Monday, November 7, 2016

Why we need different minds to contribute to human progress

Stay with me here, I'm going to get a little bit technical, but it's all for a good cause.

The survival of any species depends on adaptability. Changing environments mean different selective pressures favouring different traits over time. As generalists, we humans tend to adapt to change very well.
Behavioural trait variation within populations is seen across species, not just humans. In plain words, this means that 'personality' varies within populations, and we observe this in the real world.
But have you ever wondered why we see such massive variation in human personalities? Why there are consummate extroverts, stereotypical introverts and everything in between? Why we have constant risk takers and those that are completely risk averse?
And have you ever felt like you've been born in the wrong time?
Let me start from the beginning...
We, like every other organism we know, live in an evolving and ever changing environment (it just depends on the timescale of the change). We gauge the success of a species by how long it has survived and how well it has populated its own niche.  But times change, and so do environments. The traits that were once a means to success can become useless, or even detrimental to the survival of a species. New traits, or traits that have lurked in the background of the genome, can quickly become predominant when they give an individual an advantage over their environment and fellow individuals.
Human personalities, which have a strong basis in their genetic makeup, differ greatly. These varying personalities are well adapted to different social and physical environments.
In periods of stability and relative abundance, risk and change averse personalities will dominate and do better. It makes sense right? If conditions are great and we are well adapted to them, why fix what ain't broke?
In times of instability, where resources are limited or the environment is constantly changing or becoming harmful, those whose personality tends toward adventure and risk taking and are better adapted at handling change will have an advantage.
So having these personally traits present at all times in a population makes survival sense in a species as a mechanism to take as much advantage from whichever situation arises.
That's just a bit of a biological background on the personality and adaptive change for survival phenomenon.
What I'm interested in for this article is how this affects individuals in an environment where their personality is not so much selected against (placing evolutionary rules on the human species is kind of a complex thing since we took over control of some of that evolution for ourselves, but that's a very interesting topic for another article) but not the most adapted personality to the current environment.
In many ways, from the individual viewpoint, our current society is a very stable one. Here in the West most of us have abundant food, adequate shelter, we can care well for our young whose survival rates are very good. We don't have to physically fight for our safety on a regular basis and the future appears, in the medium term at least, to be more of the same. It would seem that we currently live in a time largely favouring the risk averse personalities who function best in an unchanging environment and stable social structures.
What does this mean for those of us who have a more adventurous and less risk averse personality? This is a very interesting question, and one I think the answer to might be just the thing many people have never known they were looking for.
For instance, does the thought of doing the same type of job year in year out for the rest of your working life, living in a suburb, having children and being the average Joe fill you with dread, make you depressed or frustrated? You might be one of those who just doesn't quite fit into the current status quo. You get frustrated with the mundane and champ at the bit for something more 'meaningful'. You want change, you want variability and challenge. This is the sort of environment that is more suited to you.
I was interested to observe the Mars One hype years back when the announcement for recruits came out. What interested me most was the type of person that would, in all seriousness, apply to permanently leave their home planet to undertake a mission of colonisation on a dangerous planet. A mission with many risks and the harsh reality that loved ones back on earth will, in all likelihood, never be seen again. Where was the benefit to the individual? What was their reward?
I already knew the answer, because, as I suspected after reading the stories of shortlisted candidates, these people had personality traits similar to my own. I call this type of personality the 'Colonist'.
People who do best in changing environments often crave such environments. It's the challenge and the unknown that excites them. Many of the early settlers of countries were such people, coming to an unknown land filled with dangers for the chance of opportunities not afforded to them back in their homelands.
Projects like the Mars One mission and the recent SpaceX project represent a civilisation scale undertaking that could not only propel humankind forward, but allow the people who join it to be a part of something grand and shared and previously unknown. This is a powerful motivator to those who are attracted to challenges.
So don't think there's something wrong with you of you get frustrated over the dull nature of everyday life where others appear calm and contented. It's perfectly fine to have these frustrations as you may likely be a 'Colonist'. It could simply be that you are one of nature's tools for adaptation and survival, just born in the wrong period of humankind's existence.
Take heart, because although our existence is swamped by the unchanging everyday, there are still so many changes ahead, some good (technological changes that will reshape society and possibly ourselves, philosophical shifts for the betterment of humanity, space exploration) and some not so good (environmental change caused by human activities etc). Either way the world is full of challenges, we just have to find them and involve ourselves with addressing these important issues in order to discover meaning and a niche for ourselves.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Evolution of Atheism

I think there’s an overall trend to the way people come to an atheist conclusion here in the West. From my own experiences and those I’ve talked about the subject with in detail , it seems that there are almost distinct stages people go through in their philosophical evolution toward the belief that there is no god.

Let’s face it, many of us were raised in Christian (or at least nominally Christian) households. We may not have spoken about it much, but when Census rolled around, we knew our parents would tick the little box that said ‘Catholic’, or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Church of England’ or a variation thereof. Some of us might even have been dragged to church on the two days per year our family thought it best to attend, Christmas and Easter.

I grew up in an environment that was a little more focused on religion, the Mormon religion to be exact. Weekly church going was strongly encouraged and the indoctrination was powerful. Despite, or maybe because of this, I found myself doubting the entire existence of god by the age of seven. It was a little later that I came to the definite conclusion that the world was without a god, this delay mostly due to the fact that we were taught in Sunday school that any doubts were the devil looking over our shoulder and planting evil seeds into our minds.

But anyway, below is a rough guide to what I feel are some distinct stages in the evolution of our non belief in god. Take them or leave them, just my thoughts.

The unthinking  (or Following Mummy and Daddy) stage – this occurs when our thoughts and identity are yet to fully coalesce, we may not have formed any opinion religious or philosophical at all at this stage, or we might mimic those opinions held by our elders. There has been no questioning, no delving into the details.  Needless to say we are quite young at this time.

The doubting stage -  So how is this god everywhere at once, and how did he create us all and just how was he ALWAYS here? How does he know who to punish for eternity and who to let into heaven, and why? We start to question what we have held as written in stone, often we have feelings of guilt that accompany this doubt, as if we are doing something wrong, which we may believe is true.

The realisation – this is often a short stage in between doubting and rebellion.  We often keep our realisation a secret, maybe we think we’ll get into all kinds of trouble with our family. Maybe if we say it out loud we feel we’ll be damned to the hell the child part of us till half believes in. This phase can often be liberating, or it can be terrifying.

The rebellion –  This is where we openly start to broadcast our views. Many new atheists will tell anyone they get the chance to that they do not believe in a god, they’ll confront their parents, refuse to go to church or do any religious activities (which might include Christmas). This is where their own personal philosophy starts to develop. It’s built upon by their thoughts on the subject, what they read about it and who they talk to. Leaving the ‘philosophical nest’ so to speak is often a very complicated and emotional undertaking. There are most likely still feelings toward the old set of thinking, conscious or unconscious, and a backlash often occurs against the religion they have left behind. We see it here in the west as the ‘anti christian’ mindset, which makes sense as the dominant religion currently is Christianity. It's important to keep in mind the culture the individual is coming from. 

Many people who reach this stage are young teenagers at a vulnerable time in their lives and still dependent financially and emotionally on their parents. There can be harsh ramifications for such an ideological rebellion. In some parts of the world, admitting atheism to friends and family can have serious ramifications including social ostracism, being forced out of the family home and even death. There are fierce debates over whether a teen's newfound beliefs should be made public in environments such as a strictly religious family or community.

Residual Christian backlash –  At this stage we are more comfortable in our thoughts and beliefs now, and less likely to want to continually confront people with them. Yet many of us retain our anti-past backlash to this stage, often lasting for years, maybe decades.

Belief security and acceptance of other ways of thinking -  I think this stage is where we truly become secure in our own beliefs. We have thought deep and long about the god subject and have come to terms with the religious structure of our upbringing, our culture, or both. We understand that the world is in a state of cultural evolution and our past is mired heavily in religion. 

I think also that this is where we let go of the last of our negative feelings toward religion that are soley based on our experiences in our formative years. We can acknowledge that, although we are now atheists, religion has most likely had a profound effect on the way we have developed through direct family contact or through our society’s structure, regulations and beliefs. We can discuss freely our own beliefs with the understanding that for some, a religious belief holds practical and fundamental value in staving off the fear of oblivion, providing a platform for contemplating the deeper meaning and philosophy of life and giving some humans a deeper connection to each other and the universe. 

We should continue the questioning of long held traditions, especially those that harm or restrict others for no logical reason. The world will always need humans who will question and never blindly accept. We must also understand that in some cases, such as religion, we may never know who is 'right' and who is 'wrong'. There is no mathematical proof for or against the existence of a divine creator and there probably never will be. 

We need to look at our actions and beliefs through the prism of societal evolution. What is best for humans as a whole?

Our belief that this existence is all there is makes it all the more poignant and valuable. We can quite easily cultivate an understanding of how this might create fear in the average individual. Can we also cultivate an understanding and acceptance of the comfort a religious belief might bring? 

For now, our civilisation contains many individuals who hold religion as a comfort. I do not believe this will be so in the future. We must look toward that future with compassion for the past and the humans stuck in the wave of change in between. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Human Longevity: How Long Would We Be Living If Our Lifespans Matched Our Mental Capacity?

It's long been lamented that our lifespans do not match our intellectual potential. You've probably jokingly found yourself wishing you had a few lifetimes in order to do everything you've wanted to do; different careers, multiple degrees, travel for decades and a myriad number of other pursuits on life's to do list.

We are born, we learn and evolve into adult humans til around the age of 18-20, then we have approximately 40-50 years before age starts to make its claim on us. We often spend the last decade or so of our lives in less than ideal physical and mental conditions, before finally succumbing to the inevitable mortality suffered by all known living creatures.

To me this lifespan seems like such an inadequate amount of time for something so complex as the human mind to exist and evolve to its potential in.  I'd hazard a guess and say it's probably the reason behind some of our shortcomings as individuals and as a species. What could motivate a human individual in terms of hundreds or even thousands of years if our lifespans are measured in mere decades? Could you imagine the difference it would make to our stewardship of the planet if those that made the decisions regarding long term projects were around to reap the consequences of them? Would we evolve into more thoughtful, compassionate beings if, after decades of cramming as much personal experience into our first 50-100 years of our adulthood, we calmed down and 'grew up' so to speak?

I've thought long and hard about this topic, it saddens me that I will most likely not get to do all the things I want to do in life, considering some projects are decades long, or outside our current technological capacity.

Given that a mere 50-70 years of fully functioning adulthood is inadequate, how much time would be enough? 200 years? 500? A thousand? Just how far has the evolution of our brains out paced our bodies?

I hypothesise that most humans would not want to go on living for an infinite number of years and would, at some point, choose to terminate their life experience. Would there be a predictable point in a lifespan at which most people would reach this stage, with a few outliers rounding out the bell curve either side of this age? How would a mind that evolved with a short terminal lifespan deal with the concept and the reality of a hugely elongated and possibly indefinite span of existence?

There is a science fiction trilogy close to my heart that deals with this very topic. It's called The Mars Trilogy, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The story spans three novels (and a compilation of short stories set in the same universe) and includes the same characters over a thousand year time span. It's a captivating take on how we humans would adapt to an existence spanning millennia rather than decades. I was fascinated by the interplay between the main characters of 'The 100', the first explorers and the first generation to experience the extended lifespan. How would our close relationships hold up and evolve over such a time frame? How would interactions between generations differ? I highly recommend the Mars Trilogy to anyone interested in exploring possible scenarios involved in living longer, and also because it a fantastic read.

With so many new technologies seemingly on the cusp of making a tangible difference in how long we live, discussion on this issue begins to take on a practical leaning. Who will be the first 'immortal' generation?

Another (non fiction) book that captured my imagination on this very topic was a book by Damien Broderick called The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in the 21st Century. Published in 2000, life extending technology has come a long way since then, however it still captures the spirit of the many issues we will be facing, some exciting, some daunting. What amazing possibilities the future holds for us!