The main idea of this book is to apply the authors’ knowledge of evolutionary biology to the contemporary situation and derive clear recommendations for behavior both individual and a group not only in general but also in specific functional areas of human life. It is also to point out the dangers of the current situation when even humans’ formidable ability to handle changes could be overwhelmed by the temp and scale of changes currently occurring in technology and society.
In the beginning, the authors retell how they nearly got into a dangerous situation because of the lack of local environmental knowledge. Then, they discuss how much people lost what used to be necessary for survival: local knowledge, tradition, norms of behavior, and such. They make a point of how much unusual it is for the traditional human world and how difficult it would be to adjust:” The best, most all-encompassing way to describe our world is hyper-novel. As we will show throughout the book, humans are extraordinarily well adapted to, and equipped for, change. But the rate of change itself is so rapid now that our brains, bodies, and social systems are perpetually out of sync.”
The authors suggest that the only way to handle this novel situation is via science and discuss their experience as scientists. They also define science:” science is a method that oscillates between induction and deduction—we observe patterns, propose explanations, and test them to see how well they predict things we do not yet know. 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 with one another, merging into a seamless whole.”
Finally, they conclude:” Our species’ pace of change now outstrips our ability to adapt. We are generating new problems at a new and accelerating rate, and it is making us sick—physically, psychologically, socially, and environmentally. If we don’t figure out how to grapple with the problem of accelerating novelty, humanity will perish, a victim of its success.”
Chapter 1: The Human Niche
The discussion of the human niche begins with the story of the slow movement of humans to America via Beringia and how humans adjust to changes. Here how the authors see critical components of human nature that facilitate such adjustment:” Most of the best ideas that our species has generated, the most important and powerful ideas, have been the result of a group of people who had different but consilient talents and vision, non-overlapping blind spots, and a political structure that allowed for novelty.” The authors stress the paradox of human ability to become specialists as individuals while maintaining a wide range of functionality as a group. Next, the authors discuss consciousness and culture, their interplay, and the uniqueness of human use of “collective consciousness.” They provide a fascinating approach to all this:” Homo sapiens therefore oscillate between two dominant modes. When we face problems for which our prior understanding is inadequate, we become conscious. How do we feed ourselves in this new land? We plug our minds into a shared problem-solving space and share what we know. Then we parallel process—proposing hypotheses, providing observations, offering challenges—until we arrive at a new answer, one that an individual would rarely reach alone. 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.”
Another interesting point that the authors make, as evolutionary biologists, is related to fitness, which they define this way:” fitness is indeed often about reproduction, but it is always about persistence. A successful population can ebb and flow through time. What a successful population can’t do is go extinct. Extinction is failure. Persistence is success—and the reproduction of individuals is only one factor in the persistence equation.”
The authors also provide a couple of notions that are critical for understanding human evolutionary processes:
Chapter 2: A Brief History of the Human Lineage
This chapter discusses the biological classification of human evolution from the very beginning starting with Plant and all the way to humans. Here are the first and last pictures:
The authors also provide functional characteristics and a high-level timeline of human development:
- Oscillating between these two challenges—ecological dominance and social competition—we became expert at exploring new niches. We are the ultimate niche switchers.
- By forty thousand years ago, many populations of people were engaged in hunting and gathering that was even more cooperative and forward-looking.
- Seventeen thousand years ago, when the most famous cave art in Europe, at Lascaux, was being created, Beringians had likely become Americans and were spreading across two vast continents.
- Ten to twelve thousand years ago, people were beginning to farm.
- By nine thousand years ago, permanent settlements were forming; in the Middle East, Jericho may have been Earth’s first city.
- Eight thousand years ago, at Chobshi, in the Andes of modern Ecuador, people took cover in a shallow cave, and hunted by funneling guinea pigs, rabbits, and porcupines off a short cliff, retrieving the corpses at the bottom, with which they made food and clothing.
- By three thousand years ago, much of Earth’s landscape had been modified by human activity—by hunter-gatherers, by agriculturalists, and by pastoralists.
- Seven hundred years ago, some humans were in Europe
Here is also a graphic representation:
Chapter 3: Ancient Bodies, Modern World
This chapter discusses multiple differences between WEIRD people and people untouched by wealth and education. These differences are both physiological and psychological. From this, the authors define a test for a feature being adaptation or not:
After that, the authors discuss different types of trade-offs: allocation and design constraints. Finally, to summarize the discussion, the authors provide the kind of user manual for dealing with the new and unknown so the following chapters discuss multiple areas of human existence and, for each, provide similar recommendations for the evolutionary approach:
Chapter 4: Medicine;
Chapter 5: Food
Chapter 6: Sleep
Chapter 7: Sex and Gender
Chapter 8: Parenthood and Relationship
Chapter 9: Childhood
Chapter 10: School
Chapter 11: Becoming Adults
Chapter 12: Culture and Consciousness
Chapter 13: The Fourth Frontier
In this last chapter, the authors move to the broader picture looking at the development of a whole society. They review challenges and define the next frontier:” The fourth frontier is the idea that we can engineer an indefinite steady state that will feel to people like they live in a period of perpetual growth, but will abide by the laws of physics and game theory that govern our universe. Think of it like the climate control that allows the inside of your house to hover at a pleasant spring temperature as the world outside moves between unpleasant extremes. Engineering an indefinite steady state for humanity will not be easy, but it is imperative.” They also talk about the senescence of civilization and suggest building a system based on such principles:
- Not optimize for a single value. Mathematically speaking, if you try to optimize for any single value, no matter how honorable—be it liberty or justice, decreasing homelessness or improving educational opportunities—all other values, every single other parameter, will collapse. Maximize justice, and people will starve. Everyone may starve equally, but that’s small recompense.
- Create a prototype for your system. After that, continue to build prototypes. Do not imagine that you know from the beginning what the final system will look like.
- Recognize that the fourth frontier is inherently a steady state, whose characteristics are ours to define. We ought to strive to create a system that:
- Liberates (that is, that frees people to do rewarding, interesting, awesome stuff),
- Is antifragile,
- Is resistant to capture, and
- Is incapable of evolving into something that betrays its own core values. In the technical language of evolution, we need a system that is an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, a strategy incapable of invasion by competitors.
The authors also discuss challenges and the need to jump curves when usual processes stop working. Here is a graphic representation:
The final set of suggestions:
The epilogue presents the rules for life that the authors linked to 8 days of Hanukkah:
Day 1: All human enterprises should be both sustainable and reversible.
Day 2: The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Day 3: Only support systems that tend to enrich people who have contributed positively to the world.
Day 4: Don’t game honorable systems.
Day 5: One should have a healthy skepticism of ancient wisdom, and engage novel problems consciously, explicitly, and with robust reasoning.
Day 6: Opportunity must not be allowed to concentrate within lineages.
Day 7: Precautionary principle: When the costs of an action are unknown, proceed with caution before making change.
Day 8: Society has the right to require things of all people, but it has natural obligations to them in return.
MY TAKE ON IT:
The approach to the current situation through the lens of evolutionary biology is generally sound but not sufficient. The authors’ recommendations are excellent, and I agree with most of them. However, I do not think individual behavior adjustments based on these recommendations would do the trick. People need some vision of the future condition of the system to act consistently and persistently, even if this vision is not completely clear. This vision should also be simple and linked to modifying the system of relations between people rather than to individual behavior only. Religions used to be able to do it pretty well, including the religion of socialism and communism, but they also tend to lead to obsession, fanaticism, and destruction. We can see it now in the current religion of wakeism. I hope that America’s relative freedoms would help resolve existing problems by updating the system of society’s organization to match currently achieved technological levels. Still, we are probably at the beginning of a protracted period of disturbances before we’ll complete this upgrade.