Held Back

The biggest intellectual blind spot of our time

There were two important stories this week that seem unrelated:

However seemingly unrelate, I want to argue that these two articles actually illustrate the biggest blind spot we have as a species today.

The first article talks about how incredibly sophisticated, intelligent, social, and conscious dolphins are. But, as the headline points out, they are “held back” by lack of opposable thumbs. In what respect are they “held back?”

“Unfortunately they won’t even mimic our great metropolisis and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

Ah, so dolphins are held back from building cities and creating new technologies because of the physical ability to build things. But for opposable thumbs, dolphins too would enjoy such creations.

The second article talks about a frightening new finding about the possible collapse of insect populations, which could lead to “ecological Armageddon” because of the tremendous role insects play in the ecosystem.

Of course, causality being an extremely difficult thing to demonstrate, we’ll probably never know with 100% certainty all the reasons for this possible collapse. However, with so much ecosystem destruction, pesticide use, and other human activities, it’s really hard to say that our activities have nothing to do with this potential devastation.

Whether or not this particular ecological alarm bell is human caused or not, the grander story couldn’t be clearer. With each passing week, we read of new environmental crisis that seem ties to our actives. It cannot be clearer that our “metropolisis and technologies” are destroying our planet.

Now, please don’t be stupid and turn this post into one that assumes that I want everyone to give up everything and go back to some natural state.

My intention is to point out our biggest intellectual blind spot: equating progress with building things, growth, technological advancement. The word “progress” has become synonymous with almost any human activity that has anything to do with building new things.

Just listen to discussions, read any mass media, talk to any friend. Progress has come to mean building, growth, technological advancement…without any consideration for its consequences to the planet or even it’s positive impact on human wellbeing.

The fact that such a headline can be written and read without it sounding odd or even alarming, clearly reveals our enormous cognitive conflation between progress and building.

I would even go so far as to say that the first headline reflects an underlying assumption we have for the purpose of intelligence: we think it is to build things and advance technology.

We humans discover a species as smart (or maybe smarter) than us and the first thought that comes to our mind is why they don’t have cranes or iPhones. Our scientists and journalist immediately note that their body morphology has “held them back.”

We need to start asking ourselves, held back from what?

YES, we HAVE done some remarkable things that are REAL progress. Some of our medicine HAS given us more health. Some of our art IS nice to look at and DOES make us think and engage with each other. Some of our technology DOES allow us not to do backbreaking work. Our buildings DO protect us from the elements.

So I’m NOT advocating a complete surrender of tools and technology. In fact, I’m currently working on a startup that is based on new technologies in personal mobility.

But I am questioning the extent, scope, and end goal of our activities. An incredible amount of our efforts, of our building and our technological “progress” is aimless. It’s growth for the sake of growth. It’s building companies for capital accumulation.

And we can debate all day long whether these statements are true. What percentage of our activities are “good” vs “bad.” But at the end of the day, what cannot be argued is that our activities are killing the planet, whether they are aimless or not. What good is a dishwasher during a famine? What good is an iPhone without clean air?

This same bias can be seen when speculating about extra-terrestrial intelligence. Without any hesitation, we assume a correlation between intelligence and technological development. Partly that’s due to our desire to contact aliens, and the only ones that we can contact are ones with advanced technology. But I suspect, this is not the primary reason.

Why was the first thing we noticed about dolphins after we learned of their super-intelligence, their lack of cars?

Doesn’t this say more about us than about dolphins?

Instead of asking why they don’t have technology, why didn’t we ask the following questions instead? “With such intelligence, what do dolphins do all day?” “Do they get bored?” “What are they constantly chattering about?” “Do they sing or tell stories?” “Do dolphins tell jokes or gossip?” “Are dolphins happy and fulfilled? If so, what’s their secret?”

Might this view of intelligence be what will hold our own species back from surviving the next few decades?