The world is a big place, and depending on where you look things are getting both better and worse. Through science humans have learnt to have all kinds of incredible powers, yet you might stop short of saying we have control over our environment. We have access to knowledge like never before, but wisdom is another thing again. I’ve been reading (or listening to) a lot of big picture books lately, and I’ve been focusing on history and biology as it relates to psychology and the brain. This has been really interesting and while a lot has confirmed beliefs or knowledge I’ve had for a long time, some has made me think about things in a different way.
In terms of history we are living in exciting times, with unprecedented technological advances alongside profound and irreversible changes to the environment. While it can at times be overwhelming, many years ago I decided that I really needed to get out there and see what I could while I can. The risk of inaction is too great – with climate change and mass extinction alongside habitat loss and resource depletion, regions potentially being cut off by political changes and war, and a personal situation that can always change overnight, as we are not (yet) immortal.
A fundamental concern for most of us is self preservation, which these days means job security and material wealth. I’ve been brought up to be cynical of material wealth and also to be resourceful so I’ve always had a strong reserve of savings that I draw very little from with my style of travelling. Having savings and knowing that I can live on next to nothing takes away any pressure to succeed in my job, which in turn means I have stronger negotiation power. I’ve only ever owned one car in my life and it cost under $1000 (I also had a motorbike for some years). Less stress of ownership and not worth throwing money at, but as functional as any other car. When it was finally involved in a crash (my friend was rear ended), I got my money back. I’m known for having gear which is completely worn out, and having the cheapest stuff, but it fulfills the purpose. Rather than go out and buy the gear for the next fitness fad, I extend my range step by step and I do without gear more often than not.
Another fundamental is the need to relate to fellow humans, which includes competitive asset acquisition as well as the desire to share and help others. Travelling with a wing and “dropping out of the sky” offers an authentic experience, and genuine interactions with locals can make for some special experiences. But usually I’m alone and through technology I keep a record of my adventures so I can share it later. Dad started the habit of writing a diary to remember trips. Complex language and storytelling is perhaps the most important unique attribute that separates us from animals and multiplies the benefit we can obtain from every precious experience.
Writing this in 2019 after the Australian election, I’m motivated to put a few thoughts together based on my thoughts and the books I’ve read. The human brain has a tendency to create a story (it’s known as causality) to explain the world. Indeed when I was at school I made sure to put everything I was taught into context and test it against things I already knew, as I find it impossible to remember isolated facts and figures and they are meaningless unless you appreciate the context. Richard Feynman, a brilliant physicist with a great sense of humour, tells of despair when he would reframe a question to his students, experts in their field, and they would not realise that they actually should have known exactly what he was talking about! It really does take a genius like him to properly understand concepts – generally we are very easily distracted. I highly recommend his book, Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman, or simply search for his wisdom on youtube.
Stories are great for storing and passing down information, but they do lead us to develop biases. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman studies these biases and makes you question the way our institutions and societies function. Climate change is one of the most frustrating issues today, with so much evidence from so many different disciplines, and consensus among scientists, governments, business, bankers, and economists, but the coal lobby still remains the dominant force in Australian politics. Even if you ignore the environmental issues entirely it seems that facts do not matter – we’ll go with coal even if it costs us more. The party that dared address the issues with policies lost, and the presidential style winner had nothing to say but “economy economy economy” and similar meaningless statements besides a negative scare campaign. Psychology’s first trick in the book – appeal to emotion.
Behave is a book that studies the biology of humans and asks what drives their behaviour. The author Robert Sapolsky is both a neuroscientist and a primatologist. The recurring theme behind this book is that biology is complex – there are two amazing stories in a podcast with Joe Rogan which illustrate that point. But one thing which is quite clear, and affirms beliefs I’ve held for decades, is that environment shapes us. I’ve always strongly thought of social problems and crime as something we need to address as a society, not by appealing to individuals. The function of prisons is to isolate us from danger, and to punish. But there are only some crimes where punishment is an effective deterrent, as I learnt when interviewing a lawyer for a high school assignment. It is not effective for crimes of passion, where actions are not rational – but is desperately needed for financial crimes where there is a real incentive to do the wrong thing!
Jordan Peterson is another psychologist who has some interesting things to say which are often based on biology and data. Most of our DNA is shared with most other animals, and there are many biological traits we share. This justifies his comparisons with lobsters forming hierarchical structures, and many of the other topics he discusses have a basis in well accepted scientific evidence. However, I do think that there is a danger in trying to fit everything into a neat little well contained ideological box, which I think Jordan Peterson does do to an extent, particularly when he looks to religion to map out his meaning. In the Australian Q&A appearance I felt that each question fell back onto a scripted answer (he has been doing this a long time, it’s only natural), and I actually felt there was another on the panel who was more responsive and in the moment – you can decide for yourself. (Note, when I checked the comments, I thought maybe the commenters have the same problem, falling back on their well established ideological beliefs? I suppose we all do.)
He is right to decide that the foundation of morality is deciding on our values. It is interesting to distill the differences between progressive (care, fairness, liberty) and conservative (loyalty, authority, sanctity). But let’s not forget that individuals are only one part of the picture here – humans are only competitive among other animal species because of our ability to function effectively in large numbers – that collectively, we are smart. At least for periods of history – a millennium ago, the intellectual centre of the world was in Iraq. And for most places in most of history, there has been very little development, and we have not been so smart – science has changed the world in the last centuries more than anything else. A nurse I know from Oregon likes to say to his patients, “Now, would you like me to take you to the church? Or the hospital?” I like to remind him that without religion, we would not have science, as religion has enabled mass large scale cooperation that has enabled specialisation. Science has brought us incredible power, but individuals remain fallible. From a study quoted in Behave, in Australian elections five year old children were able to pick the winning candidate based on a photo and “who would you want as captain on your ship?”
On the development of civilisations let’s turn to Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. This is a study of comparative history between different cultures, comparing why one civilisation triumphed over another. I love history and again weaving it into a story just makes it more interesting than “one damned fact after another”. The main point of this book is again that we are shaped by environment, providing that over time the ebbs and flows of culture specific tendencies is averaged out as successful cultures replace less successful ones. This is a reminder to us to acknowledge that there is some degree of luck in us being born in the right environment at the right time. His latest book Upheaval is based on the theme that, to an extent, countries dealing with a crisis can be compared with individuals dealing with a crisis, and there are some parallels that we can learn from by listening to trauma psychologists. But what I really like about these books is that it isn’t pure ideology – it is based on detailed case studies of nine different countries, and even if you don’t buy the story you can learn something about history.
Big picture history is intertwined with human psychology. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, identifies the human ability to believe in fiction as the defining characteristic of our species. Not only do I enjoy the message and the history, but I also love the way it introduces a new way of thinking. Now I think of apes behind the controls when I see cars driving on the highway or planes flying overhead. And we’re all motivated by something quite imaginary – money, or perceived status within the group. Whatever it is, has led us to develop technologically at an increasing rate leaving traditional problems (famine, disease, war) behind. The closing sentence of that book, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
The sequel Homo Deus ponders these questions also, and expands on the idea of happiness. Australians are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but does that mean they’re content? The left says many of us are living under the poverty line, the right votes with the economy (at least in theory) consistently as the priority. It seems in both cases money is the bottom line. But psychologically it is not wealth that brings happiness, rather it’s a fleeting emotion based on changes to your fortune, before your expectations again match with reality. When in Colorado a friend remarked about the inverse relationship between murder and suicide. When you are poor and struggling to survive, stress can lead to conflict, and low socio-economic status and poorer countries are associated with higher murder rates. But if life is easy, you start to lose a sense of purpose: “more people die from obesity than from starvation; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed in war”.
I used to worry about war, a deep existential unease. The first audible book I downloaded was The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan. History books reassure me that life goes on – the broader context of human struggles helps put things in perspective. Kurzgesagt captures this in ten minutes. But of course with the rapid change we see today you cannot justify the notion that everything will always be the same. Historians have reminded us that while we can learn from history, there is often an unpredictable element. But again I like to hear a broader perspective which explains events, and even if it is not just, it is somewhat comforting. A Middle Eastern leader writes to Congress saying surely you realise Clinton’s decision to drop bombs is simply a distraction from the Lewinsky issue – and we make the same mistakes time and time again. Perhaps it is masochistic – one of my favourite lines is about the continued mismanagement of the Middle East. “What happened next, was a disaster!”
The Other Side of History, a series of lectures about life in antiquity by Robert Garland, is also quite comforting. A normalisation of the human experience, from one tragedy to the next. At work the other day someone suggested that we can all agree that killing babies is wrong, but can we? Some tribal cultures practiced infanticide as part of maintaining a responsible sustainable population, the ancient Greeks left malformed babies out in the elements (one ancient Greek wrote that he could not blame his disability on anyone but his parents, and he’d wished that he’d never been born). Some of our struggles today seem superficial in comparison, but we adapt to circumstances. In the end our attitudes are the most important.
Some of the most inspirational stories I’ve heard are those in the two books by Norman Doidge. Back in a time when medicine subscribed to the Descartes theory of body and mind, neuroplasticity differed in treating them as one and the same. With a belief that the grey matter is configurable “fire together, wire together”, these guys developed creative ways of rehabilitating patients with strange conditions that other doctors could not treat. An example is that in spastic patients with a painfully contracted muscle tendon, the traditional treatment was to cut the tendon, rather than use completely non-invasive brain training techniques to help retrain the nerves to properly control what was a perfectly healthy muscle and tendon. So it has been throughout history… as medical knowledge advances not only through careful analysis of data, but also from some great new ideas.
So we have different perspectives as knowledge and culture evolve. And sometimes, they do not evolve fast enough, and if another culture has a competitive advantage, it over time may dominate… but certainly there’s no guarantees. There is a human tendency to return back to religion and ideology, as seen today with self help books and all kinds of identity based groups filling the void left as the influence of the church wanes in the west. It’s interesting to ponder whether influencers such as Alan Jones or Tony Abbott, who outright reject climate science, believe in their own bullshit. I think that often, they probably do – humans have an amazing ability to rationalise anything, the will to write a story around the facts is such an innate part of us.
When I read a newspaper I cannot think about what I’m reading without also thinking about who wrote it and why. Yesterday I repeatedly asked for sources to substantiate an online argument, in the end I only got one, which was a blog from a google search, written by someone on the internet. The flimsy nature of the evidence confirms my feeling that individual action is not sufficient to solve these problems and we need institutions and government. You can talk about individual responsibility and choices but the average person doesn’t even change their power retailer to the cheaper company. A minute later, I found a similar article from the ABC saying “in every state except Victoria, you’re producing less emission by driving an electric car charged from the grid, than by driving a combustion-powered car”, compared to his blog which quoted 292 CO2/km for Australia vs the petrol 182 (ABC). Keep in mind the ABC has been audited for political bias (and found to be conservatively biased – obviously, they would be scared to go the other way). Another way of looking at it – you might suspect Labor has better climate policy simply because there was strong bias against them from Murdoch press (which is pro-coal). Of course, the ABC is facing cuts from the (Murdoch) government…
Ideology is a convenient weapon for maintaining political power, but wars are won on finance (or the ability to have people believe in your money). One of my favourite takes on history is Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, which looks at financial instruments over the past thousand years and more. For better and for worse, they have shaped society and decided wars and our history. Recently I watched a long interview with Niall in which he spent much of the time complaining about the left. I would have liked to hear more evidence in his arguments though, as again the themes seemed quite ideological (his comments on communism reminded me of my high school history teacher and the “red under the bed”).
As for Lenin, the other angle mentioned in Sapiens is that many of his ideas were adopted by western democracies, as empowering the masses was the key to unleashing the productive talents of a well educated population in the last century.
My problem with ideology is the same as my problem with religion. Instead of engaging and critically evaluating each issue, everything is moulded into an existing structure of beliefs. This is a natural temptation in congruence with how we are biologically wired, but we do have the ability to do more. Religion is a great respite for those who do not want to think for themselves, but a better approach is evidence based policy. The real world is complex and not everything can be explained in three word slogans. As Jared Diamond says, it’s not practical or ethical to conduct large scale human experiments, but we can learn by comparing different approaches and the impact of environment over the course of history. The simplicity of many of these theories is appealing but as Richard Feynman says, “if it disagrees with experiment…. it’s WRONG!”.
These days a dominant ideology clash is between left and right. Due to the natural human tendency to form groups, and the self amplifying us and them nature of social media (see CGP Grey explain this here), it can be hard to have a civilised discussion. But as far as government is concerned, however bad yours is, there are other countries in the world that are worse, and really that is the defining characteristic behind the success of your nation – both for engaging people productively, and for minimising corruption, and most importantly for avoiding war. Governments are risk averse and slow to make changes but they cannot experiment like the private industry as they have a high degree of accountability. The truth is that most businesses fail and many successful ones have a lot owing to luck. Look at Google, their approach is to try several products, some are successful, some are dropped after some years. History unfolds in unexpected ways and some things go viral. My view is that any monopoly asset must be controlled by the government, and they must also fund the pursuit of impartial information which businesses can then use. Compare the ABC (national broadcaster) with the Murdoch media which needs to benefit special interests to survive financially. The private sector is suited for industries which can be made more efficient through competition. But a private monopoly is certainly no more efficient than a public one.
Without good information, democracy is pointless. Instead of investing in a better future, we have legacy industries spending money on psychologists and advertising. Just spent some time on the internet and you will see that the majority of people don’t have the time or motivation to evaluate facts effectively. The left wing says the government should do it. The right wing says it is up to the individual, and that the way to approach it is to accept the world as it is, and learn how to manipulate it to your advantage. The left, typically more affluent and urban, becomes depressed as disadvantaged groups lose out to unethical industry. The acceptance of the oppressed right actually makes them happier. It was interesting to see the mine adjacent to Adani, and BHP both announced their intention to divest away from coal after the outcome of the election. Is it harsh to say, as a friend from the Red Cross once did, “You get the government you deserve”?
How does all this relate to flying?
- Flying has taken me all over the world, and to places “off the beaten track” where I can see things with fresh eyes. Travel prompts one to think about how and why things are different and what’s cultural and what is universal. So besides being brought up to think of putting on someone else’s shoes, I have also had the opportunity to do it, a lot, and this has made me conscientious of issues that affect society.
- If only we could make better decisions, we could all be a lot better off. Structurally we need to look after each other – educating women is the best thing we can do for the environment, as people with security and access to opportunities have less children. Someone once told me that war is needed to control overpopulation but look at the numbers and you will see it has the opposite effect. Studying psychological biases and neuroscience helps us understand not only society, but our flying decisions.
- Vol bivouac is mostly a solo pursuit and audio books have been the perfect companion. I pick the longer books, some of which are a distilled version of a lifetime of experiences from experts in their fields. I often listen to chapters again, which has the interesting side effect of triggering memories of where I was when I first listened to it.
- Finally seeing all the beauty in nature and seeing what can be lost so quickly it makes you want to be able to share it with others, and to keep as much of it as we can.
In short, humans are great and not so great, and in the end it makes a good story. I hope you have the time to enjoy some of the books I’ve been reading.
Or if you’ve had enough of humans, you could instead read about birds!