The Allure Of Simplicity
We humans haven’t been on this planet for very long: perhaps four hundred thousand years as a distinct species. Which is the merest blink of an eye in geological terms. Our forebears were, like us, group primates surviving on the margins and eking out a living much as present-day baboons and chimps still do.
Like all species, we’re highly adapted to the environment we evolved in. And for at least 95% of our evolutionary history, that environment was the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. The challenges were largely unchanging: avoid predators, find food, compete with rivals for resources and mating opportunities, collaborate in order to survive. And most of all: don’t expend unnecessary energy.
Because in a world of sparse and uncertain calories, conserving energy can make the difference between life and death.
Our problem is that the human brain can consume up to 30% of the body’s blood glucose when actively at work. All of us have had the experience of feeling unusually hungry during the first days in a new job or after studying intensely for several hours. This is because our brain is hard at work assimilating new information and burning up those blood sugars.
But for at least 95% of our evolutionary history, those blood sugars would more likely have been needed to power our muscles to evade predators and forage for food. And unlike today, food was often scarce.
So we’ve evolved to do as little thinking as possible. Hence we prefer simple ideas to complex reality, and once we’ve managed to grab hold of a concept we cling to it tenuously and generally reject information that would indicate our beliefs are false. Because this conserves calories by reducing to the bare minimum the amount of thinking we have to do.
This was fine when we were back on the African savannah or in the primordial forests of Eurasia. It didn’t really matter if we believed in invisible magical creatures, thought that fire was alive, and imagined that you had to perform an elaborate ritual before napping a piece of flint. Our brains were “good enough” for the situation we evolved in, and nature works with good enough.
Unfortunately, thanks to the efforts of a tiny number of unusually clever people, we now live in a world of unimaginable complexity that is far beyond the grasp of nearly everyone alive. Our amazing technologies serve to amplify our inherent limitations, which is why we’ve denuded the environment and exterminated thousands of species over the last few millennia. It’s why we keep fighting pointless wars, and why we continue to believe in simple-minded stories about invisible magical creatures and “strong” leaders, and pseudo-scientific nonsense like manifest destiny, dialectical materialism, powers of attraction, and psychotherapy.
In short, we’ve accidentally created an environment for which we are totally unsuited.
As is so often the case, the USA acts as a forewarning of everything that can go wrong with society. So let’s take a look at what happens when hundreds of millions of simple-minded primates find themselves within a complex but failing technological society.
Predictably, we see the embracing of simplicity. People with limited cognitive abilities seek refuge in organized mythological structures, most notably church groups. Here they are told that all of life’s incomprehensible complexities can be reduced to children’s fables. They are told what morality is, and are relieved of responsibility for independent thought. This comforts them and makes them suitably malleable, which is why religionists are always exploited by those seeking or holding power. They provide a huge bloc of dependable support and rarely if ever change their minds about anything because changing one’s mind requires intellectual effort. And these folk are all about minimizing or eliminating entirely the burden of conscious thought.
People with slightly more adequate cognitive abilities take refuge in other kinds of myth, most often in beliefs about human nature that enable a progressive outlook. Very often such people find identity in opposing the beliefs of the less cognitively competent, which is what leads us to the classic right-left split that has defined US politics since the 1950s. (It has to be noted, however, that being “liberal” in the USA is equivalent to being center-right in Western Europe, which is a natural consequence of the fact the USA was the world’s first pure consumer culture.)
So on the right we see people who believe what they are told by those whose primary intellectual accomplishment is the ability to repeat childish stories about invisible magical creatures, while on the left we see people believing what they are told by those whose primary intellectual accomplishment is the ability to read other people’s words on a teleprompter.
Not surprisingly, this means that nearly everyone bases their beliefs on simple-minded stories that have little or no connection to the real world.
The great appeal of such unwavering credulity is that it enables us to conserve calories. The more readily we believe what we’re told by our purported authority figures, the less mental effort we need to expand. Being given pre-packaged beliefs is no different from being handed pre-made junk food. It may not be good for us, but it’s effort-free. And effort-free has enormous appeal.
For much of the time, the fact that we act on the basis of simple-minded nonsense has but mild negative impact. Dull-eyed Trump supporters waddling into church to listen to a preacher droning on about how Jesus is in favor of gun ownership, or lycra-clad soccer moms eagerly rubbing their crystals while discussing last night’s show by their favorite TV comedian, are largely harmless.
Unfortunately, as we all know, things don’t stop there. Trump supporters drive cars into protestors and eagerly cheer endless police brutality. Liberals let themselves by terrified by the non-threat of SARS-COV-2 and imagine that fear-driven actions are cost-free. Everyone imagines they know “the truth” and nobody can be bothered to exert themselves to look at real-world information.
Because the real world is complex, and attempting to understand reality requires a great deal of cognitive effort. It’s just so much more comfortable to believe what we’re told by our preacher or by our favorite TV host.
The problem is that our modern technologies amplify our inherent stupidity. The tsunami of mindless populism/nationalism that has swept the globe since 2016 demonstrates only too clearly the terrible price tag that comes with complacent simple-mindedness. We now see brainless prancing imbeciles wherever we look: Trump in the USA, Johnson in the UK, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Babiş in the Czech Republic (you can find it on a map if you try hard enough), Duterte in the Philippines… the list is nearly endless.
Stupid people do stupid things, which is why Trump has destroyed the USA and Brexiteers have set the UK on a one-way path to becoming the world’s rainiest banana republic. It’s why Modi is eagerly pushing India into religion-based civil war and why Bolsonaro has accelerated the total destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
Stupidity, in our modern technological world, has enormous adverse consequences.
It’s implausible to imagine that as a species we’re ever going to be less stupid. Being stupid is a fact of human nature. Even quite clever people are stupid sometimes; less intelligent people are stupid most of the time. So hoping that we can “perfect ourselves” is a fool’s dream.
We can, however, take steps to mitigate our inherent folly. Automobile engineers didn’t form prayer circles in the hope that invocations could make people less incompetent behind the wheel. Instead, they engineered in all manner of mitigations: antilock brakes, airbags, crumple zones, collision warning & avoidance systems, and so on.
Countries that use gas to heat homes and power stoves learned to add scent to the gas so that leaks would be more apparent. Smartphones and computers hide their complexity behind easy-to-use interfaces that even the slowest-witted among us can eventually learn how to manipulate.
To date we’ve abjectly failed to apply the same kind of reasoning to how we organize ourselves. Our systems of governance are totally unsuited to the reality of what we are. Representative democracy is by definition the ignorant and foolish voting for the cynical and incompetent. Merely because democracy is fractionally less catastrophic than tyranny doesn’t mean it’s any good. The Wright Brothers’ Flyer was fractionally less useless than previous attempts at heavier-than-air flight but that didn’t mean it deserved to be the gold standard of aviation.
Engineers know that continuous improvement is the best way to proceed, ironing out defects step-by-step over time as more information and new techniques become available.
In the political realm, however, we pretend that crude and largely opportunistic ideas generated centuries ago should be retained regardless of the fact the outcomes they produce are reliably disastrous. We fetishize our systems of government and resolutely fail to connect the dots. Rather as if we were insisting that the Flyer was the only possible, and very best, form of transportation and must be retained for all time. And who cares that every Flyer always crashes a few hundred meters after takeoff? That’s something we can easily overlook. It must be someone else’s fault. And besides, the next one will be much better because it will be just the same as the last one.
So long as we continue down this path we’ll continue to destroy everything we should be valuing. Pretending that the next election or the next candidate will make a significant difference is no different from believing that the next Flyer will be better because we’ve painted the engine a different color this time.
Let’s give the last word to Albert Einstein (the only scientist most US citizens have ever heard of…):
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”