Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on April 20, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
Quite likely many readers will wonder why I spend time thinking about the distant future, why I would speculate about where human evolution might lead when I could never possibly know what will actually happen. Undoubtedly their questioning is well founded. I myself wonder what motivates me! There is no way I could ever find out if my speculations were in any sense accurate. Why even bother to write any of this down?
There are possibly three arguments I can offer, all of which may still seem weak to many, but then again, maybe they are enough.
The first argument is very personal. Thinking that there might actually be a future for the human genus is comforting. More than that, thinking it is highly likely fills me with a sense that our lives have actually meant something good, ironically as it is, even as we work furiously to destroy the environment that nurtured us. We all have a deep biologically-based need for this kind of sense being fulfilled. It is the basis for so many humans accepting theistic religious doctrines. One needs to believe that there is a universal story that has some kind of a plot, and that our contributions to it are meaningful, even if bit parts. I offered “Does evolution have a trajectory” sometime back, expressing what I hold to be a science-based teleonomic explanation of the story of the Universe in which the operations of the second law of thermodynamics and the evolution of higher organization, seemingly antagonistic processes, could simultaneously lead to both dispersal of energy and pockets of life and meta-life (see also What is the Universe Up To?).
The second argument is, perhaps, a bit more pragmatic; or at least it might offer some insights to help us face what I take to be the impending population bottleneck (Catton, 2009). And that might be viewed as a kind of plan for how our species can traverse the bottleneck in a way that positions it for progressive evolution to a more eusapient species in the distant future. If we actually can have a vision of what that might look like, we just might be more energized in working toward making it happen. I have presented the case for making sure highly sapient people differentially get through the bottleneck.
The third argument is motivated by the fact that one has to fight the good fight right to the end. I am a scientist (and maybe a little bit of a philosopher) and driven by a need to understand the phenomena I see before me. I have long been puzzled by what I see in humanity. There is so much that seems irrational when one buys into the notion that we are a smart species. I’ve written extensively about sapience, or lack thereof, of course. But now I think I see more aspects of our human condition. It is all related to sapience but connects more dots than that previous thesis attempted. Moreover, it is the basis of an explanatory story about the present extant species. And that helps to explain why we are so neurotic and all too often psychotic (or at least suffer antisocial personality disorders to one degree or another).
We have much to explain about current humans, their beliefs, and their natures. Psychology, even neuropsychology will have difficulty explaining why we act the way we do unless it is framed in the context of the universal evolutionary process. The story goes from the origins and evolution of the hominids, brings us to the current situation, and then must recognize that the plot is written by on-going evolutionary forces that will propel us into a future that we might be able to vaguely conjecture. Every story has an arc.
We build all kinds of models of systems as we find them for the purpose of generating plausible if not probable future scenarios for those systems. Consider my exploration of the human condition as attempting to build such a model, at least in a mental form.
Mankind in Transition
The extant human species is in a difficult transition. It has just emerged as a species possessing the capabilities of mind that make it much superior in cleverness to all prior animals and the beginnings of sapience. It is in a precarious position. A dangerous position. As I have conjectured, humans, as we are, posses only emergent sapience. We show the beginnings of a capacity to use higher order judgements to obtain ecological closure — to manage ourselves consciously to live in balance with the Ecos. The evolution of cleverness had long preceded sapience and so had, so to speak, a head start. The emergence of sapience acted to accelerate the development of higher cleverness which ultimately led to our being too smart for our own good.
Unlike previous species that continually had to be tested for fitness, and balance was achieved by external feedback loops (predation, diseases, etc.), humans have seemed to transcend the normal bounds of biology and have leapt free of natural selection as it is normally understood in biology. This is, of course, only an illusion. Natural selection never sleeps. It may be true that our population growth has escaped the normal kinds of controls, but that only leads to different forces of selection acting on our raw material. As we have seen, and I have endeavored to report in some of these postings, natural limits are coming swiftly into play to curtail humanity’s unreasoned exuberance and finally rein in human expansion beyond the carrying capacity of the planet for our kind. We are deluded by our seeming success and it will soon become apparent. Not only will our numbers be culled but that new regime of contraction will act as yet another new way for selection to act.
This illusion was created by virtue of our evolved cleverness. We are exceptional in our ability to use symbolic communications and reasoning along with our incomparable capacity to invent technological ways to adapt to changing and challenging environments. We were so successful as a species that our kind now inhabit every continent on the planet and every type of environment has been colonized. And that success has led us into the trap of thinking that cleverness trumps all else. Due to our weak, emerging sapience we could be aware of our accomplishments, but not wise about how to use our cleverness. Van R. Potter (1971) defined wisdom as “knowledge of how to use knowledge”. We tend to use our knowledge to solve vexing problems like how to make more lethal weapons, or grow more food without ever asking whether we should or not. We never really consider unintended consequences when seeking solutions that make life more comfortable or allow us to go faster from point A to point B.
But even over the history of our emergence as a species and development toward complex global societies we have demonstrated repeatedly that we are dangerous to ourselves and to the rest of the Ecos. We have demonstrated repeatedly that we carry demons inside that when unleashed cause us to behave abhorrently. Even so, as Steven Pinker (2011) points out we have also emerged with a more highly developed eusocial tendency that has allowed us to reduce the levels of violence that our species lived with for so long. Civilization depends on socialization, the ability for individuals to cooperate with one another in order to achieve things that they could not on their own. And sociality has a biological basis.
Homo sapiens is at a nexus of evolutionary progress in which seemingly competing forces push and pull in so many directions. In particular we have crossed a threshold of consciousness such that we are aware of our own awareness. We can puzzle at our own experience of phenomenal experience. Moreover we can think about it and everything else in abstract language. We can communicate with one another through symbols; even our acts become symbolic. We are both sub- and consciously aware that others are conscious in the same way we are and so, from a deep level to the light of our conscious experience, we can feel and know what others feel and know by reflection onto ourselves. We are empathetic in ways no prior beast has ever been.
Our evolved moral sentimentality, the general behavioral rules of conduct we are compelled to recognize and judge in ourselves and others, has moved increasingly in a direction that compels us to feel a need to cooperate more than compete. We have evolved the capacity to form alliances beyond families and tribes. And we actively seek to do so in many situations. Cooperativity is at the heart of group success and reproductive fitness, hence has evolutionary appeal. However we need to always remember that this is a trait that is expressed “on average”; the range of expression or non-expression of the trait is still quite high. Unfortunately it seems that those who express the trait least tend to also take commanding positions in a culture of capitalism.
Beyond cooperativity we have evolved genuine emotional bonding, friendships and loves, that exceed the necessary levels for family life. Camaraderie, social clubs, and such involve deep personal attractions to others. We experience love of friends and have strong need of the esteem of others.
These are a few of the ways in which we humans have evolved to promote sociality as the primary route to evolutionary success. Unfortunately we carry yet a tremendous amount of biological history of competition (intra- and inter-species) for resources, mates, space, etc. And that hasn’t gone away. Evolution works by accretion and remolding any redundant facilities for new purposes. The brain’s structures reflect this clearly. The fact of our wonderful neocortex does not eliminate the need for or functions of the limbic centers. The prefrontal cortex does not obviate the need for the sensory, association, action loop of the rest of the cortex. We are an amalgam of old behaviors and more recently evolved ones. And the more recently evolved capabilities will necessarily not be in complete control. Ergo, we so often seem to suffer from dissociative identity disorder. We are literally many people in one. Some aggressive, mean. Others gentle and kind. Some of those personalities seem to prevail, others wither.
This makes us dangerous.
Even so, as Pinker (2011) points out, the better angels of our nature, generally come out when the conditions warrant. The problem is, and has always been, how do we make sure the conditions do warrant? How do we avoid conditions where our worst angels prevail?
The emergence of sapience gave animal life a foot into the door of sentient eusociality — the possibility for highly intelligent beings to achieve living together in harmony with one another and with the Ecos without becoming ant-like automatons in a rigid social structure. It provides a pathway for individual consciousness to abide without individualism causing us to resort to unfettered competition. We can form communities that exist in a steady-state flow of energy, sustained so long as that energy flows. Sapience amplifies one more attribute of cognition that emerged in primate evolution, the capacity to think about the future and about aspects of the environment that might not even seem to be relevant to one’s existence — strategic thinking.
It was a weak attribute, in the population on average, to begin with. And it was probably weakened further as a result of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Something that isn’t used in biology generally atrophies, both physiologically, and, over sufficient time, evolutionarily (think of the eyeless cave fishes). Today the vast majority of people do not think strategically, not even some of the smartest people. They can be very clever at addressing immediate problems, and devise ingenious short-term solutions, but fail to see the long-term consequences of those solutions.
Eusociality is what Edward Wilson (2012) had originally defined (for eusocial insects) as:
- Reproductive division of labor (with or without sterile castes)
- Overlapping generations
- Cooperative care of young
But more recently he has expanded the characteristics to include features that are common in species beyond the insect colonies such as the naked mole rats of Africa (see further discussion below).More recent thinking by social and evolutionary psychologists tends to apply the notion of eusociality to humans as well as a larger number on non-insect species. They hold that it varies in terms of mechanisms by which a stronger social network is constructed and maintained. But the end result is that individuals of the species have a compelling need to interact and cooperate with other individuals. In the case of humans this resulted originally in the tribal organization and more recently the larger scale of nation states. There is some doubt that the latter qualifies as a eusocial structure since regional and even local eusocial structures can often override the effects of the larger national structures. Nevertheless, the evidence that humans must operate in a eusocial structure in general is overwhelming.
Is it Possible to Imagine Future Evolution for Mankind?
Sometimes the answers are right in front of you but you don’t see them for lack of perspective!
I will argue that there are three basic conditions of human existence that portend what future, highly sapient humans might be like that will achieve truly sustainable eusociality. By sustainable I mean that the societies of these future humans will be able to live in balance with the Ecos and not generate the stress on the environment, nor use up natural resources in consumption that the current species of humans has achieved by its attempts to grow.
I’ve been reading two very interesting books with greatly overlapping subjects but examined from different perspectives. My method has been to interleave readings from each so as to compare and find the common themes. They are The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson (2012) and Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins by Ian Tattersall (2012). Both books cover the evolution of humans, essentially going back to the presumed last common ancestor of humans and chimps. Tattersall’s interests lay in the evolution of the tribal structure the progression of species phenotypic forms, their distribution geographically, and the cultures of early humans up to the current species. Wilson’s interest is in the development of social structures based on the biological basis of eusociality. Both examine how human intelligence and emotional aspects have evolved to strengthen the level of eusociality. Below I mention a third book that I had read some time ago, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy. de Waal studies great apes, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos. His observations of the differences in social order and dynamics between those two were interesting. In an earlier book, Our Inner Ape, he explored the relations between human social interactions and those of bonobos, but particularly the comparison of sexual behaviors between the latter and the former. Humans are more like bonobos in many aspects of sociality and sexuality, namely, the latter is somewhat decoupled from mere reproductive purposes. In humans the decoupling appears to be even more.
The three conditions I alluded to above emerged in my mind from these readings on the evolution of Homo sapiens. They are: Language and shared abstract thinking; Empathy, the sharing of feelings and emotions; and Pleurisexuality, the evolution of sex as a mechanism for sharing pleasure broadly between all members of a group, decoupled largely from its reproductive role.
The suggestion I am going to make is that humans currently are caught between opposing forces of evolutionarily older behaviors and these three that have been emerging in us. And that is what makes us neurotic. Ironically, the evolution of sapience, which is strongly linked to these three traits, created this dichotomous tension. It will take a further evolution of the strength of sapience which is the mental capacity to quell the more primitive influences and allow these mechanisms for increasing eusapience to dominate in future humans’ behaviors. The future of human evolution may involve significant increases in these, and, hopefully, will lead to far less neurosis. Wiser people will accept the reality of how cooperativity can be strengthened by biological factors.
Let’s take a closer look at these mechanisms.
Language and Abstract Thinking
In my working papers on sapience, in particular, The Evolution of Sapience I have made a link between the evolution of language facilities and the evolution of the hierarchical management system of the human brain and social structures, especially the aspect of strategic thinking (see also: Sapient Governance III – Strategic Management). In order for human groups to achieve strategic management there had to be a means of having very abstract concepts of time, place, and relations of other systems in the environment and sharing those concepts between members of the tribe. The mental facilities for having such abstractions represented in neural networks gave rise to the capacity of tool making that our ancestors developed. The capacity to share concepts through language made it possible to construct mental representations of complex relations very efficiently.
Since I have written extensively about these subjects in the above references series of working papers I will not recapitulate that work here. Instead I want to focus on the impact of language on sociality and increases in cooperativity. Our languages are evolving in sophistication as part of our cultural evolution. Everyone experiences the problems of semantics when several people are saying the same words but mean different things by them. People can argue about a subject simply by talking past one another. But in certain fields or disciplines there has emerged considerable refinement of what specific words mean and how they are to be used in constructing complex concepts. I speak, of course, of the various sciences where there has been increasing consensus regarding the meaning of words and sentences owing to the background of how those words are invented and used in the practice of science. This shows how language can contribute to increasing cooperation. Even scientists who are competing for grant money can agree on fundamentals and even cooperate in advancing the state of knowledge while seeming to be at each others’ throats for publication priority.
In most other areas of life we tend to do OK most of the time. But as anyone who has gotten into a marital or familial dispute, or for that matter any kind of emotional dispute with anyone else knows language can fail. You can swear you meant one thing by something you said, but the other is failing to understand the intent, or what you really meant. This is partly a result of the inherent ambiguity that resides in much of language, especially in more complex constructs like sentences. So the facility of language for day-to-day interactions is still not sufficiently developed to support ordinary cooperativity to the extent we can imagine is possible, given the example of scientific communications. Here what matters is the further evolution of the human mind’s capacity for more precise representation that comes with increasing capacity for systems thinking. From my writing on sapience you would find that both strategic and systems thinking are features of a comprehensive capacity to develop tacit knowledge of how the world, including other humans, works. Weakly developed systems thinking leads to fuzzy concepts and ambiguous meanings and that leads to ambiguous language skills.
The evolution of stronger sapience should lead to a better capacity to use language and actually understand one another. This has to lead to a higher capacity to achieve cooperation and solve problems (the right ones) cooperatively. It should lead to an ability to describe problems abstractly and still ensure the concepts are shared among members. It should allow members to share proposals and arguments for/against without talking past one another. There need not be any further evolution of the language facility itself, only an improvement in the mental representations that languages communicate. Much of this involves the representations of others’ minds and beliefs. A more sapient mind would not harbor misconceptions about what someone else means by a phrase or word. If there were to be doubt, the simple solution is to ask questions until the meaning became clear. A sapient mind would be able to recognize that clarity when it emerged.
Empathy is the capacity to similarly experience (feel) another individuals emotional states (affective empathy) and to recognize how that other must feel (cognitive empathy). At a conscious level we perceive that other person’s condition and think about it. Coupled with moral judgement, an individual may be strongly motivated to comfort someone in pain or congratulate someone who has just accomplished something great. In other words we behave in highly socially beneficial ways as a result of the interpersonal connection empathy provides us.
Between spoken language and “body” language it should be clear that we humans have a fantastic capacity for understanding what is going on in our fellow beings, often even when the other might be trying to hide it. There is something about our brains that is pushing us to become entrained in the inner life of our fellow beings. Neuroscience is starting to examine this phenomenon inside living brains.
There is a growing interest in a neuronal network system in the brain called mirror neurons. These neurons are involved in brain activities both when the individual performs an action and when that individual observes another individual performing the same or similar action. Thus the term ‘mirror’ It has been hypothesized that this neuronal subsystem is responsible for mental understanding of others’ actions and intentions and may be the basis for empathetic thinking. The scientific jury is still deliberating on these ideas. But it should be clear that there is something going on in neural networks that shows relatively narrow tuning of activity correlated with specific actions on the part of the actor and those observing the actor. My own suspicion is that mirror neurons are not directly responsible for encoding these actions, but rather are active as a result of the activation of specific mental models (in the neural medium) that entail the synchronized firing of a large network of representations of all of the relevant attributes of the action. Since most of those attributes are likely to be external to the actor, but observed and recorded as part of the action, when the actor observes these attributes applying as a different actor than themselves goes through the action, then it is not surprising that specific neurons, participating in that learned network, should differentially fire. In other words these so-called mirror neurons do not cause action-features learning but are merely an effect of that learning having occurred. In my own version of neural network coding this would be no different than what happens when we learn concepts. Concepts are encoded in relatively isolated networks that receive input from the various low-level features that constitute the attributes of the concept. See my working paper on The Neuroscience of Sapience. Search for the section titled: Representing Concepts in Neural Networks. In my view concepts are concepts, and everything that we encode, no matter what level of complexity, is simply a concept.
The important thing to recognize is that our brains are capable of seeing others go through actions that our own internal representations of us going through those same actions generate internal activations of the concept models and cause us to “virtually” experience them. There is no fundamental reason why this should not be true of emotionally-tagged actions, like making facial expressions relating to an emotional state, as well as simpler motor actions (where most of the work on mirror neurons has been done). This being the case we see that the brain has a built in mechanism for making strong emotional connections between individuals.
Humans have evolved the highest level of empathy of any mammal and any of the great apes (de Waal, 2009; Wilson, 2012). Wilson notes that empathy and altruistic tendencies are at the root of eusociality in humans. According to Wilson, et. al, these mental capacities were under very strong selective pressures during the rise of Homo sapiens. The nature of the selection mechanism is multi-level, but with the main emphasis on group selection wherein cooperation within a group led to more successful exploitation of the environment and thus more successful competition with other groups that sought the same resources. Given the emerging picture of humans as living in small tribal communities of hunter-gatherers that required large territories for support, it is not hard to picture this arrangement favoring mental development that promoted empathy and desires to help one’s fellow tribesperson.
In my working papers I describe the relations between moral sentiment and affect (see The Components of Sapience Explained). Empathy comes from our deep motivation to connect with and understand one another. It is biologically determined though it comes in different levels of strength. Narcissists, extreme libertarians, and extreme sociopaths may have very little, even no empathetic feelings for their fellow beings. Facultative care-givers, on the other hand, tend to be highly empathetic. Sufficiently strong empathetic feelings provide the motivation (desire and drive) to cooperate with our fellows. Empathetic feelings can promote communalism (as opposed to individualism) but is also at the root of the us-vs-them thinking that leads to between-group conflict. This is what is left over from our evolutionary past.
Nevertheless, we see that we humans have been able to expand the circle of what we mean by ‘we’. We did evolve a capacity to include those who we originally considered outsiders as members of our group. We’ve witnessed groups coalesce, nation states form, and so many other forms of strangers becoming neighbors if not brothers that leads us to think that empathy itself has been subject to positive selection and has thus increased as the world seemed to shrink.
In any case, it will have to evolve further so that the ‘them’ category shrinks to nothing. Sapience allows us to view strangers as potential allies and to think we understand what they are thinking and feeling. Eusapience must involve having strong empathetic feelings for everyone with whom an individual comes in contact. Increase in empathy increases the desire to cooperate for mutual benefit, necessary for eusociality to be dominant in a human species.
Warning: what follows may come as a shock or even as offensive to some readers. We take the subject of sex and sexual behaviors for granted. We assume that what we do now, in terms of things like marriage (pair bonding), courtship, etc. are normal behaviors for our species. That is why it has been so hard to shift the currents away from a strict social norm of heterosexuality to allow recognition of homosexuality as natural and allow that same-sex marriage should be recognized. That most recent shift in the currents shows that the truth will out! We need to reexamine our socially-constructed assumptions about the whole subject of sexuality. The evidence for a completely different understanding has been building and must now be examined anew.
Has it ever occurred to you that it is awfully strange that we humans are so obsessed with sex? With one known exception, we are the only mammals that engage in sex regardless of the ovulation state of the female. Other animals are not really obsessed with sex except in mating seasons. The exception is interesting. It is not really obsessed with sex either because it freely practices sexual behaviors with abandon. That is the animal that is thought to be our closest living relative, the Bonobo. (Pan paniscus) Bonobos, or pygmy chimps, use sex as a socializing way to reduce tension, minimize aggression, and, apparently, to just have fun. Moreover, the sex they practice is plurisexual, that is it can be homosexual, heterosexual, oral, and group. It has even been reported that a few bonobo brothers and sisters practiced incest though it is not known if pregnancies resulted. The only assumed taboo seems to be mothers do not have sex with adult sons. They even have sex with members of other tribes and do not seem to engage in the same kind of aggressions between groups that are common in the standard chimpanzees. These are animals in their natural habitat who have evolved the use of sex as a means to reach social harmony. And, to repeat, they are our closest cousins! We shared a common ancestor that may have very well been similarly pleurisexual.
Not only are humans obsessed with sex in what seems an unnatural, or at least an unhealthy way, they are obsessive about the sexual lives of their fellow humans. What week passes without blasting news stories about how some prominent politician or celebrity has been caught with their pants down (homo, hetero, or some combination thereof)? How much news time did Bill Clinton’s transgression against sexual norms take up, let alone the obsessions of the Republican members of congress? How much political energy has gone into the supposed moral questions revolving around same-sex marriage, or abortion, or sex education. As a species we are completely dominated by sexuality, our own as individuals, and that of everyone else around us. And it is a deeply conflicted obsession for many.
What is sexual deviance? There really isn’t a clear cut definition that, say, the psychology community can agree on. Pornography abounds because there is a massive audience for it. Homosexuality and bisexuality abound. Pedophilia abounds, apparently, even among classes of people who have sworn off sex. And what makes some people so obsessed with making sure others don’t practice what they consider deviant sex? Homophobia and the hate it generates are a case in point. Could it be that homophobes are simply suffering deep anxieties about their own sexuality? Might many people who are so vociferous about the evil of being gay are simply suffering from subconscious guilt at having found someone of their own sex, at sometime in their lives, attractive?
Put simply, human beings are caught in a struggle between two conflicting urges when it comes to sex. On the one hand we evolved, in our small tribes, to form pair bonds, males and females, long enough to rear offspring to the point they were autonomous, say ten to fifteen years (see below for the differences between us and bonobos). The bonding was not based on what we today call “love”, though it obviously includes many forms and levels of affection. It was simply the only practical arrangement. The way our species and their predecessors occupied the land, along with the need to nurture children for many years, mandated a certain amount of male-female affinity and group selection strengthened the tendency. Tribes were small and some evidence now suggests that the exchange of females for mating purposes were problematic given the territorial ranges and group separations that made contact between groups infrequent. Recent evidence based on deformities in skulls that resemble those that occur in inbred populations have suggested that incest may have been more common in early humans simply because our numbers were so few and groups were sparsely distributed in Southern Africa. Mating for extended time has always been a difficult but necessary behavioral trait. The real question is, does this mean mating for life is a biological given? The frequency of divorces in western societies suggests we should not assume it is.
What if our genes for sexual behavior are more bonobo-like than we would have imagined given our current cultural state of affairs. We all take this state of affairs (marriage being the primary sanctioned mode for sex and child bearing) as the biological norm, but if that were the case why all of the extra-marital affairs and high divorce rates? Prior to the agricultural revolution it is possible that humans were far more like bonobos with respect to sexuality than we see today. Exclusive mating for life may not have been our natural proclivity. It is useful while rearing children, but even today it is by no means a biological dictum. A large fraction of our fictional “stories” involve sexual treacheries as posed against a background of the assumed notion of marriage. The latter is actually a fairly recent social norm which I suspect arose more to reinforce the stability of the emerging agrarian-based states than as a natural biological function. How else do you explain the fact that we tell ourselves fairy tales of fidelity but practice infidelity, often on a whim. We are not just inconsistent. We are deeply conflicted. How many marriages end in divorce? How many end because of an infidelity? How many end because of a desire for a change? The numbers seem to make it clear that biologically-speaking, we are not a bond-for-life species.
Bonobos do not have the same problems that we have associated with child rearing, namely the long development periods for youngsters, that requires male-female pairing. Bonobos reach autonomy in just a few years. Plus they are born able to cling to their mother’s fur and have a certain amount of self-sufficiency from an early age. Mother bonobos are not as restricted from foraging and other necessary living behaviors as are human mothers during their children’s infancies. Human mothers, on the other hand, require more assistance from mates and extended family members (the grandmother hypothesis is illustrative). It is likely that pair-bonding for the duration of family rearing evolved in the genus Homo in response to the need for longer development periods for children. So various biological mechanisms, such as oxytocin release from kissing and fondling, as well as hidden ovulation and female willingness to have sex outside of an estrous cycle (heat in most mammals) evolved to reinforce male bonding to females for this purpose. But it does not mean that the possibly older proclivity for sex outside that bond was submerged or lost. In fact, the modern patterns of infidelity simply point to the fact that they were not. Humans are still easily tempted to have sexual liaisons outside of any pair bond and this is true for both males and females, though presumably in different proportions.
What if marriage and life-long pair bonding are merely recent cultural inventions that do not conform to our basic biology but reflect an imposed belief thought needed to pacify males and maintain the social order. What if our current turmoil roiling around our sexual proclivities is just the exposure of our basic biological nature attempting to break out of this artificial enclosure. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, the apparent freedom with which teenagers today “hook up”, the rising number of pregnancies out of wedlock, and the rising numbers of non-married co-occupying couples in Western societies may be telling us something about ourselves to which we might want to pay attention.
Let’s suppose another theory. Suppose that humans really are not biologically predestined to heterosexual, pair-bonding for life unions. What if we are inherently much more like bonobos than we imagined? It would certainly help explain an awful lot about our obsessions and mental conflicts. On the one hand we have invented a social construct called marriage seeking social stability through nuclear families extending for the lives of the partners. On the other we are deeply inclined to enjoy sex for its own sake as a way of forming many different kinds of interpersonal bonds (and I am not talking about anonymous one-night stands here). Is it possible that we are simply witnessing the results of this conflict between a social norm, invented as a response to the settled lifestyle of agrarian societies, and a biological proclivity, evolved to enhance social cohesiveness. The current human species is, indeed, caught in a tragic nexus of evolutionary forces if this is so.
On the other hand, suppose that along with an increase in empathetic consciousness and refinements in our language capacity to share knowledge we also evolved a greater capacity to use sexuality in the same way the bonobos do. What if the proclivities we see in humans today are simply part of the on-going emergence of greater plurisexuality that would allow people to enjoy one another’s company in infinitely more intimate and physically rewarding ways with no hang-ups whatsoever? What if everybody were capable of loving everybody else without jealousy or persecution or coercion? And in light of a higher level of sapience people were wise enough to use this gift to achieve greater social cohesion and cooperation?
The current human species lives in a hell of sexual tensions that exhaust our energies and provoke behaviors that are inhumane. Bonobos do not live thusly. The argument that the future evolution of humans will once again be dependent on strong socialization both within and between groups may very well favor plurisexuality as a norm in behavior because of its potential to strengthen the bonds of caring between individuals.
An additional benefit of evolution in this direction is the near complete uncoupling of sex from reproduction that might be achieved. Sex for fun and stabilizing relations has been at the heart of the movement promoting birth control. People today want to be able to have as much sex as they desire without suffering the consequences of unwanted pregnancies. If we accept that this is just one more indication that we share some propensities with bonobos regarding the use of sex for social bonding then the question is why shouldn’t it run to the (bio)logical conclusion that sex need not be about procreation as a primary function. Indeed, this possibility may be a solution to the problem of population control. Imagine a eusapient society in which children were conceived on purpose and only when the group deemed it appropriate, i.e. to replace those that had died. At such times the role of pair-bonding for purposes of child rearing might prove to contribute to the fitness of the species. Parents could bond for the time it takes to rear a single offspring, perhaps not with the ferocious singularity that our practices promote, but with a genuine fondness for each other as they share the work of bringing up a child. This offers the potential for controlling population size and with that the opening into maintaining a sustainable society in balance with nature.
How a eusapient society might decide on who should be eligible for procreation is another opportunity for a process I have called social selection, the practice that we already are seeing in our species of making semi-conscious decisions about who should mate with whom. Some societies have long practiced arranged marriages within classes or castes. In this manner, parents and society are conspiring to produce the ‘best’ offspring based on social criteria. So our species is already behaviorally practicing social selection now (and no one calls it eugenics!). A future eusapient species might couple the notion of population control with the desire for the best outcome of matings by choosing those individuals that are among the best of their kind. By uncoupling sexual attraction from determining mating pairs, the society is free to pursue such a program that ensures that every child that is born is highly likely to be a good ‘specimen’! It is an opportunity.
The Evolution of Eusociality in Humans
Social selection coupled with population size control as described above puts humans squarely within the definition of eusociality that Wilson put forth. In other eusocial animals reproductive rights are given up by all classes but one in order to ensure that work gets done and the presumed genetic continuity of the group. This is described as altruism (though of a purely mechanical sort) and had been believed to be the basis of eusociality evolution (see Wikipedia: Altruism, Evolutionary Explanation). It is certainly true that some form of reproductive rights relinquishing among members of a group is found in eusocial groups. For example in wild dogs the alpha female will kill any other pups not her own in her pack, reserving the right to be the principle reproducer for the pack until she is too old, killed, or taken down by some of her rivals. In humans everybody has babies, or at least is not particularly prevented from doing so, with the possible exception of eunuchs. With social selection and limitations on when and who gets to reproduce it is altogether possible that this will act as a similar mechanism to what we see in other eusocial animals which would then reinforce the further selection for eusociality in the future.
We are already highly social. We already evolved to be eusocial-like if not eusocial in fact. But there is something yet missing. Still, too much of our interactions are based on competition where cooperation might actually be better for us and our world. Think of the difference between capitalism as currently practiced, based as it is on the an unconstrained profit motive, and non-profit organizations (including some ordinary businesses) that seek only to produce a product or service that helps society and sells that only at cost. The latter are generally not operating on cut-throat principles. Consider a world in which all social organizations operated on the principles of cooperation and through higher sapiences wise coordination. Imagine if people develop superior communications and thinking skills to help facilitate cooperation. Imagine if people can strongly feel what their fellow beings are feeling and are motivated to use that understanding to help one another. Imagine if people so enjoy one another’s company by being freely loving as they feel to be that they carry those feelings of warmth into all aspects of life. Would those people not lead happier lives? Would they not be potentially more productive of the things they really need to live?
According to group selection theory, groups succeeded because of intra-group cooperation and coordination (by the wise elders). Inter-group competition was a result of the standard evolutionary principle that all life will attempt to expand (grow) if not constrained by higher-order coordination mechanisms (e.g. hierarchical controls that keep cells from growing beyond a certain size or individuals from doing the same). A growing number of groups, due to a growing population, had to compete for limited resources. But if everyone in the species is part of the same group (just as every cell in your body — micro-biota and parasites excluded — are part of the same body) and that group (population) is under regulations against unconstrained growth, then the further evolution of the species depends on exogenous factors and social selection to adapt to those factors. We don’t need to compete with other members of our species to survive and evolution depends on how our gene pool adapts to the larger world as it changes.
I’m not a believer in omega points or singularities as final targets of the evolutionary process. I have stated that my belief is that as long as there is excess free energy available and flowing through a system, that system will continue to evolve toward higher organization. Thus it is unlikely that we could say what a final configuration for life, including what kind of species humans might “end up as”, but what I have argued here is that it might be possible to get a glimpse of what the next step along the path might look like. I’m not making predictions but casting out a possible scenario. Luck may yet be the deciding factor. There could be a planet-killer asteroid with Earth’s name written on it. Nevertheless, if we really claim to be even minimally sapient and sentient and understanding of evolution, do we not owe it to ourselves to consider the possibilities for the future. And if we see something that seems like progress toward a more harmonious Ecos (the kind that existed before humans broke the symmetry) should we not actively pursue the path implied?
I’m sure many readers will continue to adhere to the conventional wisdom that the loss of fossil fuel energy and climate change (the double whammy) will reduce mankind to his Olduvai status. Others will remain convinced that humans will go extinct, plain and simple (and should by some reckoning). But others may see the possibilities of which I have written. Maybe they don’t quite agree with some of my more unconventional suggestions (e.g. pluerisexuality) but basically hold out an optimistic view for the future of mankind, that is, a new kind of mankind. For those I ask, what might you do to help nudge us into that future? My standard opinion is that learning and practicing permaculture (and possibly some hunter-gatherer ways) and helping others who seem to be aware of the real state of the world learn these skills will certainly contribute to there being some future population for selection to work on. Knowing how to find the basics of life will become far more valuable in the long run than purely intellectual understanding of what the future might be.
For my own part, however, I think the intellectual aspects of life are important and necessary in the long run. The knowledge we have worked so hard to gain cannot just be tossed away as so much garbage. We worked too hard to get it. And we paid a dear price for it. Therefore I continue to work on ideas for compressing and encapsulating knowledge of systems science in such a way that it will be preserved long into the future against a day when humans may emerge from more primitive technologies to a new, more wise, exploration of nature and science. Some of you may have heard about recent advances in encoding and retrieving text in DNA molecules which is something I had been considering for a while now. DNA is a highly stable molecule even in its natural state (especially when bound in protective proteins and RNAs in chromosomes). We can now design molecular structures that further enhance that stability making it theoretically possible to store DNA encoded knowledge for many thousands of years. What I envision is a compressed form of “seed” knowledge encoded much like a self-extracting application file such that under the right conditions the language of systems science will unfold to enhance the intuitive systems thinking that eusapient beings would possess.
Look. At my age it is OK to tinker and dream about good possibilities, and hope that I stay in the realm of feasibility! Perhaps my kind readers will provide corrective feedback when I venture too far outside that realm. We can’t break any laws of nature, but we sure can have an impact on how those laws shape the future.
 Nihilism as a philosophical position rejects this notion, holding that life really is meaningless, the result of mere chance. Often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, (but sometimes wrongly attributed to him as a proponent – his thoughts on the matter were quite complex) who famously said “God is dead.” He saw those that adopted a nihilistic view had lost faith in a theistic god who, according to most religious views, but particularly Christianity, was the origin of morality and meaning. For those who mistakenly conceived of evolution as a purely random process — the prevailing concept at the time — there was no alternative but to think the evolution of human life a totally pointless, purely chance happening. While nihilism got some purchase as a philosophical perspective it also resulted in many people who succumbed to the notion falling into depression and despair, giving the common perception of nihilists as gloomy types. Today we would recognize this as a psychological problem. It would be hard to say whether people who are prone to clinical depression are prone to falling into the sway of nihilism, or people who start following the logical path of nihilism simply are led to the obsessive state that triggers depression is unknown. Perhaps its both. In any case, a strong belief in nihilistic ideas is seen as a sickness of mind. The majority of people cling to religious beliefs in order to avoid the conundrum entirely. A few of us look for meaning in the patterns of evolution that definitely show it to be progressive.
 Another term that may have bearing on the understanding of evolution is Earnst Mayr’s use of teleomatic to describe ‘automatic’ process that seem to have a purpose or end goal. I have been writing about what I call auto-organization as part of a larger view of evolution. Auto-organization deals with the way that entities (from quarks to people to galaxies) form interactive associations (networks) through forces and/or flows (by chance of proximity) that then are tested by whatever environmental competitive forces pertain. Stable, strongly coupled interactions persist in that kind of selection while weaker interactions are disrupted returning the components to the pool of potential interactors. When the interactions persist a new larger entity emerges from the process. In my view a distinction between teleonomic and teleomatic serves to describe certain details, but I consider the latter as a sub-category of the former. A universal principle of evolution involves chance interactions (e.g. phenotypic variations) being tested for stability by the embedding environment (e.g. selection). With aging the most fit entities are those that do persist. Biological evolution merely adds the mechanism of reproduction of the pattern (genotype) to amplify the process but is not fundamentally different.
 From the Wikipedia article about Pinker’s (2011) book:
The phrase “the better angels of our nature” stems from the last words of Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Pinker uses the phrase as a metaphor reflecting four specific human traits: self-control, empathy, morality, and reason.
 This is not a term currently in the dictionary! It is a word I invented to be descriptive of the nature of the form of sexuality as seems to be the case for humans and bonobos.
 Autism, for example, is one of a number of mental deficiencies in which normal emotional connecting is not occurring.
 The term paraphilia refers to what many would consider sexual deviant behaviors, of many kinds. However different cultures at different times have stricter or looser definitions of what is included under this term. That human beings as biological creatures even have to name and define a term like this is indicative of deep mental conflicts.
 Another interesting aspect of bonobo society is that the females tend to be the more dominant sex with respect to group governance. I don’t suppose anyone has noticed that in our species women are emerging as having more power in this regard. I suspect that stronger female influence and plurisexuality are linked biologically but this is just speculation at this stage.
Catton, W. R. (2009). Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Xlibris Corporation.
de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy, Harmony Books, New York.
Marean, C.W. (2010). “When the Sea Saved Humanity”, Scientific American 303, 54 – 61
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking, New York.
Potter, V. R. (1971). Bioethics: Bridge to the Future, Prentice-Hall, New York.
Tattersall, I. (2012). Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.
Wilson, E.O. (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.
For a larger bibliographic selection of books on consciousness, evolution of mind, and other related topics see Bibliography
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything in February 2013
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February 10, 2013
Survival of the Fittest
A number of commentators have, over the last few years, expressed a belief that humans will most likely go extinct at their own hands. Or at very least they will revert to primitive behaviors (usually characterized as brutish) coming through a bottleneck by going back to caveman mentalities and actions. These sentiments are certainly understandable from the standpoint that this is the only experience our kind has known as we climbed up from savagery to become domesticated and “civilized.” But this thinking misses some important aspects of the evolution of more intelligent species. In the face of an almost certain collapse of civilization and the prospects of a bottleneck event we might easily think this will propel us backward. But this ignores what has actually happened in previous extinction/bottleneck events. I’ve been interested in the question of why birds and mammals did so much better during and after the extinction event, 65 million years ago, in terms of survival (as compared with the dinosaurs). Both groups enjoyed a rapid adaptive radiation of species subsequently to give rise to the age of mammals and birds as the dominant mega fauna. Something is going on here that is counter-intuitive. It is a key to claiming that a new bottleneck event for humans might not result in the outcomes so many have expressed as logical. I expect something more promising and I’ll tell you why.
The dinosaurs, except for birds, a sub-clade of saurischian dinosaurs, did not survive on Earth. How is it that mammals and many birds did? Of course millions of species and thousands of genera lower in the phylogenetic tree survived as well even though millions more went extinct. The basic rule of evolution is that the fittest organisms (species) will differentially survive and procreate, thus out competing the less fit. But fitness is in reference to the conditions of the environment and econiche of the species. The Earth’s hydro and atmospheres have always been in flux. The continents have always been shifting. The local ecologies have always been changing, sometimes rapidly, more often slowly. The more rapid changes are the ones that stress species and provide the major differentiating forces that do the selecting. And then some species are more able to operate under the changed conditions and compete against rivals for the niches available more successfully. Homo sapiens was just such a species, for example out competing the Neanderthals until as recently as 13,000 years before the present, when the latter appear to have died out.
The End-Cretaceous Event appears to have been a fairly abrupt one by geological and climatological standards. The prevailing current hypothesis holds that the event was triggered by an asteroid of sufficient mass slamming into the Yucatan around 65 mybp. Recent evidence adds strength to this hypothesis. The cataclysm had global effect, what we would call a nuclear winter-like phenomenon that so severely altered Earth’s climate that the food sources for the dinosaurs died back dramatically and hence the dinosaurs were no longer fit. Selection did the rest.
There are, actually, still many missing pieces of this puzzle. The universality of dinosaurian extinction, except for the bird clade, would seem to require more explanation than this asteroid impact scenario can convincingly supply. There are competing or at least supplemental hypotheses. Many species of mammals and birds also went extinct. But no dinosaurs other than birds survived. Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain this phenomenon as well. Among them have been the general average sizes of birds and mammals (at the time there were no mammalian megafauna to speak of since all of the large animal econiches were occupied by dinosaurs), which were much smaller than the average dinosaur and that size difference plus metabolic energetics (e.g. body temperature maintenance) gave smaller birds and mammals an advantage (somehow). Other hypotheses involve the fact that most mammals, at the time, were burrowers so might have been protected from the harsher aspects of the climate changes.
Two Major Evolutionary Inventions
All of these hypotheses may work as explanations for mechanisms that helped provide some kinds of fitness to some species. And all of them may help explain a little piece of the phenomena. But there is another possibility that would be more universal for the bird clade and mammals that hinges on two completely new attributes for both groups. One of those explanations hinges on the increased capabilities of brains to process complex models of the environment, a competency shown by both birds and mammals but currently believed to not be the case for non-avian dinosaurs. The other is a more subtle competency that is just now gaining a greater understanding in the theory of evolution and that is the recognition of evolvability as a factor in the resilience of a species in the face of environmental stresses. I have mentioned this phenomenon in other posts.
The first factor involves an animals’s behavior to be based more on learned relations with the environment than on instincts. We are still learning about the learning and conceptualizing capacity of birds (see: bird intelligence) but it now appears that many types have much higher cognitive abilities than we had assumed. The mammalian brain is evolved to rely on learning and memory as a major factor in shaping behavior. The cerebral cortex is greatly expanded over what we find in modern reptiles. From studies of dinosaurian brain cases (endocasts) it appears that some dinosaurs may have been evolving more cortex which would suggest they were becoming more intelligent than the general reptiles. But the avian line had already evolved a much larger cortex by the time of the End-Cretaceous event. Aside from flight and generally smaller sizes, what demarks the avian sub-clade is their ability to learn and remember.
The earliest mammals were already showing this expansion of cortex and learning ability. They were likely quite adaptive having to contend with the dominant dinosaurian clade kept them on their toes, so to speak. The key to resilience in both birds and mammals depended on their ability to learn and adapt to changing conditions within broader limits than the dinosaurs and all other genera.
Learning and adaptation, however, were not sufficient to deal with the kinds of radical changes that must have come with the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg, formerly called the K-T for Cretaceous-Tertiary) event. Increased cortical processing power was an initial step in the right direction but too many biological constraints would prevent specific animals from changing their behaviors too much. For example most birds and mammals have a limited range of foods that they can take advantage of. Nevertheless many species show an ability to eat a wider range of foods as compared, for example with fish or reptiles.
But another much less appreciated or understood aspect of evolution has been at work for a long time to help living systems become much more resilient than they would have been under a strictly neo-Darwinian scheme, i.e. random mutation of protein coding genes and natural selection. Evolvability is a property of a species to generate variations that are, in a sense, potentially pre-adaptive. That is, they can increase the rate of mutations, especially in selective genes, that increases the possibilities of advantageous results. This math works best for large population sizes or populations that are growing rapidly. There have to be many more individuals being conceived so that the increased mutation rate doesn’t swamp the fitness of the species. This is because, as most people know, mutations are more often deleterious than helpful. There has to be an ability to “waste” individuals that end up with destructive mutations.
On the other hand, the promotion of mutations in selective genes may not actually produce a preponderance of harmful mutations. There are classes of proteins, the targets of genetic codes, that are able to take on many alternate sequences of amino acids without overly changing their basic functions. Indeed some new sequences may bestow completely new functions for the proteins without necessarily diminishing their potency in their primary functions. It seems that there are a large number of genes that are accompanied by DNA segments that “promote” mutations in those genes, perhaps by some kind of epigenetic mechanism. Those DNA segments may be triggered into action by environmental stressors that work through second and tertiary messengers to alter an epigenetic factor such as methylation of that segment. This is all still speculative in terms of exact mechanics, but the logic is beginning to look solid.
Evolvability increases the likelihood of finding a viable genotype/phenotype representative (or actually a small subpopulation of them) quickly in a search of variation space. It is a quick turning on of a higher mutation rate but with a higher probability of producing adaptive variants. Clearly, such a mechanism would be advantageous to the possessors in times of high stress. It turns out that many clear bottleneck events, where the number of individuals is drastically reduced during a radical environmental change, may be explained by the possession of higher evolvability by the species involved.
Evolvability has been evolving. It was actually recognized in a primitive form in bacteria that could adapt to restrictions on nutrients that they had evolved to require in their environments. Deprived of a key nutrient that they could not normally manufacture, but where the precursor components were available, evolved into a population that gained the ability to synthesize the needed nutrient. Not much work had been done on exploring this phenomenon in multicellular organisms as it was barely understood in simple bacteria. But recent developments in understanding the nature of the genetic expression control network of DNA that was previously thought to be “junk” have revived an interest in this. Finding the epigenetic mechanisms along with small RNA molecules that modulate various stages of gene expression, from transcription to interfering with protein construction at the ribosomes (even acting as enzymes — ribozymes — to control proteins directly) in development (see: Evolutionary Development) as well as in response to stresses has opened up some new possibilities. It has given us some attractive ways to explain many curious phenomena in evolution, such as punctuated equilibria. The key is to recognize that mutations do not just affect protein-coding genes but can affect the DNA in the control network as well. Mutations in, for example, a gene expression regulator (see especially: functions of non-coding DNA) could cause a radical but non-lethal change in morphology, the “hopeful monsters” theory of sudden changes in species.
We now have a pretty clear picture of evolution of these control networks even though we haven’t yet worked out the details of control. The human genome project really opened everyone’s eyes. The question was how could the most complex and intelligent being on the planet have fewer coding genes than animals and plants lower on the phylogenetic tree (only between 20 and 25k protein coding segments)? The answer is that it isn’t the number of different proteins that are in the phenotype, but rather the way in which those building blocks and enzymes are used in different tissues, the timing of when they are expressed during development and so on. In other words what makes animals more complex is variations in the control of gene expression. For example my own hypothesis regarding the development of larger Brodmann area 10 patches in human brain evolution, leading to sapience (or presapience) involves some subtle changes in when and for how long certain genes that lead to bigger BA10 as well as possibly changing the cytology of the patch resulted from probably few mutations in the DNA involved in controlling the expression of important genes in brain development.
Now evolvability has more opportunity than just promoting key genes to mutate. It can work by promoting mutations in the control circuitry as well, leading to many more possibilities in generated variation. It turns out that birds and mammals enjoyed an explosion of the use of control circuits in DNA meaning that they might have had this greater advantage compared with the dinosaurs. We can’t know what sort of control networks in DNA the dinosaurs sported. But if there is a relation between the extent to which control networks generate greater evolvability in birds and mammals as compared with dinosaurs and the degree to which the brains of the former two groups had exceeded the latter, then we might have a possible answer to why the former survived and the latter didn’t. Birds and mammals were actually poised to deal with the cataclysm of the K-Pg event both in terms of greater behavioral adaptability and evolutionary adaptability. The latter did not require the millions of years we ordinarily associate with evolution. Higher evolvability and resulting saltation would have rapidly produced variants that were more fit. Furthermore, as conditions settled down from the worst just after the event, these mechanisms could explain rapid evolution to fill the developing econiches in adaptive radiation.
And that brings me to considerations for humanity’s future going into a likely bottleneck event of our own making. As the understanding of EvoDevo and the human genome deepens it seems the evidence points ever more strongly toward the idea that we are a super-evolvable species! We have actually seen rapid evolutionary developments in the human species over the past 20- to 100 thousand years of our existence. I’ve written elsewhere about these so will not dwell on it. The bottom line is that the future of humans may not be as bleak as the more common beliefs would have it.
First consider that the natural variation in our populations for traits such as intelligence and sapience is already pretty high. Humans have been under mental stress since the invention of agriculture, which means what evolvability we have has already been at work for at least 10k years. There are some in our very midst who are pre-adapted for the kind of radical changes we expect to see before long. And they haven’t been sitting idle waiting for the worst to hit. There are many people who seem to me to have higher than average sapience who are already considering what they have to do to survive and thrive even in the nightmare scenarios we’ve come to expect. Also, it is not likely that they are going to expose their plans so you may never hear of them!
I fully expect that a race of highly sapient individuals will go into and emerge from the bottleneck and provide the seed for a new species (or even more than one!) of eusapients someday. Earth isn’t over. Nor is sentient life on this planet. Life evolved for more than 3½ billion years and as it did, it learned a few handy tricks from a wide variety of past cataclysms. Evolvability has improved over that time. I feel pretty comfortable with letting nature takes its course in the future. It isn’t over for the planet and it isn’t over for the naked ape.
February 07, 2013
Over the last month I have received over a dozen e-mails from readers who have noticed an up tick in the number of articles and editorials appearing in the main stream media about the possibility of a truly apocalyptic end to global civilization. The sentiment of the e-mails is something like: if the MSM is running these stories/editorials is it possible that it is because even they are starting to see that things really are getting dangerous? I too have noticed what seems to be more articles that at least address the possibility that our consumptive growing society might have sown the seeds of its own destruction. Even the rah-rah Tom Friedman has warned that there may be trouble afoot in the climate arena (but of course he holds onto his techno-cornucopian vision that “E-Tech” will save us if only we get cracking on investment in research.
Even the recent spate of oil and natural gas cornucopian views that flooded the papers and air waves a few months ago are starting to give way to articles and talking heads questioning that perspective. They are even asking some of the right questions, like, if there is this flood of oil from shale coming on the market, why does the price of oil remain stubbornly above $90 per barrel and fluctuates up from there? I have even seen a few articles pointing out that shale gas and tight oil wells have a very early and steep decline rate compared with other wells suggesting that the total volume of fuels being extracted will not come near the estimates made earlier. This is indeed a remarkable sign. Not because it gives us hope that maybe the public will wake up if the media start putting these stories out there, but because, as one reader put it, “…maybe it is because its gotten so bad that they can no longer ignore it.” Another reader, voicing a similar sentiment, went on to ask,“When they get it doesn’t it mean that it is already too late?”
Almost all of the readers asked the same question. “Does this mean the end is near?” If the MSM gets it sufficiently to start putting out the stories, doesn’t that mean its so bad that there really is nothing we can do?
My reply is simple. Yes, but… The “end” should not be thought of as an abrupt event, like falling of the “fiscal cliff” was portrayed. The end just means we’ve passed the peak (of oil, income growth, you name it) and we’re starting down the decline slope. No one really knows how steep that slope is. Indeed we can’t rule out coming to a real cliff if climate change forces us into a new attractor basin (like in catastrophe theory). But from my perspective we have long ago passed the peak of progress and development and the end has already started. It is just that it is now really getting noticeable (e.g. Hurricane Sandy’s effects opened a lot of eyes). Hardly anybody noticed the beginning of the end of technological, high powered civilization. I didn’t.
During the decade when I think the overall peak occurred I was getting enamored with microcomputers and real-time control as well as deepening my understanding of systems science and evolution theory. I was captivated by the progress of science and our understanding of how things worked. So it didn’t occur to me that there were signs I was missing. As a younger man, as an undergraduate in biology, I had paid attention to Rachel Carson and Paul Erhlich as well as some other “doomsday” writers. And I could see the logic of exponential growth coming to an end with consequences. That is why, later, when I got a chance to work in the solar energy field I jumped in with both feet guilty of believing that it would be a techno-fix for the energy problem. I got distracted, however, by the exciting times with the birth of microcomputers and later the availability of personal computers. It was truly a candy store for me. The earlier sense of potential disaster waned. Careers and family supplanted my fears. Besides, Ronald Reagan said it was morning in America! Those were heady days. But that is exactly the kind of phenomenon you will see at the peak. By definition the peak is the top!
And then the signs did start to become clear. Population numbers were still climbing exponentially and the shock of realizing how we had gone from a couple of billion people to four billion in such a short time started me thinking again. I started paying attention again in the mid 90′s and started connecting a lot of dots. Since that time I have paid not so much attention to events as to trends and rates of change, the dynamics of the world. How fast is water becoming a problem? How fast are soils degrading? How fast are we putting CO2 into the atmosphere? How fast are we depleting our fossil fuels? And, of course, what are the consequences of adding (subtracting) that next increment of degradation? Then there was the economy. It was not behaving as economists said it should. Globalization was turning on Americans viciously. Bubbles were forming and bursting at increasing rates. When 2009 rolled around I couldn’t say I had predicted the Great Recession, because I really didn’t know much about sub prime mortgages and other weirdo financial instruments that had fooled us all with smoke and mirrors, but it didn’t take long to recognize the basic underlying forces that actually burst our giant financial bubble. I had studied peak oil and energy return on investment. I already had a pretty clear idea that energy was the real currency of the economy and that money was just a surrogate token representing real work – or should have been. Understanding the financial implosion as the result of declining EROI and the peak of conventional oil production was quite easy. Yet almost no economists and certainly no politicians (or most citizens for that matter) can even imagine what that means. They are still trying to explain the phenomena using already discredited economic models.
And then I looked back in time to see if I could detect the onset of the precedent conditions. And it was clear that from the late 1970s on, we were starting down the slope of civilization decline. We are now at the stage where we are noticing the acceleration.
I’m not really making a prediction here, but it seems to me likely that 2013 will turn out to be the year more people notice it and important people start to admit we have a problem. Obama has already indicated, in his second inaugural address, that he wants to tackle climate change. Well great. Nice to have the company in recognizing the problem. But once he starts getting a real education in the dynamics of the situation he will inevitably realize that it is too late to stop climate change and it is even too late to do anything meaningful in the way of a national response to adaptation. Horse out of the barn already, Mr. President. But nice sentiments. Now, may I suggest you take a really hard look at energy too? At some point he will finally realize that all of the standard thoughts about having our kind of civilization are for naught. Can’t be done.
The future belongs to small, adaptive communities that can either adopt a settled permaculture, or take to nomadic lifestyles, possibly going back to hunter-gather regimes. In any event the key idea is adaptability. Resilience and learning from experience. Ultimately the wise will inherent the earth.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on Septemeber 29, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
Regardless of Who Wins
As I write it looks like Obama will get a second term and a second chance to do the right things.
But the reality (as I see it) for this race is the tragicomedy that neither candidate is promising to do anything that would actually work. For one thing, given the political divisions that exist in the legislature it won’t really matter much even if they try to do anything. But more cogently, what either candidate claims to want to do is simply not physically feasible. Both say they want to get the economy growing again. They want to increase jobs. Obama, to his political credit, even lays out some specific actions he would like to undertake to implement his desires. Romney only says he has a plan. As far as I know no one has actually found anything in the Romney campaign rhetoric that resembles an actual plan.
Obama has had four years of experience now. He probably has a better idea of what a president can and cannot do. His proposals for economic fixes are pretty tepid, actually, but that is likely because he realizes that anything bolder is simply infeasible. Romney, on the other hand, has no real idea what to expect. Nor does he have advisers that have any real inkling of what a president can do. This is so typical of American election campaigns and despite the fact that most Americans recognize this fallacy, they still act like the election is important. They still cling to an old ideal that probably never was true but still holds appeal. The president is something like a king — the head of state. S/he ought to be able to get things done.
And exactly what does anybody think can be done even if the president were like a king? Liberal economic pundits like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich are demanding Keynesian heroics claiming it worked once before so it should work again. I understand their sentiments. They care deeply that there are people hurting by not having jobs and the income distributions have become unfairly slanted to the wealthy. They are liberals after all. But we should not confuse their desires with intellectual prowess. Believing that, “all other things being equal”, what worked before should work again is not the same as a careful, intelligent analysis of the whole systemic situation now that would reveal just how all things are not equal. We are in an entirely new physical regimen when it comes to the fuel for economies.
Conservatives still push on the same tired agendas, lower taxes and regulations and reduce the deficit by decreasing the size (and functions) of government. They conveniently forget that it was a few of their champions (like Ronald Reagan) that did pretty much the opposite when they had the chance. Republicans (the kind running the party today) never let facts get in the way of a good ideological story.
The liberals cling to the notion that a growing economy will benefit all as long as government sees to it that tax laws are fair and regulations of commerce and over the environment are handled properly. So they cling to growth as a fix all. Conservatives, likewise, hold the same position with respect to the goodness of growth, but only since a growing economy will reward those stalwarts who risked their capital to produce that wealth more than the interchangeable part of the economic machine we call workers.
This is a true tragicomedy. The foibles of either party will result in efforts to go against the laws of nature, wasting who knows what little wealth we might still have. Either one will make us all hugely poorer even while they are trying to make us (or some of us) richer. You have to laugh at their bungling but you have to cry at the outcomes.
What we might do is compare possible scenarios for each of the candidates regarding what they would actually try to do. A lot depends on the ideological mix in the House and the Senate, of course.
If Romney Wins
Romney’s position has been that if government gets out of the way of business then the businesses will invest and start growing, thus hiring more workers. So he would presumably try to reduce taxes on business and reduce regulations that burden business. Suppose for a moment that the Senate swings to the Republican side, and, in fact, gets a large enough majority to bust a filibuster move by the Democrats to block any Romney-sponsored legislation (tit-for-tat guys). Would moves to reduce taxes and regulations while simultaneously decreasing the deficit (and debt) actually work?
Lets consider the idea that by improving (in his mind) the climate for business that those businesses would invest in new plant and equipment (or offices in the US) and start hiring people. Where will the businesses get the capital to invest. Currently the meme floating around is that businesses are sitting on heaps of cash because they are uncertain where things are going. They are not using that cash to invest but if government gets off their backs they will do so. For this we need to ask ourselves if this is really true. Are businesses sitting on cash because of government-generated uncertainty? While there is evidence that this idea holds some merit for small businesses, particularly with respect to the complexities of tax code (not the tax rates per se) the majority of uncertainty in the minds of business managers is with regard to not understanding where their customers are going to come from and, for that matter, where the kind of skilled workers they need will come from. You don’t build product on hopes that there will be customers with money to spend and you don’t invest in automation unless you know you have the kinds of skilled workers to run it and maintain it (see: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/3038-small-business-capital.html). There is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of sales because the global economy is in the dumps. China, the great hope for growth, is slowing down (and may actually be slower than they self-report). And as I have argued consistently the global downturn is due to declining net energy available for economic activity. This decline is seen in the increasing costs in fossil fuels, especially oil. Since oil is the basis for the vast majority of our transportation systems the increased costs will show up in inflation in all sorts of goods and services. Those costs will propagate throughout the economy and are seen especially easily in food and transportation fuel costs.
Romney’s thesis is flawed. He doesn’t really understand that it isn’t government per se that is in the way of business, it is costs to do business that is the problem. And those costs have been consistently rising. Back in the day it was possible in the short run to compensate for inflation by borrowing short-term capital and rolling the interest forward. Companies did this under the belief that they could eventually catch up and pay back the debt with excess profits in the future. The problem is, and we are all starting to grasp this, is that the future they imagined never came. Today they are reticent to borrow and banks have become reticent to loan because the real uncertainty is in the likelihood that some grand day when we resume producing vast amounts of real (not financial instrument) wealth will come is the only thing growing.
But, if Romney wins and was able to get some of his proposals through (he could by fiat reduce the effectiveness of the EPA, for example) would that do more harm than good? In my opinion the rate at which things are going downhill would probably overcome the economic system before he or Congress could actually get anything through. In fact I can easily imagine that by the end of a Romney administration’s first term there will be massive revolts and mayhem from people fed up with any form of government. He would be either voted out or find himself in a worst case scenario having to declare martial law. Physically determined events, not a Romney presidency will determine just how bad things might get.
If Obama Wins
I really think Obama believes the economists and bankers who convinced him to hire Geithner and Summers, et al. He buys into neoclassical economics and probably does believe the Keynesian’s version. Therefore he may try to implement some kind of stimulus beyond the quantitative easing the Fed has put in place. Rather than print money (that is the Fed’s job now) he will try to take the country deeper into debt to invest in infrastructure repair. He’ll want to repair the roads and bridges used by transportation vehicles that will eventually be parked permanently for the cost of fuels. What a waste.
He will probably try to do something about wage disparities. He may try to increase the taxes on the rich and reduce them on the middle class and poor. Good luck with that. He may try to invest more in alternative energies and clean coal. But that is because he hasn’t, apparently, ever taken a physics class and his main science and energy advisers are too chicken or too self-possessed to explain to him what the real problem is.
He just might have the courage to speak to the American public about the kinds of sacrifices they will have to make (as he alluded to in his inaugural address less than four years ago). But his notion of sacrifices is modeled on those made by American citizens during WWII. Yes Americans were will to sacrifice their creature comforts in support of the war. But they also assumed the war would one day end and they would get back to business at home. They had just come off of a Great Depression so the acceptance of some sacrifice probably wasn’t foreign to their minds. Modern day Americans are incredibly spoiled. But even if they were to accept that message it would be in the same vein as accepting sacrifices during the war — they would be temporary inconveniences while we built back our massive economic engine and revved it up. One day, all will believe, we’ll get back on track consuming the s**t out of stuff and living merrily ever after. Our kids will have a better life than did we.
But, of course, it is merely a sad hope. There are fundamental physical reasons why humanity is now in permanent contraction. That will go not only for economic activity (the kind that actually produces assets of use) but for the population itself. Modern food production and health care require substantial levels of energy flow, which, until very recently, was coming in increasing amounts from fossil fuel extraction. That is no longer the case. Food prices and medical costs will continue to rise until the average person can simply no longer afford them. Already the movement toward home gardening is showing a sensitivity to the trend. Unfortunately it is nearly impossible for the average suburban (and definitely the urban) home to produce enough food for year-round consumption, let alone supplying all needed nutrition during just the summer-fall months.
I now see Obama as an empty suit. He is a smart rhetorician but he is ignorant, perhaps as much as Romney is, of basic physical laws and the facts that tell us where things are really going. I’m not even sure he is particularly intellectual and a critical thinker. You would think that after so many failed attempts to buoy the economy by financial manipulations he would be asking fundamental questions. Instead he claims that it would have been so much worse if his programs (bailing out the auto industry and banks, for example) hadn’t been implemented. Of course he has absolutely no way to verify such a claim, but hey, this is about getting reelected not scientific verification of hypotheses.
The fact of the matter is that all a president can or should do at this point is to tell the truth about our physical reality. He (or, if ever she) has a moral duty to inform the citizenry as to their actual options. Right now, however, we seem to have two candidates for the office who either do not know the truth or are willing to pose the big lie just so they can get elected. Not knowing the truth means that person is ignorant. We are talking about real science, but it isn’t rocket science. Understanding the simple relationship between net energy and economic activity (and growth) does not require a PhD in physics. But it does require dropping ideological biases that blind one to the reality.
As I look at either candidate’s positions on the economy and energy it seems clear enough that Romney is completely and profoundly ignorant. It is an ignorance imposed on him by his ideology (or more likely his adopted ideology of the right wing, as I suspect he is a hollow man). He is ignorant both of the problems that come from unbridled economic growth and the role of energy in providing economic activity. He and his ilk live in la-la land. Obama, on the other hand has access to a greater amount of factual information about net energy and its relation to the economy, though he is ignorant of the reality of alternative energy as a scalable source of power. Where he is more deeply ignorant, apparently, is his persistent belief that a growth economy is the only viable way for humans to live in the world.
The two also differ in their notions of how economic wealth should be distributed among the citizens. This may be the most important difference as the economic pie continues to shrink in the future. As the shrinkage began in the early 70s we began to see an earnest application of old principles of rewards going to the already wealthy and the burden of declining total wealth going to those already low in the economic strata. As the total wealth declined, the pressure for those in power to open more pathways for the already rich to get richer increased resulting in abandoning many forms of commerce and financial regulations as well as turning to off-shoring jobs to lower priced labor markets to protect profits. Today we have a global house of cards in which the money supply is no longer representing the real physical wealth it ought to be able to purchase. It is just created out of thin air to make it seem that things are almost OK. They are not OK in any sense, but the average person doesn’t understand this. Apparently, however, neither does the average candidate for president.
By not telling the people of the world the truth about the end of growth and the onset of decline, and explaining to them why this is happening, the leaders of the governments of the world are essentially saying that people do not have the right to know. They do not have the right to consider how they should plan their own futures in light of decline. The big problem with this position is that there will be a point in time when the truth of decline becomes clear to all even though they will not know why (i.e., that it is everyone’s fault for demanding a consumer lifestyle, so no one group or person should be blamed solely) and they will react very badly. The damage from not telling the whole story as soon as possible will be far worse, I think, then continuing to pretend (or believe) that things will get better one day and we can all be happy again. Those who are now maintaining the façade will quickly be seen as the perpetrators and the masses, to the extent they have the energy to do so, will turn on them mercilessly. And since those who are in the so-called 1% category have only wealth on paper, and since that paper will become worthless in the blink of an eye, they will not be able to hire armies to protect them. They will discover that their smoke and mirror tricks for creating that supposed wealth will backfire on them.
Everyone in the world will be increasingly poor as the years go by. The rate of decline is still in debate, but there are really no more deeply thoughtful people who don’t understand that we are in decline. There are many bright people who remain hopeful, and even optimistic. But I think they are driven by personality traits rather than intellectual reasoning to maintain that position (though some are extremely good at using their intellects to rationalize their optimism!). Over the past five years I have seen one after another hopeful optimist realize that all of their optimism hinged on the notion that somehow the leaders would see the truth and we would all get on board with programs to save society. But the rates of decline are catching up. Weather anomalies from global warming/climate change becoming the norm and economic decay spreading and accelerating are overwhelming that optimism.
No leader of any country or under any kind of governance philosophy can do anything to change physical reality. So long as net energy is trending downward economic activity will follow. Nothing short of a technological miracle could alter this. And that would require a scientific breakthrough of an incredibly serendipitous kind; one that could be followed by rapid exploitation and adoption. And it would pretty much have to ‘fund’ itself. That is it would have to bootstrap up to scale in a very short period of time (decades), Contrast that with the situation with, say, solar energy, which requires an existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure to underwrite its manufacture, distribution, and maintenance. No. The leaders of nations today are powerless to do anything that will make it better. The only thing they can do, honestly, is tell people the truth. And what are the odds of that happening?
 Natural gas price is currently depressed due to a glut owing to the well performance of non-conventional (fracked) wells in shale formations. It is now becoming clear that while these wells tend to produce an initially higher production rate than conventional wells, that the nature of the shale gas is such that production falls off more rapidly and the total production per more expensive well drilled is lower. That is, these wells have a significantly lower EROI and in addition, not all wells are going to perform all that well. This means we are likely to see a rapid decline in gas stocks as there will be fewer and fewer wells performing at economic flows.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on August 28th, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
How to Teach Math — Abolish Math Courses!
A Sunday (July 29) New York Times opinion piece started me thinking about something I have often wondered about. Why are so many college students turned off on mathematics? The article’s title was provocative: “Is Algebra Necessary?” The author, Andrew Hacker is an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York and author of the book, “How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It”. Well, that certainly got my attention.
Here is the gist. Our system of education forces all students (K-12) to take math courses and expects all students to complete some level of algebra. Algebra is considered the minimum level of math competency for college and we (society) have decided that essentially everyone is supposed to go to college. Even students in the humanities are expected to master some level of algebra. But here is the problem: Algebra turns most students off! Surprise, surprise.
Therein is the rub. Turn the students off because you are forcing them to learn something that purports to be a subject onto itself with the lame excuse that they will need it later (and, of course later never comes) or because it will help them think analytically/quantitatively (without explaining why that is important, or even what it is!) and you have lost them. I claim, unnecessarily.
Right now our country is in a panic. Fewer American students are choosing science and engineering as careers and they are doing more poorly on standardized math exams than kids from many other countries. We’re in a panic because we hold firm to the idea that we have to compete with other countries economically. It is important, supposedly, to be number one when it comes to technology and science. And god forbid we fall behind in producing Nobel laureates (even if most of our prior laureates were actually foreign born!) Calls from politicians, business leaders, and social commentators (like Tom Friedman) extol us to knuckle down and do a better job in teaching kids math and science. The problem is that once we have turned kids off on math, we’ve lost them in science and engineering too. We are caught in a vicious cycle where we force feed more math only to make kids dislike it more and then we can only think to push it harder.
Hacker’s article claims that kids don’t need algebra. Indeed, they don’t need most formal mathematics as taught in standalone courses. He argues, and I agree with him, that forcing kids to take such courses actually works to turn them off to school more generally and learning as a self-directed, internally motivated process. In short we are killing our education system by forcing kids to take really dry courses that are de-motivating and mentally numbing for the vast majority. There are certainly math-oriented individuals who like the topic as a topic and will go on to major in math as a subject onto itself. But these are rare persons. Most kids are not interested in memorizing the quadratic equation.
They are, however, intensely interested in relations! How does this relate to that? They are actually capable of thinking algebraically if given a chance to pursue that thinking in a motivating context.
What is Math Good For?
There have been a number of studies now that show that the vast majority of people, in their jobs, never actually use anything as sophisticated as algebra — explicitly. On the other hand almost everyone deals with relations and functions of variables to one degree or another. Anyone who has to convert proportions (e.g. in resizing a recipe) is faced with a simple form of algebraic relation.
Math is fundamental to measuring and transforming things. We all use it in one form or another, usually without realizing it. And all too often people face situations where they have to consider things like relative rates of change in processes that matter to them.In other words, math beyond arithmetic can be highly relevant. We just don’t teach it that way.
We teach rules and axioms. We expect students to memorize facts that they will never explicitly use again in their lives. And in that process we turn them away from the very thing we dearly want them to learn. Talk about shooting one’s self in the foot. It is true that math is foundational in the sense that our modern world operates on principles that can only be expressed meaningfully through mathematics. OK. So it is not unreasonable that children and young adults grasp the basics in order to function in this world and contribute to it. Even though calculators will do the arithmetic (I still think it is useful to teach arithmetic at an early age) the decisions about which operations to use, in what order, and on what variables, etc. is the kind of skill they need to develop. And it turns out many people do develop some rudimentary capabilities when their livelihoods depend on it.
Kids are born curious. They are born with the drive to find out why things are the way they are. They want to know how things relate to one another and what causes this and that to happen. They will naturally wonder “how much?” and “when?” and always “why?”. Our school system methodically beats that natural tendency out of them. By the time I see them in college they are programmed well to simply want to know what do they have to memorize to get a good grade in this course. Forget curiosity. Forget a drive to understand. The one thing they have been taught to understand is that in this system the GPA is the coin of the realm and their job is to maximize that quantity (see they are thinking mathematically even in spite of the system). I find myself agreeing with Hacker. We are killing the very thing we want to cultivate in the minds of our kids. We have to look at this whole thing with new eyes.
Many More Students Could be Scientists!
Many and perhaps most kids are natural born scientists. Anyone who has observed fourth graders on a field trip knows this is true. What happens then to kids as they grow older and get more schooling? The answer is that we are systematically squashing that natural curiosity and pounding any interest in understanding relations out of their minds with the way we go about schooling them.
There will always be students who by virtue of their superior intellects and indomitable curiosity will rise above the beating they get from schools. Such students will do well in math and science. They will go on to become engineers and scientists in spite of school, not because of it. But, unfortunately, there are so many more who are more fragile and are too easily intimidated by our overbearing force of subjects onto their minds. These kids are actually potentially capable of being scientist and engineers with something more nurturing than what our school system offers. They need to be allowed to mature at their own natural rate. And they need to see themselves as being able to consider problems from their own understanding rather than being told they need to memorize formulas. These are the vast majority. They do not need to be force fed mathematics to appreciate the natural world. They can learn mathematics in the context of their understanding that natural world.
And that is why I say abolish math courses! They do not really advance our objectives in having children and young adults understand the world. They intimidate kids. They stultify curiosity. Math is not a subject unto itself (unless you wish to become a theoretical mathematician!). It is a language for thinking about and expressing how the world works. It is really no different from spoken languages except that it is generally more precise. Once appreciated, the rules of relations in nature can become as natural to thinking as syntax is to natural languages.
The solution is to teach science better. By that I mean expose kids at an early age to the natural world with emphasis on how things relate to one another. Start exposing them to systems thinking early and reinforce it in every subject they take, even art and language classes. Start providing them with developmental stage-appropriate challenges, especially problems that can be studied and answered by a small group of peers. Let them discover the barriers to coming up with solutions that only some kind of math will get over. Let them puzzle on it for a while and then provide guidance with some examples of similar problems. If they are motivated because they really want to meet the challenge they will readily learn the math as a consequence of wanting to solve the bigger problem .
I became convinced of this approach while watching some seventh and eighth graders working with Lego robots to perform certain challenging tasks. These robots are an excellent exploratory environment for kids to try out ideas (hypothesize and experiment) and discovering how a little algebra can get the job done. The challenges involve multiple sensor inputs, light (with color values), touch, sonar readings, etc. The mobile robots have to perform some task such as following a black line on a white field while avoiding objects. This requires that their programs get varying values from the sensors and determine the significance of the values, especially relative to one another (for this age the programming environment is very friendly, a visual drag-and-drop construction tool kit). In other words they have to construct functions that produce motor output results in the proper fashion. Kids who wouldn’t know an algebraic formula from their behinds are able to work out the relations and even come up with multiplicative factors that put variables in the proper scales. They naturally need some guidance to get started but they are soon working with these formulas and even trying variations and new formulas if they think they can improve a behavior.
The sciences, and I do mean all of the sciences not just the natural kind, are full of mathematical challenges that could provide the framework for learning math. Put the math where it belongs and let the kids have fun exploring the world they want desperately to know about. Stop teaching mathematics as a required subject in grade, middle, and high school. Embed math in the subjects they will take as the language they need to understand in order to communicate within that subject.
It is possible that by high school there will be some students who show a natural ability and interest in math as a subject. So there should be options in courses that resemble those now taught for these students to go further with formal mathematics. Quite possibly these are future math majors at the universities. There will always be a few who find pleasure in math just for its own sake and they should be given the opportunity to pursue that as well. They will be our future mathematicians and we need a few of them to work on pure math.
But the vast majority of students will only find interest in math if it is seen to serve a useful purpose for them. They need to experience math as part of a general problem solving process directed at challenges that truly interest them. This can extend to college as well. Students who take introductory sciences (e.g. Biology 101) should be exposed to more advanced algebra and even some calculus. They can be explicitly exposed to statistics when they do experiments, collect data, and then have to answer questions about the phenomenon they just witnessed. Ask a biology class to determine how much energy flows through a given ecosystem, first yearly, then monthly, then daily, then in minutes, etc. By doing this, exposing them to the notion of sample rates at smaller and smaller scales you’ve just started them down the road to understanding limits and infinitesimals. College level science courses (and many other subjects as well) could be designed to have a math learning skeleton upon which the flesh of the subject is hung. In other words the course designs would start with an outline of the mathematics that the community of educators agreed should be learned in the context of the subject. The professor’s job becomes one of fashioning the subject content into challenges that are guaranteed to expose the need for those maths and then be ready to aid the students as they work through what techniques they need and how to use them. It is possible that an introductory science course might end up taking a whole year (2 semesters or 3 quarters) to complete because math is being taught within the context of the subject. So what? Students will learn both the math and the science much better as a result of learning them together in the context of solving complex challenging problems. It will take a different kind of professor than you typically see today (which is why this will never be adopted I suppose). The professor’s job is to design problem-based curricula and act as a guide and mentor rather than a lecturing fount of all knowledge. I personally know a few professors who would be hard pressed to play that role. After all it is actually pretty easy to simply prepare lectures and grade assignments.
In our current paradigm we expect students to take the necessary math courses as prerequisites to taking the science courses. We expect them to have retained the math and be able to apply it as appropriate to the kinds of domain-specific problems the professor assigns. In other words, learn the math first, then take the science. We believe that is more efficient. Unfortunately you will hear many professors complain that the students are simply not prepared for the subject because they don’t know the relevant math. It is easy to blame the high schools for failing to teach them what they need to know to be successful in the science courses. What no one seems able to see or understand is that the failure comes from the way we go about teaching math as a standalone subject. Even when a math text attempts to motivate a word problem with an example from “real life” it fails because as far as the student is concerned it isn’t real. It is not the students. It is not the difficulty of the subject per se. It is the way we teach it that is the problem.
If we want to have more kids solidly learn math and science (and engineering) then we had better get our act together and stop beating them up with the subjects the way we are now. Of course it isn’t just the math and sciences education that has to be radically reformed. The whole K-12 education system is based on efficiently moving kids through a system designed to produce worker bees. Then we all complain that kids can’t think when they get out. For years reformers have been beating around the edges of true reform. They have been trying to fix things by tweaking the existing school system, curriculum, and pedagogy but never really taking a systems approach to designing a system that will truly educate. The proposal to abandon math courses and embed math within other subjects is a little more than a tweak. And as such it will buck the established system and thus be untenable. Moreover there is the problem of finding good science teachers who could actually pull this off. This is especially true at the K-12 level but, as I alluded to above, is also problematic at the college level. The kind of teaching that is called for is hard, highly skilled work. Perhaps if society recognized this they would agree to pay teachers more and thus attract those qualified people. Oh wait. I forgot, society is comprised of people who were schooled in the current paradigm! They are not likely to see the value in their children really learning because for the most part they never experienced it themselves. Another vicious cycle.
 It is true that learning math within a specific context has some problems with respect to transference to other situations where the same math would be applicable. We humans do have a tendency to not be able to naturally abstract or decontextualize instances of an exemplar. Kids could learn how to use a second-order polynomial function in one situation and completely fail to recognize how it might apply in a different setting. For example the exponential growth function is found applicable in so many different settings. If kids were to learn it in, say, a population biology setting, they might not recognize it use in an economics setting. But this is why I insist that systems science and thinking be taught everywhere. Once someone becomes more proficient in systems thinking it becomes much easier to use math abstractions in a variety of settings.
 And this extends to not just subjects that have science in their names, e.g. computer science, but to professional school subjects like business, social work, etc.