Ultimately, is civilization maladaptive?

We humans are hardwired with various cognitive biases (too numerous to list here) that enhanced our chances of survival on the savannah eons ago but now seem to be maladaptive. For instance, our tendency to form ingroups and outgroups, as well as our vehement threat responses, have led, on the scale permitted by “civilization,” to horrible wars, genocides, and the very real possibility of our causing our own extinction.

Many philosophers as well as scientists postulate that our very intelligence is a threat to our survival, to the extent that it may even be maladaptive: a thinking species’ minds will evolve faster than its bodies, resulting, in our case, in a reptile core brain fighting with a primate outer brain for dominance. This may mean that unless we somehow become even more intelligent than we are, specifically: we are able to recognize our cognitive biases and overcome them, our self-destruction is inevitable: certainly, we’ve barely dodged several bullets already.

On the other hand, an optimist would say that since we have, in fact, muddled through so far, that bodes well for our future survival, and the behavioral relics of primate cognitive biases can be overcome, albeit slowly (racism, for example).

Many science fiction writers have made this almost a trope, in that aliens that encounter humankind react to us with horror and disgust (and often an urge to wipe us out, as in Clarke/Baxter’s recent trilogy or the movie, “Prometheus”). We are, to them, like a three-year-old child with a machine gun; we lack the sophistication to properly use the cognitive abilties we possess.

I’m wondering, therefore, what the cognoscienti here think about this: is our doom inevitable, do we have a fighting chance but we’re definitely in trouble, or do we have a future of peace and prosperity in store?

Note that since we’re talking about the future of humanity in a speculative context, I require no citations in your answers (sorry, I just couldn’t resist).

Cite? (I kid.)
I have no insight on the OP, but I will make an observation. Humans in particular and mammals in general are averse to uncertainty. Give rats constant electric shocks and they zone out. But give them random shocks and they become stressed out, frantically trying out different behaviors to make it stop.

So there will be many proponents of the “Certain disaster” position and somewhat fewer of the “Hopeful future” stance. But the mind rebels against the argument: “I dunno: could go either way really.” Our minds are maladapted for handling uncertain, unfamiliar and distant risks. Luckily a few of us have some exposure to decision theory.

It seems to me that things have been steadily improving over time and unless we try to change too fast things should keep improving. Certainly we have all the tools and techniques needed to achieve individually and globally an ideal state of mind. We merely need to implement them.

One could argue, as did Robert E. Howard, that barbarism is the only stable form of existence for humanity. Civilization, like a multi-story skyscraper building, is never totally free from the danger of catastrophic collapse. Barbarism is safe, since there isn’t any lower state for humanity to collapse to!

That said, civilization has some really persuasive advantages. Simply by feeding the tribe/family/clan dependably, it stands far above barbarism. Simply by dint of the very minimal planning ahead involved in planting/harvesting, it creates a kind of intellectual insight that makes all the other wonders – philosophy, art, science, and digital watches – possible.

Civilization is nifty. It is not without costs, and not without risks. But it creates a framework within which we can talk about such things.

Also ice cream.

Also, cheeseburgers.

The notion that all human beings “are hardwired with cognitive biases that enhanced our chances of survival on the savanna eons ago” is a hypothesis that has been advanced by some scientists. It is definitely not an established fact, nor has it even been codified into a clear theory that can be subject to testing. Most people who seriously study human behavior dismiss the hypothesis. I do as well, though I haven’t seriously studied human behavior.

Human beings have free will. We can choose to make good decisions or we can choose to make bad decisions. When too many many humans make bad decisions, there may be wars, genocide, economic meltdowns and other bad effects. When human beings in the main make good decisions, it leads towards greater peace and prosperity. The decisions that we make will determine the shape of the future.

Only because of the rigor that involves changing a working hypothesis to an accepted set of facts. Myriad scientific studies have shown the pervasiveness of cognitive biases. Many of these studies were conducted among high-intelligence populations (university students, etc.). The subjects were not, in fact, unable to “think around” their biases.

Behavioral economics has pretty much exploded the idea that our default setting is to act in our own rational self-interest. And if we fail to do so individually, we also fail to do so collectively.

Watch Steven Pinker’s TED talk about violence and civilization, he makes the opposite points. Civilization has a domesticating effects on our violent urges.


Realistically, it only takes on sociopath dictator to basically end the world in the age of nuclear weapons. Stalin was supposedly murdered with rat poison by his inner circle because he was planning a political purge and a first strike nuclear attack on the US. So even if 7 billion people are peaceful, it only takes one evil asshole in the age of nuclear weapons to screw everything up.

But it takes only one with a spoonful of rat poison to put it back to rights, apparently…

Ultimately, everything is maladaptive. For the foreseeable future, it looks pretty damn sweet!

We do have free will but ultimately I think we are drug addicts. We rely and respond to the drugs produced by our own nuero sytems. I believe that every response we have no matter how small is a result of some stimuli. Modern civilization and social structures have changed and continue to change in such away that our stimulators are beng forced into ballances that the human race has not evolved to deal with correctly. This can and will cause erratic decision making and behaviors. Family structures are allready breaking down, social structures reminicent of a village or tribe have long broken down. We are adapting fairly well but possibly not well enough for long term survival.

Um, no? Seeing how, it, you know, was an actual adaptation to the environment made by humans and allowed us to grow far beyond pre-civilized man’s level of intelligence and adaptability. We are in the top of our food chain, with no natural predators. We can live anywhere in the world, because civilization begat intelligence.

“What?” you say. Indeed the current theory of the development of intelligence is that people had to keep getting smarter to outsmart their neighbors, and to negotiate the complexities of social interaction. This created a run-away process that continues to this day. It sure wasn’t about tool use, as, once a tool is invented, you don’t need smart people to use it.

<Mary Poppins>
Just a spoonful of poison
makes the dictator go down
dictator go down
dictator go down
Just a spoonful of poison makes the the dictator go down
In a most delightful way

raises umbrella and scrams

As BigT said, if you define the success of adaptation as reproductive success, just compare our biomass post-civilization and pre-civilization. We have adapted well by definition. We might go extinct, but lots of successful species eventually go extinct, so that does not mean we aren’t doing fine now.

Not just lots. All.


No wonder she could defeat Voldemort, easy pickings after a monster like Stalin.

Mary Poppins defeated Voldemort? And Stalin?

Dude, your universe must be entertaining.

Man, yours must not be to have missed the Olympics. :stuck_out_tongue:


I’ll believe that when I see the studies. It’s also worth remembering that even if someone does study of fifty American college students and finds that thirty of them do something, that doesn’t prove that every human being is “hardwired” to do what the majority of the college students did.

Perhaps a more german question is this: can you name any human gene or set of genes that has been proven to cause a cognitive bias, or any sort of behavior at all?

Second question: if all scientists are hardwired with biases too numerous to list, then why should anyone believe anything that scientists say?

What economists call “rational self-interest” is not actually rational or self-interested, at least in my opinion. Hence if people regularly do things that don’t match the economic definition of “rational self-interest”, to me that would often be a good thing.


The studies I mentioned were done, as the vast majority of scientific studies are, with far more rigor than you suggest. When a scientific study states a conclusion, that conclusion is backed up with hard data and rigorous analysis.

Your “german” (you meant “germane”) question isn’t answerable because there is no one specific gene linked to brain development, let alone the development of a single cognitive process. And we’re still in the process of mapping those genes. However, it isn’t necessary to know the specific gene responsible for a characteristic to know that that characteristic is genetic.

The difference between the scientists and the rest of the public is that they are aware of the biases we all share and thus have methods to overcome those biases. One such method is the aforementioned academic/scientific rigor, plus peer review of practically everything that is written in the scientific community. I know you don’t believe in it, but it’s true nonetheless.

What economists call “rational self-interest” is precisely that–an action or set of actions that lead to the optimal outcome for the actor. Whether or not those actions are taken is another question: conventional economic theory stated that people would take such actions, all other things being equal; behavioral economics suggests that sometimes, they do not.