Are we equipped for the challenges of the 21st century?

In their book New World New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich argue forcefully that when we moved from the trees to the savannah, we were competing with animals that had already evolved to survive on the ground. As a result, we had to rapidly evolve to adapt to our new environment. Being able to notice the dramatic and immediate (a movement in a bush, a carnivore taking a particular interest in us, etc.) would have been more than an asset, it would have been necessary for survival.

Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that this evolutionary preference continues to this day. We notice the immediate and the dramatic and this preference is fueled by the tabloid media. News shows us the immediate and the dramatic and that’s because it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular.

The authors argue that this preference is not a useful preference in our modern environment. Few humans today are in danger of losing their lives from an unexpected attack by another animal. As a result, the ability to notice the dramatic and immediate is more of an inhibitor when it comes to the problems facing humanity.

For example:

The growth of the human population.

The effect of this on the environment.

Water and food security

Resource depletion and pollution

nuclear proliferation

These problems are more slow and progressive than immediate and dramatic. Our understanding of these issues is more intellectual than experiential. We cannot experience human population growth in real terms in a single lifetime, environmental degradation is not immediate, water and food security is not dramatic until it is extreme.

Ornstein and Ehrlich focus on two psychological preferences to make their case. These are:

• Preference for noticing the immediate and dramatic

• Primacy and actuality (observe the first and the last and forget the middle)

Fortunately this is not the whole story.

Critics might argue that by focusing on two preferences, Ornstein and Ehrlich are not discussing our full human perceptual capacity.

Noticing the immediate and dramatic could be loosely equated to MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) preferences for noticing the sensory and emotional. While there are people in the world who have a preference for noticing the sensory and emotional (and we are very lucky to have them, as many of them are nurses or work in industries that help people with immediate needs) we also have a large population. of people who have a preference for noticing the intuitive and the logical.

Looking at poverty statistics creates a different response than looking at an individual’s struggle against poverty. When we read that there are 1 billion people living in poverty and that 29,000 children die of poverty every day, it is easy to become detached from the problem because the numbers create distance between us and the problem. When you see a mother crying as she holds her malnourished, sick and dying baby, you would have to be a sociopath not to feel something. Mother Teresa is credited (possibly incorrectly) with saying, “If I look at the crowd, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

So what this means is that we have the ability to notice both the immediate/dramatic and the global and logical. As a result, we have many people who are working hard to address the same issues that Ornstein and Ehrlich are discussing.

Not everyone gets sucked into the tabloid

News shows us the immediate and the dramatic and that’s because it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular. But that doesn’t mean they all get sucked into the tabloid. And not everyone has a preference for focusing on the immediate and dramatic. I think there would be some very hard-working people at the UN, nonprofits, NGOs, community and grassroots organizations who might take offense to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s position.

There are many people who work very hard to make the world a better place, and perhaps Ornstein and Ehrlich, ironically, are suffering from what they suggest is our biggest problem. The work done by a large army of NFPs, NGOs, volunteers, etc. it may not be immediate or dramatic, and as a result it seems that (and I only read the first few chapters) the authors have ignored their efforts.

underestimate the environment

Another topic that would be easy to discuss with the authors is that we are not only genetic, we are also affected by the environment. Again, I would suggest that the changes in our behavior to adapt to the environment are slow and undramatic and have therefore been overlooked or underestimated by the authors.

If we travel to ancient Greece, the most honored members of society were its wrestlers and it was considered a disgrace for a wrestler to be seen in the market or even know how to count. Travel to the modern United States and the most honest men are its entrepreneurs. It would be a shame if these men did not know how to count or how the market works. Fortunately, Jeffrey Skilling, Bernard Ebbers and Bernie Madoff did not attempt the ‘Yes, but if we were in Greece…’ defense.”

Fortunately, there are a plethora of books that show that we can, in fact, change our behaviors as the environment requires. These include:

In sociology:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Thaler & Sunstein Nudge

Malcolm Gladwell’s turning point

Trade for Chip and Dan Heath

Beck and Cowan Spiral Dynamics

in economics:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist

Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics

In History:

The Underhand Backhand by Thomas Homer Dixon

A Brief History of Ronald Wright’s Progress

Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist

A guess about evolution.

Ornstein and Ehrlich write that “Our human mental system fails to comprehend the modern world. Therefore, in our opinion, events will continue out of control until people realize how selectively the environment impresses the human mind and how our Understanding is determined by the biological and cultural history of humanity.

While this may be correct, there is an assumption in this premise that environmental control is preferable or even possible. This could be argued.

We could also argue that it has never been our ability to foresee the future, and yet we have already made phenomenal progress and improvements. I also understand that this is the argument ‘so far so good’ and, perhaps, with our technology, research, study, knowledge, etc. we are better equipped to do this now than in the past.


Paul Ehrlich also wrote The Population Bomb, a modern essay by Thomas Robert Malthus on the principle of population. Both claim that we will eventually lose the battle to feed, clothe, house and occupy the growing population. Critics attack its alarmist tone, among other things. The alarmist tone might have more to do with the fact that Ehrlich was one of the first people to popularize science through the media. In the 1960s, television issues brought the same population into people’s living rooms.

Having said that… I do get a little angry when I read nonsense like: “Cities lead to epidemics of overcrowding diseases and large-scale wars. Public health measures lead to further increases in population and then by allowing people live longer, an increase in cancer and heart disease. Cities also lead to universities and the discovery of many secrets of the universe. And the discovery of the secrets of the universe leads to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.”

Are the authors seriously suggesting that we should exterminate 9/10 of the population and the remaining few go back to being cave dwellers? When I read sentences like that, I can understand why Paul Ehrlich is such a controversial figure. A fan is both the best friend and the worst enemy.

Examples of Clear and Calm Thinking

In response to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s argument, we could list examples of when the human race has solved complex problems with calm, clear thinking. For example:

• We’ve sent people into space and to the moon…and brought them back.

• We have developed immunization and have greatly reduced deaths from diseases such as the plague, measles, poliomyelitis, etc.

• We have prevented nuclear war countless times. For example: The missile crisis in Cuba and perhaps many other times that we will never find out about through the clear and serene thinking of good people.

We are still able to create a surplus of food (sadly much of it is wasted in the first world while people in the third world starve. Also, good work to NFPs and NGOs like the food bank.

In the end

I agree that as humans and our civilizations have evolved, the decision to act or not to act has had ramifications for an increasing number of people. In the Rift Valley of Africa between 1 and 2 million years ago, decisions would affect a family or tribe. At the start of the Common Era, such a decision would have implications for up to a million people (the estimated population of the city of Rome at its peak), whereas today a decision to act or not act on certain issues could threaten everyone. . civilizations, the actual existence of human beings, and perhaps even the existence of life on the planet.

I would also agree that developing our thinking is our ticket to a better world.

Where I disagree with Ornstein and Ehrlich is that they have been very selective about the human capacities they have chosen to make their case by focusing on just two psychological preferences and seemingly ignoring the ones we have that help. I would also point out all the work that is currently being done and the good people who are already working and have completed the work that you have helped.

I would suggest that authors would do well to balance their approach if they wish to broaden their appeal.

And I also applaud you for contributing to the discussion in a much more useful way than talking about “Brittany’s Shock Baby Bump Rehab Horror Love Triangle.”

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