Reflections on human beings

We are a number of episodes into ‘Humans & Hope’, my podcast series about human beings and the challenges and expectations we face. This feels like a good time to reflect upon some of the key themes that have been appearing regularly in the episodes so far.

A central issue issue is that human thinking and behaviour has evolved to live in small tribes (of up to 150 people) – the sort of hunter-gatherer societies that we had for most of our history as a species, until about 5,000 years ago when they transformed into agrarian societies, bringing ever-larger groups of people together, based in villages, towns and eventually, cities.

This transformation of human lives has accelerated at an even greater pace over the last 200 years, leaving us in a complex modern world where there are 8 billion people on the planet, linked together by global trade, travel and communications. The things we do in our own small lives affect a much wider range of people (and environment and world) than they did when we lived in tribes 5,000 years ago. Each of us is also part of many different tribes at the same time (for example, football supporter, Christian, member of a political party, citizen of a nation etc).

Some of the key problems we face (such as climate change) and the expectations we have of ourselves (such as achieving global peace and co-operation) require us to extend our ‘radius of concern’ (or ‘moral circle’) beyond our immediate surroundings and our tribe of 150 people, and to the whole world. We face some common problems that transcend all our other tribes to involve our one human tribe.

In short, our thinking and behaviour as human beings has evolved for a completely different world and life from the one that we are currently in, with all its pressures, challenges and expectations – and all taking place way beyond one single, small tribe. And this simple point presents us with enormous challenges as human beings.

This requires us to radically change how we think and behave. In the tribal societies that we evolved for, we were able to live pretty well based on our instinctive feelings – our ‘automatic settings’. But, to meet many of the challenges and expectations that we commonly set ourselves in the modern world (including reducing inequality, building better relationships and tackling climate change) we have to go beyond this automatic, instinctive thinking and behaviour and switch to our ‘manual’ mode of rational thinking and behaviour.

Switching to this ‘manual’ mode requires us to put in a lot more cognitive effort – something we are instinctively not always keen to do. It may sometimes also conflict with what our instincts and feelings are telling us – and this can be hard to overcome. For example, your instincts telling you to eat that doughnut (to get the calories needed for survival), whilst your ‘manual’ mode telling you not to eat it, as there is an abundance of food around you in the modern world and eating it would leave you with too many calories for your health.

In short, it’s not easy to make this switch to ‘manual mode’, and it’s not clear whether we can do it consistently and on an ongoing basis as a species – hence our questions in the podcast as to whether achieving our modern challenges and expectations as human beings (from solving climate change to tackling hate and prejudice) is possible.

The other (significant) complication is that, as we move towards more ‘manual mode’ thinking, the answers of what we should do and how we should behave are not as clear as they are in ‘automatic’ mode, where our feelings and instincts give us very strong guidance – often accompanied by physiological nudges, like pain, hunger and arousal. In ‘manual’ mode, the question of what to do is often arbitrary and people can disagree vehemently on the answers – from politics to religion to moral questions.

One thing’s for sure – we’ll need to give ourselves all the help we can if we are to successfully make these ongoing changes in our thinking and behaviour. I’ll explore these in more detail in a later publication, but some ways we could do this include:

  • Educating everyone about what human beings are really like as creatures. By understanding ourselves better we can help ourselves to meet our challenges and expectations, both as individuals and a species. It could be said we need another Enlightenment, in which we all develop a more modern view of human beings.
  • Trying to activate what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls ‘hive mind’ behaviours – those that help each of us to transcend our individuality and feel part of something bigger with our fellow human beings.
  • Trying to ‘outsource’ some of our rational, manual choices to make them effectively automatic, when they’re not automatic within us – to take the cognitive burden away from us.
  • Using our new, more accurate picture of human beings to build ideas, institutions and societies that will help us to thrive, given the creatures we really are. This may mean a radical rethink of many areas of our lives – including those areas (such as advertising) that currently seek to exploit rather than protect our vulnerabilities. There are big questions to be asked here – about the society we should have, given the creatures we really are, and about whether we are prepared to build a society based on flourishing for all humans, rather than just some.

Next episodes

Naturally, these issues will come up in some of the future episodes of the podcast as they are central to many of the challenges and expectations we face as human beings. We will also directly tackle the overall question of where we’ve got to as creatures – indeed, one episode is simply called ‘can human beings cope with the modern world?’.

As always, our focus will not only be on understanding human beings and the challenges we face but also on considering how we can harness our thinking, behaviour and capacities as creatures to address them as effectively as possible.

I am particularly keen to explore the broader question of how we can build better societies, institutions and ideas that take into account the creatures we really are, and help us to flourish, within the parameters of the one planet we have.