Many of our instincts have passed their sell-by date. They had a very long shelf-life but now after a few million years, they’ve expired. They are no longer good for what they were designed for. Why so? Because the world has changed and our brains have not.
Our distant ancestors (homo homo) evolved around 2.5 million years ago. Then ~250,000 years ago we, anatomically modern humans (home sapiens) arrived on the scene. Our brains have been evolving for a very long time and all during that time we lived in a world that was quite different from the modern world.
The first humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Only in the ~10,000 years did they settle down into groups of around 150 individuals or so, and began agriculture. To a first approximation, we’ve only been hunter-gathers living hand to mouth.
We are survival machines. Every one of us is a direct descendant of an unbroken line of millions of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. Therefore our brains evolved to make us suited to the environment our ancestors faced. That makes us entirely unsuited to the modern world.
My thesis is that our instincts evolved to be superbly suited to a world that does not exist any more. Therefore it is no surprise at all that what we naively believe to be true about the world is precisely wrong.
To survive, our ancestors had to have beliefs about the world that matched the world they lived in. Our instincts make us precisely well-suited to survive in that ancestral world but now the world has changed. So almost all of our untutored beliefs about the world is significantly and saliently wrong. Our instincts which have served us so well for so long are now seriously out-of-date.
We believe the world is flat; that the sun, the moon, the planets and stars revolve around the earth; that we live in a zero-sum world (in which if you have more it must be because someone has less); that too many people is a bad thing; that resources are limited and exhaustible; that only what is seen matters, not the unseen; that only the immediate effects of an action matter, not what’s in the distant future; that only intended consequences obtain, not the unintended; that for society to function it must be planned; that trusting strangers is dangerous; that competitive aggression is better than cooperation; etc.
All of that is not so anymore.
Our hard-wired instincts need to be over-ridden through changes in our software. That change in software is done through education (broadly understood.) We can learn to over-ride our instincts.
We humans are general purpose machines. (We are ‘machines’ is only a manner of speaking. We are organisms, not machines. There’s a distinction that we need to make.) We can learn to do anything we please provided we put in the time and effort.
None of us born a physicist or a cellist or a farmer or any of the hundreds of thousand of different specialized workers we do become. The hardware of our brains is essentially the same; only the software loaded to run on the hardware makes the difference.
Here’s problem, though. The wrong software can be loaded, so to speak. People can be — and usually are — taught the wrong thing. When that happens, we believe in all sorts of kooky, stupid ideas. Once the wrong software is in place, it’s very hard to re-program the system.
The government education system, often deliberately and with malice aforethought, messes up the software. Why? Because it benefits those in government. This problem has been investigated by generations of social scientists and they have discovered solutions.
Let’s find out how the world works first. Then we will get an handle on why the world is the way it is.
Here’s a bit that I wrote elsewhere which is worth repeating.
We have come a long way in the short time of 250 years (relative to the past 300 thousand years or even 10 thousand years). Life expectancy at birth used to be less than 30 years; now it is above 70 years for the vast majority of people across the world.
Every measure of human flourishing — child mortality, morbidity, health, education, housing, entertainment, travel, comfort — have improved at an accelerating pace in just the recent past. Not just that, standards of civility and morality have improved beyond anything that anyone would have imagined just a few centuries ago.
To cut a very long story short, let’s just say that life for all (to a first approximation) of human existence has been inescapable horror. It’s never been a picnic in the park. Even in our most trying personal circumstances we should remember to be thankful that we were born in the modern world, and not the ancient world.
Recognizing that life is vastly and immeasurably better than it used to be even in the relatively recent past is not to say that life is heavenly now. For sure things can be better. Being used to constant improvements we have come to expect advances in the material condition of humans. But those advances are neither certain nor are they inevitable. Why is that so?
There are important questions that we need to investigate. What exactly is the cause of material poverty? Who is a poor person actually? What is the way out of poverty? What are the necessary conditions for poverty? What are the sufficient conditions for poverty? Why was poverty so prevalent in the past and not so in the present? Will there come a time when there will be no material poverty in the world? Will there be a time when there will be no poor people in the world? Poverty and poor are related but not the same concept.