousand families.

It seems to have been a recurring pattern: Severe changes to the global environment put enormous stresses on our ancestors. From about 2.3 million years ago, up until about 10,000 years ago, the Earth went through a convulsion of glacial events, some (like the post-Toba period) coming on in as little as a few decades.

How did we survive? By getting smarter. Neurophysiologist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition – including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead – evolved due to the demands of this succession of rapid environmental changes. Neither as strong, nor as swift, nor as stealthy as our competitors, the hominid advantage was versatility. We know that the complexity of our tools increased dramatically over the course of this period. But in such harsh conditions, tools weren't enough – survival required cooperation, and that meant improved communication and planning. According to Calvin, over this relentless series of whiplash climate changes, simple language developed syntax and formal structure, and a rough capacity to target a moving animal with a thrown rock evolved into brain structures sensitized to looking ahead at possible risks around the corner.

Our present century may not be quite as perilous as an ice age in the aftermath of a super-volcano, but it is abundantly clear that the next few decades will pose enormous challenges to human civilization. It's not simply climate disruption, although that's certainly a massive threat. The end of the fossil fuel era, global food web fragility, population density and pandemic disease, as well as the emergence of radically transformative bio- and nanotechnologies – all of these offer ample opportunity for broad social and economic disruption, even devastation. And as good as the human brain has become at planning ahead, we're still biased by evolution to look for near-term, simple threats. Subtle, long-term risks, particularly those involving complex, global processes, remain devilishly hard to manage.

But here's an optimistic scenario for you: if the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: By getting smarter. Only this time, we don't have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost intelligence. We can do it ourselves. Indeed, the process is already underway.


There is a whole swath of phenomena related to human intelligence, linguistics, belief, and culture that are rooted in "our" ice age evolutionary-crucible experience.

I think the trick is going to be finding ways to sublimate the stuff that isn't useful in the current epoch without turning ourselves into specialized monstrosities, or alternately by "adapting" to the situation by getting trapped in a dismal, doomed, zero-sum hierarchy in which an increasingly miserable submerged 90% dance and toil for the savvy types who know how to pull their strings.

The spread of broadband wireless internet means that computer/communication systems are going to participate in almost all human interaction within ~12 years. This should allow the fundamental change in daily behaviors of people and organization that are needed to deal with the challenges of climate change, peak oil, population growth.

One of the basic limiting factors on a social system is its communication system, ours is getting a big upgrade.

We the people are pretty damn smart. It is the corporate media that is dragging down the curve. The greatest threat to our survival are the paid lies of the corporate media. That's what keeps us living in

I would guess living species do not develop any "surplus" abilities, physical or mental. Rather we just economically adapt to the changes. And when things start to change more rapidly, some species, accidentally, have the right set of abilities to survive. Like humans obviously have had in the past(sorry about that, lemurs).
So you say that we should consider the future challenges, environmental and other, as a possibility to develop ourselves? Let's hope that we have the right set of abilities this time. Obviously, as J. Moore pointed out, it's not just a question of DNA but also our technology which has become a integral part of our evolution.

Well, coincidentally I started on modafinil today. Thats a great way to start getting functionally smarter - HOLY SHIT this makes a difference for me so far.

Getting smarter would be great, but let's hope that we don't need to be cut down to a few thousand families again, hey? (I know you weren't suggesting that as a useful option.)

Interesting... few comments, mostly semi-critical.

There's a huge practical difference between things that threaten to make our life slightly more unpleasant and those that wipe it out completely. The difference is between a living galaxy and a dead galaxy.

"The process is already underway" sounds alright in principle, but I worry it carries somewhat of a connotation of Kurzweilian inevitability to human intelligence enhancement. This point is purely semantic. I'd probably say, "indeed, it looks like we can do it, but even the process of intelligence enhancement itself is potentially lethally dangerous". This is because an augmentee that bootstraps him/her/itself faster than everyone else could merely sit back, laugh, and rule over us for eternity.

Unfortunate possibility: our chances of surviving this century could be less than half, even less than a quarter. Since there's no such thing as fate, we have no "destiny" to survive.

"We the people are pretty damn smart..."

We have seen the enemy & it is

One sign of becoming smarter would be an acknowledgement of how dumb we are. Hubris is dumb, sadly persistent in our history, a root source of our problems. I hope that intelligence augmentation comes with humility augmentation.


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