I did a perfunctory review of this book last month. Based on the title of the book, The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa appeared to be about a subject I am very interested in – the long term survival of the human species. After a month’s time and of course quite a few other distractions, I finished reading the entire book – start to finish. My earlier complaints still hold, but I watched carefully for valid ideas and there are many contained within these pages, but the problem is similar to the one which plagued the medical profession a hundred years ago. It was a then standard joke that they knew that half of what they were teaching was wrong, they just didn’t know which half.
A major problem I had with the book was the concept of current human evolution as a method of solving modern problems. There are frequent references to the human mind evolving as a way of solving past human problems and the implication that we are going to solve our present problems by evolving our way out of them. That might have some validity on a hundred thousand year survival of the fittest time scale, but the author applies it to a present lifetime scale, and in that short time it is meaningless. Furthermore, these moral and intellectual enhancements would have be implemented species wide to make much difference, and that would require very careful breeding of the human population, which is impossible. Even asking people to consider controlling their population to a sustainable number is so abhorrent to the public that it can’t be discussed in the United Nations, let alone made into an enforceable law. I have written several times about Evish selection, which is my answer to why humans evolved as quickly as we did from our primitive forms, but even that method of selection takes many generations to make a discernible difference. Artificial selection as used by farm breeders has worked miracles in the last few centuries, but even this success would be modest compared to what would be required to make humanity into the paragons of virtue needed to accelerate evolution by individual humans self-choosing whom among them should reproduce and who should abstain.
There is another problem with making people better via the methods of improving our genomes, which I discussed under the title, How our finest humans are leading us to disaster. The problem is that our best people, the ones most highly educated, most creative and most moral, are the very ones who are capable of being organized into the most potent teams of human destruction ever created. Stupid, uneducated, and criminal types of people could never have made the atomic bombs or the intercontinental missiles or the other hideous things with which modern civilization is plagued – no, it is the good people who are doing these things. Making people better in the genetic and moral way will only hasten our species demise. That’s a weird thought!
There is a way forward for humanity and it was latent in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker discusses several historical trends for the improvement of human nature. Our genes haven’t changed noticeably in the last 10,000 years but our social institutions have changed enormously, and the one generally called Leviathan, the overarching of a single law, might just be the way out of human extinction. It would have to be a world law encompassing everyone, but in these days of contending nation states and various mutually hostile religious entities, a single overarching legal force is an absolute anathema. All the same, as unpopular as that concept presently is, it may be our only way out of self-induced extinction.
The Watchman’s Rattle has frequent references to the collapse of the Mayan Empire, and it seems to stem from the author’s own problems with a water crisis in Carmel, California. In both of these cases the natural rainfall was variable and this precipitated a crisis. The Mayans, according to the author, built very sophisticated water storage facilities but it wasn’t enough to sustain the food supplies for their needs, so the civilization broke down and totally collapsed back to a semi-wild rural condition. She blames their failure on their society-wide mental gridlock, and claims they should have thought their way out of their water problem. She condemns them for murdering their children, which they could not feed, and yet that was a reasonable solution if the land simply could not supply food to the population residing there at the time. Simply thinking won’t do any good if there is no food to eat; food can’t be created out of thought. The suggested solution was to move to places where there was water and food, but without acknowledging that the people there would not welcome them because they were having similar problems. Thus there would be conflicts and wars which would further exacerbate the already deadly problems.
We have lived all of our lives in a situation of expanding population, but almost all of human history has been in a near stasis of population. That wasn’t because people were abstaining from sex and the resultant children, it was because those people and especially the children were malnourished and and died easily. Our month of February was known as the month of dying by the Romans, who created our calendar, and the words fever and febrile are derived from that same concept. We are not going to think our way out of extinction as the subtitle of The Watchman’s Rattle suggests. If we are to avoid extinction it will require enforceable laws which intentionally put all humanity back into a balance with our Earth’s ability to support it. If we can’t do that we are certain to have wars between contending parties who now possess superweapons. When those are used all humanity will suffer grievously. At present there isn’t anything preventing their use other than dumb luck and fear of retaliation. However, when a whole country possessing these superweapons is starving, the problem of retaliation will be balanced against grabbing other people’s food.
We must create a world constitution which everyone can abide by.