Human civilization is obsessed with growth, but our relentless pursuit of it might be the problem of the century, and it could easily break us completely.
Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist of repute, both excellent and controversial. After leaving Evergreen College last year, Bret and his equally evolutionary-biologist wife Heather Heying have been spending their time writing and speaking about a plethora of scientific and socially-relevant topics. They have appeared in interviews, including Joe Rogan’s podcast, panel discussions, and Bret has a patreon, discussing various evolutionary, social and psychological questions such as “Is being humble a virtue?” or “Why do plants make medicine?”
So when Virtual Futures advertised the intriguingly-titled event “Harnessing Evolution – with Bret Weinstein”, I hopped on a train to London to see exactly what this event was all about. Virtual Futures is itself a fascinating organisation which pits the prospect of human progress against the dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies. To those who are, like me, relatively unaware of Bret’s work or research interests, I was unsure what the evening was going to be about, and Twitter seemed to concur with my feelings.
The event took place in an old warehouse space that felt more like a ski lodge: warm, cosy, pervasively woody. Heather and Bret arrived early, and attendees and speakers struck up conversations on politics, science, and education. Luke Robert Mason, the director of Virtual Futures, introduced Bret and declared that the role of Virtual Futures is to cast a critical eye over human and non-human interactions with emerging technologies. Bret’s thesis for the evening was a captivating and terrifying one: human beings are obsessed with growth, but growth is like a rocket, and if we don’t let go, we might just explode in the ascent.
Global population has expanded wildly out of control, and our economic systems reward growth and punish decline. Part of our evolutionary programming also desires growth (e.g. creating a family, seeking resources), so we rationalise away our increasing developments and production. Growth is comparable to other global problems, such as climate change, plastic waste, or meat production. We know it’s a problem, but we also know we’d rather not think about or deal with it because it’s exceedingly difficult to fix.
However, I was struck by how little I’d even thought about the problem of growth as a whole – overpopulation sure, but growth itself as a phenomenon? And as our growth has far-reaching repercussions, many economic and environmental problems which humans face (and there are so many) may not be separate, but rather symptoms of our dangerous growth habits.
Our rationalisation for human growth may be a bigger problem than the problem itself. Cornucopians are people that believe that our progressing technology will solve all problems and that humanity will develop the solutions for climate change and resource limitations. The problem is that technology development takes time, and there are, of course, limits to efficiency. And every technology and development has unforeseen negative side effects. Hoping for a miracle cure for such a problem could be a terrible mistake.
To feed our need for resources, we have robbed the future, consuming at incredible rates. We spend money, purchase stuff, which is transformed into waste (a linear pathway which leads to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). We are bombarded by economic and environmental disasters, yet we don’t recognise the danger or change our course. And while these catastrophes happen, we puzzle away at strange and perhaps relatively trivial problems of living on Mars, dealing with AI, and Bitcoins (Bret remarked bemusedly that Mars is full of uniformly-coloured rocks, so everyone would find it a dull place to live – I have to agree). Human growth and our relentless pursuit of it might be the problem of the century, and it could easily break us completely.
However, there was a glimmer of hope in the talk: while humans do have ‘hard-wired’ behaviour, much of human behaviour is learned, as the variety of behaviours humans can possibly exhibit is too vast to be directly heritable, and as more technology is developed, the range of behaviours we need to learn broadens still. Our brains are not ‘blank slates’, but Bret proposes they are relatively blank, compared to other animals. We have evolved to depend on our culture to educate us in our behaviours, and it is this cultural aspect of evolution that Bret urges us to harness. Take genetics out of the driver’s seat, and give culture the reins. We might’ve evolved to pursue growth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a new and better goal now. It’s vital that we do.
The event ended with a long (and enjoyable) Q&A, with questions on transhumanism, policy cycles, progressivism and being a first-principles thinker. I came away from the event feeling thoroughly dazzled by an unexpected foray into a deep and dangerous subject. Bret Weinstein is writing a book on the topic of human growth, and when it comes out, many of us might have to confront the growing shadow on the wall that we’d rather not acknowledge at all. If we do face the problem, we could steer human history into a bright future. If not, well – it doesn’t bear thinking about.
The video from “Harnessing Evolution – with Bret Weinstein” can be found here