We are living through the most prosperous age in human history, but we are hurtling toward destruction. People are more listless, divided, and miserable than ever, and our civilization faces numerous existential threats, any one of which could take us out – whether it’s climate change, a Carrington Event, a nuclear exchange set in motion by wealth inequality, a refugee crisis, or revolution. We modern humans have become a threat to our own existence, yet we are resting on our cultural laurels, lulled into a false sense of security while speeding toward disaster.
In their new book, A HUNTER-GATHERER’S GUIDE TO THE 21ST CENTURY: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life (Portfolio; September 14, 2021), evolutionary biologists Heather Heying & Bret Weinstein argue that the problem is clear: our world has become so hyper novel that the pace of change has outstripped our ability to keep up. Humans are an evolutionary phenomenon, and while we are designed to adapt to change, it took hundreds of millions of years for humans to become who we are today. We may live in a modern world, but our brains, bodies and social systems are ancient. They are now perpetually out of sync with the modern world, and it’s 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 own success.
In this interview, I speak to evolutionary biologist and professor, Bret Weinstein who- alongside his co-author, Heather Heying has done empirical work on sexual selection and the evolution of sociality, and theoretical work on the evolution of trade-offs, senescence, and morality. In this interview, Bret distils more than 20 years of research and first-hand accounts from the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth to offer a robust scientific framework for understanding ourselves – both as individuals, and in relationships with others – and why the novelty of the modern era is killing us. We discuss Bret’s empirical research, fascinating lessons from his global travels, and practical, evolutionary-based advice for protecting ourselves from self-inflicted harm so that we may live better lives. And regarding the very real existential threats to our species, you will hear that Bret authors argue that we are not destined to ride our destructive trajectory to the end. Humans are explorers and innovators by design, and the same impulses that have created our troublesome modern condition are the only hope for saving it.
Q: What are we?
[Bret Weinstein]: My PhD advisor, Dick Alexander (who is sadly gone), wrote a paper in which he called us the uniquely unique species. All species are unique, but we are especially so. The thing that makes us so unique is that we, unlike most every other species, have no niche.
A niche is an opportunity which a species exploits- and our niche is niche switching. We move from one niche to another, even without major changes to our physical biology. We do that through a process of essentially bootstrapping, refining, and deploying new software programmes. That’s how we adopt new niches and move through time.
[Vikas: and how did we become who we are today?]
[Bret Weinstein]: At a point, we developed language sophisticated enough to transmit abstract ideas with precision from one mind to another. That enables high quality parallel processing of problems such that we literally have emergent cognition. When people gather, they talk about difficult puzzles they face, and the product of their thinking exceeds the sum of their individual capacity to reason through it. That is what makes us capable of adapting to niches our ancestors knew nothing about.
Emergent cognition is very much the water we swim in. We don’t notice it. If you and I are in the same room, it would be the case that we would take turns vibrating air molecules between us, such that a membrane in the side of our heads wobbled back and forth, enabling us to very easily, simply, prove that an abstract idea that had never been spoken by any human previously was successfully transmitted from one mind to the other. That’s an amazing capacity – we do it every day about the most mundane topics – it’s an evolutionary marvel at the highest level.
Q: What has evolutionary theory got wrong about humanity?
[Bret Weinstein]: There are a number of places where evolutionary theory has not built the correct toolkit for understanding people. The Omega Principle specifies the precise relationship between our cognitive cultural layer (the software layer) and our underlying genes. Most of our adaptation takes place in that cultural layer, and so if you don’t understand this principle, you will not be able to see how human beings function adaptively. That does not imply the cultural layer has driven the genes out of their commanding position – they are still very much in control, but the control is indirect – they have effectively offloaded the evolutionary work to the cultural layer.
Q: How has our evolutionary reality collided with the hyper-novelty of modern life?
[Bret Weinstein]: Evolution did not fully anticipate what would happen when we found ourselves in much larger groups than our ancestors existed in. The capacity for emerging cognition continues to exist, but so does our capacity to transmit malware. Advertising cultivates insecurity in people so they will purchase a solution to that insecurity. It makes you desire something you wouldn’t necessarily desire otherwise. This may or may not be good for you (as a receiver) but it’s certainly good for the transmitter. For us as receivers we’re in a puzzle where we have to juggle- in real-time- what kind of information we should shield or accept. What’s more, you can actually study what our cognitive blind spots are, and how they can be exploited to get us to spend money on things.
We live downstream of a very high-quality tool for manipulating each other in a collaborative way, which has been augmented by the perverse incentives surrounding manipulating each other in a hostile way. This isn’t new – this hostile malware problem has always existed at some level. There are conflicts of interest between humans at every level, even inside a family, but the size of our societies has kept this at a manageable level. The explosion in the number of people who are interacting with each other has- today- made the problem effectively unsolvable.
[Vikas: how has digital media exacerbated this?]
[Bret Weinstein]: Think about the fact that when President Kennedy was shot, every American who was old enough to understand what happened had a very personal relationship with his death- to the point where most were triggered into a state of very real, and presumably psychologically measurable, grief. Why would the death of a stranger cause these physical manifestations of grief? In some sense, this person had been a living, speaking, guest in almost all of their living rooms- it felt very much, therefore, like they’d lost a family member. This was a level of evolutionary novelty that was already spectacular, long before we got to the era of deepfakes, anonymous twitter accounts and sock puppets operated by people who want to shift our collective conversational dynamics.
We have layer upon layer of novelty, and today we are in an era of hyper-novelty. The rate of change of the novelty we face is so fast that it has outstripped our evolutionary capacity to keep up.
Q: What can we do about the fact that society is now faster that we can adapt?
[Bret Weinstein]: Fundamentally, we must slow-down the process of change. We should recognise that most change is not progress- and therefore, it is in our interests to slow down without interfering too much with actual solution making.
Importantly, we can’t go backwards. In going forward however, we cannot simply allow the market to solve all problems. We cannot expect problems to solve themselves without doing tremendous damage along the way. We have to reason through the question about what parts of our ancestral ways are still relevant and what parts need to be replaced with something more deliberate.
The first thing people can do to address the problem of novelty is to establish personal relationships. You need one such relationship in your life to remain sane. You need a relationship that doesn’t depend on digital transmission! You need somebody who you understand deeply, who you can talk to directly, who can give you a reality check when everything coming through your computer and phone is bewildering. You ned somebody who will tell you honestly what they think – and you need to reciprocate in kind. Having one strong relationship is a huge step in the direction of remaining sane in an increasingly crazy era.
Q: Can understanding ourselves as evolutionary beings give us comfort in an uncertain world?
[Bret Weinstein]: When Heather and I taught at Evergreen, we had hundreds of students respond to the evolutionary toolkit that we presented in all our programmes with a kind of relief. It takes an almost infinitely complex world, and gives an intuitive mechanism for sorting it out such that you can understand what is taking place. The mismatch that one experiences between your physical, biological and psychological self and the world you encounter can become comprehensible if you look through an evolutionary lens.
The state of being maladapted is terrifically disruptive to normal function. We are suffering from the fact that our environment has changed from under us, and we shouldn’t expect to be any more functional than an animal chosen at random and dropped into a habitat with which it has very little experience.
[Vikas: Why are people so resistant to see ourselves as evolutionary entities?]
[Bret Weinstein]: People are impatient. We are constantly told, ‘here’s what science says about diet, exercise, and who knows what!’ – it doesn’t take very long to detect that conventional wisdom is getting polluted, is often very wrong, and often because we have competing interests that are disguising information.
In the classroom – time and time again – we saw that when you have time to calm the mind and think about the puzzles of life logically, they begin to sort themselves out. The resistance gives-way very quickly once you accept that everything you care about is downstream of evolution and adaptation.
People are obsessed, for example, with their love lives and sex lives. When you discover that there’s an underlying logic to sexual activity- and when you understand that evolution teaches us how to understand how people behave, and what we must be on guard for, it’s a tremendous relief, and gives us a sense of curiosity.
People are initially resistant to evolutionary thinking because they’ve had so much garbage fed to them- once they realise there’s a simple, intuitive way of understanding themselves, they want to know more.
Q: How can we start to rebuild our relationships with each other?
[Bret Weinstein]: Most people do not realise what will happen when they cross the divide- they’ve already accepted a story about who’s on the other side, and have already decided that the other is frightening, delusional and dangerous. They fear what it would be like to interact with the ‘monster.’ In truth, we are all confused. This era is nothing if not confusing.
We all see some things with clarity, we all see some things upside down, and we all have blind-spots.
This has been our experience after Evergreen came apart and we were forced to leave. We are very far to the left. I consider myself a reluctant radical. Many of the people we interact with are conservatives, and it’s delightful to have conversations that bridge divides.
Very often, you’ll look at a puzzle that you disagree with someone about. You’ll make the mistake of imagining you disagree about the whole thing but if you have a conversation, you’ll find that there are portions of the puzzle you agree on, and frequently that causes the conversation to become tractable.
For example, if I interact with a conservative audience on the issue of climate change, I know there’s going to be a conflict. If I reframed the conversation by saying that human activity was altering the planet in a way that was going to make it less habitable and predictable going forward- putting us in conflict with each other- and that there were a set o technological solutions that might be deployed that could prevent that from happening – would you be in favour of it? there would be a pause, and every single time I’ll get an answer of well, of course. We just crossed half the distance! How much of a relief is it to discover that your enemy is actually on-board with what the world ought to look like.
[Vikas: More widely, it feels as if we’re revisiting many problems which have already been solved?]
[Bret Weinstein]: This is a prime example of the problem of evolutionary novelty. What you’re describing is what happens when (usually) secular societies unsolved a problem that had already been addressed. When a problem has already been addressed, one looks around at the structures that have addressed the problem and says what are these for? I don’t see the problem they’re solving? That’s because – of course – the problem is no longer there! So you remove the structures, and the problems re-emerge.
I’m not a religious person, nor a believer in a divine order, but religions evolve as solutions to problems. There is a concept of the sacred of things that you don’t mess with. If you have solved a problem – the solution can be rendered sacred – and therefore there are penalties for dismantling the solution.
For all the benefits of science, it has also dismantled belief structures that would have caused us to not reinvent problems which had already been solved.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Bret Weinstein]: I don’t think about legacy terribly much, but for my part – I do think we can still save ourselves, it’s not too late. The way we’re going however… saving ourselves is a long shot. I would concern myself more with legacy if I wasn’t so worried about our near-term!
That said… I have a kind of accounting I do with myself. I try to do net-good in the world. There are orders of magnitude of course. As a professor, I did a lot of good for a small number of people in the world. It was enough that I could sleep at night. I had the sense that what I was doing was net positive for the world. I wasn’t going to change the place, but I was going to change the lives of individuals and that was enough for me to feel I was on the positive side of the equation. That does raise the question of how much good one could do with a larger audience… Fate has put me in the strange spot where I now have that audience.
It’s a very powerful feeling being able to alter people’s individual lives by giving them a sense of power over their own trajectory.