The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Heather Heying. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Heather Heying. Heather is an evolutionary biologist who applies the toolkit of evolutionary theory to problems large and small. She is a professor in exile and a podcaster with her husband, Bret Weinstein on the very good DarkHorse Podcast, and she’s an author of essays and now a book. Welcome to the show, Heather.
Heather: Thank you for having me, Jim.
Jim: It’s great to do this conversation. We had known each other a little bit for a long while. It’s a good chance to get into it a little bit and find out more about what you’re thinking.
Jim: Heather along with Bret have just published the most interesting and relevant book. It’s called A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life. It will be the main focus of our conversation today. Though, as regular listeners know, we’re likely to wander off on various side excursions. Sometimes those are the best parts.
Jim: To keep the conversation streamlined, when questioning Heather about contents in the book, I’ll often say, “You say,” or something similar. Listeners should assume I’m using the plural form of you to include her coauthor. So, I don’t have to say y’all or something annoying like that. So, let’s start out with the seemingly oxymoronic title, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. What are you pointing to with that title?
Heather: Great question. Well, we could have named it A Post-Industrialist’s Guide to the 21st Century of An Agriculturist’s Guide or A Primate’s Guide or A Mammal’s Guide or A Fish’s Guide, right? Someone all of these points to different moments in our evolutionary history.
Heather: So, we evoked the term of art and evolution, environment of evolutionary adaptedness and the hunter-gatherer of many of our romantic visions of what humans used to look like, of the African savanna and the paleolithic, that is the part of human history that we are referring to in the title, that hunter-gatherer from call it 40,000 years ago perhaps on the African savanna. That was, indeed, part of our history, but a more accurate way to imagine what we are and to know what our history was and to understand our evolution well enough to move forward with care and with progress is to recognize that we don’t have an environment of evolutionary adaptedness . We have many environments of evolutionary adaptedness.
Heather: So, those hunter-gatherers of the African savanna and the paleolithic to which the title refers were one thing that humans were and we are adapted to that. We were also adapted to agriculture because most of us have been agriculturalists for 10,000 to 12,000 years. We’re also at this point adapted to a post-industrial lifestyle, albeit less well so because it’s so recent.
Heather: Again, going back further in time, we are also primates. We are also mammals. We are also fish. All of these things are part of our history and we are adapted to varying degrees to all of them.
Jim: So, yeah. You say you could have chosen a lot of different focuses, but that is an interesting one. So, into the book itself, the book starts off with a bit of a bang, with a story about you and Bret at the side of a river. Why don’t you tell us that story?
Heather: Yeah. So, we, many years ago, this would have been the first summer that we were doing fieldwork in the Neotropics. We were in Costa Rica staying at a little tiny field station in Sarapiqui, and every morning I was doing fieldwork in the forest and Bret was, too, I think. I’m trying to remember. I’m not sure that he had yet focused on the bats in which case he would have been doing fieldwork at some different times of day, but by the afternoon, it would get hot, and we would walk down away from the field station across the highway over a large bridge, over the Rio Sarapiqui and down to the river to swim as did the few other grad students that we were staying at this field station with, as did the local people.
Heather: This day, we were alone. It was just the two of us, and we were walking over the bridge about to head down to the river when a local man, whom we did not know, approached us. At that point, both of our Spanish was quite poor, and he had no English. He started telling us in Spanish with increase in urgency, “Hey, it rained today,” and he would point out towards the mountains. It rained today in the mountains.
Heather: We were hot. We wanted to swim. We didn’t know why this is relevant to us, but we were decent, kind people, so we engaged him, and at some point as he just repeated, “It rained today in the mountains. Today it rained in the mountains,” we excused ourselves and began to walk away across the bridge and down to the river. He said effectively, “No. It rained today in the mountains. Look,” and he pointed down at the river. It was rising as we watched. In fact, it was rising so fast that it literally stopped us in our tracks but had he not been there to stop us in our tracks first, we would have been down at the river by the time. It rose so fast that it effectively was a flash flood.
Heather: The lesson there was, one of the lessons was when it rains in the mountains, that water has got to come somewhere. It’s got to go somewhere and it’s going to come downstream. In this landscape of which you two, you two gringos are very unfamiliar, you don’t realize how fast that will happen. You well may be familiar with the landscape in which you grew up, but this one you don’t know.
Heather: So, the reason that we start off the introduction with this story is this was literally our first fieldwork in grad school. We were training to be scientists. We were learning how to ask questions of the world, how to make observations, how to recognize patterns, how to figure out if our hypotheses were accurate. You come to this place maybe a month and a half earlier and we already thought we knew it and, of course, we didn’t.
Heather: So, this modern ability to move yourself across space with rapidity and land in someone else’s home effectively and imagine that you know it already is just that. It’s a modern phenomenon. Absent that kind stranger, we might well have died. I mean, in fact, it seems quite likely that one or both of us would have been swept away by not just the flash flood, but the massive number of trees and other things that were washing downstream incredibly fast within seconds of the water beginning to rise.
Heather: So, the point is this hypernovel world that we live in that allows for things such as, for instance, plane travel, gives us a sense of power and of knowledge of places that long time in a place that affords wisdom, it’s just no replacement for that. So, the local man who was probably a local farmer, probably had very little formal education, knew far more about that landscape than we already hypereducated and working towards greater education had no way of knowing. We could not know what he taught us in that moment on that day, and that knowledge that he had was life-saving.
Jim: Very good. Well, you keyed me up to my next question. A term you used throughout the book is hypernovel. Tell us about what you mean when you say that.
Heather: We mean by that the idea that, well, let me take a step back and say evolutionary biologists and the colleges talk about niche, right? Every organism has some niche to which it is adapted, that set of environmental conditions and constraints in which it does its best work and outside of which it is more likely to fail. So, we ask in the book, “What is the human niche?”
Heather: The answer that we proposed and that we find good evidence for is that the human niche is niche-switching, that there are many generalists out there, but that of all of the species on the planet we are the most generalists. We do the best job of being able to switch, for instance, from being fishermen at the coast to fishermen up river, to hunters of terrestrial game inland, and that’s just to borrow from one of the early stories in the book about the first Americans, the Beringians, who came over from Asia, but in modern times, of course, we have plenty of evidence of people niche-switching, and it’s the same thing. It’s the same capacity that allows us to do that.
Heather: So, that is all true. We are best at that of anyone on the planet. We’re better at it even then all of the other remarkably social long-live generational overlap, long childhood animals like elephants and dolphins and wolves and parrots and other primates, but even we have created so much change at such a rapid rate at this point that we are outstripping our ability to niche-switch.
Heather: So, the hypernovel world that we are now living in in the 21st century, at least in the weird world, the Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries is changing so fast that novelty we can deal with, hypernovelty, we’re having an increasingly difficult time.
Jim: That is the essence seemingly of our time. Not only is our world hypernovel, but it’s becoming more hypernovel by the day and probably an exponential curve or something damn close to it.
Heather: Exactly. Change is good. The rate of change itself is changing so fast that anyone would have a hard time keeping up.
Jim: Of course, you guys say this spawns a cognitive dissonance in trying to live in a society, right? We were not evolved either culturally or genetically to deal with this kind of thing.
Heather: That’s right. That’s right. We also argue that we’re not blank slates. There are no blank slates on earth that are evolved, but of all the organisms on earth, we are the blankest slates. We’re born with the most capacity, the most lability, flexibility to become almost anything that we want of any organisms, but that doesn’t mean that we’re capable of anything. Yeah, the rate of change is at risk of outstripping our capacities.
Jim: One that we should make clear in the book is that you’re attempting to create a scientific lens for your exploration, which is good. In fact, I’m going to call out what I thought a very nice and succinct description of the scientific program. We thus generate models of the world that when we do the scientific work correctly achieve three things. They predict more than what came before, assume less, and come to fit together with one another in a seamless hole. Maybe you can elaborate on that a little bit and how you and Bret see the scientific career, the scientific vocation.
Heather: Yeah. Well, predict more, assume less, and come together in a hole such that, ultimately, ultimately, the model of reality as it comes to fit with what is actual reality. There won’t be stories that conflict with one another. The stories that are true will come to be in sync with one another.
Heather: So, we’ve walked around our world and we make observations. That is a human function and, indeed, is the function of, really, any organism that has any level of consciousness. We’re not alone in that, although we are the most conscious.
Heather: I would say, I guess, the question that you asked specifically is what does a person making a career in science do versus what is it to walk around with a scientific worldview and a scientific approach to the world. Unfortunately, those are not a perfect match for one another at this point as you and your listeners will be unfortunately well aware of.
Heather: So, too often, modernity forces us in our careers to respond to market forces rather than to our interests about what it is that we see in the world. So, when you walk, indeed, this is a little vignette that’s not in the book. On that same trip where Bret and I almost got washed away by the Rio Sarapiqui on the first time that we were doing fieldwork in the tropics, the professor whom we were with, John Vandermeer, he’s a tropical ecologist, walked us into the rainforest and Bret and I had already spent a summer exploring, but this was the first time that we were there as scientists with our scientist hats on.
Heather: He opened his arms and beckoned at the entire scene before him and said, “Just look at all the questions.” My first thought was, “Oh, my God! I don’t see any questions. All I see is green. I do not know what to do with this.”
Heather: I mean, really, any domain, be your domain, cellular biology or out among the stars or anything in between, it’s a matter of what are your predilections, what kinds of patterns are you prone to recognize and be interested in, and what kinds of questions can you ask of them and then what’s required is that you pose as many hypotheses about any observation that you have as possible, that you figure out what predictions inherently follow from those hypotheses, and that you try to understand what it is that you might do to resolve between them. Does it require experimentation? Does it require formal observation? Either ones can provide appropriate tests for some hypotheses. Some will need to be run multiple times, other kinds of hypotheses. It only requires one incident, and you know for sure that you’ve got an answer, right?
Heather: So, statistics are the domain of the former, not of the latter. So, all of the particulars, the mechanics, the methods, the tools vary widely between these kinds of scientific questions that you might ask, but it’s really one of observing and refining what it is that you see and having it come together into a hole that explains more, assumes less, and comes to fit together with the other things that you know to be true that also explain more and assume less.
Jim: It’s been an incredible enterprise the last 300 years to have developed this new way of seeing. It doesn’t come without its risks. In fact, you call out in the book, a risk of what might be thought of as a shallow style of science thinking, which is the well-known naturalistic fallacy, where people can overgeneralize, essentially, just the idea that what is in nature is what ought to be or in short the is-ought fallacy.
Heather: Yeah. Exactly. I always began when I was a professor, my first day was always philosophy of science with every class, but I’m not a philosopher by training. The is-ought fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, there are a few. They’re all closely related, but evolutionary biology is particularly prone to having its findings grabbed by people who have either ill intentions or naïve intentions. As a result, I think, so much that happens over in social science, the imagines that there’s a reaction against evolutionary biology is actually a reaction against the inappropriate grabbing of Darwinian thinking for bad ends, right?
Heather: You GenX, social Darwinism is not Darwinism. So, it’s that kind of grabbing of careful thinking for bad ends that gives evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, a lot of these kinds of fields a bad smell for people. In fact, what I argue, what Bret argues, and what we both argue in the book and we’re certainly not alone in this is in order to live the best lives we can, in order to create the best possible future for our descendants and for everyone including non-human animals and plants who live on the planet, we need to understand what we are. We need an evolutionary framework and that requires not just knowing what it means to be a fish and what it means to be a mammal, what it means to be a hunter-gatherer. It means knowing really at a fundamental level what it means to be human and not imagining that evolution stops at the neck or that any of the many cultural changes that we are experiencing aren’t as deeply evolutionary as the aortic arch in our heart.
Jim: We’ll get into the very interesting relationship between kinetic evolution and cultural evolution a little later in the story. That’s probably the most interesting part, at least to me.
Jim: Now, let’s go on to the next story that you tell, which you alluded to a little bit earlier, the epoch where the people in Beringia, that area between Siberia and Alaska, the ice age is starting to attenuate and either, I know people argue about this, either a clear channel opened up through the Inland route through Yukon and I think Alberta probably, down into the warmer climes or they came by sea, but one way or the other, a group of people settle off to the unknown. I want you to tell us that story, and what does it mean about the bigger picture and the relevance to what you’re trying to say.
Heather: Yeah. For a long time, we were calling this the greatest story never told. Of course, that suggests that it’s not being told and there are many amazing anthropologists working on trying to figure out what the people of the Americas look like. There’s, as you point out, still some disagreement, but the version of the story that we tell in the book, the details of which may change in our understanding, but involves something between 10,000 to 25,000 years ago. That’s a broad range. So, I’m being conservative in the precision of the estimates to keep within the range that pretty much everyone agrees with at this point.
Heather: There was land between Siberia and Alaska. People began to head east out of Asia onto that land, and probably, probably they lived there in Beringia, in that strait that is now under water for some amount of time, and it was cold, but it wasn’t as cold as you might imagine given current climate. It was productive, although not as productive as say a grassland in modern temperate North America, but it had enough on it that people made a living there.
Heather: Then at some point, people began to head east. Obviously, people cannot live there now. It’s underwater. So, people were forced by changing climate, by, again, the cooling of the climate, by rising sea levels to either head back west from once their ancestors had come, and the descendants of those ancestors once they came presumably would have had some feelings about these new people coming back into their landscape.
Heather: So, some people probably did that. They’re probably the descendants of some Beringians in Asia today, but some of them headed east, and most of them probably didn’t make it because that is the nature of exploration. That is the nature of heading into unknown landscapes with risks that you cannot foresee and to which you are not yet adapted.
Heather: It seems the story that we tell in the book is that it seems like the coastal route is most likely as opposed to an inland route, but it’s possible that people went inland. As these people emerged south of the ice for the first time, so south, on the West Coast modern day Olympia, actually, where Bret and I lived for many years.
Heather: They would have come across a landscape that they had no way of knowing but was two continents big filled with plants and animals that had no history with humans, that had more kinds of habitats than any of the Beringians had even imagined. They began to fill it. They went down the coast and they went inland, and they got as far as the Caribbean, and they got as far as Tierra del Fuego, and they inhabited all the islands and all of the places and this became, those first Beringians became thousands of cultures with thousands of language. They invented not alone in the world, not alone in humanity, but convergently, independently invented agriculture, and astronomy, and the concept of zero, and wheels, and so much else, and city states.
Heather: There was such extraordinary diversity and writing. Most of the people who were the descendants of those Beringians weren’t parts of cultures that had most of those things. In fact, it was the Mayans who had most of those, but it was hardly a case that what most of us learned in elementary school that it was the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Inca, who were the most important and only representatives of those first peoples. By far, no. There were the Taino in the Caribbean and just so many people throughout the new world who made life work based on the environments that they found there. They created tools and they created relationships and they had different social structures.
Heather: The relevance to the book is look at what humans can do. Look in a preindustrial and at the point that they arrived, pre-agricultural landscape, look at how much humans can accomplish.
Jim: They did it pretty fast, right? If you think at least the mainline center, the anthropological and archeological roadmaps assuming they got to Olympia or thereabouts in 15,000 years ago. Within 2,000 years, they’re in Tierra del Fuego, right? That’s amazing.
Heather: It’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine. If you have any familiarity at all on the ground with ever backpacking or with any of the landscapes between Pacific Northwest and Tierra del Fuego, imagine walking your entire population without knowing where you were going, without having any goal in mind, all the way at the north-south axis, from one end to the other of the new world in 2,000 years and leaving intact cultures behind as you went. Totally extraordinary.
Jim: Very interesting. Now, we have a new set of challenges. You say we have hunted and gathered, cultivated, and machined our way around the globe transforming the earth in our wake, bending landscapes to our will, and pushing many to the brink of collapse. So, the relationship between humans and nature, perhaps the biggest story in the book.
Heather: It is. I don’t know if I would have said it’s the biggest, but it’s certainly. I mean, maybe it is. Maybe you have identified it that one of the mistakes of some moderns, not all, is to imagine that everything that isn’t human is here for us to control and master, and that misses the mark on a few levels. One of the levels that it misses the mark on is it misunderstands the complexity of both humans and the landscapes that we live in.
Heather: So, one of the themes throughout the book is basically a drumbeat against reductionism, a drumbeat against pseudoquantification and using metrics to imagine that you understand the system that you actually have no way of understanding.
Heather: So, it is a truism, and I believe it is still true in, for instance, forestry management that when you take down a forest, if you’re using the trees for lumber, if the people who took down the forest replant in rows for future logging purposes and be that 20, 30, 40 years in the future, that new thing, that new planted thing in rows is also called a forest and, of course, it’s not, right?
Heather: We do not have the knowledge of all of the complexity of what forests actually are to create a forest with our will. We cannot bend nature to our will that way. Obviously, we have bent nature to our will in many, many regards, but the unforeseen consequences and the downstream effects are many. We know some of them at this point, but we have to be assure that we don’t know most of them.
Jim: I’ve said this many times on the show, but I like to repeat it just to show how dominant we’ve become. Humans and our domestic animals are now clearly the majority of the biomass of large mammals, i.e., bigger than rodents, on earth, which is pretty staggering. The one that actually shocks me more is that our poultry is 85% of the biomass of all birds on earth.
Heather: Well, I had not heard that and yet, actually, it doesn’t surprise me. There were, what? What’s the current estimate? Something 15,000 to 20,000 species of birds, I think, extent. Fact is, poultry are pretty big bodied. So, each of them is probably the size of, I don’t know, 10 or 15 songbirds right away.
Jim: A lot more than that probably. I think a little renn or something weighs a couple of ounces and a barrel fat chicken weighs four pounds, right? We’re talking orders of magnitude here.
Heather: Yeah. I guess depending on the chicken, depending on the songbird or there’s maybe even orders of magnitude, but we’ve won with our poultry and they have too. I guess that’s one of the messages of the book as well, right? It’s one of the uncomfortable messages is those things that we have domesticated into what appears to be submission are actually winning an evolutionary game and the renns, for instance, aren’t winning in the same way except those who live in places that we have decided not to ransack.
Jim: Yup. That’s a really tough and interesting question. It’s one, of course, that I fall on the side that because nature is complex and beautiful and reaffirming for us humans, we often forget we have to preserve it. We have to bring it back. We have to restore it, regenerative ecology, not just say what little bit we can say, but actually bring it back. I love the idea that over some period of time, maybe a couple of hundred years, it would be great if we could dedicate half the earth to true wildness, right?
Jim: It will require a lot of discipline, a lot of thought, but I think it could be done. It’s important.
Heather: Actually, let me just pick up on that for a second. We don’t talk, we don’t go into agriculture very much in the book except to point out how transformative a moment it was for humans everywhere that it showed up, especially with regard to everything, with regard to economics and gender roles and all of this, but one of the true things about agriculture is that Sweden agriculture, which is usually called slash and burn, which has been the most common or was the most common among pre-industrial peoples in the tropics, has this terrible reputation among most developed world, among most weird people. It’s imagine you slash the forest and you burn it and it’s so destructive.
Heather: The fact is at low population density, it’s really effective. It’s effective in part. I mean, this is far field from I imagine anywhere you plan to go, but tropical soils are very poor. Tropical ecosystems have their nutrients in the biomass rather than the soil. So, what slash and burn does is you cut down a forest and you basically burn the veg into the soil and dig it into the soil so that the nutrients that were above ground are now in the soil and you can plant crops.
Heather: That works, but, of course, at some point after depending on the crop and depending on the soil two, three, four, five years, that soil is again impoverished with regard to nutrients. So, you move on. You take another plot nearby and you slash and burn that. You don’t come back to that original plot for 10, 15, 20 years. Again, it depends on the soil and the place and the crop, but 10 or 15, 20 years in a tropical habitat, that has borders on at least two sides with intact habitat is enough for it to begin to regenerate. It’s actually enough.
Heather: So, what we need is borders of our non-intact habitats that can effectively seed those places that we would like to regenerate. It could be done. That does presume things like no toxins like the herbicides and pesticides that are keeping the growth out, which is a harder to control problem. Fact is, slash and burn works, which means that nature will regenerate given a chance.
Jim: Of course, that gets to one of the real dilemmas of our epoch. Sweden can work. Non-hybrid seeds can work. No fertilizer can work, but not for eight billion people probably.
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: At least now with that current level of technology. So, we’re in this really difficult moral dilemma, a desire to regenerate ecology and a rich true ecosystem, which as you say we can’t engineer a complex ecosystem, we can nurture it and guide it a little bit, but can we do in a way that will support eight billion people, 10 billion probably before we reach peak humanity here towards the end of the century and bring everybody across to the side? It’s going to be a difficult problem.
Heather: It’s going to be difficult and no, we can’t do it with Sweden. That won’t be the tool.
Jim: Now, just to take the contrarian perspective here and, again, making clear, not one I believe in. I know some folks who you would call techno-utopians. They’re thinking we can dispense with nature entirely, pave over the whole world. I read an essay not too long ago about somebody saying that humanity should aim for trillion people.
Heather: Oh, my God!
Jim: He’s able to calculate that the limiting factor is probably phosphorus, but there’s enough phosphorus on earth that’s accessible to sport easily a trillion people, and we could feed ourselves from fungi tanks powered by nuclear fusion and all this sort of stuff. It could happen, but it feels wrong. Why is this wrong? Why is this the wrong road for humanity?
Heather: I got to say that’s one of the most horrifying things I’ve heard. It’s really appalling. I guess I would ask what life would that be for those trillion people and I can’t think of anyone who I know who would want to live that life. So, that’s one thing. That’s one thing.
Heather: Then the other thing is, once again, it’s a highly reductionist. It takes the things that we can count that we’ve already figured out our true and necessary things like phosphorus, and presumably this article assesses things like nitrogen and magnesium. So, it goes through the elements, it goes through the things that we can count and that we know are necessary for life.
Heather: It imagines that those, because they’re necessary, are also sufficient, and they’re not, right? It’s not sufficient for life. So, just as, and this is a point we make in the book about other things. Food is sustenance, right? Food for a monarch butterfly is a monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant is just getting sustenance. That monarch butterfly is not also trading stories with other monarch butterflies about what it’s like to be a monarch. So, food is only sustenance for that monarch.
Heather: When that monarch has sex with another monarch, it’s only creating other monarchs. It’s also not bonding with that monarch and creating bonds that will allow it to be a good parent later on and go forward in the world and be the most productive and have the best chance of sharing its ideas and such, right? It’s just sex.
Heather: So, food is sustenance, true. Sex is reproduction, true, but there are many of us, not just humans, for whom food is more than just sustenance, sex is more than just reproduction, and life is more than just phosphorus, right? The idea of a trillion people on this planet eating from vats of fungi and supplemented sufficiently with phosphorus so that we don’t kill over, what kind of horrifying life is that? What about art, and grief, and beauty, and play, and sex, and love, and sport, and relationship, and childhood, and all of the amazing things that we can do on this planet? It’s not just about the things that are easily counted and fed into fungal vats.
Jim: That is horrible. There are people who think that way. Of course, a lot of people are thinking a more narrow version, which is that all we have to do is throw the accelerator forward and our technological invention will get us through the rest of the century, and then we’ll figure the rest out later.
Heather: Right, the neo-cornucopians.
Jim: Yeah. That was a good coinage if you guys coined that. I don’t think I had ever heard that term before. I just call them techno-utopians.
Heather: Yeah. Cornucopian is not our term. I can’t remember at the moment. Someone from the ’70s or ’80s was identified as a Cornucopian, and I’ll remember it after we’re off there, but, yeah. I mean, there has been this tension for a while between people who imagine that all we need is our ingenuity from which we’ll follow our technology, and we will be able to solve all of our problems. A, I think that it’s wrong just on its phase, but it also is too simplistic and narrow, and it’s imagining of what actually our problems are and what all humans can be.
Jim: We’ll get a little bit later. I would argue it’s also deeply in conflict with fundamentals of human nature.
Heather: That’s right. Absolutely.
Jim: That’s something that I really appreciate that you and Bret were not afraid to say. There is something called human nature, goddamn it, right?
Heather: Yeah. No. That’s right. Again, we say we’re not blank slates. We are actually the blankest slates of anyone of any of the species on earth. So, you can see that, for instance, in language. All humans are born with the capacity for language, absent, very rare, very severe defects, right? All humans are born with the capacity for language, but babies, any baby, no matter what family they’re born in to, if they are at all developmentally normal, you take them to any other place and raise them among any other people who speak any other language that has no relationship to the language that they were born to, if you do that early enough, they’ll speak that language. Whereas-
Jim: That is really amazing.
Heather: It’s extraordinary. I can’t speak a ton of language at this point. I don’t think I could learn. I no longer have the linguistic capacity. Those things fade during some critical developmental period, but every human has the capacity for language. That’s not blank slate, but the fact that every baby has the capacity for any language, that points to a blanker slate than many of us would usually imagine.
Jim: It would be. Let’s get back to the book now and talk about campfires. It’s a metaphor you used. The chats I’ve had with Bret over the years, he’s used it before, and I think still uses it. You use it both literally and metaphorically, and it’s really interesting. My wife and I live on a mountain farm and we regularly have campfires when we have company over, whether it’s to stay with us or just for dinner. One of our favorite things to do is go outside and pile up a big pile of wood and torch it up and sit around and talk and pass the bottle and what have you. It really is a very congenial way to interact. So, talk about the idea of the campfire both literally and metaphorically.
Heather: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering. I want to ask you first. So, you said there’s fire, there’s conversation, there’s a mood enhancer in the form of what’s in the bottle. Is there music? Do you ever have music?
Jim: Not too often. No. It’s interesting. Think about it. Very, very rarely somebody who have showed up has a guitar and they go out and play. I think we’re going to have such later this month. Some folk is coming over and he just cannot resist playing and singing. So, we’ll probably have a little singing around the campfire. I do remember in the boy scouts, that’s right, you really got into the campfire habit. We had a whole bunch of goofy ass songs that we sang and we always did and I will tell you we actually always ended with Kumbaya, believe it or not.
Heather: There it is. So, I mean, I think the two necessary ingredients are the fire and the conversation. I think that what’s in the bottle or what’s lit and being smoked, that is often an additional feature, but necessary but often, and I would say that the fourth that is often a feature of a campfire that is memorable and successful and hopefully common enough that the campfires begin to blend together a little bit, although I haven’t been around a campfire in a few years at this point, is music.
Heather: So, why? What is it? Well, I guess I will say first that when Bret and I were professors at Evergreen, we did domestic field trips every quarter, and also I did several study abroad trips and he and I did the final study abroad trip together, 11 weeks in Ecuador. Abroad, you didn’t tend to do campfires so much because Panama and Ecuador are not the same kinds of spaces, but when we would take students to Eastern Washington, the Scablands or to the San Juan Islands or to the Oregon Coast, there would be campfires.
Heather: So, that was education. We were teaching explicitly evolutionary biology, and animal behavior, and statistics, and philosophy of science, and zoology, and all of these things. We were also teaching at some level community and how to be human. So, on these trips, in general, with a lot of organization in advance, I would get students into food groups and they would have sufficient money to be entirely creating meals for all of us.
Heather: So, we would do that. We would make bread together and break bread together three times a day. Those were important features, but the campfires that generally happened at least once, often more than once, after meals, after all the formal programming for the day was over, when there’s no more expectations, if you want to go to bed, you go to bed, if you want to go off on your own, you go off on your own, and if you want to join us around the campfire and just sit and talk and the barriers are down and being school trips, we didn’t have the bottle that we’re passing around.
Heather: Although I was around at one campfire in Sonora at a field station with some students and with another professor once at this just amazing field site called Navopatia, where we were, and there was music, and there was conversation, and there was some local Mezcal-like drink and there was a fire.
Heather: Those conversations, be they with or without the drink, with or without the music, it’s the conversations where there’s enough light to see each other but not so much light that you are feeling exposed. You can at any moment slip away and it’s not a big deal. You don’t have to excuse yourself. You can if you want, but you can go either to use the bathroom or just to think or to go to bed, and you can come back. You can come back into the fold and not announce yourself. You can be part of this human community where ideas are shared and it’s low sticks. You can posit things that maybe you wouldn’t feel like doing under the full light of day.
Heather: There’s no excuse for disrespect or for terribleness, but it lowers the inhibitions a little bit, and it means that there are things that can be considered that might not be considered in a more formal setting. You definitely end up saying things and thinking things around a campfire that you wouldn’t at a conference. The inverse is true, too, right? The formality of a conference, for instance, or a classroom allows for some things that happened that probably wouldn’t around a campfire. I would say that the tension between those two, the being able to oscillate back and forth between them is the sweet spot.
Heather: So, literal campfires are extraordinary. Metaphorical campfires to which many of us have been constrained especially over the last year and a half or so of COVID and travel restrictions and such are also important. I think that they are both a shadow of a real campfire, but also have the capacity to basically remind us as humans that whenever we are in community with one another, whatever that means, and without any of the woo-woo stuff that you might associate with it, we are interacting as humans, as fully embodied humans who have all of the cares that the other humans in the room including yourself do, all of the potential for strengths and weaknesses for hurting others and for being hurt, and here we go. Let’s talk. Let’s talk about things without any restraints on what it is that we’re going to talk about and see where it goes. That I would say I guess is what campfire offers both literal and metaphorical.
Jim: Yeah. That’s great. It may have been our original form of collective sense making and decision taking back to your Beringia story.
Jim: Which way do we go? Left or right? North, south, east, west? Somehow a group of people have to come into alignment, in coherence on something like that and considering the time and the technology, I doubt they worked it out on Zoom.
Heather: That’s right or in a PowerPoint or in a bulleted list, right? It was exchanging of ideas and having someone with some insight say, “Oh, but what about …” I think this remains in the book. There’s so much that we had to take out because, of course, but someone says, “Oh, we’re in a new landscape. How are we going to find fish? That fish is what we used to be eating.”
Heather: Someone else who happens to be the loner who was hanging out by the river says, “Oh, I saw a fish over here.”
Heather: Someone else says, “Well, maybe we’re going to need a rope and I was playing with these plants over here and this plant seems to be good for making cordage. I’m going to see what I can weave together.”
Heather: Someone else starts stripping bark off trees and seeing what they can make with the bark.
Heather: So, all of these different kinds of expertise I think are better found in a campfire-type situation as opposed to a conference or a classroom where you’re basically being told, “This is the kind of thinking and expertise that we are privileging right now,” right? That’s not to say that we need the kinds of expertise that emerges from many labs and conferences, and classrooms, but those are not necessarily the only kinds of expertise that we need.
Jim: Interesting. We had Robin Dunbar was our last guest on the podcast. We had a really good conversation with him about scaling loss with respect to social groups. He’d say that in the hunter-gatherer or forger epoch, the camp size, which camp size equal campfire, was probably 50 or less folks typically and maybe 20 of those adults. So, that might give us some thought on what’s the optimal size for something like campfires whether real or metaphorical.
Heather: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, if I ask you to imagine the campfires that you have on your farm, how big do they get? Probably, well, you tell me.
Jim: Less than 10.
Heather: Yeah. I was going to guess that, and I’m thinking about the campfire I mentioned in Sonora, and that had about 10. Sometimes domestic campfires with classes, where we might have 50 students on the trip, it was rare that more than 20 or so would show up around the campfire, and bigger than that, and there’s people at the edges and they’re in and they’re out, but you can’t, for one thing, a campfire obviously in most situations is also originally a source of warmth, right? The fire is originally keeping predators away and keeping you warm and, of course, cooking food and forging metal and all of these things. So, this metaphorical value of bringing people together is so important, but more than 20 people around a campfire, it’s not going to keep those people warm unless it’s really more of a bonfire than a campfire.
Jim: Exactly. The boy scouts would get up to 30, but we were pretty small in those days. We could pack each other in, but, yeah, something in that size is the outer limit of what’s practical around a campfire. It probably should tell us something about how we organize our work and how we organize our collective sense making.
Jim: That’s very interesting, indeed. Well, next thing you talk about in the book is that the human superpower, though not entirely absent from some of our animal relatives, is theory of mind. Talk a little bit about theory of mind and how important that’s been to making us who we are.
Heather: Yeah. Theory of mind is the idea that you as an individual can understand the mental state of someone else even when that mental state differs from your own. So, we can see theory of mind developing in young children where they can infer by watching what other people see that even if they know, for instance, what cup a piece of candy is under, that their mother perhaps cannot if their mother was out of the room when it changed.
Heather: Some other organisms do have theory of mind. One of my favorite books, and in fact which is, again, mentioned in ours is Cheney and Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics. So, they follow baboons of the Okavango River Delta for many years. This is a husband and wife team of anthropologists, who are studying baboons and, in fact, their theory of mind, and baboons’ ability to actually infer the cognitive states of others again even when it differs from their own.
Heather: So, theory of mind is absolutely fundamental to so much of what humans do. If I imagine that the only way of understanding the world is what I understand of the world, I am going to have not just a narrower ability to move among other people, but I’m going to end up making very big mistakes, and I think, I mean, actually, one of the way is that we are deranged in modernity via social media and things like it is that it flattens us. It flattens us into just the text that we write down often or depending on what the medium is and the particular social media.
Heather: It allows people to either imagine or legitimately forget that there’s an actually fully embodied other human being on the other side of some interaction. The yelling and the insults and the hate that is often on social media I think is very often about a failure of theory of mind, a failure of the person writing such things to remember that actually that’s a human being, a whole human being and they may legitimately know different things about the universe than you do.
Jim: Of course, that’s very interesting, right? We did not evolve with Facebook or Twitter.
Heather: No, we didn’t.
Jim: Since we aren’t getting the high dimensional cues that that’s another person, the look in their eye, the smell, their facial expression, et cetera, and so it becomes possible at least, essentially, behave like a sociopath-
Jim: … and say, “Oh, those people at the other end of Twitter, they’re not real people. They’re just characters on a screen.” Not at all clear to me that that is a good way for us to be interacting.
Heather: No. It’s like the world has gone anime. So, another thing that we say in the book, one of our hypotheses is that early childhood exposure to screens, if those screens have on them human or humanoid, human-like things that appear to be capable of interacting with you but, of course, they don’t, and so they are just doing their thing, whatever it is, and the young child on the other end of that experiencing a lot of human or human-like interactions on screens early on may well learn to associate interactions as being unidimensional, of being one way such that, “Oh, it’s my turn to talk now. I talk, but I have no expectation that you’re actually going to engage me, and when you’re talking, I know that you can’t see me or hear me or respond to me or engage with me as a human being.” The flat affect that can result from that we posit may be responsible for, for instance, an uptick in autism diagnosis.
Jim: Yeah. That could make sense. I mean, TV was actually the first of that, where we got sufficiently high fidelity.
Jim: In fact, I often like to call out that the turning point may have been colored TV. Black and white TV was so obviously artificial, but something about colored TV. We didn’t have colored TV till the ’80s, but then a lot of people had it in the ’70s. It seems like shit fell apart starting in the ’70s. Goddamn it. I know I sound like an old cadre, and I am deservedly, so I could sound like an old cadre if I want to, but I wonder if colored TV or that more hyperrealistic thing of one way interaction from them to us might not have been part of this transition that we’re now reached the abiosis, though, maybe not yet. I’m going to lay out something that I know that’s in the works because I’m involved with some people doing it. That is toys designed for children with high-powered AI in them that can actually interact with the child in at least child level of conversation. I’m not sure what I make of that, but I’m not at all sure that it’s a good idea.
Heather: Yeah. I’m not either, but I do think you’re right about … It’s an interesting distinction between colored TV and black and white TV. Everyone can see black and white TV and recognize that that’s not actually the real world. It’s a representation. It’s harder to know that as a child if what’s on your screen looks very much like what’s out there in the world.
Jim: I hate to admit it. Yesterday, I clicked the yes to pay an extra $3 a month to Netflix to switch our account to ultra high definition. On the big 65-inch ultra high definition TV, that stuff looks mighty good. We watched our first show on it last night and they go, “Holy moly!” This may not be a wise thing to expose children to.
Heather: Right. Well, I was just going to say I think you and I and your audience presumably is old enough to deal with it, and that’s not to say that there might not be downstream effects, but the risks are greater the younger the recipient of such things are.
Jim: People are actually building their models. As I mentioned pre-show, we have a granddaughter, a year old now, and it’s very interesting. Our daughter is extremely aware of the danger of screens and her and her husband will be excellent custodians of screenage, but this very precautious little girl is so drawn to the screens just a few times she’s even seen them, right? A TV show happens to be on when we walk into the room with her. We’ll turn it off, but her eyes are drawn to it. There’s something about these things that are, of course, they’re designed to hold our attention, to sell us shit we don’t need.
Jim: They work even on infants.
Heather: It’s mental candy.
Jim: It really is.
Heather: It’s mental candy. It’s junk entertainment just like we’ve got junk food, we’ve got junk sex, we’ve got junk everything. Yeah. Keep the junk away from the children as long as possible, and if we can, keep it away from all of us as long as possible.
Jim: My listeners know I’m in the middle of a six-month social media sabbatical which I do every year.
Heather: Oh, congratulations.
Jim: Yeah, from July through December I do not do social media or even closely similar things to social media, and I find it to be remarkably mentally refreshing and also frees up a fair amount of time, but more importantly, emotional energy so I don’t spend bashing people over the head. I can use it on constructive projects, and I recommend it as a practice for everybody.
Heather: That’s fabulous. So, if I may, what counts as closely related to social media? What else do you not do?
Jim: I’m a member of an ancient online community called The Well. It’s actually more like a super forum. So, it doesn’t have the complicated, unstructured many-to-many network. Everything is in its place. So, there’s conferences, which I have topics, which I have comments, right? So, it’s a precursor to what social media was, but The Wells has been around since 1985 and hasn’t changed a lick since then. So, when I talk about things like The Well, I think it’s a little inaccurate to call them social media. So, I think of them as an adjacent to and precursor of something like social media.
Heather: Very good. Well, six months a year, that seems extraordinary and so valuable.
Jim: Oh, I highly recommend it. Even when I’m on social media, my wife and I both try hard and I will say we occasionally fall off the water wagon to not engage interactive devices at all on Sundays. So, that’s our one-day cyber Sabbath we call it. Again, not as good as the six-month break, but unplugging yourself is important.
Jim: Anyway, we got so much to cover and so little time. I’m going to hop over a couple of interesting topics to another place which strikes me is the essence of the work, which is the relationship between culture and biological evolution. It’s really, really interesting the work you guys have done in that. I’m going to read a little. This is your theory of culture in some sense.
Jim: “If the result works well when tested in the world, it gets refined and then driven into a more automatic less deliberative layer. This is culture. The application of culture to the circumstances for which it is adapted is the population level equivalent of an individual being in the zone.”
Jim: That is really interesting, and I must say an idea that is entirely new to me. Maybe you could say a little bit more about that.
Heather: Yeah. So, we talk about the tension between culture and consciousness. Exactly as you said, you read basically our definition of culture and our definition of consciousness being specifically those ideas which are packaged for exchange, but it is almost the opposite of culture. So, we innovate in our conscious minds. We struggle in our conscious minds. We work to figure out what to do next in our conscious minds.
Heather: At the point that we have it down, we know what we’re doing, we don’t have to think it through anymore, it’s set and forget, you’re in the zone, that has moved into the cultural layer. So, we talk, for instance, about analogies between culture and consciousness. Culture is the consciousness as the shamanistic or rather the sacred is to the shamanistic. So, at the population level, what is cultural is accepted, is the orthodoxy just as the sacred is within a religion, what is accepted and what is the orthodoxy.
Heather: Whereas when it’s conscious, it has a high error rate, it’s messy, it’s about innovation, it’s often going to, as I said high error rate, it’s often going to be wrong, and so that’s more what a shamanistic approach is going to have. So, I think veered from exactly what your question was, which was over in cultural space. So, maybe prompt me if I didn’t get that.
Jim: That’s good. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Although I must say I find that definition of consciousness a little bizarre, but we’ll have that conversation a different day because the idea of package for exchange is one of the ways we use consciousness, but since my day job is the scientific study of consciousness, I would define consciousness very differently, but that’s okay.
Jim: What you defined is actually interesting and important and closely related to culture. It’s how creatures, mostly humans, in that particular case, communicate to jointly solve problems, something more like collective sense making than about consciousness per se, but that’s all right.
Jim: One of the results of this view of consciousness is to think of it as the compiled version of a program, essentially, as you say, being in the zone where you don’t have to think about it. That means that culture must be backward looking to what we faced in the past and have found tolerable solutions for it. At least so far, culture generally isn’t very forward looking. In our hypernovel world, isn’t that a huge problem?
Heather: Yeah, it sure is. There’s a reason that children as they go through adolescence and grow up end up adopting some of what their parents did and reject of what their parents did, right? So, this is not just about being difficult as teenagers. It actually is adaptive. It’s about recognizing that the environment is changing. Of course, getting back to what we were talking about in the very beginning, in this hypernovel world where the rate of change itself is changing so rapidly, we should expect, unfortunately, that there will be ever less from the past that the young will find of value as they move forward into the future.
Heather: So, culture has value because it provides stability, it provides a throughline from the past to the future, and those elements of culture that worked before and should work in the future because the environment hasn’t changed should be kept and those elements of culture that worked before but they worked in some domain of the modern world that has changed now should probably be thrown out. Now, the trick is in figuring out which is which, and there will be many, many errors made in deciding which should be kept and which should be thrown out.
Jim: You guys promoted one of the mechanisms which we clearly use in our society, which is it’s good in certain ways, but it’s probably catastrophic when it’s used at the level that we use it today, what you called the Sucker’s Fallacy, the tendency of concentrated short-term benefit not only to obscure risk and long-term cost but also to drive acceptance even when the net analysis is negative.
Jim: I talk about this all the time that we are caught in the local hill climbing, and I often point out that in our advanced modern so-called civilization the relentless pursuit of short-term money on money return seems to be the end and it just drives everything, but more generally, hill climbing, short-term hill climbing is what dominates, frankly, the evolution of culture and always has probably.
Heather: Yeah. Again, when the rate of change is relatively slow, it’s okay because the short-term hill climbing that gets you on to a peak that will still be a peak a generation from now can be effective, but, yeah, the languaging, the names, Sucker’s Foley is new in the book, but that thought, that thinking comes directly out of the work that Bret was doing with you in Game B many years ago, and thinking specifically about this tension between short and long-term interests and how difficult it is for us to override our short-term interests both at the individual and the societal level in favor of what we all need to be doing, which is looking long-term.
Jim: It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Frankly, our biggest evolutionary constraint was not starving to death in a month or getting eaten by a tiger tomorrow, right? So, the idea that we would have rains evolve to deal with equanimity to something like climate change, which will bite us in the ass and a little bit every day but not to a major, major, major way for about 30 years, it’s just not something that it’s in our evolve playbook, unfortunately. So, I have to build new mechanisms to cope with it.
Heather: Yeah. I mean, I guess I would say being human includes all of what we’ve been talking about. It includes the grief, and the love, and the relationship, and arts, and play, and sports, and science, and all of this, but until very recently, most people lived in landscapes that weren’t full. So, we were still dealing with non-zero sum dynamics with regard to resource acquisition and making babies. You could basically what you needed to do or you felt like doing, and the short-term and the long-term goals while not exactly coincident work so far off. That becomes so far off at the point that you basically got to full plan it.
Jim: Yeah. I could point out to people that, at least in my analysis, I point to 1700 as an inflection point, you know what the population of earth was in 1700?
Heather: If I try to come up with a number, I’m going to be way off. 1700, is it 100 million?
Jim: 610 million plus or minus, but still less than a 10th of what we have today. Keep in mind, most of these poor people were literally dirt poor. The vast preponderance of them were working the land without metal, typically, or very, very, very rudimentary metal, wood, typically, or bone or stone maybe, lived in a dirt floored house with no windows, very high population density. Infant mortality rate was 50% or not infant, but till age five, 50%. We had no idea about medicine or biology. Medicine was probably a net killer of people. 1700, we were still extraordinarily primitive, and our ability to do harm to the planet was relatively limited, right?
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: We did not have bulldozers, right? We did not have roundup. We did not have strip mining equipment or oil drill or any of that sort of stuff.
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: In just this remarkably short period of time we’ve gone into this exponential growth in people and at least as importantly in resource consumption that goes along with it, the energy consumption curve alone is spectacular, particularly after about 1800. I like to point to both of those and all those as just continuous with all history before that, basically.
Heather: Yeah. I guess you see much in 1700 and 1800 and then around 1900 we get, gosh, I want to say Haber-Bosch process, I think I’ve got that wrong, but-
Jim: Yup, Haber-Bosch, which creates our ammonia, which we would never have gotten beyond two billion people without Haber-Bosch and hybrid seeds and things of that sort.
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: So, since about 1960, we’ve been living absolutely dependent on our technology.
Heather: Yeah. So, as we said earlier, you can’t deal with seven billion people or eight billion people with Sweden agriculture, but Haber-Bosch, the ability to fix nitrogen and thus improve crop yields dramatically, is responsible for some number of us being on this planet today, but it’s also responsible for some number of us being on the planet today. So, that’s a positive and a negative.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. It’s probably three-quarters of us, right? Roughly speaking. As we increase our meat consumption and things of that sort, even more because when you say meat load, what’s that have to do with fertilizer? Well, guess what? Animals eat feed, right?
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: Typically, for cattle, the worst offender, it’s about 10:1. You need about 10 pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef. You need three or four, five pork depending on the breed, and poultry a little bit more efficient, two and a half, three, something like that, but it’s still very, very inefficient to go from feed to animals, and as everybody around the world gets rich and fat and wants to eat more meat, that puts evermore demand on the productive capacity of the land, which we’re probably already overshooting any kind of sustainable way.
Heather: So, what you’re saying, Jim, is that you think we should all be eating from fungal vats?
Jim: No. I don’t know what. I do think we should think very carefully about our impact upon the earth, and that we should live in communities where one of the central things we do in our Game B movement, we talk about protobees, which are small communities of 150 peoples, interestingly enough, around the Dunbar number, that as one of the things that’s part of our sacred culture is that we do an audit every year of our energy consumption and resource consumption and share it with everybody in the community, and to the broader community of other protobees so they can hold each other accountable.
Jim: The amount of energy we consume in America is probably three to five times more than a sustainable or current level of even carbon neutral technology. Truthfully, we can live just fine on 20% of our energy if we thought about it intelligibly. We could live fine with four ounces of meat a day rather than pairing it to a 20 ounce Porterhouse, which I’ll confess I enjoy doing every once in a while, but, truthfully, it’s irresponsible.
Jim: If we surfaced the fact that each of our behaviors is doing X to the caring capacity of the earth and the ability of other humans to thrive, and if we developed an ethos that that has to be the mission of humanity for the rest of the century is to learn how to live with eight billion people or 10 billion people. Goddamn it. I wish we didn’t have that many, but we do in such a way that we could remain within the caring capacity of the earth through the end of the century. Technology continue to advance, which will make that easier and easier, and then we can figure out what humanity needs to do next, but, first, we have to stop this insane rush to the cliff, which is not only fast, but getting faster every day.
Heather: Indeed. So, I guess I see, and maybe this isn’t the right place for this conversation, but I see a potential tension between accountability and both personal responsibility, the personal responsibility vortex, which Bret has talked a lot, the idea that anyone who takes on the accountability that you talk about as a risk of being outcompeted by those who don’t, and then also a tension between accountability and privacy, and I think the goals that you described are totally honorable and yet also part of me heard that and I’m like, “Well, what if I don’t want to share? What if that’s no one’s business?”
Heather: I guess your point in part is it is inherently all of our business. Some things are all of our business.
Jim: Here’s an interesting analogy that I got from Daniel Schmachtenberger. Now, this is the extreme case, and so extreme cases don’t make good law as they say in the legal business. He says, “Think about what the morality would be on a Mars base where any mistake puts everybody at risk,” any serious mistake. In truth, anything that billions of people do on earth puts everybody at risk, and maybe ideas about things like privacy have to change. I know we love them and maybe things like democracy have to change or at least we have to have voice and we have to have exits so that we don’t have tyranny which we know to be a classic bad attractor of human culture.
Jim: On the other hand, if we’re going to operate collectively within the constraints of good old mom nature and she does bat last, we’re going to have to rethink a whole lot of our institutional structure.
Heather: Indeed. Good.
Jim: Bret has been a huge influence on me in understanding the game theoretic problem to the one you pointed out that, “All right. All these hippies will run the protobees. They’re living on a fifth of the energy consumption that typical Americans do, but in some sense, these people in Silicon Valley are running it 10 times the level of intensity.” They’re going to in some sense outcompete us, maybe, but our argument is if we focus on human wellbeing, that may not be true.
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: We’ve gotten totally aside here from your book, so let’s terminate this side, but you hit one of my hotpot that the Game B idea is that we will outcompete them on human wellbeing, that the people will be happier, saner, their kids will have a much higher propensity to be actually well-adjusted and healthy folks and not obsessed with porn and things of that sort. Maybe we’ll reproduce at a little faster rate because we’re not hooked on Adderall, and porn, and screens, and we’ll get to some of those topics here in a few minutes.
Jim: So, anyway, rant off, let’s get back to your very interesting book here. This is something that, again, I got exposed from Bret years ago, but truthfully didn’t understand as well as I probably should have, but the book does a great job, and that’s talking about the idea of lineages as a lens to look at evolution. It’s actually so cool because it gets us out of naïve Darwinism, which can lead to hill climbing thinking. Maybe if you could talk a little bit about the idea of the lineage view of evolution and compare and contrast it with the survival of the fittest, short-term now this generation thinking.
Heather: Yeah. So, this is very much an idea that Bret has been working on for a very long time and that I think he will develop more in a future time. Basically, the idea is that like everything else, evolutionary science has become stuck on the metric, on the metric that is easily measured. So, for instance, our concepts of fitness and of reproductive success basically stop at either the first generation or, in some cases, the next.
Heather: They count offspring or maybe offspring’s offspring or viability of offspring’s offspring as a way of measuring how fit you are in your environment. That’s all very well and good, but it inherently assumes that what has happened in the short-term is what will happen in the long-term. So, this really does circle back to exactly what we were just talking about with regard to things like Sucker’s Foley. It imagines that there are no rare events that actually have important evolutionary implications.
Heather: So, if your future world looks exactly like your past world, then the short-term measures of reproductive success and fitness are effective and fine as a measure of how evolution works, but if individuals make decisions that put them out of harm’s way either because of their wits or because of chance in the first case therefore it’s a selective force or in the latter case, it would be due to genetic drift such that some populations survived the volcanic eruption or the wildfire or the flood and some don’t.
Heather: Whoever it was 100 years before who was leaving more kids is irrelevant because those who leave absolutely none when the big bad event comes are obviously an evolutionary dead end. So, thinking in terms of lineage allows us to do a longer term analysis than thinking in terms of fitness and reproductive success, which at least is currently instantiated our very short-term metric does.
Jim: Very well said. Again, the book laid it out very clearly, and I now understand it and understand what Bret was getting at all these years ago when I sort of understood it, but now I really do.
Jim: Actually, it ties in very closely with some of my own thinking in this space, and I somewhat, I don’t know, controversially like to say wisdom in the modern world consists of two things. One is understanding exponentials and the other is understanding fat tail events.
Heather: Oh, that’s good.
Jim: If you know those two things, you can navigate through the future pretty well. When I was going ding, ding, ding, when I was reading this, it was, “Ah!” Lineages is all about understanding fat tail events, at least implicitly, and for those who don’t know about the lingo of fat tail events, it means that in complex and particularly social systems, but not all truly complex systems, big deviations happen more often than you think, right?
Jim: Do you remember back to the financial crisis of 2008? A few things pissed me off more than the CEOs of big banks saying, “We couldn’t have planned for this. It was a 16 sigma event.” 16 sigma meaning using a Gaussian standard distribution, but social system breakdowns aren’t Gaussian distributed, you idiot.
Jim: If you looked at it as approximately a power law distribution or a fat tail, I want you to expect something on the order of the 2008 financial crisis about once every 100 years. Well, guess what? It was about 80 years after the great depression. It was the second biggest fluctuations of the great depression. So, it actually fits the curve perfectly. It was totally predictable, but because people tend to think a Gaussian and not fat tailed, they are surprised when it happens.
Heather: This is so important. Tree height in Doug firs is going to be Gaussian-ish. It’s finite at both ends, but imagining that behavior of individuals or markets is Gaussian is an insane misunderstanding. I mean, I used to do this just a tiny bit. I taught animal behavior and I taught it from beginning to end, which also meant teaching the statistics necessary to interpret the data that the students had collected.
Heather: I was like, “You guys who don’t know anything about stats, I need to go right into non-parametrics,” because none of this, none of this is going to be a normal distribution because we’re talking about behavior. That’s not how statistics tends to get taught, and that’s not how understanding life tends to get taught.
Jim: Yeah, and the idea of lineages when thinking about evolution allows you to actually think richly about evolution within the context of fat tailed events, right? If your lens to look at evolution is what percentage of this generation successfully reproduces into the next or as you say maybe the next one after that, then you look at it one way and fat tails probably don’t matter much because by their definition, they’re still rare, right?
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: If you think about fat tails and say, “All right. This lineage has to survive or we would like it to survive indefinitely into the future,” and if you don’t consider the fat tail events, then your chances of surviving are way less.
Heather: Yeah. That’s perfect. I think we don’t even use the language. You said wisdom is a function of understanding. Wisdom in the modern world is understanding exponentials and fat tail events. Those were your two, right?
Heather: I think I’m not even sure we use either of those words in the book, but you’ve exactly encapsulated a number of the arguments we’re making here.
Jim: Yeah. We talked quite a bit about the rapid growth. You were trying to write for a general audience. My audience is a little nerdier than I think your audience is, but that’s all right. You did a very good job of getting these ideas crossed, and they really, really resonated with me, I must say.
Jim: Let’s go down to yet another big idea here. How many times have I said this is one of the big ideas in the book? People, this book is full of big ideas. So, if you want to be challenged, read this book. It’s not that long, 300 pages or less, I think, but it’s full of stuff. We’re not even going to get to all. Anyway, one of the big ideas in the book, I said one of the biggest in my notes is the omega principle.
Heather: That’s right.
Jim: Why don’t you lay that one out for us in some depth?
Heather: Yeah. So, this, again, this is something that Bret was generating for a very long time. This book is full of ideas that we’ve generated together and some, too, that I was more instrumental than him, but lineage selection and omega are definitely some of the ones that he has been most instrumental in developing.
Heather: So, it’s the idea that there is a relationship that is necessary between genes and culture. So, let me say first the genetic layer is what we all understand it to be. Epigenetics literally just means above the genome, and in the modern era, epigenetics is usually evoked to refer to molecular regulators of the genome, things like DNA methylation and such.
Heather: Originally, it didn’t mean just that. That’s a very restrictive meaning of the term epigenetic. We use the term sensu stricto and sensu lato in the book. So, the sensu stricto version, the strict version of epigenetic is just that molecular mechanisms of modulating gene expression such that you can get different expressions of genes under different conditions as a result of molecular epigenetic regulators.
Heather: The sensu lato or the broader version of epigenetic means any of those things that can modulate gene expression or that are above the gene layer, and so culture is very much one of these things.
Heather: So, what is the relationship between genetic and epigenetic or more easier to come off the tongue between genes and culture? Well, epigenetic regulators such as culture are superior to genes in that they are more flexible and they can adapt more easily. They happen more quickly. We have cultural change that can happen within generations and not just between generations at the point that a zygote is formed when sperm and egg meet, right?
Heather: That said, epigenetic regulators like culture evolve to serve the genome. So, there’s this obligate relationship just like, and we use omega to evoke pi, the obligate relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle is evoked by pi and the obligate relationship between genes and culture is evoked by omega.
Heather: So, genes and culture, culture is just as a evolutionary as genes. Culture evolves faster. It’s more labile. It’s more likely to be an error, to happen fast, to blink on and off, but it serves, inherently serves the genes. That doesn’t mean that humans and other organisms don’t do all sorts of things that are in error and that never had any adaptive function, but that anything that has persisted, that has stood the test of time, and that is complex, that is variable and extent, this is actually another thing in the book, our test of adaptation. If it’s cultural, that means it is evolutionary and that it is ultimately serving the genetic interest.
Jim: Of course, this race is this gigantic question and pushback, but what about all the bad shit that humans have culturally adapted and evolved over time, which probably were adaptive, war being the famous one, slavery being almost as ubiquitous in human history as warfare, the patriarchy, which is essentially ubiquitous since the invention of agriculture, all this stuff that us modern allegedly elevated people say, “We don’t want all that stuff.” Yet, by the omega principle, those were adaptive things or had been, 10,000 years’ worth of war, slavery, and patriarchy.
Heather: War, slavery, and I’m going to put rape in there as a stand in for patriarchy because we can argue about patriarchal systems exist. The patriarchy I’m less confident of. So, war, slavery, and rape. Everyone could recognize that these are terrible blights on human history and yet they are ubiquitous throughout human history, right?
Heather: Every culture has rape. Almost every culture has had an experience of war and many cultures have engaged in slavery. So, those things certainly have been adaptive. That doesn’t mean they’re good. That doesn’t mean they’re honorable, and that doesn’t mean that just because they’re adaptive, just because they’re evolutionary that we can’t act to minimize their presence in humanity going forward as much as possible.
Heather: So, just, again, full circle, we’re going to go back to the naturalistic fallacy and say just because what is doesn’t mean that that is what ought, and there is tremendous plasticity in human behavior. There is even tremendous plasticity in the human phenotype.
Heather: So, we have, for instance, from the same genetic starting points different anatomies of our aortic arch on our heart. So, if we can have that much phenotypic plasticity from the same genetic starting points of something that is so hardwired as the anatomy of our very heart, of course we can behave differently even if there are things in our history that seem fairly ubiquitous and that are awful. This is actually the hopeful message of the book, and the hopeful message of evolutionary biology, which is just because it’s evolutionary doesn’t mean it’s your fate. We can change what has been and what has been adaptive and we can be better going forward.
Jim: If you think of culture as the compilation of the learnings of the past, it feels like we’re locked in to this bad stuff, but it seems to me the turn now is for humans to take ownership of their own culture, right?
Heather: That’s right. Absolutely.
Jim: … and say, “All right. There was a lot of stuff that for whatever reason, war, yeah, was adaptive, especially it’s probably adaptive for a long time,” but now with nuclear weapons and biological weapons and very, very, very fragile infrastructure, war is a disaster. It’s been a disaster at least since 1914 and if we were to fight at general war today, it’s hard to say what would happen, but it might well be the end of advanced civilization.
Jim: We got to learn to grab control of our culture from this backward-looking compiler essentially that we’ve had before and say, “No. It’s time to stop all that stuff,” but that’s dangerous because as you guys do talk about in some of the applied chapters, which we’re unfortunately not going to have time to get to, many of the innovations in the cultural space are actually not so good. So, it’s a very difficult problem. How do we cast a way from a backward-looking compiler-oriented style of culture to a proactive forward-looking form of culture that can help us adapt to a hypernovel regime and navigate these walls which we’re coming closer and closer and faster and faster?
Heather: Yeah. That’s exactly right. How do we both recognize what we are fated to, things like being a sexually reproducing species with two sexes and also look forward and say, “Okay. So, what that we have inherited that seems immutable is actually not immutable and with the greater understanding of what we actually are and are capable of we can move forward?”
Heather: With the additional very intense time constraint as you just invoked of the population is climbing, that climate is changing, we have societal and political instability at almost every scale. So, we need to fix these things now and we are going to be best able to do so by recognizing that we can’t blueprint the future, which is exactly in your wheelhouse, of course, and by recognizing that as complete an understanding of what humans are and are capable of that’s possible will help us understand what we can do as we move forward.
Jim: Great. Well, we’re almost out of time here. So, I’m going to skip over a bunch of things, but I’m going to read off the topics so people know what they’ll get when they look at the book. Very interesting run through of human evolution, done very nicely from pond scum to humans in one chapter. The three-part test of adaptation, very interesting. One of my favorite topics, trade offs, right?
Jim: You guys do a very interesting job of talking about trade offs, et cetera, and then this whole series of interesting, actually, an argument for conservatism, Chesterton’s Fence, which people should read that, and then a whole bunch of interesting applied topics, medicine, food, sleep, sex and gender, parenthood and relationships, childhood, school, becoming an adult. I wish more people would become an adult, goddamn it. One of the failings of Game A is keeping people in perpetual adolescence. Very well-handled there. Culture and consciousness, did not argue a fair amount about that, but that’s all right. Do that on another day.
Jim: Then let’s spend the rest of our time on the last part of the book which you called The Fourth Frontier. What do we do to go forward in a sensible fashion? As you say, you don’t have a playbook, but you have an approach.
Heather: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve already been there, and this, again, an area that you and Bret have gone back and forth on a tremendous amount in discussing Game B. So, the idea is that there are well-known types of frontiers. There are geographic frontiers such as the Beringians came in to as they actually discovered the new world or the first human discoveries of the new world.
Heather: There are geographic frontiers, and there are technological frontiers in which we have discovered a new way of exploiting resources that weren’t exploitable before. So, for instance, terracing of hillsides that were otherwise have had run off of water and nutrients and so were unplantable.
Heather: Then we have transfer of resource frontiers, which are basically just theft and they’re not really a frontier. They’re clearly theft. Geographic frontiers that are actual frontiers and technological frontiers are not inherently a form of theft, but transfer of resources are.
Heather: For instance, when the second discovery of the new world happened, we effectively had a transfer of resource frontier by the Spaniards of the original peoples. We are arguing that there has to be a new kind of frontier, a fourth frontier, wherein we can, again, not blueprint, but understand ourselves well enough to move forward with, understand not just ourselves well enough, but the game theory of how what we are trying to do can be gamed by those not yet participating frankly into the foothill of a slope that will be a game B, that will allow us to live beautifully, productively, sustainably not with a trillion people, hopefully frankly not with 10 billion people, but if we get there, then maybe those numbers will fall slowly through attrition rather than through war and in a way such that all humans can actually discover what it is that they have to offer the world that is either beautiful or new or healing or elucidating, whatever it is that individual humans have to offer the world that they can do so being subject to as little luck as possible. We want to minimize the role of luck in all of our lives as much as possible.
Jim: One of my favorite business mentors said, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other, and I’ll tell you which one will fill up first.” It’s a crude way to put it, but I agree with you that we can’t just hope for the best, right? We have to think through what the real issues we are and deal with them appropriately.
Jim: Well, Heather, I want to thank you for an extraordinarily interesting conversation. As I warned you before the show, once I had gone through and created all my show notes, I realized there is no way we’re going to get through this exceedingly interesting book. There are just so much good stuff in it. So, listeners, go out there and get A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, and get in to all the stuff we didn’t get to talk about here.
Heather: Wonderful. Thank you for having me, Jim. It’s been a pleasure.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.