by Robin Datta
Endings mark the beginning of a new state, different from the preceding one, just as beginnings indicate the end of a prior state. Each is a discontinuity discerned against a background that is unaffected by the discontinuity. Evolution is a phenomenon whereby multiple, sequential, miniscule discontinuities approximate a continuity. In biological systems, with the accumulation of sufficient change, a new species may be defined. Life itself is postulated to emerge from physico-chemical processes in a similar manner.
While the beginnings of a species are inextricably rooted in its predecessors, its endings can take different paths. Extinction occurs when the constellation of features defining the species no longer occur together. This is commonly perceived to happen when there is an abrupt discontinuity after which no members of the species exist. However it may also occur when several daughter species emerge, each distinct from the original species: a radiation. When only a single different species results it is termed genetic drift. However, genetic drift is a built-in feature of genetic inheritance, occurring to a greater or lesser extent is every species.
Genetic inheritance is manifest as the phenotype of the individual: its structure and — to the extent that structure affects function — its function. Such functions can range from the very basic, at the biochemical level, to instincts hard-wired into brains. A function as complex as flight in birds has been shown to be instinctual: birds hatched and reared in captivity without the sight of other birds, are able to fly normally if presented with the first opportunity to do so at a stage of sufficient maturity.
Non-inherited behaviors are made possible by sufficiently complex brains. These brains and some of their hard-wiring are the phenotype — the manifestation of genetic inheritance — and the learned behaviors are acquired rather than inherited.
At its most basic level, such learned behaviors are associated with the limbic system, often referred to as the “reptilian” brain, although it is present at least in rudimentary form in lineages that date back to before the reptiles. In humans it is associated with emotions and the sense of values. It is non-verbal, and is the prime motivator of behavioral drives. Most of its programming occurs in infancy and early childhood.
Intellectual and logical functions are associated with the neocortex (“new rind”), which is a phylogenetically (evolutionarily) more recent part of the brain. Such functions include learned behaviors simple tool use, such as a twig to extract insects from crevices in a tree’s bark, breaking of a clamshell with a stone, and hunting techniques in carnivores.
The addition of language to these functions permits the transmission of ideas and concepts more complex by orders of magnitude. This opens up a (Pandora’s box?) corresponding realm of increasing complexity in behavior. These behaviors remain subordinate to the more primal motivations and drives. Although logical and intellectual abilities are considered “higher” functions, they are comparable to the lower echelon of officers, sergeants and foot-soldiers in an army, while emotions and value systems are the generals.
On account of being non-verbal, motivations and drives are not easily approachable through logic and reason as conveyed by language. They are susceptible to appeals to emotion and values: such appeals when couched in language, often amount to logical fallacies. They can be molded by repeated verbal hammering, a continuous barrage of advertising and/or propaganda (both often being the same), This is the basis for Joseph Goebbels’ assertion that “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth”. They are also the basis for the arts, visual (painting, sculpture, architecture), performing (music, dance) and written (poetry and literature).
A special category of approach to emotion and values are the societal narratives. When these are maintained and propagated by a select group — a clergy — they constitute a religion, although not all such organized narratives are recognized as religions. There are even quixotic efforts to bridge a perceived gap between emotion/values and logic/reason with religion and science taken as exemplars of each.
The entire corpus of behaviors transmitted through learning in society is referred to as “culture”. The smallest putative transmissible element of culture is the meme. Such memes can refer predominantly to intellectual concepts or to value systems. A culture based on value systems is slow to evolve, and is not easily codified into written laws. However it is more durable and resilient than the other variety.
Systems based on intellection can be more easily and quickly be committed to paper in the form of constitutions and laws. This is exemplified in America by an emphasis on the Constitution that is not found in nations with a long history of established cultures. It is also a factor in the gargantuan body of laws, an exponentially proliferating plethora that is quite incommensurate with any societal harmony that can be attributed to it. It is also a factor in the Civil War, which sought to retain as legitimate and legal the option to continue slavery. This was possible only by leaving the meaning of “men” in “all men are created equal” open to varying interpretations. The “Left” in American politics rarely refers to the Constitution, as their ideology is directed towards emotion and values.
The resiliency of old cultures based on values in the face of political and ideological upheavals is seen in Germany after Nazism and China after the “Cultural Revolution” (the term “Cultural” notwithstanding). Established values can trump appeals to ideology. Tyrants, dictators and despots derive much of their power from appeals to emotion and values. An established value system makes their accession to power easier. This may be a saving grace for the American system: no potential tyrant can launch a sufficiently broad-based appeal.
The lack of shared values can be maladaptive to a society in collapse: such an absence of common identity can lead to fragmentation with the diversion of scarce resources and valuable effort to internal conflicts. Intellectual functions and their component memes generally center around realities in the physical world. They have time horizons which if not short, are at least limited by time and space, a limitation not shared by value systems. While intellectual ideologies may succeed in the short term, value systems may prove their resilience in the long term — if they can get past the bottleneck. The emphasis on building small communities of shared values to face the coming collapse is wise; the other option based on intellectual memes is to build a well-stocked and well-armed fortress for oneself in a remote location.
The tendency to discount the future, to act for short-term advantage even when such action incurs a greater long-term disadvantage, is based on a distortion of rationality by emotion.
In non-human species, instinctive behaviors are shaped by evolutionary forces to be responses that are appropriate to the situation, such as eating and drinking, seeking prey and avoiding predators. Instinctive behaviors that seem to suggest advance planning are also shaped by forces in the species’ evolutionary history of exposure to endlessly repeated cycles, often seasonal and annual, resulting in migrations, hibernations, and more complex behaviors such as the storage of nuts and acorns by squirrels. Apart from these, the unlearned responses to situations are driven by the preference for immediate gratification, based on emotion rather than on any concept of a future outcome based on the intellect.
The ability to intentionally manipulate the environment to one’s advantage is nowhere more highly expressed than in humans. This is a learned behavior. But there are no learned guides to modulate it. On an individual basis, one’s intellect can guide actions based on a concept of future outcomes. At a societal level, intellection has poor purchase, and emotional response to seek short-term gain hijacks the intellect to devise ways to magnify that gain even at a disproportionate cost in long term disadvantage.
Hocking one future for another may be a rational decision, such as when a debt is to be paid with the proceeds of a business started with a loan. This is investment debt, to be distinguished from consumption debt, which is driven by the standard emotional response. The vast majority of debt today is consumption debt, including among others, house mortgages and as a consequence of improvident siphoning away of funds to be squandered elsewhere, entitlement programs. This is made all the more easier when the future hocked in someone else’s, as in the case of millions of future taxpayers or subjecting the accounts of prudent savers to inflationary theft. All this based on promises with a redemption date in the suitably distant future, but a reward of re-/election now.
Major phase changes in the ability to manipulate the environment included meta-tools: the making of tools (such as cutting implements made of stone) to make other tools (such as wooden spears) and the control of fire. This control enabled the cooking of food — in effect a partial digestion (and sterilization) prior to eating. Quite significantly, this made possible the consumption of previously-indigestible cereal grains, setting the foundation for agriculture.
With agriculture came permanent settlements, the concept of land as property, and of excess grain as wealth. There followed the hierarchies for the control and manipulation of this wealth, from kings and politburos to soldiers and priests. More importantly there was the disruption of cycles in which the wastes of one point were the resources for the next, in durable ecosystems consisting of closed loops: these were replaced by linear flows from resource to product to waste, depleting resources and creating pollution.
The addition of energy derived from fossil fuels magnified these linear flows by many orders of magnitude, powering the overshoot that now makes us “addicted” to this depleting resource.
Some have tried to extract a glimmer of hope (not Hope™ as in Hope™ and Change™) from the dismal prospects by ruminating on the emergence through evolution in the human species of a better form without the current shortcomings. Much of this speculation is centered on changes in the neocortex, leading to more forceful intellection which may overcome the primitive emotional response that seeks to maximize immediate gratification. Such an evolution, like any other evolution, would require Nature to craft the right environmental circumstances to exert selection pressures that impel a subset of humans towards becoming “better humans”. While nice as a hope, it has too many variables to approach being an expectation.
The Drake Equation suggests that there should be many civilizations in our galaxy, This leads to the Fermi Paradox which notes that none have been discovered, which in turn leads to the Doomsday Argument that it the nature of intelligent life to burn through its resources as fast as possible, going through overshoot and into die-off in every instance, perhaps the darkest of all speculations in science.
Robin Datta was born in Quetta, Pakistan in 1949. His father was one of three Hindu officers in the Pakistan Army at that time, and a veteran of the Burma campaign of WW2 as a Regimental Medical Officer in the Royal British Indian Army. Robin attended nine different schools as his father was posted to different places. His mother was also an officer in the Nurse Corps of the Royal British Indian Army in WW2. His mother’s native language was Telegu, and his father’s was Bengali: their common language was English (a consequence of two centuries of British Raj), and hence he spoke English natively (as his first language), but had to unlearn it rapidly when exposed to the American Language in New York. He also speaks Urdu, the lingus franca in those parts, natively (natively bilingual).
Datta graduated with a medical degree from Bangladesh in 1972: in order to graduate, it was necessary to take a medical history from the local patients, and as a consequence he learnt Bengali. He moved to New York in 1973. He served in the Army two years (one in Korea, and half a year in Desert Storm), and served three years in the Navy, and was a Flight Surgeon
in both branches of service.
Datta completed Family Practice Residency in Louisville, Kentucky, and passed board exams, becoming certified both in Family Practice and Emergency Medicine. He worked in Emergency Medicine from 1983 to 2009 in Kentucky and California (San Jose, Hollister, and Fresno in California). He is single (never married) and retired with no dependents.
Almost all of what he learnt about Eastern religions was acquired after coming to America. The knowledge of Bengali helped significantly in understanding the nuances of cognate terms in Sanskrit and Pali.
Datta is not sure what to do next. Whatever it is, it must take into consideration the imminent collapse. He is open to and invites any possibilities and suggestions.