The Evolutionary Psychology of Fukushima

Human civilization is engaged in the project of using materials and energy of all kinds to create ever-increasing amounts of order and structure in the world.  At the same time, in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we are creating ever-increasing amounts of entropic waste.  No problem there, it's what we're supposed to be doing.  We might prefer to stop making waste and just create structure, but unfortunately that's not how the game is played in this particular universe.


There is even one more problem. As Neil Young famously noted, "Rust never sleeps." Anything we build must have more energy and material constantly fed into it for as long as we wish to maintain it. That's the Red Queen's race. It's the place that Tim Garrett of Utah thinks most of the energy we use goes - not to build new stuff, but just to keep the old stuff from falling apart. I'd be willing to bet that a similar proportion of the material we generate goes for the same purpose. So our conceit of "creating structure" comes with an additional hidden ecological price tag, a bill that must be paid in perpetuity.  It's the Gillette principle: buy the razor once, buy new blades forever.


The thermodynamic foundation of this enterprise is tightly connected to human social behavior by way of our evolved psychology.  That linkage completes the coupling of the whole physical/genetic/psychological/behavioral/cultural edifice into a solid, persistent dissipative structure.


Over the last million or so years, the human brain appears to have evolved some qualities that are now working against us.  Here are some of those qualities that are crucial to understanding how climate change and Fukushima (and by inference the rest of the Global Clusterfuck) have happened.

  1. We place far more importance on finding and using energy (food, thermal fuel and electricity) than on what happens to the waste products.
  2. We pay far more attention to concrete, immediate threats than to distant, abstract risks.
  3. We act immediately on threats that affect our daily lives, but spend very little energy addressing complex future risks.
  4. As our primary evolutionary advantage, the human brain functions mainly as a limit-removal mechanism. As a result we pay far more attention to opportunities than to consequences. 

All of those behaviors had their origins in adaptations to problems we faced repeatedly over long periods of time earlier in our species' history. According to evolutionary psychologists, these behaviors became encoded into special-purpose problem solving mental circuitry - i.e. the mechanisms that generate these behaviors are physically encoded in our brains. This physical encoding happens because it's far more efficient and faster to have a piece of special-purpose "hardware" to solve a class of recurrent problems than to arrive at behavioral solutions from fresh algorithmic analysis every time. This worked very well through many tens of thousands of years of slowly-changing history. The difficulty it poses in a fast-changing modern environment is obvious. 


It's very hard to override this solution-generating circuitry using conscious logic. Most people tend go with the generated solution because it works most of the time - and that tendency is itself an evolutionary adaptation. Because most of the time the presented solution will be close enough for horseshoes means that conscious double-checking is generally a waste of time. Even doing the analysis to determine that the "solution" may be wrong is too hard or energy intensive for most people. So we tend not to do it. If it feels right, we usually assume it is right.  Oops...


The examples of nuclear power and fossil fuels make the operation of these mechanisms very clear once you know to look for them: 

  1. We place far more importance on finding and using the energy itself than on what happens to the waste products of CO2 and spent nuclear fuel. 
  2. We pay far more attention to concrete, immediate threats like the loss of jobs or declining standards of living than to distant, abstract risks like climate change or the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.
  3. We act on threats that affect our daily lives. Only once a reactor has melted down or droughts and floods threaten our food supply does society at large pay attention and begin to act.
  4. Our brains function mainly as a limit-removal mechanism. As a result we pay far more attention to opportunities ("We can power civilization the modern way, by splitting atoms!") than to consequences ("Oh, we can deal with the spent fuel later, there's lots of time for that.") 

Humans also tend to assume that our intellect is strong enough that it can control our actions, govern the direction of our development and deal with the risks. Unfortunately, the forces that shape our behavior have a very strong genetic or "hardware" component that is difficult to recognize, let alone overcome through reason. 


Adding to the dilemma is the fact that we have evolved similar special-purpose mechanisms to promote social group cohesion. These mechanisms entrain our personal behavior to conform  with that of people around us, so that the group can present a united front. Objectors, malcontents and whistle-blowers are subjected to enormous social pressure to get back in the fold or risk ostracism. So people who say things like, "Perhaps we shouldn't use every last source of energy we can, and maybe we should apply the Precautionary Principle once in a while," are about as welcome in broader society as skunks at a picnic. They are ignored, derided, harassed, or even sanctioned through job loss or imprisonment. 


I do not think that humans are generally stupid or exceptionally greedy - at least not exactly. We are living with psychological influences that are very old, and are embedded in the physical structure of our brains. The way we have evolved makes it much easier for us to go along with each other and continue expanding the human experiment than to go against social norms and practice restraint.


Does this mean that our behavior is deterministic?  Perhaps not, philosophically speaking.  What it does mean is that our behavior is constrained and shaped by so many physical and biological mechanisms that are outside our awareness and beyond our control, that it might as well be deterministic.  If we assume that human behavior is in fact deterministic, we won't ever go too far wrong.

Paul Chefurka
September13, 2013

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