Click play below to hear the podcast:Do We Have the Right Brain for the 21st Century?
Everyone knows that humans are doing a pretty poor job, at the moment, of solving our toughest 21 Century problems… (insert your issue of choice… for example climate change, world poverty, nature protection, misuse of antibiotics, armed conflict, economic stability, or whatever).
On the other hand we all know that humans have ‘evolved reflexes’ that do a very good job of protecting us from fast moving objects, preventing us from falling from heights or cutting or burning ourselves, bashing into solid objects, or getting bitten by snakes, or eating food that’s gone off.
So if both of these things are true (that is, we succeed with issues where we clearly have evolved behaviours to guide us, but we are failing at other issues where there seems to be no built-in behavioural response), then it would seem, that we can draw a very clear inference, that we haven’t got the right sort of brain for the 21st Century.
Well, if this is right we are in a real pickle.
My work focuses on climate change and environmental sustainability. And recently I’ve been hearing more people saying it’s no wonder we’re in such a mess because our brains didn’t evolve to handle modern problems – implying that we shouldn’t expect to be able to cope.
The correctness or otherwise of this assertion is pretty important. So recently I began reading a lot of material on neuroscience and brain evolution to see if I could get to the bottom of the issue.
Here’s what’s emerged from this investigation.
It turns out that humans have all the mental machinery needed to tackle complex issues – provided we choose to take them on. We have the built-in mental wherewithal to tackle both threats and opportunities. And we have the mental capability to work together on issues that are too big for one person. We can deal with long term problems and projects. Medieval cathedrals were often built over hundreds of years. And we can act seriously on abstract issues as well, otherwise religions would not exist.
But it’s true that we don’t have an evolved capacity, as such, to deal with climate change or antibiotics misuse or other complex modern issues.
An evolved capacity can only emerge where humans have had to cope with an issue over and over and over again over tens of thousands of years and an evolved (instinctual) behavioural routine to deal with the problem is actually useful.
We don’t have an evolved capacity to deal with the prevention of climate change, in exactly the same way that we don’t have an evolved capacity to write symphonies, or design buildings, or create computers, write novels or do calculus.
What we do have is a very large brain that actually changes its structure in response to what we think about and what we do. The neuroscience term for this is “brain plasticity”. When people are really good at mental arithmetic, they actually build a calculator in their heads. Drivers who can drive safely, while thinking of other things, can do that because they have constructed an autopilot in their heads. Every deep skill that we have is reflected in the cell networks in our brain that emerge as a result of engaging deeply.
Human evolution has moved in the direction of more and more general mental power and less instinctive or locked in behaviour.
Humans have retained the basic evolved automatic reflexes of our far distant ancestors to protect us from instant threats. But that’s simply so we can live long enough to be able to think about everything else that needs to be done.
Given that we have evolved to enhance our creative capabilities and thus generate a more complex world, it simply wouldn’t work to rely on highly programmed instincts to see us through every important problem.
So if our brain is not the problem, why are we having such difficulty with some big 21st century problems?
The problem, I think, lies in 2 places.
Firstly, we haven’t grown the solution building skills relevant to each issue in the plastic brains of enough people.
And, secondly, we haven’t changed our institutions, power structures and culture sufficiently to favour effective action.
Before suggesting some responses to these problems, let’s explore an apparently simpler problem-solving situation.
Anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years and intellectually modern humans have existed for at least 50,000 years.
The setting that we are most fully evolved for is the life of hunter gatherers living in smallish bands with extended social networks of up to about 150 people.
People in these bands knew each other very well and were keenly aware that they depended on each other (even if they weren’t always best friends).
People evolved a strong in-group / out-group reflex. Our altruism is directed to people (and other animals etc.) who are part of the in-group and the out-group can be treated with indifference or even hostility. This instinctive bi-modal pattern more often than not favoured the survival of the in-group.
People also evolved an instinctive tendency to differentiate themselves within the band to encourage behavioural diversity even where genetic diversity is not extreme. We see this in families where children take up different roles to express their individuality.
Let’s drop into a discussion around the camp fire somewhere in Asia, or Africa or Europe 20,000 years ago.
The climate over the last 2½ million years, prior to the modern era, fluctuated wildly over 100s of years and even the natural changes over decades could be significant. So discussions about naturally caused climate change would have been common.
In our hypothetical discussion, one of the band members, a bit of a loner who is a keen observer of the land, notes that she has seen changes in the growth of plants and distribution of insects that her grand mother told her indicated that dry times would be coming. Another band member who is a hunter says that he has seen unusual changes in the movement of the animals and he suggests that the band should move to a part of their territory that has better water supply in poor times. Other band members protest that moving is a bad idea because the area they are living in now has more food. They dispute the observations and the interpretations.
But another band member listens to the conversation raging back and forth. She, or it could be a he, has a knack for drawing together ideas from many people. She challenges the different views and tests their strength and starts to weave an integrated view that members of the band can share.
Slowly the consensus moves to the view that the band should move.
Other members of the band start to look at the practical issues. How will the old people and the children be moved? Who will need help? What tools should they carry with them, what should be left behind? Others think about how to negotiate with surrounding bands so there isn’t conflict when they move or if there is, there is a plan to deal with it.
And so on and so on.
(Had the debate not played out this way the band might have perished, and many did.)
This story demonstrates an ability for a community to be sensitive to the environment, to build on past learning, to work through uncertainty and conflict, to develop a sense of direction, to deal with complex practicalities. The diversity of personalities and skills, in this situation, is an asset.
In our complex mass society the dynamics can be different, not because we have differently evolved brains, but because we interact differently.
People with different personalities can link together to form ‘tribes’ within the tribe. Change on the big issues can be harder because so many organisations have locked into their preferred strategies. Individuals have less leverage unless they band together to get critical mass. But they have to avoid becoming just another warring faction.
In our society, useful personality differences often get exaggerated and structured into contesting political parties and it is then hard to blend the strengths of difference together again. Rather than ‘in-group’ altruism and cooperation working to deal with difference, disagreement and conflict, out-group dynamics lead to tribal ‘warfare’.
The reason why we have difficulty solving 21st Century problems is because they are the problems left over that our current institutional and cultural framework can’t handle well. All the other problems do get solved.
Rather than despairing that our brains are not up to handling the big problems (the least likely cause) we need to focus on building the needed skills and on changing our institutions and culture to handle well what we are currently failing at.
Developing the needed skills and changing our institutions and culture are very big and demanding tasks – which is why they are neglected – but the first cultural change we need to make, starting among people who can see the big problems, is to cease treating big, hard problems as off limits for serious action, off limits for our action.
When you do decide to take on the big, hard issues, you find that many of the methods needed for handling them have been developed already for other purposes – for example methods such as “breakthrough innovation”, “systems architecting”, “complex project management”, “concurrent engineering” to speed up project execution, and so on.
When I was a kid I was taught at school and university not to think big and not to take the world on my shoulders. I don’t know why I decided to buck against this advice. But I did, and now I know from experience that another way is possible.
Many of you will know the famous saying by Margaret Mead “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I want to extend this idea. “Never doubt that an individual thoughtful, committed citizen can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This must be true, because otherwise how did the small groups that Margaret Mead spoke of come together in the first place?
We need to legitimise the idea that it is reasonable for an individual person to choose to take on the biggest, hardest and most important problems that the world faces. But we need to prepare individuals for this task. Clearly to get access to the needed skills and knowledge and scale of impact, such individuals need to know how to link up with others to create extended teams. But teamwork starts with individuals.
How can we prepare our children to play a key part in a world that takes on the hardest and most important issues and, in the end, succeeds?
How can we help them begin the journey to mastery in tackling these problems?
We need to encourage them to explore, to give them opportunities for ‘apprenticeship’ in difficult problem solving, to encourage them to set their own creative trailblazing course.
This school has a wonderful reputation for encouraging the formation of school bands for music. My eldest child is a joyful member of one of Princes Hills’ recently formed student bands (Cactus Channel) that has taken off in the wider world.
What then about the possibility of forming “school bands” for social problem solving?
For music we compose. For social change we create solutions. For music we perform. For social change we engage in outreach and implementation.
Saving the world, like making music is a beautiful, creative thing full of purpose and individual striving and love.
Every idea has to start somewhere. Why couldn’t this idea start here, with us?