Don't trust your Stone Age brain: it's unsustainable

By Helen Camakaris
Posted on 20 March 2013
Filed under Integrated Sustainability

Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling we have when we know we should invest in solar panels but the 46″ wide screen TV wins out; we know we should catch the bus but we take the car anyway. It’s that sense of discord that arises when emotion and reason don’t get along. And unfortunately, it’s alive and well, sabotaging the climate change debate.

We’ve evolved to feel a single sense of self, but our minds consist of multiple voices. Our emotional brain has first go at making sense of our world, instantly telling us how to behave and what to believe, based on instincts reinforced by upbringing. Sometimes our rational brain is then called upon to endorse our intuitions, which then become beliefs. Problems that are unusually difficult or surprising will recruit our rational brain, but reasoning takes effort and we avoid it when we can.

Unfortunately our emotional brain is encouraging us to pursue perceived self-interest even if that means trashing the planet. This leaves our rational brain to try to justify our actions, even while the walls come tumbling down and the temperatures keep rising.

If we are to have any chance of a future we need to understand why our intuitions are so poor, and how we might temper them by engaging our ability to reason.

We haven’t evolved to be successful in the modern world. Civilisation arose only 12,000 years ago; in evolutionary terms that’s just the blink of an eye. Ninety-nine per cent of human evolution occurred during the Stone Age, so our evolved instincts, personality traits, and even some of our cognitive “short-cuts” are much better suited to this Pleistocene world.

Evolution didn’t care about the future; it was simply driven by those who survived and left the most descendants. So our ancestors were the ones who were best at competing for food and status, securing mates and having babies. They were materialistic, living very much in the present and rarely constrained by sustainability. They ate a broad range of foods, and if resources became depleted they could expand their territories or move on, behaviour that led to the extinction of many animals and to extensive migration.

A level of altruism did evolve, but it was circumscribed by benefits to kin, expectations of reciprocal reward, and an obsession with fairness. Altruism can often therefore be trumped by self-interest.

We might expect that intelligence and language would have been game-changers; they were, but not necessarily for the better. We learnt to tame nature and harvest its bounty, to build great cities, and to harness the laws of physics and chemistry. We may celebrate the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of modern civilisation, but it also ushered in burgeoning overpopulation, resource exploitation, pollution and climate change.

So if we evolved to exploit nature, and to be blind to the consequences, what now? Our only chance is to wrest control away from our emotional brain, and construct a new reality where our rational brain can take control.

We need to design a new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made cooperatively, with multi-party representation and the input of experts. Such think tanks must have strategies in place to promote critical self-analysis and to “frame” policy to reflect the long-term reality. The cost of climate change mitigation can then be shown to be minute compared to the cost of inaction.

If we value a sustainable world, the GDP must be replaced by a measure of a country’s wealth, including resources, social capital and the cost of pollution. Costs should reflect the inclusive cradle-to-grave value of products and services, so that choices reflect out true long-term interests. Conspicuous consumption might be curbed further by offering workers the choice of more leisure rather than a salary increase, and by rewarding excellence with honours and privileges, rather than fat pay packets and obscene bonuses.

Education must produce adults who can think critically and understand what’s at stake and why our judgement is flawed. To counter self-interest, the government should use incentives and disincentives to guide public behaviour. We need to encourage altruism by instituting reciprocal, incremental improvements, and by showing leadership.

We are at the crossroads. Unless we recognise the less-adaptive aspects of human nature and devise ways of keeping them in check, the world we bequeath to our children will be a diminished one. We have the means to do this, but do we have the will? Evolution may have made us the most intelligent animal on Earth, but it makes no promise that we will be survivors.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bookmark and Share


Comments 1 to 32:

  1. The world I live in is beautiful and doing well. I suggest some medication for Helen, though.
  2. Helen, where is the evidence of overpopulation, resource scarcity, and climate Thermageddon? Evidence, not a computer model.

    Your "new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made cooperatively" is called eco-socialism in the real world.

    Those of us with the empirical evidence and the facts have already defeated it in the U.S. But you'll have traction with the Euros, who've been suitably greenwashed to accept your kool aid.
  3. Hingle McKringleberry at 03:27 AM on 21 March, 2013
    How many people should we kill to solve overpopulation? I assume you'll be choosing them, what with your incredible wisdom and all.
  4. This meme has been repeated a thousand times over from Malthus to Ehrlich to the Club of Rome.

    In each case, the result has been the opposite of the prediction. Thinking it will be different this is not cognitive's something else...can't quite put a finger on it right now...some quote by Einstein...
  5. Oh, and the "new kind of democracy" statement is a little scary. Not sure what you mean but it doesn't sound good.
  6. Kriilin Namek at 04:37 AM on 21 March, 2013
    So why should we trust YOUR stone age brain, as it's seeking absolution for it's supposed sins against Gaia? Sorry, some of us have evolved past the eco emotionalism, and can see the data that the planet is actually greening and doing fine thank you. It's called the Age of Reason.
  7. Model Citizen at 05:20 AM on 21 March, 2013
    If I understand your argument correctly, I must simultaneously accept:

    "Education must produce adults who can think critically"


    "We need to design a new kind of democracy where many government decisions are made cooperatively, with multi-party representation and the input of experts."

    My Stone-Age brain must evolve to the point where I can think critically, and then give up my voice listen to experts?

    I think I'd rather live in a cave.
  8. "...a new kind of democracy....with multi-party representation and the input of experts."

    I see that the USA does not have a strangle-hold on the supply of non-scientific scientists. I am sure that 'the input of experts' would not likely include that of experts with a contrary viewpoint.

    Pardon me while I exhale some more CO2.
  9. Dont forget...Human Achievement Hour is this Saturday 3-23

    Dont turn your lights off!
  10. Brian G Valentine at 08:35 AM on 21 March, 2013
    Congratulations, Helen! Your column has earned a prominent place in many bogs, making fun of you for being an idiot
  11. Oh dear God, this was written by someone with a scientific background? I realise this is a blog, not a PhD thesis, but even so, look at the level of vague generalisations and unsubstantiated claims, evidence of very sloppy thinking.

    "Emotional brain" Vs. "Rational brain"? Is this Dr Camakaris' considered opinion, that it's legitimate to talk about two different brain types at war within our head? Or is it simply a glib and thought-eliding rhetorical shorthand?

    This blog post is sadly a perfect example of the kind of poor reasoning and bien pensant pseudo-rationalisation that seem to be flooding even academia these days. When even a microbiologist can offer up waffle like this, it bodes ill for the future.
  12. Beautiful.

    In the same manner as Steven Lewandowsky's threads on conspiracy theories attracted all the conspiracy nutters with their tin foil hats, this piece on the stone age nature of our brains has attracted all the stone age thinkers.

    Can't help yourselves can you guys?
  13. Brian G Valentine at 10:36 AM on 21 March, 2013
    Helen, a free society unfortunately is compelled support you and your right to free speech - but your ilk is absolutely unsustainable.
  14. Hi Mandas. When you want to leave the commune, there is help. Be well!
  15. Thanks for the offer B Wilson.

    Given your earlier offer of medication for Helen, it would appear that you must be a medical doctor of some description - possible a psychiatrist?

    And on that basis, I would love to read your rational critique of the article. Could you write one please, and tell us why you disagree with it - on a scientific basis that is. It would appear from your comments about me that you are obviously right leaning in your political views, and would therefore have an ideological objection to the notion that there is more to life and the welfare of a nation than an economy driven by free market capitalism.

    I mean, we can't have an education system which develops critical thinking skills can we, or have a system which internalises into good and services the costs of things like pollution. Or to have a truly representative democracy instead of a two party system with tweedle dee and tweedle dum taking turns, or one which focusses on the long term rather than the three year election cycle. I guess you think there are no limits to growth, rather than the obviously socialist idea that the world is finite and therefore growth cannot continue forever, and we have to think of new paradigms if we do not want the system to fall apart (as it is starting to do).

    But other than that, what do you think is incorrect about the original article?
  16. Brian G Valentine at 11:09 AM on 22 March, 2013
    Note to Mandas: If you think the article provides more than a prescription for a cult that is (supposed to be, by force might have to be) universally adopted, then state what you think that is.

    Most people find cultism to be anathema, if you don't, cures for this condition really haven't been developed. Professional "deprogramming" has generally proven ineffective.
  17. Thanks Brian.

    Your last post confirms what I thought - you have nothing of substance to add to the discussion.
  18. Brian G Valentine at 12:20 PM on 22 March, 2013
    "I'm OK - You're not OK"

    This framing has been found to be exactly why "re-socializing" cultists is so difficult.
  19. Based on what you are saying Brian, you appear to be suggesting that I am NOT ok, but you are.

  20. Hi Mandas! The article is a masterpiece. I will let it speak for itself. Is everything ok?
  21. Fascinating bit of history below. Subject 'matter' is fitting. Life on our beautiful planet will only get in our engineers...ignore Helen and her fellow "academic'' jobless windblowers who contribute nothing. Nothing is sustainable. Get over it. Go out and spend time with your children. Teach them. Dont depress them.
  22. This article struck a nerve as it typifies the contemporary cognitive disconnect our acadmeia have with reality. They scold us and make us feel bad about living on this fabulous planet. This holier-than-thou attitude has spread unsustainably. Helen's article will be preserved and kept on the caches of Al Gore's interweb here and other blogs where the article has been panned and praised by fellow parishioners and it will be archived for future generations, hopefully preserved as a warning of the unsustainable ideology that religious radicals swarmed to, completely smothering the good name and cause of true environmentalism and reasoned thought. The Modern Environmental Religion perpetuates the belief that carbon dioxide that we exhale is destroying the planet - even after presented and faced with facts that carbon dioxide isn't causing the warming. The icecaps are just fine. Polar bear population should be controlled. Reverand Jim Hansen at NASA GISS adjust the temperature record. Everything these motherf'rs say has been false. Arguing with facts won't help here, since there is no science in the entire piece. It has assumptions that are false and are clung to like a child that won't give up a blanket.

    The author may have intended this piece to be a joke, to be a parody of the current thought process occuring in this field. If so, it is spot on. It is sad to read people here and on other websites actually agreeing with it. That is scary. That is why I own guns. But, otherwise, it came off as a disturbing example of the type of cultism that could possibly end humanity. It should be seen as a terrorist threat. Certainly the FBI should be notified of her mental unsustainability. The tenets of the religion call for the congregation to be culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. What does that mean? Well, it is similar to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of course. There are other religions with 3's as well. It is hard to explain with science, isn't it? UN Agenda 21 created something for people wanting to belong to a movement. Schools of sustainability have sprung up everywhere. Unfortunately, Architects have fallen victim to LEED and other unsustainable sustainability fads. Take your LEED certifications, your PhDs in Sustainability and give them back. You have been taken. The ignorance in our modern day is worrisome. Nothing is sustainable. Not a damn thing.

    I find it fascinating that if you drill a hole almost anywhere on this planet, strangley enough, pressurized petroleum wants to spew out of the earth, begging for us to use it. Continuous and spontaneous genesis of hydrocarbons at great pressure and temperature is an idea that none of the clergy want to hear. Whether true or false, the theory gives hope for a bright future and proves that we humans don't know jack squat. Stay warm, enjoy the interglacial, because, the cold really sucks. There could be a day that we'll be looking at these useless academics as a source of food when the crops freeze and the electricity runs out. Eat well, please.
  23. Excellent Poe Zacharia.

    I particularly love how you use foolish quotes from fundamentalist Republican politicians to show how deluded they really are (drilling holes in the Earth indeed - hilarious!). And you also discredit gun nuts (that's why you own guns - masterpiece!!), religion, the tea-party (Agenda 21 - wonderful!), climate change deniers and just about every right-wing wingnut view in one post.

    Great job! It takes real skill to write Poe like that.
  24. Wow, you are a fruitcake.
  25. Zacariah @22
    "......It is sad to read people here and on other websites actually agreeing with it. That is scary. That is why I own guns. But, otherwise, it came off as a disturbing example of the type of cultism that could possibly end humanity. It should be seen as a terrorist threat. Certainly the FBI should be notified of her mental unsustainability...."

    And you say that I'm a fruitcake?
  26. Mandas this is not science. You engage in ad hominem. Goodbye. may God be with you.
  28. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) is seeking credentialed
    individuals who are willing to serve as reviewers of the forthcoming NIPCC report Climate
    Change Reconsidered-2. Reviewers will be needed between April and August 2013 for various
    chapters and sub-chapters of the report. A list of topics addressed in the report, and for which
    reviews will be needed, can be found under the links and sub-links listed on the NIPCC Web
    site’s Topical Archive page. To volunteer as a reviewer, or for more information, please send an
    email to
    Thank you, your help in this matter is greatly appreciated.
  29. A great, informative weekly rundown of climate and energy news:
  30. Caution...there is SCIENCE in this paper.
  31. Thanks for that paper Brian Wilson (are you any relation to THE Brian Wilson, and are you just as drugged addled?).

    For the others who don't have the time to read the paper, here is an example of the "science" from the paper:

    "....The stabilization of the global Earth temperature in 1998–2005 and its downward tendency in 2006–2008 is an irrefutable evidence of the fact that our Sun is no longer able to warm the Earth the same way as in the past and that an anthropogenic global warming is a big myth.......The fall of temperature will least affect the equatorial region of the Earth and will mostly influence the temperate climate regions. In whole, climate changes are not under the control of humans. A reasonable way to combat these changes is to maintain an economic growth in order to get prepared to alternating coolings and warmings...."

    So ummmmm, gee, thanks for that. I think I will stick to real science thanks.
  32. Helen,

    You might be interested in this essay in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which is along the same lines as your article:
Comments Policy

Post a Comment

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or register a new account.