The Biggest Problem in the World
We are flawed on a biologically fundamental level. Humans are self-interested, socially conniving apes from the bottom up and we need to change, drastically.
Part 1: Death
Consider this: a brilliant person works all their life, gains irreplaceable knowledge, like an effective treatment for a fatal disease or virus and then dies without having managed to share their work. This scenario happens all the time to people who do not have a choice. Isn’t it the involuntary nature of death which is devastating?
Grant Imahara died at age 49 of an aneurysm in July 2020. A shockingly tragic way to go. Though honestly what way isn’t tragic? Grant was a hero of mine, inspiring me from 8 years old. I watched him win Battlebots and then become an electrically charged genius on mythbusters. His personality like the others lit up the show and brought life into science, engineering and experimentation. Grant helped me understand how to investigate questions thoroughly, by building and designing experiments to test hypotheses and how fun that can be to discover and create along the way.
Death is permanent. Grant is gone and will never experiment or build or laugh ever again. He now only exists in memory and media.
Perhaps he should’ve prepared for cryonics, the process of putting life and the body on pause, preserving the information in our cells, until we develop the necessary treatments, in this case, for aneurysm and the damage caused in the brain.
I am particularly overcome with sadness when beautiful minds die. Think of all the contributions to humanity lost to disease and death that scientists like Marie Curie, John Von Neumann, Dorothy Hodgkin and Nikola Tesla could’ve made if they were still alive for another 50, 100, 200 years. We could be so much further ahead with tackling diseases, energy crises, mathematics and computers, chemistry, and physics.
I realised that I want to make contributions to humanity so that if and when I’m dying I won’t feel regret and be in greater pain from all the things I wish I had created. This response isn’t a source of motivation more than it is a source of terror and a desire to prevent it. I want to help educate people to get on board with the most pressing disasters today. The same existential disasters happening through all of life’s existence. We need to learn that the biggest threats to our existence are our biological determinants. The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant is an animated story depicting the folly of humans and our strengths if and when we manage to admit the real problem. I recommend viewing even to kids to understand the importance of acting on technical solutions as soon as possible and how our denialism has become our norm.
The main contributer to death is cellular senescence and it is the disease of aging. There’s been incredible progress on the reversal of aging and the taboo subject is beginning to enter professional research and practice. Preventing death starts with the affordable methods anyone can take to prolong their life. The work of people like David Sinclair and Dr Greger shows how lifestyle changes can increase quality of life and biological aging. To simplify Sinclairs research, you essentially have to put the body under enough stress to activate a sirtuin protein and NAD+ coenzyme response. These sirtuins are responsible for our cellular homeostasis including DNA and mitochondria regulation and repair. The best ways to put your body under the necessary beneficial stress known as ‘eustress’ are through intensive exercise and extensive fasting.
Here’s some neat advice from the doctor behind nutritionfacts.org and the book “How Not to Die”. Eat unprocessed plant-based whole foods, as close to completely as you can, and follow the daily dozen:
Aubrey De Grey has done further research on preventing damage caused by natural biological processes. His research shows we can prevent or maintain the damage through different medical interventions:
Damage: cell loss/atrophy -> solution = replacement using stem cells
Damage: division-obsessed cells -> solution = telomere reinforcement
Damage: death-resistant cells -> solution = remove using suicide cells
Damage: mitochondrial mutations -> solution = backup copies
Damage: intracellular waste products -> remove using foreign enzymes
Damage: extracellular waste products -> remove using immune system
Damage: extracellular matrix stiffening -> repair with cross-link breakers
These interventions are currently expensive so it’s best to start right now on the lifestyle and preventative approaches than to wait for things to get worse and have to pay ongoing medical bills.
Death is not what gives life meaning; it’s what gives life anxiety. Don’t you think it’d be better to have no involuntary death and replace the given anxiety with an excitement for endless creative evolution? Meaning comes from our autobiographical minds where we share stories of our experience. We’re sharing mythical and dangerous fictions about death and the impact of this negligence is an untold number of lives lost unnecessarily. These lies avoid education on senescence and we grow up without an understanding of the problem and are ill-fated without the foresight to prevent death in ourselves and others.
It’s unlikely we’ll be able to completely get rid of the possibilities of death by murder, accident and error any time soon. So I’m not talking about immortality.
We’re in denial of this morbid monster and we’ll grasp onto legacy projects to make a memory of ourselves in the minds of others so as to artificially keep our identity (name) living after we die. It’s not a bad idea to have a lasting impact on future generations, the problem is that when we don’t acknowledge our suppressed fear of mortality then we cling to terrible legacy projects. The best legacy projects are ones where our life may be maintained and the information and development we’ve undergone is not completely destroyed. If say, your legacy project is your child and you die when they are 5, you haven’t managed to influence their development in a significant way. If your legacy is in your publications of media or writing and you die without it being accepted or even understood, your life’s work may have been for nothing. What’s worse, and you won’t be around to do anything about it, you’ll be dust in the wind or soil in the ground.
We need to accept that this is one of our greatest existential problems, and fight as an entire species to prevent this danger from consuming countless lives and potential geniuses everyday.
Part 2: Suffering
Death is actually easier to solve than suffering which is a much larger beast if you can believe it. It includes the nuances of subjective experience including all kinds of known and unknown states of consciousness and all the intricacies of biology. We need to be working on this problem parallel to death to both lessen suffering and increase longevity where we can. As outlined, death should be the primary but not the sole focus, if for no other reason than to keep the geniuses alive who are the experts in ending suffering.
Most people’s response to the idea of suffering being abolished is: “but the negative experiences have taught me meaningful lessons and made me who I am today”. That’s true, for any experience. You can derive lessons from any experience, even as mundane as watching paint dry. The thing is, ask those same people if they want to learn a valuable lesson from being held upside down for 30 minutes and they’ll quickly defend why it’d be silly to do that and thus get to remain in their current comfort.
The second response is that suffering is what makes the positive experiences richer. To that I say it is in fact the spectrum and variety of experiences which make those peak pleasurable experiences so good. It’s because your daily hedonic set point is below those higher positive states of consciousness. We can keep the spectrum above hedonic zero, and the valence (hedonic tone) range of our experiences can be increasingly moved from a current -10 to +10 to a completely positive >0 to +100.
Stay with me here. I’m saying we can keep the difference and comparison between greater and lesser experiences while maintaining that even the worst experience is still, at least, a pleasant one. To read more on the future of bliss read “The Hedonistic Imperative”.
Suffering is unfortunately a deniable problem. We reframe our own suffering and call it meaningful, motivational and even subjectively pleasurable. Though understandable, It’s an insane redefining we’ve given to a word and experiences which are at base, non-voluntary. Like death, the key here is that we cannot just turn off the times we suffer, as suffering means by and large involuntary pains and unpleasant sensations.
We forget the agony we’ve endured and tell others that “it enriched my life”, except that explanation is a coping strategy used in retrospect to deal with the pains you’ve endured. If you really think it makes life better, you’d be purposely in distress every second day. But you’re not, just as we don’t remind ourselves of our own mortality. We suppress, avoid, and completely change the existential realities our human minds and bodies undergo in every moment. We’ve adapted to create meaningful fictions of our bodies and behaviour to justify our suffering.
Try to redefine suffering for those below hedonic zero; people who are malnourished, in pain, diseased and psychologically burdened. Consider severe genetic degenerative diseases like duchenne muscular dystrophy.
A disease which will continue to get worse and will need increasing aid from people and technology. The problem is localised to genes and the protein dystrophin and emerging gene therapies are the promise of a cure.
Consider harder to detect kinds of suffering like the neurological disorder dysesthesia and in particular “burning dysesthesia”. There is no known cure for this excruciating acidotic pain in the peripheral nervous system, leading some victims of this disorder to take their own lives. Some doctors even try to dismiss it by saying it’s psychosomatic. The thing is that even if an experience is caused by psychosomaticism, it subjectively is still of negative valence (<0), overall an unpleasant time.
Consider over a billion people suffering from malnutrition, malaria, dysentery and a host of preventable diseases. Try to reframe their suffering and you’d be an asshole.
Poor coping mechanisms and unhealthy addictions are rampant because people suffer and long for change in their experience of the world. Often opioid, antidepressants, psychoactives and other drugs are taken to alleviate the suffering in daily life from preventable diseases or to expand their spectrum of pleasure to a level otherwise difficult to achieve without drugs. Large pharmaceutical companies make up one of the most profitable industries in the global economy. Depression and anxiety disorders are extremely common and suicide is continuing to be one of the biggest killers in all demographics above 12 years old. These aren’t problems that quick fixes like pills can solve.
The truth is, our charities, hospitals, universities, economies and governments are just not truly supporting the right causes of suffering. We’ve communicated to each other that our suffering is a necessary evil and to learn to live with pain as part of being human. We could have designed our societal systems around the profoundly ethical goal of solving suffering, yet since we hide from its existence as we do with death; we’ve unknowingly prolonged its havoc and agony.
Part 3: Stupidity
Our stupidity and lack of intelligence is the crux of the issue and the main reason why we haven’t solved these problems already. Our cognitive fallacies and blindspots are pervasively destructive to our societal progression. We use our cognitive defenses to bolster up our self-centred motives and beliefs and reject any ideas we feel to be a threat. Check out this list on cognitive biases, this map of cognitive biases and this infographic:
Stupidity includes a deep selfishness encoded into our genes and wired within our brains. We are not the caring social creatures we think we are. Being positively selfish is only helpful in cases of self-protection and self-regulation which are mostly unconscious processes. How can you justify such a blatant disregard for the majority of humanity that when there is suffering on mass you actually care less than you would if there was a child in pain in front of you? We’ve evolved to be selfish and biased to ourselves and only care for those closest to us, why? Because you’re using each other as allies and want to feel good immediately. Hints of global compassion are most likely a virtue signal; a way to show to your peers and groups how altruistic and ethical you are and to get social credit.
Human evolution has not included cooperation with no strings attached. Our supposedly cooperative history is due almost entirely to games of mutual benefit, like trading (win-win) or on animals and people being oppressed and, forced into labour (win-lose) “I’ll cooperate so I can keep living”. Our “better angels of our nature” as Steven Pinker put it, are only when we are less violent to others after we have realised they could be used in some way if we don’t kill them. We still only keep people around if they are useful allies. This is true on all levels, from families, to friends, to rivals, to groups, to companies, to nations.
We have as Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson called it an, “elephant in the brain”.
It is essentially 99.9% of our neurobiological processing, in every moment and we’re unaware of it. The 0.01% that is conscious to us, is shaped and delivered by our non-conscious processes to our attention so that we choose only which selfishily serves us.
We are unaware of how much the elephant hides our motives from us, its deception so subtle and discrete. It tells us what to say in order for us to believe we are good people so we can more readily deceive others into thinking we’re good, and then getting what we secretly want. You can call it selfishness, but it’s more insidious than that as our “self” is really just a ‘press secretary’ designed by our unconscious mind to give accepted explanations to the norms of people in society.
We’re in denial of how stupid and selfish we really are. Stupidity includes selfishness as being selfish is a stupid and uncooperative behaviour if it’s not necessary. Being self-obsessed is a pointless pursuit given how much we actually rely on others. Even knowing that the self is an illusion doesn’t change the elephant from telling us everyday that we should forget that and keep feeling like we’re in control, and how awesome we are. We’re totally not in control, we’re totally not awesome and we struggle to accept that reality. It’s not as simple as having blindspots when our entire worldview and vision is artificially constructed by our biological motivations — we’re just blind. To solve stupidity requires solving our biology.
Our brains and bodies are prejudiced to be almost entirely selfish. If there is seemingly altruistic behaviour, it takes one closer look to see how the the altruism impacts the “giver” in great ways; to feel good and not guilty, to achieve prestige and status, to build allies by showing their generous value, and to always get a selfish return on investment. If I donate, educate, or give resources to people I am likely to receive benefits in return, maybe not straight away and maybe not directly, but the benefits will likely come. Even if I give, say a billion dollars to Africa to tackle malaria and schistosomiasis, or to refugees in the Middle East for example, I am in the same world and by alleviating them in this way, it paves a brighter future for all of us, including myself. This is the best our current stupid altruism can hope for.
If we were smarter, we’d be donating to the effectively progressive independent, less hidden motives, open-source projects and companies. Everything would be more transparent and we’d readily share information freely across nations. There’d be no borders and less fear. We’d have free healthcare, free education and free money. We want to live in a post-scarcity interplanetary civilisation and we’re instead on the brink of civilisational collapse.
Our stupidity is etched in our bones and pumped through our veins, neurochemically transmitted to our brains and selfishly spun through our vocals. We’ve got a lot of work to do to overcome this problem. Our glossy eyed ignorance and elephant constructed egos need to acknowledge that we are sexual, power hungry, sugar driven, short-term pleasure-seeking, survivalistic primates. The sooner we do, the sooner we can rewrite our code, remodel our worlds and biomes to become a genuinely compassionate and intelligent species. Until then, we’ll remain fumbling ignoramuses socially competing for mates and allies, pretending to care about others and lying about our self-interests. Not because we’re willingly unethical, it’s that we’re unethical because our stupidly selfish behaviour is hardwired.
Part 4: Biology
This leads to the conclusion that our bodies are our main problem; homo-sapiens have inherently evolved these damaging traits, processes and behaviours. Our genetics, biome, neurology and evolutionary drives are why we are dying, miserable and stupid. No amount of social justice or political activism can change the most important fact of the problem because it’s biological. Therefore, the answer is with medicine and the growth of our biotechnological toolkit.
We need governments to support the research and development, but crucially we need a cultural revolution to embrace the cutting edge of medicine and ideals of transhumanism. Suffering needs to stop. Involuntary death needs to stop. Stupidity needs to stop. How can you argue against it? If you try to, you first must understand how gene therapies will be in the future, and we don’t. We do know how much good they’ve done already.
I’m not entirely misanthropic, I’m also philanthropic: a lover of humanity. I’m hopeful for what we humans can become. We’re at an incredible time in history where perhaps a few centuries ago, before the enlightenment, nihilism was sensible. My touch of philanthropy here is to give a lesson on what I’ve learnt human nature to really be; a brutal and unforgiving landscape, this is the actual problem. Just because I’m pessimistic about our species’ ability to progress doesn’t mean I am giving up on what we can achieve. I’m inspired by all the positive future possibilities, I tentatively call them utopias, that could potentially become our reality. We just may need to redefine who we are in these scientifically speculative worlds.
There’s a selfish altruism in this writing piece where I aim to teach people these ideas so they can share them, or even better to actually work on solving them on a medical level. As others will benefit, I too will benefit when others also accept and help to build this reality. We’ll need the interdisciplinary teamwork of the whole world to alleviate our human flaws. New models, and transtheoretical approaches are necessary to tackle the complexity of these problems. We need our brightest minds from the fields and specialisations of bioengineering, AI/machine learning, material sciences, microbiology, molecular biology, cell cultures, tissue engineering, quantum chemistry, neuroscience … you name it, we need it. We’ve only just cracked the surface of gene editing with CRISPR technologies.
The solution to these problems is to use biological technologies to improve our brains and bodies to achieve actual longevity, happiness and intelligence.
Embracing technology wholeheartedly to end the worst of ourselves means we need to become something like a homo-silicon or homo sapien 2.1.
We owe it to nature to make up for our mistakes, the disaster of human history labelled “the anthropocene”: the mass extinction we have caused through agriculture, enslavement of animals, infrastructure and destruction of forests and habitats.
Homosapiens 2.1 would be harnessing the power of biotechnology. Natural selection is losing its job because it’s too slow and inefficient. We’ve taken on the selection process and are in control of the editing now. This means the silicon age and perhaps the quantum age is upon us, who knows how much longer we will be carbon-based life forms.
If we are enhanced, involuntary death will become voluntary longevity. Each individual waking up and choosing to live everyday, endlessly, until they decide otherwise.
If we solve suffering we’ll have universal joy and happiness. Not an animal on earth is in pain. Yes, wild animal suffering also needs to be included and solved.
When stupidity, ignorance and selfishness are solved we’ll have increasingly holistic and optimised minds capable of accelerated problem solving, engineering and a global network of compassion and cooperation.
These problems are interdependent and if one is boosted the others are more likely to be solved to. You can argue a case for each one of them. You could say for suffering to be solved we need to solve death. Or that since death is easier to solve we should focus on that. Or that we need greater individual and collective intelligence to make progress in any of them. The main takeaway is admitting that these are the main problems of our existence and the longer we deny that they’re not, the further away our true utopia becomes. There’s a lot of small steps we can take along the way but we need to admit this is the goal we need to aim for.
Suffering, death and stupidity in life are given. We’ve got a long road ahead of us to solve any of them completely. We’ve barely started, mainly because we as a species are in denial of our own terrifying shortcomings. Instead, we prop ourselves up and congratulate each other on having achieved little to nothing in a lifetime in relation to what really matters. Our ethics, medicine and intelligence are all abjectly miniscule to what they could be.
We need to wake up and get working on the biological issues of being human.
Since disasters, disease, and loved ones dying isn’t enough we need to drastically rethink our culture and our beliefs. We need a reform of every system to support the main problem we currently face: the intrinsic errors of the human brain and body. To be superintelligent, superhappy, and live as long as we like, we need to be greater than the stupid, dying and unhappy homo-sapien species.