Fleeing Vesuvius: The psychological roots of resource over-consumption

The essay below is an updated and edited version of a post I wrote here a few years ago, I'm Human, I'm American and I'm Addicted to Oil. Richard Douthwaite, Irish economist and activist, (and a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute), invited me to contribute it as a chapter in the just released book Fleeing Vesuvius, which is a collection of articles generally addressing "how can we bring the world out of the mess it finds itself in"? My article dealt with the evolutionary underpinnings of our aggregate behavior - neural habituation to increasingly available stimuli, and our penchant to compete for status given the environmental (cultural) cues of our day. And how, after we make it through the likely upcoming currency/claims bottleneck, we would be wise to adhere to an evolutionary perspective in considering a future (more) sustainable society.


Here is my updated chapter from Fleeing Vesuvius

The psychological roots of resource over-consumption

Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.

Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.

When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.

This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activities that underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.


Evolution has honed and culled ‘what worked’ by combining the substrate of life with eons’ worth of iterations. Modern biological research has focused on the concept of ‘relative fitness’, a term for describing those adaptations that are successful in propelling genes, or suites of genes, into the next generation and that will have out-competed those that were deleterious or did not keep up with environmental change. Though absolute fitness mattered to the individual organisms while they were alive, looking back it was ‘relative fitness’ that shaped the bodies and brains of the creatures on the planet today.

Status, both in humans and other species, has historically been a signaling mechanism that minimised the costs of competition, whether for reproductive opportunities or for material resources. If you place ten chickens in an enclosure there will ensue a series of fights until a pecking order is established. Each bird quickly learns who it can and cannot beat and a status hierarchy is created, thus making future fights (and wastes of energy) less common. Physical competition is costly behaviour that requires energy and entails risk of injury. Status is one way to determine who one can profitably challenge and who one cannot. In our ancestral environment, those men (and women) that successfully moved up the social hierarchy improved their mating and resource prospects. Those at the bottom of the status rung did not only possess fewer mating opportunities but many did not mate at all. Status among our ancestors was probably linked to those attributes providing consistent benefits to the tribe: hunting prowess, strength, leadership ability, storytelling skills etc. In modern humans, status is defined by what our modern cultures dictate. As we are living through an era of massive energy gain from fossil fuels, pure physical prowess has been replaced by digital wealth, fast cars, political connections, etc.

It follows that the larger a culture’s resource subsidy (natural wealth), the more opportunity there is for ‘status badges’ uncorrelated with basic needs such as strength, intelligence, adaptability, stamina, etc. Though ‘what’ defines status may be culturally derived, status hierarchies themselves are part of our evolved nature. Ancestral hominids at the bottom of the mating pecking order, ceteris paribus, are not our ancestors. Similarly, many of our ancestors had orders of magnitude more descendants than others. For example, scientists recently discovered an odd geographical preponderance for a particular Y chromosome mutation which turns out to be originally descended from Genghis Khan. Given the 16 million odd male descendants alive today with this Y marker, Mr. Khan is theorised to have had 800,000 times the reproductive success than the average male alive on the planet in 1200 AD. This does not imply that we are all pillagers and conquerors — only that various phenotypic expressions have had ample opportunity to become hardwired in our evolutionary past. [1]

Mating success is a key driver in the natural world. This is all studied and documented by evolutionary research into the theory of “sexual selection”, which Charles Darwin once summarised as the effects of the “struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex.” [2] Biologists have shown that a primary way to reliably demonstrate one’s ‘quality’ during courtship is to display a high-cost signal — e.g. a heavy and colourful peacock’s tail, an energy-expending bird-song concert, or a $100,000 sports car. [3] These costly “handicap” signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake. [4]

In this sense ‘waste’ was an evolutionary selection! Think of three major drawbacks to a male peacock of growing such a hugely ornate tail:

  1. the energy, vitamins and minerals needed to go into the creation of the tail could have been used for other survival/reproductive needs,
  2. the tail makes the bird more likely to be spotted by a predator,
  3. If spotted, the cumbersome tail makes escape from a predator less likely.

Overall, though, these negative “fitness hits” must have been outweighed by the drab female peahen’s preference for males with larger, more ornate tails. With this filter, we can understand the rationale and prevalence of Veblen goods (named after the 19th-century economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’) — a group of commodities that people increasingly prefer to buy as their price gets higher because the greater price confers greater status. This biological precept of signalling theory is alive and well in the human culture.


Modern man evolved from earlier hominids under conditions of privation and scarcity at least until about 10,000 years ago. The period since then has been too short a time to make a significant change to millions of years of prior neural sculpture. Nature made the brain’s survival systems incredibly efficient. The brain is based on about 40% of all our available genes and consumes over 20% of our calorific intake. Incremental changes in how our brains recognise, process and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out.

Some changes affected salience, the ability to notice what is important, different or unusual. Salience recognition is part of what’s called the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. This pathway is a system of neurons integral to survival efficiency, helping us to instantly decide what in the environment should command our attention. Historically, immediate feedback on what is ‘new’ was critical to both avoiding danger and procuring food. Because most of what happens around us each day is predictable, processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy. Such activity would also slow down our mental computer so that what are now minor distractions could prove deadly. Thus our ancestors living on the African savanna paid little attention to the stable mountains on the horizon but were quick to detect any movement in the bush, on the plains, or at the riverbank. Those more able to detect and process ‘novel cues’ were more likely to obtain rewards needed to survive and pass on their suites of genes. Indeed, modern experimental removal of the (dopamine) receptor genes in animals causes them to reduce exploratory behaviour, a key variable related to inclusive fitness in animal biology. [5]

We are instinctually geared for individual survival — being both reward-driven, and curious. It was these two core traits that the father of economics himself, Adam Smith, predicted in The Wealth of Nations would be the drivers of world economic growth. According to Smith, uniting the twin economic engines of self-interest (which he termed self-love) and curiosity was ambition — “the competitive human drive for social betterment”. About 70 years later, after reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Charles Darwin recognised the parallel between the pursuit of wealth in human societies and the competition for resources that occurred among animal species. Our market system of allocating resources and ‘status’ can therefore be seen as the natural social culmination for an intelligent species finding an abundance of resources.

But, as we shall soon see, the revered Scottish philosopher could not have envisioned heli-skiing, Starbucks, slot machines, Facebook, email and many other stimulating and pleasurable objects and activities that people engage in today and to which they so easily become accustomed.

The mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system

“Americans find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for well-being has become a restless burning passion which increases with satisfaction. To start with emigration was a necessity for them: now it is a sort of gamble, and they enjoy the sensations as much as the profit.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 1831

Traditional drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behaviour-regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters in our brains. [6] Addicts can become habituated to the feelings they get from cocaine, heroin or alcohol, and they need to increase their consumption over time to get the same neurotransmitter highs. This same neural reward architecture is present in all of us when considering our ecological footprints: we become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the ‘chemical sensations’ we receive from shopping, keeping up with the Joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock profits, and myriad other stimulating activities that a surplus of cheap energy has provided.

An explosion of neuroscience and brain-imaging research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s dopamine reward system that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience — a glance from a pretty girl, a lovemaking romp in the woods, a plate of fresh sushi, hitting 777 on a one-eyed bandit, catching a lunker pike, watching a sunset, hearing a great guitar riff etc. — our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the extra dopamine gets flushed out of our system and we return to our baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience. But the previous experience has been logged into our brain’s limbic system, which, in addition to being a centre for pleasure and emotion, holds our memory and motivation circuitry. [7] We now begin to look forward to encores of such heady stimuli and are easily persuaded towards activities that promise such a chemical reprise. These desires have their beginnings outside our conscious awareness. Recent brain-imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the dopamine circuitry, even if a person is not conscious of the cues. Perhaps there are artistically shaped sexual images hidden in advertisements for whiskey after all…

Historically, this entire system evolved from the biological imperative of survival. Food meant survival, sex meant survival (of genes or suites of genes), and additional stockpiles of both provided success relative to others, both within and between species. There was a discrete payoff to waiting hours for some movement in the brush that signaled ‘food’, or the sound of a particular bird that circled a tree with a beehive full of honey, etc. Our pattern recognition system on the Pleistocene would have been a grab-bag of various environmental stimuli that ‘excited’ our brains towards action that correlated with resources (typically food). In sum, the brain’s reward pathways record both the actual experience of pleasure as well as ensuring that the behaviours that led to it are remembered and repeated. Irrespective of whether they are ‘good’ for the organism in the current context — they ‘feel’ good, which is the mechanism our brain has left us as a heritage of natural selection.

The (very important) mechanism of habituation

Habituation — getting used to something — and subsequent substance abuse and addiction develops because of the way we learn. Learning depends crucially on the discrepancy between the prediction and occurrence of a reward. A reward that is fully predicted does not contribute to learning. [8] The important implication of this is that learning advances only to the extent to which something is unpredicted and slows progressively as a stimuli becomes more predictable. [9] As such, unexpected reward is a core driver in how we learn, how we experience life, and how we consume resources.

Dopamine activation has been linked with addictive, impulsive activity in numerous species. Dopamine is released within the brain not only to rewarding stimuli but also to those events that predict rewards. It has long been known that two groups of neurons, in the ventral tegmental and the substantia nigra pars compacta areas, and the dopamine they release, are critical for reinforcing certain kinds of behaviour. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz measured the activity of these dopamine neurons while thirsty monkeys waited for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a series of fixed, steady amounts of juice, the volume of juice was suddenly doubled. The rate of neuron firing went from about 3 per second to 80 per second. But after several trials, after the monkeys had become habituated to this new level of reward, their dopamine firing rate returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second after the squirt of juice. The monkeys had become habituated to the coming reward! The opposite happened when the reward was reduced without warning. The firing rate dropped dramatically, but eventually returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. [10]

The first time we experience a drug or alcohol high, the amount of chemical we ingest often exceeds the levels of naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our bodies by an order of magnitude. [11] No matter how brief, that experience is stored in our neural homes for motivation and memory — the amygdala and hippocampus. Getting drunk with your friends, getting high on a ski-lift, removing the undergarments of a member of the opposite sex for the first time — all initially flood the brain with dopamine alongside a picture memory of the event chemically linked to the body’s pleasurable response to it. As such we look forward to doing it again, not so much because we want to repeat the activity, but because we want to recreate that ‘feeling’.

But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked. After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The following spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Over time, the rush becomes smaller, and the crash that follows becomes steeper. The brain has been fooled into thinking that achieving that high is equivalent to survival and therefore the ‘consume’ light remains on all the time. Eventually, the brain is forced to turn on a self-defence mechanism, reducing the production of dopamine altogether — thus weakening the pleasure circuits’ intended function. At this point, an ‘addicted’ person is compelled to use the substance not to get high, but just to feel normal — since one’s own body is producing little or no endogenous dopamine response. Such a person has reached a state of “anhedonia”, or inability to feel pleasure via normal experiences. Being addicted also raises the risk of having depression; being depressed increases the risk of self-medicating, which then leads to addiction, etc. via positive feedback loops.

In sum, when exposed to novel stimuli, high levels of curiosity (dopamine) are generated, but it is the unexpected reward that causes their activation. If I order a fantastic array of sushi and the waiter brings me a toothpick and my check, I am going to have a plunge in dopamine levels which will create an immediate craving for food. It is this interplay between expected reward and reality that underlies much of our behavioural reactions. Ultimately, as it relates to resource consumption, repeated use of any dopamine-generating ‘activity’ eventually results in tolerance. Withdrawal results in lower levels of dopamine and continuous use is required to keep dopamine at normal levels, and even higher doses to get the ‘high’ levels of initial use. Consumers in rich nations are arguably reaching higher and higher levels of consumption tolerance. If there was such a thing as ‘cultural anhedonia’, we might be approaching it.

America's Addictions - Time Magazine - July 2007

America and addiction

It would be pretty hard to be addicted directly to oil; it’s toxic, slimy and tastes really bad. But given the above background, we can see how it is possible to become addicted to the energy services that oil provides. Humans are naturally geared for individual survival — curious, reward-driven and self-absorbed —but modern technology has now become a vector for these cravings. Material wealth and the abundant choices available in contemporary US society are unique in human (or animal) experience; never before in the history of our species have so many enjoyed (used?) so much. Within a culture promoting ‘more’, it is no wonder we have so many addicts. High-density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behaviour of distance, time, oceans and mountains. For now, these phenomena are largely confined to developed nations — people living in a hut in Botswana or a yurt in Mongolia cannot as easily be exposed to the ‘hijacking stimuli’ of an average westerner, especially one living in a big city in the West, like London or Los Angeles.

Many activities in an energy-rich society unintentionally target the difference between expected and unexpected reward. Take sportfishing for example. If my brother and I are on a lake fishing and we get a bite, it sends a surge of excitement through our bodies — what kind of fish is it? How big is it? etc. We land an 8-inch perch! Great! A minute later we catch another 8 inch perch — wow, there must be a school! After 45 minutes of catching nothing but 8-inch perch, our brain comes to expect this outcome, and we need something bigger, or a different species, to generate the same level of excitement, so we will likely move to a different part of the lake in search of ‘bigger’ and/or ‘different’ fish. (Though my brother claims he would never tire of catching fish 8-inch perch I think he’s exaggerating). Recreational fishing is benign (if not to the fish), but one can visualise other more resource-intensive pastimes activating similar circuitry. New shoes, new cars, new vacations, new home improvements, new girlfriends are all present on the modern unexpected reward smorgasbord.

The habituation process explains how some initially benign activities can morph into things more destructive. Weekly church bingo escalates to $50 blackjack tables; the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition results, several years down the road, in the monthly delivery (in unmarked brown packaging) of Jugs magazine or webcams locked in on a bedroom in Eastern Europe; youthful rides on a rollercoaster evolve into annual heli-skiing trips, etc. The World Wide Web is especially capable of hijacking our neural reward pathways. The 24/7 ubiquity and nearly unlimited options for distraction on the internet almost seem to be perfectly designed to hone in on our brains’ g-spot. Shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, information searches, etc. easily out-compete the non-virtual, more mundane (and necessary) activities of yesteryear. Repetitive internet use can be highly addictive, though psychiatrists in different countries are debating whether it is a true addiction. For better or worse, the first things I do in the morning is a) check what time it is, b) start the coffee machine then c) check my e-mail, to see what ‘novelty’ might be in my inbox. Bills to pay, and e-mails from people who are not important or interesting, wait until later in the day, or are forgotten altogether.

There are few healthy men on the planet today who do not respond in social settings to the attention of a high-status, attractive 20- to 30-something woman. This is salient stimuli, irrespective of the man’s marital status. But here is one example of where nature and nurture mesh. Despite the fact that 99+% of our history was polygynous, modern culture precludes men from running around pell-mell chasing women; we have rules, laws, and institutions such as marriage. However, habituation to various matrimonial aspects combined with exposure to dozens or even hundreds of alternatives annually in the jet age may at least partially explain the 60%+ divorce rate in modern society.

The entire brain and behaviour story is far more complex than just one neurotransmitter but the pursuit of this particular ‘substance’ is clearly correlated with anxiety, obesity, and the general increasing of conspicuous consumption in our society. That dopamine is directly involved is pretty clear. Parkinson’s Disease is a condition where dopamine is lacking in an area of the brain necessary for motor coordination. The drug, Mirapex, increases dopamine levels in that area of the brain, but since pills are not lasers, it also increases dopamine in other areas of the body, including (surprise) the reward pathways. There are numerous lawsuits currently pending by Parkinson’s patients who after taking the drug, developed sex, gambling, shopping and overeating compulsions. [12]

Our brain can also be tricked by the food choices prevalent in an abundant-energy society. We evolved in situations where salt and sugar were rare and lacking and signaled nutrition. So now, when we taste Doritos or Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, our reward pathways say ‘yes yes — this is good for you!!’ Our ‘rational’ brain attempts to remind us of the science showing obesity comes from eating too much of the wrong type of foods, but often loses out to the desire of the moment. Fully 30% of Americans are now categorised as obese. And, since we are exporting our culture (via the global market system) to developing countries, it is no surprise that China is following in our footsteps. From 1991 to 2004 the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese in China increased from 12.9% to 27.3%. [13] Furthermore, we can become habituated to repeated presentation of the same food type; we quickly get tired of it and crave something different. [14] We like variety — in food and in other things. Finally, when we overstimulate the brain pleasure centres with highly palatable food, these systems adapt by decreasing their own activity. Many of us now require constant stimulation from palatable (fatty) food to avoid entering a persistent state of negative reward. It is this dynamic that has led scientists to recently declare that fatty foods such as cheesecake and bacon are addictive in the same manner as cocaine. [15] And as we shall see, both what we eat and experience not only alters our own health, but also makes it more difficult to act in environmentally benign ways.

Impulsivity, discount rates and preparing for the future

Overconsumption fueled by increasing neural high water marks is a problem enough in itself, but such widespread neural habituation also diminishes our ability to think and act about the coming societal transition away from fossil fuels. Economists measure how much we prefer the present over the future via something called a ‘discount rate’. (See Mark Rutledge’s essay in this book). A discount rate of 100% means we prefer the present completely and put no value on the future. A discount rate of 0% means we treat the future 1000 years from now equally the same as 5 minutes from now.

Certain types of people have steeper discount rates than others; in general, gamblers, drinkers, drug users, men (vs. women), low IQ scorers, risk-takers, those exhibiting cognitive load, etc. all tend to show more preference for small short-term rewards rather than waiting for larger, long-term ones. [16] On average, heroin addicts’ discount rates are over double those of control groups. Furthermore, in tests measuring discount rates and preferences among opium addicts, opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed monetary rewards significantly more than did non-drug using controls. Also, the opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed opium significantly more than delayed money, more evidence that brain chemicals are central to an organism’s behaviour and that money and other abstractions are secondary. [17] Research has also shown that subjects deprived of addictive substances have an even greater preference for immediate consumption over delayed gratification. [18]

Even if we are not snorting cocaine or binge drinking on a Tuesday night, in a world with so much choice and so many stimulating options vying for our attention, more and more of our time is taken up feeding neural compulsions. In any case, facing large long-term risks like peak oil and climate change requires dedicated long-term thinking — so having neural wiring that, due to cultural stimuli, focuses more and more on the present instead, is a big problem.

The fallacy of reversibility A.K.A “The ratchet effect”

Though our natural tendency is to want more of culturally condoned pursuits, many such desires do have negative feedbacks. For instance, I can only eat about three cheeseburgers before my stomach sends a signal to my brain that I am full — and at 4 or 5 my stomach and esophagus would fill to the level I couldn’t physically eat another. However, this is not so with virtual wealth, or many of the “wanting” stimuli promoted in our economic ‘more equals better’ culture. Professor Juliet Schor of Boston University has demonstrated that irrespective of their baseline salary, Americans always say they’d like to make a little more the following year. [19] Similar research by UCLA economist Richard Easterlin (whose “Easterlin Paradox” points out that average happiness has remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GDP per capita.) followed a cohort of people over a 16-year period. The participants were asked at the onset to list 10 items that they desired (e.g. sports car, snowmobile, house, private jet, etc.) During the 16 study, all age groups tested did acquire some/many of the things they originally desired. But in each case, their desires increased more than their acquisitions. [20] This phenomenon is termed the “Hedonic Treadmill”. I believe this behaviour is at the heart of the Limits to Growth problem, and gives me less confidence that we are just going to collectively ‘tighten our belts’ when the events accompanying resource depletion get a little tougher. That is, unless we somehow change what it is that we want more of.

The Ratchet Effect is a term for a situation in which, once a certain level is reached, there is no going back, at least not all the way. In evolution the effect means once a suite of genes become ubiquitous in a population, there is no easy way to ‘unevolve’ it. A modern example of this is obesity — as we get fatter the body creates more lipocytes (cells composing adipose tissue). But this system doesn’t work in reverse; even though we can lose some of the weight gain, the body can’t eliminate these new cells — they are there to stay.

After peak oil/peak credit, the ratchet effect is likely to mean that any rules requiring a more equitable distribution of wealth will not be well received by those who amassed wealth and status when oil was abundant. In biology, we see that animals will expend more energy defending freshly gained territory than they would to gain it if it was unclaimed. In humans, the pain from losing money is greater than the pleasure of gaining it. Economists describe and quantify this phenomenon as the endowment effect and loss aversion. And, as an interesting but disturbing aside, recent research suggests that the dopamine that males receive during acts of aggression rivals that of food or sex. [20] [21] All these different dynamics of ‘what we have’ and ‘what we are used to’ will come into play in a world with less resources available per head.

Old brain, new choices

Humans have always lived in the moment but our gradual habituation to substances and activities that hijack our reward system may be forcing us, in aggregate, to live so much for the present that we are ignoring the necessity for urgent societal change. Unwinding this cultural behaviour may prove difficult. The sensations we seek in the modern world are not only available and cheap, but most are legal, and the vast majority are actually condoned and promoted by our culture. If the rush we get from an accomplishment is tied to something that society rewards we call it ambition, if it is attached to something a little scary, then we label the individual a ‘risk taker’ and if it is tied to something illegal — only then have we become an ‘addict’ or substance abuser. So it seems culture has voted on which ways of engaging our evolutionarily derived neurotransmitter cocktails are ‘good’ to pursue.

Drug addiction is defined as “the compulsive seeking and taking of a drug despite adverse consequences”. If we substitute the word ‘resource’ for ‘drug’, have we meaningfully violated or changed this definition? That depends on the definition of ‘drug’. “A substance that a person chemically comes to rely upon” is the standard definition but ultimately it is any activity or substance that generates brain chemicals that we come to require/need. Thus, it is not crude oil’s intrinsic qualities we crave but the biochemical sensations to which we have become accustomed arising from the use of its embodied energy.

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates.

I think people trade for

  1. money/profit (to compete/move up the mating ladder),
  2. the feeling of being ‘right’ (whether they ever spend the money or not) and
  3. the excitement/dopamine they get from the unexpected nature of the market puzzle.

While these three are not mutually exclusive, it is not clear to me which objective dominates, especially among people who have already attained infinite wealth. (Technically, infinite wealth is their annual expenses divided by the interest rate on Treasury bills. This gives the sum of money that would provide them with an income to buy all they want forever). When I worked for Lehman Brothers, my billionaire clients seemed less ‘happy’ on average than the $30k-a-year clerks processing their trades. They had more exciting lives perhaps, but they were not happier; that is, their reward baseline reset to zero each morning irrespective of the financial wealth they had amassed in previous days or years,. They wanted ‘more’ because they were habituated to getting more — it was how they kept score. Clearly, unless you inherit, you don’t get to be a billionaire if you are easily satisfied.

MRI scans show that objects associated with wealth and social dominance activate reward-related brain areas. In one study, people’s anterior cingulate (a brain region linked to reward) had more blood and oxygen response to visual cues of sports cars than to limousines or small cars. [22] Brain scans show that we respond to the anticipation of reward, not the reward itself, a finding that has profound implications

If compulsive shopping was a rational process, and our choices were influenced only by need, then brand-name t-shirts would sell no better than less expensive shirts of equal quality. The truth is that many shopping decisions are biased by corporate advertising campaigns or distorted by a desire to satisfy some competitive urge or emotional need. For most of us, the peak ‘neurotransmitter cocktail’ is the moment we decide to buy that new ‘item’. After a brief euphoria and a short respite, the clock starts ticking on the next craving/purchase.

Adaptation executors

There is a shared mythology in America that we can each enjoy fame and opulence at the top of the social pyramid. 78% of Americans still believe that anybody in America can become rich and live the good life [23]. Although in our economic system, not everyone can be a Warren Buffet or Richard Branson — there are not enough resources — it is the carrot of potential reward that keeps people working 50 hours a week until they retire at 65. All cannot be first. All cannot be wealthy, which makes our current version of capitalism, given the finite resources of the planet, not dissimilar from a Ponzi scheme.

Envy for status is a strong motivator. Increasing evidence in the fields of psychology and economics shows that above a minimum threshold of income/wealth, it’s one’s relative wealth that matters, not absolute. In an analysis of more than 80,000 observations, the relative rank of an individual’s income predicted the individual’s general life satisfaction whereas absolute income and reference income had little to no effect. [24] The “aspiration gap” is economic-speak for the relative fitness/status drive towards who/what is at the top of the cultural status hierarchy. For decades (centuries?), China has had a moderate aspiration gap, but since the turbo-capitalist global cues have spread across Asia, hundreds of millions of Chinese have raised their pecuniary wealth targets.

Economist Robert Frank asked people in the US if they would prefer living in a 4,000-square-foot house where all the neighboring houses were 6,000 square feet or a 3,000-square-foot house where the surrounding houses were 2,000 square feet. The majority of people chose the latter — smaller in absolute terms but bigger in relative size. A friend of mine says that when he last visited Madagascar, the 5th poorest nation on earth, the villagers huddled around the one TV in the village watching the nation’s most popular TV show Melrose Place, giving them a window of desire into Hollywood glitz and glamour, and a beacon to dream about and strive for. Recently, a prince in the royal family of U.A.E. paid $14 million for a licence plate with the single numeral “1”. “I bought it because I want to be the best in the world”, Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri explained. What environmental cues do the kids watching TV in the U.A.E. or the U.S. receive?

As a species, we are both cooperative and competitive depending on the circumstances, but it’s very important to understand that our neurophysiological scaffolding was assembled during long mundane periods of privation in the ancestral environment. This is still not integrated into the Standard Social Science Model that forms the basis of most liberal arts educations (and economic theory). A new academic study on relative income as a primary driver of life satisfaction had over 50 references, none of which linked to the biological literature on status, sexual selection or relative fitness. Furthermore, increasing cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology research illustrates that we are not the self-interested ‘utility maximisers’ that economists claim, but are highly ‘other regarding’ — we care about other people’s welfare as well as our own. Though high-perceived relative fitness is a powerful behavioural carrot, inequality has pernicious effects on societies; it erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness, and leads to excessive consumption. [25] Health steadily worsens as one descends the social ladder, even within the upper and middle classes [26].

When a child is born, he has all the genetic material he will ever have. All his ancestors until that moment had their neural wiring shaped for fitness maximisation — but when he is born, his genes will interact with environment cues showing those ways to compete for status, respect, mating prospects, and resources etc. which are socially acceptable. From this point forward, the genes are ‘fixed’ and the infant goes through life as an ‘adaptation executor’ NOT a fitness maximiser. What will a child born in the 21st century ‘learn’ to compete for? Historically, we have always pursued social status, though status has been measured in dramatically different ways throughout history. Currently, most people pursue money as a short-cut fitness marker, though some compete in other ways — politics, knowledge, etc. Thus, a large looming problem is that the Chinese and other rapidly developing nations don’t just aspire to the wealth of average Americans — they want to go the whole hog to be millionaires.


We are a clever, ambitious species that evolved to live almost entirely off of solar flows. Eventually we worked out how to access stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels which required very little energy/natural resource input to extract. The population and growth trajectory that ensued eventually oversatisfied the “more is better” mantra of evolution and we’ve now developed a habit of requiring more fossil fuels and more clever ways to use them every year. There also exists a pervasive belief that human ingenuity will create unlimited substitutes for finite natural resources like oil and water. Put simply, it is likely that our abundant natural resources are not only required, but will be taken for granted until they are gone.

This essay has explored some of the underlying drivers of resource depletion and planetary consumption: more humans competing for more stuff that has more novelty. Our economic system turns natural resources into dollars, and then turns dollars into brain chemcials + waste. The self-ambition and curiosity that Adam Smith hailed as the twin engines of economic growth have been quite effective over the past 200 years. But Adam Smith did caution in Moral Sentiments that human envy and a tendency toward compulsions, if left unchecked, would undermine the empathic social relationships that would be essential to the successful long-term operation of free markets. Amidst so much novel choice and pressure to create wealth, we are discovering some uncomfortable facts, backed up by modern neurobiology, that confirm his concerns. In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from this ongoing American experiment conclusively shows that humans have trouble setting limits on our instinctual cravings. What’s more, our rational brains have quite a hard time acknowledging this uncomfortable but increasingly obvious fact.

This essay raises more questions than it answers. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc? The majority of the neuro-economic sources I used in writing this were a byproduct of studies funded by neuromarketing research! How does ‘rational utility’ function in a society where we are being expertly marketed to pull our evolutionary triggers to funnel the money upwards? How does Pareto optimality — the assumption that all parties to an exchange will be made better off — hold up when considering neuro-economic findings? Recent studies show that American young people (between ages of 8-18) use 7.5 hours of electronic media (internet, Ipod, Wii, etc) per day and, thanks to multi-tasking, had a total of 11 hours ‘gadget’ exposure per day! [27] The children with the highest hours of use had markedly poorer grades and more behavioural problems. How will these stimuli-habituated children adapt to a world of more expensive resources and the reversal of the labor subsidy (requiring more physical work on tasks)?

Not all people pursue money, but our cultural system does. An unbridled pursuit of profits has created huge disparities in digitally amassed monetary wealth both within and between nations, thus holding a perpetually unattainable carrot in front of most of the world’s population. It is not just the amount we consume that is unsustainable, but also the message we send to others, internationally, nationally and in our neighbourhoods.

Meeting in the middle? The arrowed circle on this Inglehart Curve represents the highest level of well-being/survival consistent with a low level of resource use. It is therefore a target at which a society should aim. (Source: N. Hagens and R. Inglehart 1997)

At the same time, traditional land, labour and capital inputs have been subsidised by the ubiquity of cheap energy inputs, and more recently by a large increase in both government and private debt, a spatial and temporal reallocator of resources. These cheap energy/cheap credit drivers will soon be a thing of the past, and this will curtail future global growth aspirations. When this happens, and we face the possibility of currency reform and what it might mean to start afresh with the same resources but a new basket of claims and assumptions, we will need to remember the neural backdrops of competition for relative status, and how people become habituated to high neural stimuli. Perhaps, given the supply-side limits and neural aspirations, some new goals can be attempted at lower absolute levels of consumption by at least partially lowering the amplitude of social rank.

We cannot easily change our penchant to want more. We can only change cultural cues on how we define the ‘more’ and thereby reduce resource use. In the cross-cultural study referenced in the diagram above, we can see that well-being increases only slightly as GNP increases above some minimum threshold. The arrowed circle would be a logical place for international policymakers concerned about planetary resource and sink capacity to aim to reach via taxes, disincentives to conspicuous consumption and subsidies. However, I fear that nations and governments will do little to slow their consumption and will get increasingly locked into defending the status quo instead.

In a society with significant overall surpluses, people who actively lower their own economic and ecological footprint might get by very well because their relative status — which is typically above average — allows them to make such reductions without reaching limits that compromise their well-being. As these people allocate time and resources away from financial marker capital and towards social, human, built and natural capital, they have an opportunity to redefine what sort of ‘wealth’ we compete for and thus potentially lead by example. However, personal experience with people in the lifestyle section of the chart leads me to believe that they will probably continue to pursue more resources and status even if it doesn’t improve their well-being.

Put aside peak oil and climate change for the moment. Though it is difficult, we have it in us as individuals and as a culture to make small changes to the way our brains get ‘hijacked’ and, as a result, achieve more benign consequences. For example, we can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending ten emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making business phone calls. But most of these types of choices require both prior planning and discipline if our brains are not to fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has created. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviours, and for some this will be harder than for others But in choosing to do so, besides slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop, we are likely to make ourselves healthier and happier. In neuro-speak, many of the answers facing a resource-constrained global society involve the rational neo-cortex suppressing and overriding the primitive and stronger limbic impulses.

So, ultimately, we must start to address new questions. In addition to asking source/sink questions like ‘how much do we have’ we should begin asking questions like ‘how much is enough?’ Reducing our addictive behaviours collectively will make it easier to face the situations likely to arise during an energy descent. Changing the environmental cues on what we compete for, via taxes or new social values, will slow down resource throughput and give future policymakers time to forge a new economic system consistent with our evolutionary heritage and natural resource balance sheet. We will always seek status and have hierarchies in human society but unless we first understand and then integrate our various demand-side constraints into our policies, culture and institutions, sustainability will be another receding horizon. Though there is probably no blanket policy to solve our resource crisis that would both work and gain social approval, an understanding of the main points of this essay might be a springboard to improve one’s own happiness and well-being. Which would be a start…


  1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0214_030214_genghis.html
  2. Darwin, C. (1871) The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex John Murray, London
  3. Miller, G. F. (1999). “Sexual selection for cultural displays” in R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture. Edinburgh U. Press, pp. 71-91
  4. Zahavi, A. and Zahavi, A. (1997). The handicap principle: a missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford University Press
  5. Dulawa et al, “Dopamine D4 Receptor-Knock-Out Mice Exhibit Reduced Exploration of Novel Stimuli”, Journal of NeuroScience, 19:9550-9556, 1999
  6. Gerald, M. S. & Higley, J. D. (2002) “Evolutionary Underpinnings of Excessive Alcohol Consumption”. Addiction, 97, 415–425.
  7. Whybrow, Peter, “American Mania”
  8. Waelti, P., Dickinson, A. and Schultz, W.: “Dopamine responses comply with basic assumptions of formal learning theory”. Nature 412: 43-48, 2001
  9. Rescorla R.A., Wagner A.R., “A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement” in: Classical Conditioning II: Current Research and Theory (Eds Black A.H., Prokasy W.F.) New York: Appleton Century Crofts, pp. 64-99, 1972
  10. Schultz, W., et al., “A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward”, Science, 275 :1593-1599.
  11. Dudley, R. (2002) “Fermenting Fruit and the Historical Ecology of Ethanol Ingestion: Is Alcoholism in Modern Humans an Evolutionary Hangover?” Addiction, 97, 381–388.
  12. Dodd et al., “Pathological Gambling Caused by Drugs Used to Treat Parkinson Disease”, Arch Neurol. 2005;62:1377-1381
  13. Popkin, Barry. “The World Is Fat”, Scientific American, September, 2007, pp. 94. ISSN 0036-8733.
  14. Ernst, M., Epstein, L. “Habituation of Responding for Food in Humans”, Appetite Volume 38, Issue 3, June 2002, Pages 224-234
  15. Johnson, P., Kenny, P., “Addiction-Like Reward Dysfunction and Compulsive Eating in Obese Rats: Role for Dopamine D2 Receptors”, Nature: Neuroscience 3/28/2010
  16. Chablis et al, “Intertemporal Choice” — The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2007
  17. Madden et al., “Impulsive and Self-Control Choices in Opioid-Dependent Patients and Non-Drug Using Control Participants: Drug and Monetary Rewards”, Environmental and Clinical Psychopharmacology (1997), Vol 5 No 3 256-262
  18. Giorodano, L et al, “Mild opioid deprivation increases the degree that opioid-dependent outpatients discount delayed heroin and money”, Psychopharmacology (2002) 163: 174-182
  19. Schor, Juliet, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, Harper Perennial 1999
  20. Easterlin, Richard “Explaining Happiness” September 4, 2003, 10.1073/pnas.1633144100 (Especially Table 3)
  21. Couppis, M., Kennedy C., “The rewarding effect of aggression”, Psychopharmacology, Volume 197, Number 3 / April, 2008
  22. Erk, S, M Spitzer, A Wunderlich, L Galley, H Walter “Cultural objects modulate reward circuitry.” Neuroreport. 2002 Dec 20;13 (18):2499-503 12499856
  23. Samuelson, Robert, “Ambition and it Enemies” Newsweek Aug 23, 1999
  24. Boyce, C., et al, “Money and Happiness — Rank of Income, Not Income, Affects Life Satisfaction”, Psychological Science Feb 2010
  25. Wilkinson, Richard; Pickett, Kate “The Spirit Level – Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”, Bloomsbury Press 2010
  26. Marmot, Michael, “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity”, Holt Publishing 2005
  27. Generation M2 – Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds, Kaiser Family Foundation 2010

A great article, Nate. I also have strong memories of the original article, on which I seem to recall making a similar comment.

In terms of practical living, one way I have greatly improved my own life is by restricting television viewing. In my opinion, excessive TV watching both induces and amplifies depression, in additon to having the pernicious effects that you mention. Nowadays I watch only the occasional four-star movie on Turner Classic Movies or a Minnesota Twins baseball game on TV. Yet I have access to over a hundred channels.

I feel sorry for those who have the TV on most of the time.

Attributing "bad practices" to psychology will be appropriate sometimes, but sometimes...it's blaming the victim.

In the US today, the average person is a victim of aggressive propaganda: misinformation and emotional manipulation.

"...The Tea Party movement, which is threatening to cause an upset in next month's midterm elections, would not be where it is today without the backing of that most traditional of US political supporters – Big Oil.

The billionaire brothers who own Koch Industries, a private company with 70,000 employees and annual revenues of $100bn (£62bn), used to joke that they controlled the biggest company nobody had ever heard of.

Not any more. After decades during which their fortune grew exponentially and they channelled millions of dollars to rightwing causes, Charles and David Koch are finally getting noticed for their part in the extraordinary growth of the Tea Party movement.

The two, 74-year-old Charles and David, 70, have invested widely in the outcome of the 2 November elections."



"Poor Exxon. They used to be the oil company that everybody loved to hate. This spawn of the Standard Oil breakup had it all: Obscene profits, the Exxon Valdez, a mean CEO who sneered at clean energy, blatant funding for climate deniers.

But now, the new ExxonMobil is just not that special anymore.

It turns out that all the big oil companies are buying elections, paying front-groups to spread lies about climate change and dumping their tiny investments in clean energy while continuing to put out soft-focus ads touting how green and socially responsible they are. And they just don’t seem to care that much about preventing oil spills either.

In these days of peak greed, you have to drill pretty deep in the oil patch to find the worst of the worst.

A real gusher

Well, after coming up with a bunch of dry holes, the environmental and government-reform movements seem to have found the activist equivalent of Old Spindletop: Charles and David Koch."

See http://transitionvoice.com/2011/02/more-reasons-to-hate-the-koch-brothers/

Good points. While it is important to know this psychology and physiology, it is even more important to know that various corporations know this stuff far better than we ever will and are using it every day to turn us all into ever more slavish debt serfs.

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This should be required reading for anyone interested in projections of energy demand.

Shopping can take many forms, and transportation choices are right at the top with respect to dopamine hits.

While not many can afford this;

...they often go for the lower cost substitute;

... or the bubba-macho substitute;

EVs are more fun than ICE vehicles - better acceleration, quieter, lower center of gravity, etc.

They call it the "EV grin".

When the temperature is minus forty (Celsius and Farenheit are the same at this point) tell me about my EV grin.

My present car is gasoline fueled, and if I replace it I may get a thrifty TDI diesel from VW, but it will remain an ICE car. I think it will take fifteen to twenty years for EV to outcompete ICE cars, and I'm taking westexas's ELM model seriously.

Having said all that, I would still like to have an EV, though how to heat the vehicle during cold Minnesota winters is a problem. Oh well, I'll probably stop driving completely in ten years or so.

When the temperature is minus forty (Celsius and Farenheit are the same at this point) tell me about my EV grin.

1) ICE cars tend not to start at that temperature as well. The answer is old: plug in the car. ICEs use engine block heaters, EVs will use battery heaters.

2) EREVs like the Chevy Volt can use their backup ICE to heat the battery.

I may get a thrifty TDI diesel from VW

Oddly, the Jetta diesel MPG is only about 16% higher than the gas version, and 13.6% of the 16% (or 85%) comes from a higher hydrocarbon density in diesel fuel (which tends to be reflected in a higher price, and is certainly reflected in higher CO2 emissions).

It's a bigger gap than that, probably more like 30% - the VW diesels get excellent mileage, especially with a manual transmission.

The Jetta Gasoline and Diesel versions on Edmunds:

Gas Diesel
Price $15,458 $23,452
MPG 24/34 30/42
MPG average 29 36
Monthly Fuel Cost $146 $129
Average Cost/Mile $0.41 $0.47

So my memory was wrong: a 21% MPG premium. But, higher costs per mile.

Just a thought: I have several relatives who've had both gas and diesel Jettas. The diesel models seem to last longer: My wife's gas Jetta engine crapped out at about 200,000 miles (regular dealer maintenance). My brother-in-law had 2 diesels. Both engines exceeded 300,000 miles (he travels alot), and put over 450k on one with a minor rebuild (running B-100 when he could). He swears by the VW diesels because of their longevity.

It is well established that diesels outlive gasoline engines, often by 2:1, or more, before needing a rebuild.

Nick's numbers for the Jetta are not quite right though,

From the VW US site, the Tdi costs $23k, and a similarly equipped gasoline version is $21.3k, so the price difference is not that great, it is just that you don;t get the option of the bare bones model in diesel.

From VW's australian website, the Jetta comes in the same two options as the US, the 2L gas and 2L diesel, but also in two options with smaller engines. Prices were not there, but typically for cars you pay $1.5-3k premium for diesel, and fuel prices are equally expensive for both.

2L gas, 22city/39hwy
2L diesel 30/47

1.4L gas 29/42
1.6Ldiesel 40/55

So, because of the attitudes of American drivers, VW does not even bother bringing in their most economical models - you can get diesel like economy just with a smaller gasoline engine!

But with the smaller diesel you can get better still, matching Prius hwy economy.

If there was any real culture or fuel conservation in the US, they would bring in these models - but there isn't so they don't, of course.

Hybrids are great, but the real challenge is getting more (not all) American drivers to accept smaller cars, and, somehow, to get the carmakers to start bringing them in.

Hybrids, EREVs and EVs have the same problem of comparability.

For instance, the interior finish and performance of the Volt are comparable to ICE vehicles in the same price range, but people tend to compare it to economy cars.

So, the next question: is the 1.6L diesel comparable to the Prius in terms of interior room, options/finishes and performance?

My 2005 tdi routinely gets 50-55 highway, 45-50 mixed while driving pretty carefully. Fillup every 600 miles. Of course it has the older stinky fuel injection which was upgraded in the 2009 models. More importantly, the auto program here is to live close to essential services, walk and bike etc. Last fillup, diesel was more than a dollar more expensive than regular gas. Don't know if that was an anomally.

ICEs use engine block heaters, EVs will use battery heaters.

At -40 it is advisable to use a battery heater as well as a block heater for ICE as well. Note an hour on a trickle charger wil prewarm a lead-acid car battery. Of course if you run electric resistance heating in an electric car, your range will be severely impacted.
Diesels are also problematic at low temps. The cyllinder must be preheated (via electrical resistance heater) so that compression ignition will work. In the old technology (I had a diesel PU 25years ago) the unassisted limit was only about 0F! I still think gas ICE is best for such conditions.

That's not true. My son has run his VW TDI here in Canada for over 15 years, and winter starting is NOT a problem. In Toronto conditions even the block heater is optional (he never uses it, even down to minus 25C). Tell your Pickup manufacturer to investigate glow-plugs, which are continuously heated hot ignition points in the combustion chamber, battery pre-heated for 15 seconds before starting and shut off once the engine starts. That's how the VW cold-starts. If the glow-plugs fail, the engine simply won't cold-start.

The diesel starts more reliably in winter than many of our neighbour's gas engines.

I think the issue here is less mechanical than comfort. Research and experience tell us that ICE engines will consistently start at -40, although it is always better to pre-heat. But it takes the best part of a long, cold hour to warm up the cabin. It did help to put an electric resistance room heater in the van to clear the internal frost and reduce the breakage of plastic parts. However, unless I had some very good reason I would never take the van below -20; on the bicycle I was pleasantly warm in minutes and pretty hard to overheat (unless I overdressed).

I have this feeling that an electrical resistance heater is going to put a big dent in EV endurance. A heated steering wheel (a lot of motorcyclists now appreciate this) would probably be more efficient; driving in arctic mittens isn't much fun.

Apparently the VW Lupo 3L had this problem - the engine was so small that the waste heat wouldn't warm the cabin.

The old VW Beetles back in the fifties and sixties had this problem of inadequate heaters. To solve the problem, separate gasoline heaters were sold to keep the interiors warm. They worked well.

Its been almost twenty years since I lived in such a climate, but I can remember being the ONLY vehicle out and about at -30F (-35C) in northern Wisconsin. I I had used a block heater, and prewarmed the battery -plus added cardboard to the grill. Have cars improved so much that the average unprepared Joe doesn't have problems at -40?

The big problem isn't making the cabin toasty warm -you should be wearing clothes capable of sustaining outside -i.e. if you breakdown say. But I remember a tough time driving home in the 79 Suburu (14F with supercooled fog droplets that froze on the windshields). Vehicles with bigger engines had no problems, their defrosters were capable of getting the windshild above freezing. Cabin temperature is mere comfort, but being able to see is crucial if you want to operate the vehicle.

In any case, only a few percent of the population lives where this is a real concern. EVs don't have to be a good solution for every place and purpose to be useful.

Moral being don't live in ridiculously cold climates unless you want to live like an Eskimo.

EVs don't have to be a good solution for every place and purpose to be useful.

That's one of the reason's why the Prius is so good in Yellowknife, despite the city only being 5 km across & powered by mostly hydro, EV's should be perfect, if it were not so cold!

Have cars improved so much

My understanding is that the engines are the same but the engine oil is so much better. All my airplane manuals have pages and pages of oil dilution charts & procedures; now we just use multigrade. I used 0W20 but I've seen 0W40 which should allow you to drive from Tuktoyuktuk to Puerto Arenas without changing your oil...

The logical next step is a plug-in Prius. Then expand the battery...

I'd say the TDI's match more expensive cars on comfort. The stereo is loud enough to put cows off of their milk as I drive by. The seats are leather. This is the cheap VW... the Jetta. My sister's Passat (also TDI is much higher end, but it doesn't really feel like that much of a difference inside. I think the suspension on the Passat is better but that's about it. The rear seats fold down, and I've used this Jetta to transport construction materials and to move a lot of my stuff... it's the simple functional efficient vehicle that GM should be able to do well, but doesn't. I've got a moonroof and heated seats that are ridiculous. I got this vehicle 2nd hand for $8k and put 50k miles on it so far with minimal work and maintenance.

Diesels need to preheat their fuel, but the Jetta does a good job of that and I've almost never had a problem with cold weather starts (we had -20 this winter). Vastly different from older diesels I've worked with (like 24V K10 trucks from the mid 80's where if it gets that cold, it isn't going.) Oh yeah, and the heated seats do make the blower redundant. I've actually driven with the roof open in midwinter. Heated seats are probably how the EV's will go... and the heated wheel is not a bad idea - I had heated grips on my bike and rode in a freak snowstorm in Alaska when my friends had to stop to put their hands on their engine blocks. Consider that the electric grips on a BMW bike are on a 10A at 12V circuit (and it can't actually be that high - I never burned a fuse)... that's a 120W max... not significant on a EV.

Yet another TOD thread veers off into obsessive chatter about... cars!

Talk about hijacking the dopamine reward system...

Here's my car-culture statistical contribution for the day: On average, American Carmageddon kills more people, every single month than the total fatalities at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and all the hijacked flights on 9/11/2001.

Americans think car-crashes constitute a natural cause of death.

Hi kalliergo,

It is indeed strange that we (in the US) so docilely accept around 40,000 deaths a year from car violence. It reminds one of Orwellian strategies (an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past) – in this case the contribution to economic growth by the car industries appears to be justification for turning a blind eye to the facts of violent deaths caused by cars: 33,000 to 53,000 deaths per year for the last 20 years:


It is puzzling, but not because driving isn't valuable, but because these deaths are preventable.

It all goes back to cost-benefit analysis. Look at all the lives (not to mention the fuel) that would be saved if we went back to the World War II speed limit of 35 m.p.h. But we like to drive fast, so now the trend is toward raising speed limits above 80 m.p.h. in some places, such as Texas.

People don't worry about dying or being mutilated in car accidents. What they are more likely to worry about is being slowed down in traffic jams. (Hence we build more lanes to widen highways, though research shows that this approach does not work. The additional lanes attract more cars.)

Look at all the lives (not to mention the fuel) that would be saved if we went back to the World War II speed limit of 35 m.p.h.

Highway driving is much, much safer than city driving, and accounts for a small % of deaths.

Highway driving is much, much safer than city driving, and accounts for a small % of deaths.

Not even close to true. Refer to FARS. If you don't know what FARS is, I strongly suggest you learn about it before posting more on this subject.

No, it really is.

I should clarify - I'm talking about limited access highways, not rural high speed driving.

IIRC, it's about 1 death per billion miles.

I looked at FARS and NHTSA for a bit, but I couldn't find the right tables....

OK, Nick, but you've now completely changed the meaning of your post.

The FARS table you want is here:


No matter how one tries to spin it, higher speeds are associated with more fatalities. You can't effectively base analysis on the "urban" and "rural" categories NHTSA uses, unless you follow the breakdowns to specific road type.

For instance:

Urban-Principal Arterial-Interstate
Urban-Principal Arterial-Other Freeways or Expressways
Urban-Other Principal Arterial
Urban-Minor Arterial
Urban-Local Road or Street
Unknown Urban

It would be hard to know which of those you had in mind when you told us "city" driving caused more fatalities.

Although it is not true that city driving results in more direct fatalities, it is certainly true that private automobiles have made many cities noisy, smelly, dangerous and unlivable, especially for everyone not in cars.

How could it be otherwise? In a typical "modern" American city, between 40% and 50% of total land area is dedicated to streets and roads, automobile parking & driveways, gas stations, car dealers, traffic signals & signs, car dealerships, repair shops and other auto-related businesses, etc.

Think about the social, cultural and economic implications of that.

When you review the FARS tables, you can, among many other things, view victim categories. Here's a victim classification I like to keep in plain sight:


Worldwide, more than 260,000 children are killed every year in traffic crashes, while another 10 million are seriously injured (many permanently crippled or maimed). For humans on Planet Earth, these crashes are the leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 24.

The automobile, especially the urban automobile, is the elephant in the living room of our built environment.

you've now completely changed the meaning of your post.

Yes, I was thinking loosely of "highway".

higher speeds are associated with more fatalities.

If all else is equal. But....it's not. High speed driving can be moved to limited access roads which are very, very safe. Look at your table: only about 2,350 deaths occurred on 4 or more lane divided highways, despite their very high % of passenger miles (the average number of passengers is higher on freeways).

My point: reducing speed limits to 35 would be an extremely costly way to make driving safer. There are far better ways to accomplish the same thing.

Hi Nick,

Driving is valuable? Our car culture certainly does not place much value on a wide variety of resource and environmental factors.

It seems to me that "mobility" is our actual goal for a variety of reasons (not all good):


Preventing human deaths is not the only factor worth considering in trying to determine the most sustainable and planet friendly form of human mobility. I know you greatly value EVs and I would agree that a 35 mph (top speed with governor) NEV could play a useful role.

It seems to me that "mobility" is our actual goal...

Well, the extent to which we (are forced to) rely upon mobility in daily life is actually driven, for the most part, by the configuration of our built environment.

Let's agree that we "need" housing, work, food, recreation, etc. Transportation is necessary to access these things when they are located farther from each other than it is desirable to walk.

Build them far apart, rigidly segregate uses (and socioeconomic classes), build long, wide roads to connect all those places and--Presto!--mobility (a specific kind of mobility: the personal vehicle) is required to access them.

But the goal isn't really mobility, it's accessibility. We've become confused.

kalliergo - I agree with your thought about accessibility - a more accurate refinement of my mobility wording. However, I'm not convinced that high density cities are the best solution either. I can envision other configurations that don't embrace our car culture. But, a different discussion for a different essay. Mostly I was agreeing with you about how easily we veer of course and start talking about cars.

Agreed. Another time (it's a discussion that we are in desperate need of conducting).

It was only the point relating to the for-profit hijacking of the dopamine reward systems of continents full of humans (evidenced, here, by the tendency of Car Talk chats to pop up anywhere & anytime) that was germane to the current subject.

Again, that's way too much emphasis on a disrespectful assessment of other people.

That discussion was entirely on point.

It's a disrespectful assessment of a tendency I don't believe deserves respect, not of people.

Car Chatter is always assumed to be on point, on TOD as in much of the western world.

Elephant. Living room.

Useful thing. Relevant questions.

Housing in urban areas with sufficient density to eliminate personal transportation tends to cost about $5,000 per sq meter.

A location with a very high walkability score and a commute to work in an electric train has a stiff premium - it's not something that most people can afford.l

I don't see a need to save .1kWh/mile by reducing speed dramatically - that's about $.6 savings per extra hour of travel.

Heck, EV power demand actually helps accelerate wind power installation by providing the night time demand it needs.

Heck, EV power demand actually helps accelerate wind power installation by providing the night time demand it needs.

Uh-huh. Just what the world needs: justification for massive amounts of additional electric production.

And then, there's the grid.

Call your local electric utility and ask them how many plug-in vehicles their distribution network can handle, today, in your neighborhood, and about their plans and funding to upgrade capacity by about 30% per household (assuming one plug-in each). It would probably be wise to inquire about recharging opportunities at other places you frequent, also.

Please don't tell me about the possibilities of smart grids. Just let me know where and at what cost the upgrades are happening now and in the immediate future.

Will Electric Cars Wreck the Grid?

Maybe Treasury can sell China another trillion bucks in securities to fund the grid improvements if we guarantee them with purchase orders for the EV's that will be bought under "The Very Biggest Cash for Clunkers Program You Can Imagine!"

My local electric utility would really like more night-time load, and the local grid is built for irrigation pumps and 200 amp residential services.

By the way, they have just ordered the local windfarms off-line due to too much water. Apparently if they spill that much over the dam instead of through the dam's turbines it will harm the local fish population.

Just what the world needs: justification for massive amounts of additional electric production.

In fact, it is exactly what the world needs. The world needs more wind power, but wind power suffers from the problem that it produces more power at night, when demand is low. EVs provide night time demand, and make wind power more economically viable. This is a very good thing.

Call your local electric utility and ask them how many plug-in vehicles their distribution network can handle, today, in your neighborhood, and about their plans and funding to upgrade capacity by about 30% per household (assuming one plug-in each).

They're very excited at the prospect. Their network would handle it just fine, given that it would be less than a 20% increase, and it would happen over 20 years!

Yes, if a bunch of people in a single block start charging simultaneously, it might be problem. That's a pretty minor planning problem in the larger scheme of things. We should have such problems...

One thing that gets electricity suppliers even more excited that night charging is the prospect of being able to use all these EV batteries as a spinning reserve through controllable bi-directional battery chargers.

If anything, this scheme will reduce the peak demands on the grid.

From my read of battery research, it is likely that most EVs will have an effective range of more than 250 km within 10 years, largely helped by dramatically higher specific energy in the battery. Thie means that in most cases, the battery will remain more then 50% charged at the end of the day and be able to supply energy to the grid during the peak times.

This talk of frozen batteries got me looking. My LiFePo EV battery is based on organic solvents and is usable down to about -40 C/F, although it only delivers about 80% of its best energy at -35C. No need to heat these, particularly since I live in a part of the world that never gets below freezing.

it is likely that most EVs will have an effective range of more than 250 km within 10 years, largely helped by dramatically higher specific energy in the battery. Thie means that in most cases, the battery will remain more then 50% charged at the end of the day and be able to supply energy to the grid during the peak times.

Heck, the average car only travels 50 km per day, so the current Nissan Leaf will mostly be more than 50% charged at the end of the day.

It's more than mobility. Think of a car as an exoskeleton and look at what a puny human is physically capable of once they get into a car. The risk is far outweighed by the sheer effectiveness a human has on the world when enabled by their automobile.

Good point. And let's not forget that part of the power the puny human in the big (or even not so big) has is the power to kill.

When you are driving in a car, you are going around with a loaded gun often pointing directly at people.

That we call fatalities that result from this behavior "accidents" is a bit bizarre.

If I continually walked around with a loaded shotgun pointed at peoples heads, I doubt that many would be persuaded by my plea that "It was an accident" if it went off and killed or maimed someone.

Great article, Nate.

If GNP/Capita in the Inglehart curve were plotted against the UN quality of life rating, or some such measure, I suspect the "Economic Gains" leg, where most of the world lives, would be _much_ longer than the "Lifestyle" leg, where we, the privileged minority, live. As you said, the folks clawing their way up the gains leg probably won't be satisfied with stopping in the middle.

What implications does that have for what would have to be accepted to transition to using less energy?

I don't think Veblen was a 19th century economist: most of his economics work was in the 20th, and all his books were except Theory of the Leisure Class which was 1899 (turn of the century).

He was kick-ass, though.

That was a nice essay Nate, I just wish this knowledge of human behavior was unavailable to corporate strategists whose primary goal is to sell more product often by manipulating our minds. Generally speaking, corporate advertisers are most interested in encouraging our limbic systems to purchase products while creating a mirage of rationality to satisfy the neocortex. Stoke the fires of desire and provide a convenient reason for the neocortex to execute the purchase.

How can we change when our entire society is organized around this predatory activity? I tend to agree with Morris Berman who wrote “Dark Ages America.” In essence he believes that the gradual disintegration and collapse of capitalist societies will be the result of our inviolable idiocy. In essence we've become a nation of liars and hustlers, each working an agenda for self-enrichment, everyone else be damned. And be damned we will.

I think many TOD readers would find his blog of interest.


Personally I have no interest in advertisements that suggest that I need the latest fast car or a Rolex watch. I am occasionally interested in ads that give information about new books, new movies etc. Perhaps there needs to be more acceptance of human diversity. Some individuals love to read, some like music and many are obsessed with the opposite (or same) sex. And things change over time. I can recall once being obsessed with playing basketball - every day! At some of the web sites I enjoy posters are often obsessed with billionaires. Is this due to jealousy? Others are obsessed with politics - perhaps believing that they are actually going to make a difference. It is true that billionaires such as George Soros, Oprah and the Koch brothers can generate noise. Many other billionaires donate to various foundations and charities. I doubt that we should try to lump large segments of the population into identical pleasure circuit patterns

I have no interest in ...

Yeah. Fine.
But what about the other "you"?
And the one next to that other?

The second rule of Fight Club is that the other "you" never talks about Fight Club either.
[ i.mage.+]

Dopamine, this information is available to corporate strategists. In fact, it's used in big business marketing every minute of every day.

That's the problem. Big business marketing is a trillion-dollar-a-year operation that utterly dominates our culture. Unless we address capitalism directly, we are toast.

Neo-Darwinian speculation about the biological roots of human susceptibility, meanwhile, does little to move us in that direction. In fact, it might move us in the wrong direction, by reinforcing the myth that it's individual choice, rather than dominant institutions, that are the main issue.

While the impulses and drives you describe may be due to neurophysiological causes, how they are manifested in individual behaviors and social systems is due to culture as well.

The Western Culture that begins on the northern plains of Europe around 1000 AD is largely responsible for the curent expression of these drives as overconsumption. Perhaps it is the expanse of the plains shorn of their forests, the openness of the marshes or the wide Atlantic that initiates the concept of limitlessness of space. Backgrounds with horizons enter painting, with perspectives leading infinitely to the vanishing point on the horizon. The point of the Gothic arch symbolizes indefinite height, and astronomy destroys the sphere on which the stars are painted in favor of vast distances to planets and stars. The age of exploration ensues, continents are claimed for God and country. Heirarchies grow, both ecclesiastical and noble, and man's place is related to his position on these vertical scales. Mathematics based on the infinite and infinitesimal enables the precise characterization of scientfic principles. Progress results from the control of and expansion in a limitless space of resources and knowledge. (Apologies to Spengler.)

There is an unbroken Western cultural tradition that ties rather small towns building rather large cathedrals to people buying large houses beyond their means.

What is more difficult to see is the culture that will replace the West.

A hint is that the second half of the 20th century saw the beginning of a new realization of the finiteness of man's environment as the pictures of the "blue marble" came back from the first space travel. It became obvious that man's space is not the limitless space of physics, but is instead a bounded spherical shell. If the earth is mapped to a 1 meter diameter globe, then essentially all human activity occurs within 1 mm above or below the surface. And most human activity takes place within a few microns of the surface -- we spend our lives in a thin film on a large ball.

Besides the vertical boundedness, there is also the two-dimensional boundedness of the spherical shell. Within this shell everything is interconnected. There is a complex web of interactions at the physical level, the biosphere level, the human economic level, and the human communications level. The importance of the vertical dimension and the heirarchy is diminished. What grows in importance is the connection, the network, the voluntary joining and horizontal interactions.

Peak Oil and Climate Change are both part of a this emergent new culture. Some tension between them is natural as they compete to establish their position within the new culture of limitation, connectedness, and complexity.

Nicely put.

Two points.

The seeds of an expansionist enterprise likely go back earlier than 1000 AD. The discovery of the wheel and the domestication of the horse and other draft animals helped create (or were created by?) a culture that valued movement and wide open spaces.

On the other end of your time line, more resources have been extracted from the earth (and burned, in the case of ff) since the first picture of the blue marble came out than in all the time before. So if this new picture of our self as living on a limited, fragile film is taking hold, it seems to be taking its time manifesting itself in lowered consumption rates, etc.

Modern man evolved from earlier hominids under conditions of privation and scarcity at least until about 10,000 years ago. The period since then has been too short a time to make a significant change to millions of years of prior neural sculpture. Nature made the brain’s survival systems incredibly efficient. The brain is based on about 40% of all our available genes and consumes over 20% of our calorific intake. Incremental changes in how our brains recognise, process and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out.

If it is the case that early hominids evolved under conditions of privation and scarcity, and I pretty much accept that it is, then Homo sapiens should be uniquely adapted to survival in the post peak oil age. Not that that survival, will necessarily be peaceful or pleasant. I believe it could be but that is another discussion entirely.

However there is something that has bothered me a bit, for a while now, with regards our cultural evolution and how we, especially in the technologically advanced societies, who have incorporated into our personas a vast array of what can best be describe as brain extensions or prostheses so to speak will be able to deal with some of the coming loss.

To clarify what I'm talking about I'd like to quote from http://revminds.seedmagazine.com/revminds/member/lambros_malafouris/

Lambrous Malafouris
University of Cambridge

The mainstream approach to cognition holds that it happens in the mind and that material culture is nothing more than an outgrowth of our mental capacities. Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it. Take, for instance, a blind man's stick. "Where does the blind man end and the rest of the world begin?" he says. "You might see the stick as something external, but it plays a very important role in the perceptual system of this person. It extends the boundaries of this human—the stick becomes an integral part of the cognitive architecture."

If material culture is an extension of human cognition, our engagement with it has actively shaped the evolution of human intelligence, Malafouris argues. For example, ancient clay tablets that allowed people to actually write down records were not mere objects, he says. Instead, they became integral adjuncts of the human memory system. The invention of such a technology "changes the structure of the human mind," says Malafouris, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. Rather than happening wholly in the head, he argues, cognition develops and evolves through the interplay between intelligence and material culture.

If he is right, and I suspect he may be onto something, then those of us who have integrated technology into our lives at the highest level may be the most reluctant to power down if we feel that powering down might mean the loss of some of our most cherished 'blind man's sticks'. For example our cars might be in a sense extensions of our minds that allow us to expand our reach in a very real sense. What blind man after using a stick would want to go back to feeling his way around with his bare hands? Though in my case, at least I might be willing to give up my car if I could keep my internet connection... It allows me to reach much further and more quickly and I could take it with me on a leisurely train ride or even on a sailboat while sailing across the Atlantic.


I always felt James Burke's series "Connections" and "The Day The Universe Changed" contained some excellent insights and observations in relating the human condition to technology.
Some of the comments he makes can seem a bit precious in hindsight but I still find his thoughts quite fascinating and illuminating.
His remarks in this short clip seem remarkably sanguine to me now, predicting the possibility of the role of computer technology in enabling a Utopian world society to arise.
All on YouTube and worth watching, IMO.


Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it.

I think he does have a good point. However must of that culture to brain change is due to the plasticity of the brain, rather than to a change of the genetic structure of the species. I however strongly disagree with Nate, about 10,000 years being too short for substantial genetic changes. It really depends strongly on the strength of the selection pressure. An obvious example of huge changes within a few tens of generations are dog breeds. Size/weight can differ by almost 40times across breeds. So our reservoir of genes, has probably evolved considerably since the hunter-gatherer stage, and a lot of social selection from the agricultural age should have made its mark. I don't disagree, with Nates basic discription of the sources of our urges and motivations, its just that I think brain evolution can probably be substantial over periods of as short as several hundred years.

Supposedly native north americans are far more susceptible to the ill effects of alchohol, because their culture didn't have alchohol, so negative selection against alcholhism that ocurred in other cultures hadn't operated. So I think our gene pool is still actively evolving, however the pace of cultural change currently overwhelms it.

Someone asked about this the other day, and I pointed out that geneticists have recently found that Tibetans acquired their ability to survive on a much diminished concentration of oxygen in just a couple thousand years.

Of course, we will have some pretty extreme and basic changes to adapt to in the next decades and centuries. I'm not sure we can adapt very well to a planet that is 6-10 degrees C hotter than our current one.

Thanks, Fred...and I think you've nailed the reason why I've rejected smart phones and Facebook (but not TOD, yet).

And thanks, Nate! "Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating.."

I've been called good,, even great, but I've only been called the "best of the best" twice, and this is the second time.

While I need to re-read the article (it's the end of a long day), I find the comments on addiction fascinating: One wonders how many of history's great thinkers were addicts; short circuiting distractions. The list is long, and I'll bet that many of TOD's best contributors belong in this fold. Just sayin'....

p.s. A Whip-Poor-Will and a Yellow-breasted Chat are having a mate-fest outside our bedroom window (OH PLEASE, BABY, COME AND GET IT!). They'll sing all night (we've been there..) Too bad humans are so much more complicated.

May as well stay up.. Cheers!

Its the one armed bandit, Nate.

I guess the one eyed bandit is used for the romp in the woods..

Most of us are evolutionary peasant farmers immersed in a lifetime of 'Stockholm syndrome'. We do strange irrational addictions to distract us from the daily futility, and to break up the boredom with highs and lows. I don't think the TV, personal car, marketing and now the internet, have helped.Stimuli is like food - we are designed to be very happy with small amounts, and oversupply causes mental obesity.
The majority of humans are not involved in some sociopathic evolutionary competion. Unfortunately, a large and very damaging minority are.


Very insightful, as usual.

I didn't see anything up above about the positive feedback loop between business, growth, and addicted customers.

The best customers for a growth-oriented business are the ones who are incurably addicted to an addictive product produced exclusively by an efficiently run business concern.

Think StarBucks
Think Tobacco
Think Booze
Think of the Power-and-Glory of a Fast & Furious oil-powered power machine

sb - And think of Blue Bell ice cream and a freezer on an offshore rig filled with a dozen different flavors. At 60 yo that thought still keeps me yearning for my next offshore gig. With 35 years experience, lots of gray hair and bad knees you would think I'd be content sitting behind a desk. Guess it's like some old actors who can't give up the grease paint: still long for a midnight bowl of BBIC and the squeal of the driller's brake. LOL

sb - And think of Blue Bell ice cream and a freezer on an offshore rig filled with a dozen different flavors. At 60 yo that thought still keeps me yearning for my next offshore gig.


Rockman, it's interesting to note the little things that can motivate people. I wonder if the drilling companies know this about BBIC (and exploit it)?

Is there anything else that makes you yearn for the offshore rig, similar to how sailors yearn to be back at sea?

Will -- I've seen some hands get down right ugly with the cooks when they run out of BBIC.

Yearnings? To be serious(just for a moment) we all like to feel relevent. Sitting in an office by yourself drawing maps for months on end a geologist can feel a bit disconnected from the process. My last regular offshore gig was a real time pore pressure analyst on DW GOM wells. The PPA helps the drillers keep the right mud weight in the hole. Tends to help prevent blow outs. Always a good thing. A number of others watch after the same process also. But it certainly does heighten one's sense of relevence to know your part of ongoing process trying to prevent the loss of a $700 million drill rig, a 100+ lives and the environment. Let alone protecting your own butt. These days I don't spend as much time on the rigs but I do have full control of safety matters on all our drilling operations so I can be very relenent at a distance. Just ask the folks I chew out as needed. LOL.

Other than that after 35 years experience life on an offshore rig generally sucks IMHO.

I've seen some hands get down right ugly with the cooks when they run out of BBIC.

That confirms a story a colleague of mine once told me -- he managed a rig at one point. His instructions to a chef he hired went as follows: "You are in charge of the ice cream and peanut butter supply. If either of these runs out, you are fired. Don't even come by my office and try to explain, just get on the next chopper headed for shore." Two weeks later, the ice cream ran out and the chef did exactly as he was told, left without a word :)

Addicted to oil. Our cities are controlled by a toll-way mafia

Sydney now beyond point of no return

Tollopoly on Sydney's orbital


The comments on this posting could comprise a psychological study. There seems to be a lot of avoidance in the comments. I think that when you get too close to the fearful and primitive core of the human mind, light and breezy topics pop-up spontaneously to short circuit any true self-examination.

Seems like a new Mecca is taking hold in Kentucky, first the Creationist Museum and now the Noah's Ark theme park. Kentucky's governor endorsed tax incentives for it's construction just this week. No critical self-examination there. Why bother? With a WWJD (what would Jesus do) bracelet on one wrist and a magnetic bracelet on the other, there's nothing that can hold us back. USA! We're number one. God bless America everbody. Pass the Cheetos please.

Great article establishing the role of dopamine, novelty, and unpredicted reward in human behavior (and resource depletion), but one drawback, I think, is that it implies that material wealth is the only way to novelty and unexpected reward. This article presents our current trajectory as a foregone conclusion.

I think this would be correct, if it weren't for the fact that we have found many less resource-intensive, more-direct ways to create novelty, unexpected rewards, and dopamine release: DRUGS!

The article implies that drug addiction is a bad thing, but would it not be preferable to automobile addiction or McMansion addiction? What if a person could be really, truly satisfied with a dirt hovel, adequate food and other resources to stay alive and healthy, and a pile of cocaine? Wouldn't it be more intelligent for our society, considering its upcoming resource constraints, to actually steer people towards that?

Where I see the real potential, though, is psychedelics. They can easily serve as an infinite novelty generator. Time and time again, they will produce totally unexpected things--things that one could not have expected, that shouldn't even be possible. It takes a long time--perhaps 10 years--before this show starts to grow old...and then you just increase the dose some more. Trip out on an ego-shattering "thumbprint" of 100 *milligrams* of LSD (physically still quite safe) if 100 micrograms is no longer throwing surprises at you.

I think this philosophy about life is one that certain primitive tribes still understand, in some form. Whereas we engineer costly video games and movies to give us compelling and novel virtual realities, they go straight to the source--the brain--with their sophisticated ethnobotany.

The problem is, such groups will produce less and be overpowered by the groups not content to trip out all the time. What we need, then, is a worldwide psychedelic culture, so that there's no external resource-consuming predator to wreck our trip, man!

The Psychedelic Experience


Give me a button of wild peyote
To munch in my den at night,
That I may set my id afloat
In the country of queer delight.

So ho! it's off to the land of dreams
With never a stop or stay,
Where psychiatrists meet with fairy queens
To sing a foundelay.

Give me a flagon of mescaline
To wash o'er my mundane mind,
That I may feel like a schizophrene
Of the catatonic kind.

So hey! let in the vision of light
To banish banality,
Then will I surely catch a sight
Of the Real Reality.

Give me a chalice of lysergic
To quaff when day is done,
That I may get a perceptual kick
From my diencephalon.

So ho! let all resistance down
For a transcendental glance,
Past the superego's frosty frown
At the cosmic underpants.

Give me a pinch of psilocybin
To sprinkle in my beer,
That my psychopathic next-of-kin
May not seem quite so queer.

So hey! it's off for the visions bizarre
Past the ego boundary,
For a snort at the psychedelic bar
Of the new psychiatry.

F. W. Hanley, M.D.

It might be cheaper than giving everyone mental health care...

One thing's for sure... the good Doctor won't be getting much sleep.

There is much validity in the perspective of evolutionary psychology--but it is by no means the whole story. Speaking now as a sociologist, I say that to a large extent, culture (not part of our biological genes) make us what we are. Cultural anthropologists have documented more than a thousand distinct cultures, and to a very large extent, we behave the way we do because we have been socialized to behave that way. In other words, Americans behave the way they do not just because they have a homo sapiens brain, but because they have been raised to be Americans and to see American norms, values, beliefs, and social structure as superior to all others.

Ethnocentrism seems to be a cultural universal. I don't think it is hard-wired by our genes, but for the cohesion of a sociocultural system to persist, the belief in its inherent superiority is a great advantage.

Now there is something of a "war" going on between evolutionary psychologists on the one side and cultural anthropologists and sociologists on the other side. This conflict has a lot to do with relative prestige of different disciplines. Both cultural anthropologists and sociologists have a great deal invested into the view that culture is human made and is plastic--and that furthermore that humans have no instincts.

And indeed, humans have no genetically inherited patterns of behavior: We can't navigate the way birds do, nor can we build dams without education, which beavers can do. Of course, humans have drives, and it would be witless to deny the importance of dopamine.

I buy into both the great insights of evolutionary psychology but also to those of sociology and cultural anthropology. Because culture can vary so much, we can learn to live in a powered-down world--not in our current numbers, of course, but in various satisfactory ways.

I do not think there will be one global response to Peak fossil fuels. Rather, I expect to see a wide variation on certain cultural themes. Some things are not going to go away: Large societies will always have social stratification. There will always be status symbols and competition for mates and other socially valued rewards.

During the past seventy years, I've lived through extraordinary changes in culture; my grandchildren will see equally extraordinary ones. To what extent our future is dismal or bright will depend on the ways and rate at which our culture changes. We might enter a new Dark Age of fuedalism, but while that may happen in some places, my guess is that it won't happen in the U.S. Political revolution? Maybe, but more likely a cultural evolution in one direction or another.

The Big Wild Card is religion. Established religions are mostly moribund, and during times of rapid sociocultural change we can expect new religions to emerge and old ones to decay--reformations and radical new movements, such as Islam was in the time of Mahomet. I expect something at least as big as the Protestant Reformation over the next forty years--and possibly even more drastic changes. As Max Weber argued, the Protestant Reformation was fundamental to the spirit of capitalism, and it is capitalism that created the modern world. But capitalism is not forever. It emerged roughly 500 years ago and my guess is that it will be gone or insignificant 500 years hence. Capitalism is not in our genes, and there is nothing in evolutionary psychology to suggest that capitalism will be the wave of the future.

Established religions are mostly moribund

Some scholar on Easter Island must have said the same thing.

He was talking about the fish worshipers of course.
However, when it came to those who "hedged" their bets in stone, well that obviously was a different matter. The "dismal" science of stone hedging was taught to every school child in the stone hedging 101 class. They all well understood the theory of quarry supply and the stone god's demands. That was not a "religion".

Capitalism in our day is our stone and coin hedging religion.
We are just too blind to see it that way.
It is not "moribund".
Well founded like a stone house it is.

[ i.mage.+]

Wonderful post, as before.

Of course, reading it has racheted up my dopamine set-point again, so other articles will seem insufficient for awhile.

Only a provincially blind specialist unwilling to look at the evidence could possibly believe that humans have no instincts.

I haven't dug thru them in a while, but I have fairly medical and nursing textbooks that have long lists of instinctual behaviors in them-the first one, chronologically, being the startle reflex that is tested as a standard part of the health assessment performed on new borns at any hospital.

When I was in school as an undergrad back in the dark ages I was taught the same bullshit, that culture is everything,in the psyc survey classes I took to get my professional liscensure as a teacher.

The grand claims that biologically male children, raised as females, would display female behavior patterns, have been thoroughly refuted by actual experience.

As pour moi, I enjoyed the reptilian-minded thread above about electric cars, as if they were going to save our collective asses--get those coal, nuke and natural gas cars while they last--and the deep irony that Nate's concluding point about changing lifestyle expectations was totally blown off. It's hopeless Nate, we're surrounded by a vast sea of living reptiles posing as mammals, H. sapiens, even. Nice post and try, however. Admire your courage.

Fantastic post.

Tonight, whole trainloads of coal will disappears into the maws of many a power plant, heating water to generate steam to spin enormous turbines that will power all those flashing lights in Las Vegas, all those fridges providing chilled drinks, all those air conditioners and water pumps and street lights and casinos and theatres and strip clubs and the rare EV charger.

Are we more than the seeds of our own destruction? Sometimes it doesn't seem to.

An instinct is a PATTERN of behavior, like the way bees communicate. Other animals do have inherited patterns of behavior, but humans do not. Human patterns of behavior are set by culture, not by instinct. Thus a Chinese child has no instinct to speak Chinese; he speaks that language only because others around him do.

Of course there are differences between males and females that are biologically determined, but none of these are patterns of behavior, i.e., instincts. For example, women do not have an "instinct" to have babies, because today many women choose not to do that.

Thus, humans have no instincts, no biologically inherited patterns of behavior.

"humans have no instincts, no biologically inherited patterns of behavior."

So a "fight or flight" response is learned behavior?

My first wife, while breast feeding, would 'leak' all over the place anytime she heard a baby cry. Is that not instinctive?


I could go on...

How about the "instinct" of the child born in China to mimic his parents (due to formation of mirror neurons) where this instinctive monkey-hear monkey-say-it-too behavior ultimately leads to the child speaking Chinese?

That's instinct.

You can't learn without having the instinct to learn.

Humans, along with other animals, have the capacity to learn. What they learn, and how much they learn, depends on culture. For example, nobody is born with an instinct to read and to write. We all have to learn reading and writing, and that is why all complex societies have schools. The institution of education both limits and allows us to learn.

Note that only humans have schools, and only some human societies have schools. The separate institution of education is fairly recent (roughly 6,000 years old) in human existence. Most known societies get along fine without schools--and also without reading and writing.

All non-damaged kids learn the language of the community they grow up in, whether they attend schools or not. This is by no means a trivial task. Most linguists consider this to involve hardwired propensities and abilities to gain this particular kind of knowledge, sometimes called 'Universal Grammar.'

So basically humans have a "language instinct"--which is actually the title of a very good, accurate yet accessible book on the subject by Steven Pinker.

Walking would be another pretty clear example of a behavior we are primed to learn without need of school.

Evolutionary psychology can go too far, but so can "culture is everything."

In fact language is a great example of the shortcomings of both approaches, because a particular language is certainly not hardwired as anyone can see from adoptees and similar cases. And any claim that a particular word that a human says in a particular context is purely the result of instinct is rather obviously pure____.

huh, I thought that the "tabula rasa" theory of mind would have all but disapeared. So apparently not in certain universities. While it would be foolish to not accept the importance of culture, it would be equally foolish to negate the nature of brain as a result of evolution. How could the inherited patterns of behavior suddenly have disapeared ? As Ghung pointed out, at least in the autonomous nervous system we have a lot of examples of patterns of behavior.

I am aware that there is no univocal proof in humans for pattern of behavior manifesting in the command of alpha motoneurons. There are some very basic patterns in the supplmental motor area but that isn't enough to proove the existence of more complex behavior we could have inherited. But we have univocal proof that there is something as a pattern of perception (this is well described in every treaty of neurophsyiology, relating to the associative areas in occipital and parietal lobes). What is equally certain is that a pattern of perception is absolutely necessary for automatic motor and congnitive behavior to exist. These patterns of perception have been demonstrated for visual, auditive and sensory perception beyond any doubt, these patterns beeing shared with the other mammals. Neurologists have long known that the mind contains more than what culture put into it. Have you read Oliver Sacks "the man who mistook his wife for a hat" ? He clearly shows how two non educated twins could percieve prime numbers without ever having learned them. Now if there are patterns of perception, that would clearly influence patterns of behavior no ?

What we clearly have acquired is a supra-orbitary frontal neocortex which is able to reprieve/inhibit "automatic" or "patterned" behavior. Our language skills (inherited it seems, because of the complex, inherited architecture of the very large and specialized areas devoted to it - even if we don't inherit a specific language), have given way to exchange and cultural expansion. Culture gives us greater ability to choose but still, preestablished perceptions constrain our actions, and patterns will influence the way we interact (in a way which is still a matter of research), and perhaps even the ways by which our knowledge extends. Patterns of behavior seem also to look very similar in social interaction in humans as in other mammals. Look at the way a hierarchy is established when people evolve in unknown environments, isn't that telling ?

Then I would reverse your argument, if there weren't a pattern of behavior for human females to give birth, none would chose the painful and very ressource intensive activity of doing so or wouldn't they ?

Homo Sapiens sapiens is one species. But there are no universal human patterns of behavior, because patterns of behavior result from socialization. For example, there are no universal incest taboos--see, for example ancient Egyptian or Hawai'an royalty.

Note that human drives (for power, sex, food, prestige) are quite distinct from instincts. Drives can and do manifest themselves in diverse patterns of behavior.

I do not class, for example, reflexes such as breathing or eye-pupil contraction in bright light as a pattern of behavior, any more than the knee-jerk reflex is a behavioral pattern.

I won't as yet discuss incest taboos, these do relate to behavior but more to organisation of behavior as it seems to me.

But would you agree that perception and behavior are related ?

Perception and behavior are closely connected. But our perceptions are filtered through cultural conditioning. What we perceive is largely what our culture prescribes for us to perceive. What we cannot see (e.g. fossil fuel crisis) largely depends on cultural blinders. To a large extent, our perceptions (and blindnesses) are prescribed by cultural roles, norms, values, beliefs, and social institutions such as family, religion, and education.

Note for example the educated incapacity in many bright economists to understand that Peak Oil is a serious problem right now. This lack of perception is 100% cultural and has nothing to do with evolutionary psychology.

1) So there is something already about which we can agree. And of course your logical conclusion is that perceptions are necessarily filtered through cultural conditioning. But isn't that because you postulated first that there is nothing inherited as behavioral patterns ?

To go further, perhaps we should clarify what a pattern is. To me a pattern is like a set of rules, where one follows more or less another in order to achieve a particular goal. What I really don't know, perhaps because of a lack of culture or because of a lack of creativeness. Quite the contrary, most experimental evidence shows that nothing such exists in the brain. But this is true also for bees, mice et al. If you think that the mouse's feeding behavior is a result of instinct and a pattern of behavior, it is interesting to note that there is no proposed anatomical region of the brain which harbors such a pattern. This and other problems with location of functions has always been problematic for my understanding of the neuroscientific underpinnings of behavior.

Once this difficulty brought on the table, perhaps we have indeed a problem in defining "patterns of behavior" as such, not only for humans but for brains in general. Still, I am led to believe that brain structure determines more of our behavior than what meets the eye.

I came to this preliminary conclusion precisely because it seems to me that perception is precisely constrained by neurophysiology but also aspects of neuroanatomy through the observation of effects of focal lesions. I won't reject at all the importance of culture in all this, from the first minute that our senses are activated, culture shapes behavior and perception.

But neurophysiology teaches us that huge areas of the brain have basic functions that lead to shaping, be it basically, of what we percieve. This is very well demonstrated in the visual area. Immediately after the primary sensory cortex of vision (area 18 of Brodman), in the visual associative cortex, neurons discharge when specific patterns, colors, shapes and movements are percieved. The more we move towards the parietal cortex the more the neuron discharges are differentiated in the discrimination of more complexity. The same has been shown in the sensory cortices which already are hardwired for differentiation of basic stimuli (pain, temperature, deep pressure, vibration, superficial touch, ...) and then generate shapes, texture and ultimately objects which we can name through culture. So it COULD be that I am wired to recognise a cube but need culture to call it a box.

And further the argument of structure : we know that some areas of the cortex specialise in recognition of some patterns. For instance human faces. A lot of experiments have shown that this is a specific activity, not only because it has been shown that face-recognition is faster than other modalities of recognition but also because some parietal lesions can take facial recognition out (prosopagnosia). Some other visual recognitions are candidates for precise localisation of function. Of coure recongnition of Mr Smith after his face is pure culture but my ability to recognise him real fast is inherited - I believe. Thus my brain recognises faster and with less ressources human faces. Couldn't this fact influence my behavior, for instance my behavior of socialising with my pairs ?

2) I agree that it is culture which hampers the ability of some economists to recognise the seriousness of Peak Oil. But doesn't this show how indoctrination with rigid paradigms can lead to huge misrepresentations ?

And are these paradigms purely cultural or aren't they also in part shaped by inherited recognition of inherited human patterns in behavior ? Just kidding.

"Thus, humans have no instincts, no biologically inherited patterns of behavior."

OK, I'm sorely confused by what follows, or rather seems to follow, from this assertion, in the ensuing discussion.

Yes, on the face of things, it appears we don't possess anything as (apparently) rigidly stereotyped and complex as beavers building dams or bees building hives. On the other hand, every creature that stays alive responds somehow to hunger or something like it; and all mammals and reptiles seem to sleep. Those last behaviors, as with the dam- or hive-building, require no reasoning and occur without fail.

So how is the line drawn between an "instinct", and, say, behavior pursuant to sleepiness; and how important is it to draw it? How much would the "design" of beehives need to vary from one to the next before we would decide that it's not an "instinct" but instead a (quasi) "cultural" manifestation written upon an instinctual tabula rasa? Or if, let's say, humans experience a strong urge to engage in consumptive behaviors for the sake of status display, but the minutiae of those behaviors vary all over the lot instead of being rigid as with bees building hives, is an instinct with respect to status display still in play? Does the answer matter; or is it just that "instinct" (like "demand") has been hijacked for technical use, and we need a slightly broader term to cover, well, powerful urges that are satisfied (or at least "satisficed") in a highly flexible, rather than rigid, manner?

And that tabula rasa business - it (almost) seems to hold that our slates are so blank that any scheme-for-living hallucinated by an academic (the more cloyingly and moralizingly "socialistic" the better, of course) could be made to work just fine if only we would try hard enough - and maybe oppress or imprison just the right evil people "standing in the way", or topple just the right wicked "elites". An example might be schemes, some of them mutually exclusive, for the top-down redesign of nearly every detail of present-day life, notionally to deal with AGW or resource depletion, but often actually in the service of unrelated agendas. (N.B. this sort of thing is at least suggestive with respect to the self-importance of the sort of academic in question.)

Tabula rasa seems to be held in opposition to the notion that we might possess "instincts", and yet it's not entirely clear that the two need to be mutually exclusive. After all, we could have a strong urge to build beaver dams - or rather to acquire status symbols or whatever - and yet be ridiculously flexible (at least as compared to beavers) about how we're willing to go about it. So are there any fish in these waters, or is there only murk?

For example, women do not have an "instinct" to have babies, because today many women choose not to do that.

So does a behavior cease to qualify technically as instinctive if even one member of a species (or of the appropriate subset of the species) fails to display it?

I do not now and never have subscribed to the tabula rasa view of sociology or psychology. Of course, biology matters. But culture matters more.

For example, eating is not an instinct. There is a drive to satisfy hunger, but note widespread anorexia and bulimia in American society. Thus there is no automatic pattern in biology that requires us to satisfy our drives. Another example is the relatiely large number of people who remain celibate for life.

Also, if there are instincts for sexual behavior, in a Darwinian sense, how could homosexuality possibly have evolved into widespread patterns of behavior in some societies, e.g., that of classical Greece?

Evolutionary psychologists have tried to explain homosexuality and how it "evolved," but I am unconvinced by their explanations.

OTOH, would there be anorexia and bulimia if the drive to satisfy hunger wasn't part of something which tends to create behaviors which are percieved as originating elsewhere than in the self-controled consciousness ? Just asking, bulimia nor anorexia belong to my field of expertise.

It is also beyond doubt that culture is important, and even preeminent in a lot of stereotyped behavior in complex societies. I think it is just too rigid to separate articicially the drive to satisfy basic needs and the eventual patterns of behavior to satisfy them. I remember my newborn baby crawling on the chest of my wife and when arriving at destination doing all the movements to satisfy of what I thought would indicate hunger or thirst. This just can't be brought down to knee-jerk responses or if you do there isn't any space for discussion left ...

Some mothers bottle feed their babies. Thus there is no "instinct" for breast feeding, though their are reflexes and biology involved, obviously.

Instincts give you no choice. Bees build hives and communicate the way they do because they are born that way, they HAVE to do these things dictated by genes.

On the other hand, look at the variety of human shelters and human languages--prodigeous variation.

I think you're far off the mark, Don, degrees and professorships notwithstanding. You're essentially declaring that "nothing about human activity is inherint or inherited, its all learned from culture" and "all activities of non-human species are inherited, the bee's hive and comb building, the beaver's dam building". That's nonsense. Ever watched a young beaver try to work on a dam, or cut a tree? I have. They're terrible at it. I think you guys trying to declare a clear distinction between homo sapiens and all other species are in error (sorry, strongly held). I was interested as a youngster on farm in the differences in cognition and awareness between animal species. One thing I know for sure, cows are not dumb, and they have very complex personalities including useless unproductive ideosyncracies, humour, interest in other species activities, politics not only within their hierarchy but also in humans', many others. Sheep are generally much less aware, though individuals can exhibit flashes of bright. Pigs are commonly very smart, exhibiting short and long-term planning including of an abstract nature. All these animals are influenced in many ways by the societies in which they are embedded. All can rapidly infer intent (to harm or help) in humans and presumeably therefore other animals simply with observation (a trait which a good cowhand will exploit i.e. to separate keepers from goers at a gate simply by directing a hostile gaze).

I'd have no hesitation to propose that there is a continuoum for cognitave ability with the low end of H sapiens overlapping the higher end of horses, cows, pigs etc. Culture simply divides them in communucation, though some cowhands are probably better able to communicate with their horses than with a city-bred sociology professor. ;<}

Are bees born hard-wired with the ability to create combs and nests? I see no reason to propose that. Define instinct. I do grant that monarch butterflies are genetically wired with some mysterious thing that navigates them on their route, but see no reason to extrapolate that to some huge uniqueness about H. Sapiens.

I have NEVER said or implied that nonhuman animals cannot learn. Of course they can learn: Look how naive young bunnies or birds are when it comes to self-protection. Mama cats teach their kittens how to hunt. I nowhere implied that ALL nonhuman behavior is instinctual, only that some of it is.

Homo Sapiens is unique, unless you count our close relatives, such as the Neanderthals. (Indeed, I think I'm part Neanderthal--huge head, relatively short, massive torso, prominent brow ridges plus I'm bowlegged. I also know how to knapp flint, which is a handy skill to learn. But using stone (or other) tools is not instinctive: We have to learn how to make and use tools through culture. And yes, I do know that some nonhuman animals use tools.)

Humans use way more tools than other animals. Plus, we have well-developed cultures, and so far as we know today, humans are the only species to have progressed beyond protoculture. Culture is what makes us uniquely human.

Well, in my example I talked about the baby, not the mother. What has been observed (and not only by myself) is that babies, when healthy, do indeed seek the breast and initiate feeding when they succeed in finding their target. Of course this is but a mere empirical observation and doesn't constitute proof of anything. But it kind of makes you think about certain paradigms.

I agree that human activity is prodigiously diverse - in our own view. But still, all humans who are not disabled use language. Most humans seek and build shelters. Is there any homo sapiens culture that doesn't live at least partially in shelters ?

Babies also latch onto bottle nipples and pacifiers. They have a sucking reflex. No way would I call a reflex an instinct.

I suggest that anybody seriously interested in this subject read some modern stuff written by modern psychologists-a good place to start is Stephen Pinker's "The Blank slate".

Been there. Done that. To a large extent, evolutionary psychology was a fad, a fad that is passing. Pinker's stuff is good, and I've been reading it for a long time. The big problem is that evolutionary psychology is not a science at all but rather a point of view. On the other hand, neuroscience is a science. Biology is a science. But what is evolutionary psychology? Mostly it is a bunch of "just so" stories. In other words, I don't think we're going to get a lot of mileage out of evolutionary psychology; there is just not enough substance there.

I think a more interesting point to discuss here would be not so much whether or not "instincts" exist, but whether or not it is possible to get a "grip" over the kind of behavior that has gone out of bounds to the point of creating the serious predicament we face now.

Consider, e.g. overconsumption, the big problem here. It is not "automatic" in the sense that a startle reflex, or the language acquisition process is. Rather it is based on urges, trained by the overall culture. These urges, however, are not impossible to modify, redirect, etc.

You are right. "Overconsumption" is 100% cultural. That is good news. That means that it can change drastically and quickly, e.g. as the result of a new religion spreading new norms.

One reason I am not a doomer (at least, not a fast-crash doomer) is that because our predicament is fundamentally cultural in nature. Thus it can be changed fairly quickly during social crises. BAU is culture; our genes have relatively little to do with BAU.

One of the most rapid changes possible is through authoritarian and totalitarian governments, such as those in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. My WAG is that that is how we will cope with Peak Oil--some version of dictatorial fascism or dictatorial socialism. Another possibility is totalitarianism based on religion: See, for an excellent example, REVOLT IN 2100 by Robert Heinlein.

Hi Nate,

Thanks for showing us again the synthesis of your research. It remains thought provoking (as will certainly be the book which I ordered). I keep thinking about it every time I see a patient with parkinson’s disease and when I read articles about dopamine receptors.

For the pleasure of discussing things I would say that I am not entirely convinced that Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of the shoot-like pleasure associated with addictive pleasures. Dopamine is certainly involved in the general regulation of repetitive behavior but is it the transmitter which explains it all? I could put it otherwise : does dopamine make us regress towards addictive behavior ?

Let me explain why I need to learn more. First of all, action of neurotransmitters depend not on the molecule but on the receptor and the neuronal pathways where these receptors are located. In the case of dopamine receptors, there are several subtypes and sub-subtypes. But all of them are metabotropic receptors and none are ion-channels. That means that activation of dopamine receptors doesn’t make the neuron fire but it shifts the probability for the neuron to fire, either towards inhibition or activation. I think this is important, contrary to the serotonin 5-HT3 receptor for instance (not a random choice of course), the dopamine receptors enhance or tend to inhibit the circuits upon which they act but don’t fire them. This makes dopamine receptors modulators of neuronal behavior. Another feature is that most dopamine receptors (D2,D3 and D4) are inhibitors (they tend to depress neuronal activity) while only the D1 receptor is an activator.

Because the dopamine receptors are metabotropic they are perhaps more important for the mechanisms of facilitation (through long-term potentiation or inhibition) than habituation. This leads me to speculate that dopamine circuitry is important to select among different pathways the one that leaded to reward more than others which didn’t achieve this. Let me remark here that these pathways have to exist before being able to be selected. This could explain why certain people are more prone to addiction than others.

Of course the idea that dopamine could be related to a shoot-like experience is enhanced by accounts from drug-users, especially LSD users. LSD is a potent dopaminergic agonist (and used as such in a slightly modified form in the medication LiSuriD). But accounts are far from easy to use or easy to interpret. Experiences are quite different from one person to another. After consumption of LSD some people do indeed feel pleasure, but others do feel anxiety, still others have delusions or hallucinations. Some become aggressive, others completely inhibited. So it is also pretty clear that direct dopamine receptor stimulation isn’t always related to pleasure. What is most widespread is that persons who take dopamine agonists and have psychological effects report feeling an increase in "brain-content" or experience-like material, sometimes disconnected from "reality" as juged from an outside perspective, while some people taking dopamine-antagonists (ie neuroleptics) report feeling "emptiness" in their minds.

Another argument for direct involvement of dopamine receptors with pleasure and reward would be the dopamine afferents which have been found in the cholinergic nucleus accumbens. But the other afferents are serotoninergic, and there are quite a lot of 5-HT3 receptors in the nucleus accumbens (which is quite clearly involved in the feeling of pleasure in orgasm for instance, and more generally of reward in most pleasant situations). The 5-HT3 serotoninergic receptors a direct ion channels and so can trigger the neurons more directly than dopamine receptors. Recent work ( like here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2878195/) h as shown that 5HT3 blockers can reduce some addictive behavior. Moreover dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens are mainly D3 inhibitory receptors.

In clinical experience, patients have the same spectrum of secondary effects while taking dopaminergic agonists as LSD-users. But none describe a shoot-like experience, even with more potent agonists like apomorphin. A minority of patients describe a mild addiction to these drugs, and ask for ever higher doses and a few could experience withdrawal symptoms. The secondary effects described by the pramipexole users don’t differ from what users experience with the other dopamine agonists (bromocriptin, ropinirole, pergolid, lisurid and others). However these effects are less often encountered in patients with levodopa. What is still a matter of research (but already partially positively answered) is whether patients with such secondary effects had already previous addictive behavior or if it strikes out of the blue. What is very striking is the fact that I can give >80 mg of bromocriptin to most young patients while in a minority they get addictive behavior even at small doses.

So it is very clear that Dopamine is involved in addiction but it is not the holy grail of it. After all we know very well that we can’t cure addictions with neuroleptics (which are dopamine blockers) or stereotactic surgery in the dopaminergic pathways. This reminds me how contradictory the effects of profound stimulation (electrical stimulation is in fact neurophysiological inhibition) were in the cerebral tissue of patient who underwent stereotactic surgery for Parkinson’s. Some patients clearly had intense pleasure, some were completely depressed when some specific targets were inhibited. It is impossible de tell what exactly was targeted by these experiences, cerebral structures are very small in these areas and there exists considerable interindividual differences in the fine structures of basal ganglia.

To me it seems that Dopamine circuitry is involved more in craving or pleasure seeking than reward. And that dopaminergic neurons fire early on after a pleasant experience could mean that mechanisms of behavioral facilitation are triggered immediately after that. Is Dopamine essential to reward or does it help to oscillate between need and reward ? Does Dopamine indeed increase the sentiment of reward or does it only select preexisting pathways for this ? Could Dopamine be in fact necessary for down-regulation after important pleasant stimuli ? These are not futile questions. When one examines the circuitry of basal ganglia it appears that it is a complex network where occurs inhibition of inhibition of activation of inhibition etc … . But the somatotopic organization is much higher than previously thought in a lot of ganglia like the striatum and this organization is repeated in “bands” of neurons. Even the pars compacta of locus niger has some form of spatial organization. (In the case of the monkey experiment it could be just that the dopamine release helps the motor circuits to adapt to a new pattern of deglutition, facilitating other circuits which handle higher volume). This means that activation of the dopaminergic neurons is also location specific and just isn’t a cloudy release of dopamine throughout the central nervous system as would achieve a LSD shoot. It could be similarily easy to locate the devil in the limbic system with its inconvenient nucleus accumbens. But the examination of the cortico-subcortical loops indicates a whole new level of complexity which humbles me with regard to extrapolation from neurosciences to psychology.

I hope I brought back some complexity in this issue. Complexity is useful to help struggling individuals while simplification is helpful for struggling masses. And at any level this discussion doesn’t refute your findings nor your line of reasoning.

Thanks again for your hard (and useful) work on this site.

Great synopsis and thoughts on dopamine. From an evolutionary standpoint, I've always thought an experience of pleasure would have to be noticed and remembered vividly against the background of everyday experience. Maybe LSD mimics a neurotransmitter that works on the remembering part of the experience by blocking reuptake, thereby enhancing or blowing the experience way out of proportion. If you work in that area of research it must be very satisfying, a little serotonin and dopamine each and every day. Here's a link to a short interview with Aldous Huxley regarding LSD use.


You are right about the evolutionary standpoint. To be complete, there must also be ways to inhibit these experiences even if in the first order a pleasant memory is better remembered than an unpleasant one (litterature in neuropsychology abounds with this fact). As for the remembering part, I am not sure that LSD or other dopaminergic molecules act on specific circuitry in memorisation. Currently more proof exists for cholinergic ciruitry being important for memorisation in those parts of the limbic system involved.

I am a neurologist, don't do fundamental research in this area but have done some. I treat a lot of patients with Parkinson's and hope to be able to observe at my best what happens to them and try to learn how to extrapolate for neurophysiology.

Thanks for your link, it brings back some real life in these rather abstract considerations (with very real implications however).

Let's also remember that LSD, despite being a dopamine agonist, is also not addictive. Rats will not self-administer LSD. Humans are the only animals known to do so, and only on an irregular basis for the vast majority of users. Sometimes you will hear about someone doing LSD once a week for a while, but that usually only lasts a few years at most. Sooner or later, they are going to get a bad trip that will knock them upside the head for being so cavalier with the substance.

From my experience with infrequent utilitarian use of amphetamines (dopamine agaonists) for crunch times during the school semester, I can report that, at least for me, the addictive potential would seem to come from the feeling of being extra intelligent and capable. It is much more pleasurable to feel that way than to feel dumb and incapable. What this implies is that, if I never had any obligations, I think it would be quite a lot more difficult to get addicted to amphetamines because it wouldn't be such a crisis to feel dumb and incapable. I'd just go to sleep---which is exactly what I do during the post-amphetamine "crash," after I've finished my papers and whatnot, until my body gets back to equilibrium again.

What I'm trying to suggest is that, perhaps there's not as much inherently addictive about dopamine agonists as we might think (compared to, say, mu-opioid agonists like heroin, which are inherently pleasurable), but rather, we find it easy to become addicted to dopamine agonists because, for cultural reasons, we place overriding value on feeling powerful and capable (which dopamine agonists, like amphetamines, or fast cars, achieve). We measure our self-worth by how much we produce, and others do too as well. It seems to me that that might be a root problem.

Of course, rats will place overriding value on feeling capable because their brains would reward feelings of capability because feelings of capability would correlate with actual capability, and thus, survival. But the survival of humans at this present moment in history is not in jeopardy because we are not capable enough, but because we are too capable. We are producing too much. In this specific circumstance, the human species as a whole would have a higher fitness if all of the brains of those humans actually *punished* feeling capable, and rewarded laziness (to a certain extent). The thing is, if there was just one individual who retained the reward for feeling capable, that individual would outproduce/out-compete the others, procreate many new copies of high-producers like himself, and set up the resource crash once again.

Perhaps the only solution is to somehow listen to our rational brains and put in place incentives and collective restrictions so that the rewards for high-resource use are artificially lowered (such as: high taxes on new children, gas, electricity, etc.). But right now, we are continuing to do the exact opposite, with stuff like child tax credits. Ugh....

Sooner or later, they are going to get a bad trip that will knock them upside the head for being so cavalier with the substance.

Nonsense. Nothing like simple assertions in the face of complex reality.

The complex reality is, almost everyone will have a bad trip if one does it enough (let's say, >300 trips). And bad trips will force one to reconsider one's relationship with the substance. A bad trip will not necessarily end one's use of the substance. What a bad trip does is to ensure against unthinking, compulsive use of the substance (as if that were a problem in the first place. Point me to one case of LSD "addiction.")

Timothy Leary.

I think you would find, if you really pursued this, that "serious" users of hallucinogens find value even in what are commonly called "bad trips."

No doubt, those taking the substances recreationally ("for the high") will be taken aback by experiences they find less than "fun."

What a bad trip does is to ensure against unthinking, compulsive use of the substance (as if that were a problem in the first place...

It is not, of course, a problem in the first place. The number of "unthinking, compulsive" users of LSD is, and always has been, vanishingly small. It's a serious drug.

And, certainly, notwithstanding Don's assertion to the contrary, there are no LSD "addicts."

I think there's at least a small chance that the world would be much improved if we introduced LSD into the water coolers in corporate boardrooms, legislative chambers, military and religious headquarters around the world... shall we say next Thursday?

Yep, and iirc, T. Leary is a prime case of a non-addict. He did experiment a lot early on, but later in life he rarely partook. He even thought it should not be completely legalized, but licensed to people who had been trained to deal with it. I think he said that a pot license should be about the equivalent of a license to drive a truck or bus, while an acid license should be more like the equivalent of a pilot's license.


So it is very clear that Dopamine is involved in addiction but it is not the holy grail of it.

I agree - its part of a complex cocktail of neurotransmitters that combine in ways we don't fully understand. Lack of serotonin might be equally important. The point of the post though is that we evolved to seek certain feelings and our current culture gives options to obtain those feelings in largely resource intensive ways. Most in environmental/resource community talk about how we 'should' do certain things. This essay was an attempt to describe (partially) how things 'are' and why.

I hope I didn't confuse your point. I am fully with you in regard to the importance of knowing our fundamental psychological structure and agree with your way of characterising some aspects of it through the evolutionary lens. And I couldn't agree more when you try to include these realities of what we 'are' in decision making, especially when facing such challenging changes which have to be made in the near future. The quesion often arises if we are really "free" or if we are but puppets of our own soup of neurotransmitters and neuronal networks. Can we "enact" change or are we bound only to "cope", and any declination of these questions. Some take pretext of the findings of evolutionary neurobiology to say : see, we are but poor hedonistic slaves of an omnipotent dopaminergic master, no freedom here. Others use it to reinforce their splitting views with moral standpoints and accuse dopamine of our worst inclinations. While I don't have definit answers to any of these questions, I believe that through analysis of the complexity in an organ which also works as a whole, I can also find an approach which doesn't doom us to drown in our addictions and overconsumptions - exactly as you have found, and more, act accordingwise.

So thanks again for posting your essay.

"...or are we bound only to "cope", ..."

Jeez, neuro, I'm not sure I could cope with that :-0

The depth and the breadth of the readership at TOD never ceases to amaze me!

It used to be better, back in 2008, when Nate did the first version of his article. Comments were more and better back then.

Maybe so, but I agree with Fred. Neuroil's (Neural's?) comment was amazing.


Can I ask you a different question?

Do you have any knowedge of Huperzine (proposed as an acetylcholine re-uptake inhibitor) for Alzheimer's: effectiveness and safety?

I can be reached at jerome.kok@sfr.fr. I will be back on Monday morning (in France). I will be glad to answer your question, but that will require some text and I think that will be really off topic here. On Monday I will try to mail you an answer at the mail adress I found associated with your name.

That's perfect - thank you very much.

Great article, Nate.

The definition given of anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure via “normal experiences.” Given that none of us in the civilized world have experiences that were normal at the times our brains were evolving, we civilized folk are all doomed to anhedonia and we must find substitute experiences. The trick is to find substitute experiences that don’t end up inhibiting the acquisition of necessary resources in the long term.

Nate gave some sample experiences: “go for a jog/hike, have a salad, spend time with our children.” Not that I’m bragging, but I do all 3 of those quite a bit, and it doesn’t come even close to giving me the status and novelty I need to avoid feeling depressed. I’m not surprised, actually. I suspect pre-civilization humans got most of their status and novelty from hunting, mating, etc. Kids are great to be with for a while, but I tire of “hide and seek” and “tag” games much quicker than my children.

Fortunately, I have a job in Information Technology which currently requires my co-workers and I to acquire a lot of new knowledge to implement various Smart Grid projects. Since I’m gifted with the ability to acquire new knowledge faster than my co-workers, I get a lot of social status from being the most knowledgeable (Nate refers to this as a short-cut fitness marker). Without that marker, I’d be pretty depressed, and have indeed been so in the past when the right job opportunities weren’t present.

Is there any way for me to get enough status and novelty without my job, and without engaging in experiences that are destructive in the long term? I’m hoping I can find a way, since if there’s a financial crash the expensive and incredibly slow-progress Smart Grid projects stand a good chance of being cancelled.

Try hunting and fishing. Also try tennis. For many of my years, tennis was the main "prestige" activity in my life. Only later did I find my satisfactions in sailing.

Seriously: Learn how to sail. Then teach others how to sail. That is what I've been doing for more than forty years now, and it is enormously satisfying. I claim that sailing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Most of my social contacts have been gained through sailing. Much of my identity is tied up with sailing, hence my moniker on TOD.

By the way, with no cost or obligation, I offer to teach any TOD member to sail. You would have to come to the Twin Cities to take advantage of this offer, however.

Try hunting and fishing. Also try tennis... sailing.

Yup. Or practice story-telling, help make your neighborhood streets safe for kids to play in, learn to bake good bread, or whatever.

Inability to obtain sufficient satisfaction and "status" from relatively simple pursuits is likely to lead to chronic unhappiness (and to be maladaptive) in our resource-constrained future.

We all need "status" and recognition of worthwhile activities by our significant others. I do believe that there is a human nature, and I think it was correctly described by Charles Horton Cooley. My own views are those of the symbolic interaction school of social pychologogy, particularly the variety advocated by Herbert Blumer and Tamotsu Shibutani, my two alltime favorite professors.

Biology matters, let us never forget that. But when it comes to patterns of behavior, those are created by culture. Take for example, the "fight or flight" response. When do we flee? When do we fight? How do we fight? All of those questions are answered by learned culture--and by nothing else.

All of those questions are answered by learned culture--and by nothing else.

On the days when I find this description of human nature more compelling than the alternative, I have some hope (although I never forget the fact that the most powerful forces shaping culture are under the control of the greediest and most ruthless among us).

On the days when I tend toward acceptance that we are products and prisoners of evolutionary psychology... well, those are darker days.

Reality, almost certainly, requires insights from both worldviews for adequate explanation.

As someone has already said, there are (not unexpectedly) some worrying indications of denial in the rather limited discussion here.

Thanks, Nate.

there are (not unexpectedly) some worrying indications of denial in the rather limited discussion here.

If you make that assumption too quickly, you won't listen properly to those who disagree with you, and you will fail to learn important things.

Gee, Nick, who's making quick (and erroneous) assumptions, here?

You should also work on reading comprehension. In what linguistic universe does "worrying indications of denial" imply any assumption, of any sort, at all?

Edit: Would you find slow assumptions superior to quick ones?

who's making quick (and erroneous) assumptions, here?

I'm also responding to your other comment about cars.

In what linguistic universe does "worrying indications of denial" imply any assumption, of any sort, at all?

Put it in the context of the article, and your other comments. I don't see "worrying indications of denial" - I see people who are disagreeing.

Would you find slow assumptions superior to quick ones?


Assumptions are also very often conclusions. How we reach our conclusions in modern society largely depends on the quality, type, and quantity of our educations.

One thing I like a lot about TOD is that most who comment have had good educations--both formal schooling and also in the "school" of hard knocks.

Yes, education and experience help.

The older I get, the more I respect other's input, and the longer I wait before I assume I know what the other has to offer.

"I claim that sailing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on."

I won't argue, but I will add that the definition of boat is 'A hole in the water into which one pours money.'

In advanced cases, it can also lead to a desire to build your own boat, sailing or otherwise.

And I speak from experience, Boat 1 (the trial boat) is almost done, and the plans for Boat 2 are in hand, and the first materials for it have already been purchased.

Boat building and boat sailing tend to be mutually exclusive. Boat building is time intensive; it takes thousands of hours to build a good boat. IMO it is better to buy an old beat up boat, fix it (which is relatively easy) and then sail it. What works best for me is sailing clubs: The club buys the boats and arranges for their maintenance (volunteer labor), and the members get to sail them--all for a remarkably modest fee.

Seriously: Learn how to sail. Then teach others how to sail. That is what I've been doing for more than forty years now, and it is enormously satisfying. I claim that sailing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Naked sailing ain't too bad either, well, at least in the tropics [;^)

find substitute experiences...

Most likely there is none, it does seem that to be at the top of your feel good neurotransmitter levels you must have "king of your court" status. Sure you can maintain the biggest fish in the pond position by sizing down the size of the pond you swim it but there are limits on how far you can push this. More money of course is useful in that it allows us to buy bigger ponds.

My sense is that this goal of maintaining maximum levels of feel good neurotransmitters is a major force pushing us toward our self destruction. If we want to survive we will need to learn how to survive, be content with modest levels.


But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked.

Yes, and it may be that already-dysfunctional dopamine reward systems are more easily hijacked (and/or that the hijacking contributes to dysfunction).

Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

The child may be playing for points accumulated, or levels achieved, but the brain’s reward may be the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Children with A.D.H.D. may find video games even more gratifying than other children do because their dopamine reward circuitry may be otherwise deficient.

Hi Nate,

Late in this thread to comment - maybe less attention is better as my POV here will probably be annoying to some.

First of all, I think your essay is excellent and should be a classic in the TOD archives. I would hope that it would be required reading/discussion by every eight grade class in the county – and then rehashed every year in high school as students learn more about the sciences. Learning about what actually motivates our behavior is surely a very important building block for developing critical thinking skills. Oh… I forgot about the Kansas State Board of Education http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansas_evolution_hearings

This essay was an attempt to describe (partially) how things 'are' and why

As much as I enjoyed the essay, I was puzzled about the absence of a major “why” factor: the role of organized religions in manipulating our emotions, trying to direct our behavior, and their general avoidance of natural resource and environmental issues. And you said:

This essay undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc?

What about religions doing some hijacking? Given the absolute falsehood of a supernatural dimension to our world, how can the constant harangue about salvation and other nonsense be anything but an irresponsible pitch for the purpose of maintaining power and control of other people?

Here are some points in your essay that stood out for me:

There also exists a pervasive belief that human ingenuity will create unlimited substitutes for finite natural resources like oil and water. Put simply, it is likely that our abundant natural resources are not only required, but will be taken for granted until they are gone.

In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from our ongoing American experiment conclusively shows that humans have trouble setting limits on our instinctual cravings. What’s more, our rational brains have quite a hard time acknowledging this uncomfortable but glaring fact.

I fear that nations and governments will do little to slow their consumption and will get increasingly locked into defending the status quo instead.

However, personal experience with people in the lifestyle section of the chart leads me to believe that they will probably continue to pursue more resources and status even if it doesn't improve their well-being.

I agree with these observations – but, why is a concept like “limits to growth” so difficult to understand by a species that is otherwise intelligent enough to put a man on the moon? If a huge asteroid was on target to hit earth in a decade, I suspect most people would be quite focused on the subject. Yet, 7B -> 9B humans on a planet that certainly can’t sustain these levels for very long seems to go relatively unnoticed or even denied as a problem.

Why is it that the major organized religions spend the majority of their time talking about “salvation” in an afterlife (or reincarnation or karma or other supernatural business) instead of encouraging their faithful to curtail breeding and consumption for the good of the planet and future generations?

In writing about novelty, you mentioned “processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy”. It seems to me that religion is one way that “familiar habitat” is managed for us – all kinds of questions about where we come from, what is our purpose/meaning in life, what happens when we die, etc are generally answered by most religions. We strike a bargain with the shamans whereby we can confidently go about the necessities of daily life without the constant questioning of these “big picture” items. In your parlance, we can have a very high discount rate because the shaman takes care of the long term issues for us – the shaman takes care of the low discount rate stuff. We trust the shaman; we have “faith” that he is trustworthy. And yet, the evidence of untrustworthy shamans abound.

The evidence is pretty clear that most religious “beliefs” are instilled during early childhood at the same time our developing brains are absorbing language and other cultural conventions. Shaking these ingrained beliefs is probably as hard as for a US born person deciding his or her native language should now be Chinese instead of English – possible, but very difficult. Unfortunately, holding superstitions to be absolute “truths” corrupts our ability to understand the processes and nuances of trying to determine what is true, false, or unknown. It does seem pretty understandable why so many people in the US (and elsewhere) are so cynical and prone to believing conspiracy theories. The most traditional authorities in their lives are telling them one thing (with Fox News to amplify) while another authority, science, is often telling them something contradictory. On one hand there can be a deep ingrained belief (like god blesses having lots of children) and on the other hand science telling us uncomfortable things (like 9B humans on the planet could be disastrous).

Though there is probably no blanket policy to solve our resource crisis that would both work and gain social approval

I have no doubt that humans have the technical ability to engineer a very workable plan for a global “power down” that would not only result in the avoidance of planetary pain but could actually lead to a pathway for a more joyful and sustainable existence for many future generations. However, your “gain social approval” component is the stumbling block. Unless the shamans of the world stand up and explain the actual problems facing humanity and promote a science based set of goals and potential solutions, I doubt that any other mechanism will prevent serious problems down the road. I doubt that so called “free market” solutions, government mandates, military conquests, revolutions, or anything else can take the place of the pulpit – and I suspect that hell will freeze over (using a religious metaphor) before we see the shamans sing a different tune (the few exceptions aside).


I too have often been vexed by the relative ubiquity of supernatural belief systems, and their robustness versus alternate ways of dealing with information. However, it's not really an overt conspiracy of the shamans. Religions have evolved virally in symbiosis with human minds and in competition with other religions. And I don't mean "viral" as a metaphor, but as a literal description of the process.

People with religion are happier and less stressed; generally breed a lot more, and are often organized into effective superorganisms cooperating more intra-group. Religions are no less an emergent evolutionary development than shoes; an extension of our phenotype upon which we have come to depend.

It's a great shame that they are largely incompatible with making sober assessments based on new facts and theories, but that's not so much an element of the religions as it is of the human mind which finds them so useful. Going through life without the same boilerplate worldview and dissonance-quashing mechanisms as one's cohorts may be a lot like going barefoot and hoping for your feet to toughen.

And yes, that metaphor strikes me as a little wacky too, but I'll let it stand.

So I'll end with what will be an even less-popular suggestion: that we need to get over egalitarian-utopian ideals when it comes to planetary decision-making. Ecologically, something like a morlok-eloi schism may be overdue at this point..


Ecologically, something like a morlok-eloi schism may be overdue at this point..>

Hmmm... I don't actually think egalitarian distribution of work, resources, etc. would be all that difficult (although it would be unpopular until re-education had been achieved).

The problem lies in coming up with an egalitarian system of governance and policy formation when knowledge and intellectual ability vary so widely and self interest has become an unacceptable basis for casting one's vote (if it ever was acceptable). It may be possible. It will certainly be damned hard.

Those familiar with my past postings and slightly bent sense of humor will recognize the morlok-eloi option as intentional overstatement.

We should be so lucky.

Still, if one were to compile a list of environmentally-dysfunctional human tendencies, I think the "fairness imperative" - as exemplified by a pissed-off capuchin monkey hurling a piece of cucumber in an experimenter's face because it saw another monkey get a grape for the same task - would have to be high on the list, yet it's seldom mentioned. Even proposals to deal with serious problems are often couched in terms of simultaneously dealing with the problem at issue AND making the situation "fairer". We're so used to it, we don't even see it.

I like that sort of fairness too - I have the same basic-model hominid brain, finely honed to detect perceived disadvantageous disparity; or in failing to detect it, to assume its existence. It's a large part of the problem; our wanting to make the world fair by capuchin tribal standards. It's damned hard to reconcile with lucid thinking, more basic & problematic than religion and less-often examined.

It was evolved for distribution efficiency within small social tribes. We've turned it into a planet-eating monster.

If one were to sit down and discuss the problems arising from an invasive squirrel species, there would be a number of sane and salient ecological points to be raised. However, pointing out that some of the squirrels were better-fed than other squirrels, had fewer parasites, more hidden nuts, had nicer nests, would be (a) obvious and (b) utterly irrelevant. Proposing to "fix the problem" would be bonkers. Of course squirrels have real wealth disparities; every healthy species population does. This isn't a problem for the squirrels or the environment; it's the way life inhabits the world when ecosystems are healthy.

The drive for universal (human) fairness is a tribal-monkey fetish that we pay (public) homage to because we're our own game wardens, and constantly employing our oversized cerebrums to reconcile our social narratives with our actual decisions. Human egalitarianism is a subset.

Of course this notion - that perhaps the oversold wisdom of crowds is not always well-suited to the scientific method or even sanity - is no more popular among humans that it would be among capuchins. Even our brightest activists accompany most proposals with a call for more fairness, more representation, more transparency, more democracy. Because to do otherwise is not received well. And then we're surprised when the resulting aggregate of mismatched memes in millions of subconsciously-deciding brains do the same stuff they always have.

The universe isn't fair by capuchin standards, and that's a good thing.

When we can eat our cucumber slice and be glad that the other monkey got a grape, we may be ready for democracy. Maybe even ready for fire. At this point, we need benificent but pragmatic alien game wardens, and we need 'em badly. It's really not fair that they haven't shown up to make the difficult decisions for us - and say, that gets back to religion, doesn't it? - but it's reality and we're stuck with it, and it with us.


The universe isn't fair by capuchin standards, and that's a good thing.

A good thing for. . . ?

I suspect that you may have latched on to an oversimplified example of the evolutionary psychologists' notion of fairness as a "moral instinct."

Of course, I also think that the evolutionary psychologists often make the same error. And I'm virtually certain that a tendency to assign simple explanations to complex phenomena is a relic of our evolutionary development. ;^)

As for the rest of your post, you seem to have conflated my expressed preference for fairness and egalitarian distribution with a position I definitely do not hold, that we can rely upon the wisdom of the crowd for policy formation and decisions about governance.

It's not clear to me why you find our (instinctive or otherwise) notions of fairness such a barrier to the solution of our dilemma. Perhaps you'll explain.

A good thing, because otherwise the life systems we see around us wouldn't be here. Nothin' fair about evolution.

Arguably I shouldn't post on too little sleep; but that's what's great about psuedonyms. Still, anything I have "latched onto" has nothing to do with evolutionary psychologists except to the questionable extent that I are one. My observations about the ecological ramifications of "capuchin fairness" applied to a pyromaniac species in global overshoot are my own.

I don't think I did much conflating. In general, you're one of my favorite TOD posters. I'm just disagreeing that egalitarian distribution and decision-making in humans are good things, ecologically, even in principle. I recognize that in doing so, I pretty much disagree with the entire rest of my species, and I expect to be pelted with cucumber slices.

Perhaps you'll explain.

Not quite ready to be lynched in the public square yet, but could happen someday.

disagreeing that egalitarian distribution and decision-making in humans are good things, ecologically, even in principle.

Must reiterate: "distribution" and "decision-making" are separate and not even necessarily related.

Absolutely agree that egalitarian decision-making is, at least at this juncture, almost certainly maladaptive.

Distribution? Not at all obvious to me that an egalitarian model wouldn't improve overall fitness.

Not quite ready to be lynched in the public square yet, but could happen someday.

Awww, c'mon. Chicken.

I promise not to join the lynch mob. I'll even be able to handle it if you turn out to be correct.

Must reiterate: "distribution" and "decision-making" are separate and not even necessarily related.

Utterly correct, except that they exist together in my post, and thus, like ham & eggs, may be presented as a single menu item for my thematic purposes. I've stated that they are related. On mornings I skip coffee, solipsism obviates amplification.

Distribution? Not at all obvious to me that an egalitarian model wouldn't improve overall fitness.

Heck, it ain't obvious to anyone, its invisibility is part of its charm.

Harking back to my previous odd choice of metaphor, it'd be great to get a government grant to make life fair for squirrels. Redistribute the nuts and remove squirrel-on-squirrel displays of force, standardize the nests. One could mess up the squirrel situation massively. Instead of incremental population adjustments during harsh winters, they'd just all die, fair & square. (Ironically, the contextual fitness of the monkeys receiving the grant money would increase).

And your mention of "overall fitness" begs the question of whose fitness, exactly? I'd submit that for a species on a finite planet - which is a pretty coarse sieve - a fractal disparity of the different sorts of wealth probably optimizes both species and ecosystem fitness across multiple generations. This is naturally generated by the local interactions of each member of the species with its cohorts and the environment. And we're trying to fix it.

Wealth disparity ain't a bug, it's a feature.

Bill Gates seeks to cure malaria, because it's dissonant to his society's narratives for anyone to have malaria if everyone doesn't have malaria. I certainly don't want malaria. (It'd be kinda cool if Bill Gates got malaria, notes my internal monkey.) But the net effect of such cures will be to make all the existing problems worse in short order. Gandhi is quoted as noting that if the people of India tried to lived like englishmen, we would strip the world like locusts... and darned if he wasn't prescient.

Has anyone suggested "malthusocene" as a candidate for the next nom-de-epoch?

Well, if it won't go away... prepare to present.

The rationale for making such a presentation is elusive, since I don't think enlightenment is a useful mechanism for moving evolving systems in a particular direction. And even doing it for giggles is ill-advised on a 2-digit-IQ day.

Plus, my wife just did a generic search on her new Kindle about environmentalism, and came up with a FOIA of classified FBI files on eco groups. Kindle let her read the first chapter for free, and damned if it didn't lead off with a highly-redacted report of a guy being debriefed by the feds about what I was up to.

Feel free to drop me an email if you like by clicking my user name, I'd enjoy being in touch, and you might enjoy being added to a list of subversive characters by organizations with salaried assassins and fleets of predator drones.


Wealth disparity ain't a bug, it's a feature.

Well, I will grant that great wealth disparity in humans, since it is so likely to hasten and magnify the dieoff of the species that is the probable consequence of overshoot and energy/resource exhaustion, may well appear, to the squirrels (et alii) as a feature.

If we don't launch too many nukes in the final cataclysm, they may get their forests back.

[Note: I suspect that a study of the relative wealth of squirrels in a typical population would find rather less variation than (I think) you might expect.]

Now, really must grind wheat (acorns are too bitter) and bake bread.

Well, I will grant that great wealth disparity in humans, since it is so likely to hasten and magnify the dieoff of the species that is the probable consequence of overshoot and energy/resource exhaustion, may well appear, to the squirrels (et alii) as a feature.

Hastening and magnifying the dieoff may well be opposite propositions.

At one point in the site's more freewheeling past I did suggest that TOD have a "nonhuman" section in which energy news could be reviewed from the standpoint of nonhuman stakeholders. Still, when you get down to it, the interests of humans and other species only appear different on very short time scales. If you look at, say, 200+ years in the future, the interests of (any) surviving humans and (most) surviving large species may be pretty similar in terms of how the bottlenecks play out this century.

Note: I suspect that a study of the relative wealth of squirrels in a typical population would find rather less variation than (I think) you might expect.

I expect you realize we're not talking fiat currency here. Territory held, resistance to disease, metabolic rate, parasite load, visibility to predators, sexual attractiveness, presence of absence of key digestive enzymes, etc etc... those are wealth, and they're no less real for being context-relative. Heck, beautiful humans flow through life as though they emit special pheromones - maybe they do. Those with sickle-cell anemia are wealthy in a malarial context, and will be relatively impoverished without it. Funny thing, wealth.

Still, I'll retire the squirrel thing.

Hastening and magnifying the dieoff may well be opposite propositions.

They may be, and I often find myself wishing for a little of the former, that the latter might therefore be moderated. Of course, there's no strong reason to expect that to be the actual outcome. Besides, I only entertain that wish when I'm feeling anthropocentric; on the days when I like lizards and dandelions better than humans, my hopes are darker.

OTOH, hastening and magnifying could also combine to compound the effect, as a shaped charge may help fissionable material to achieve criticality.

We (in the broad sense of the term, at least) shall see.

Territory held, resistance to disease, metabolic rate, parasite load, visibility to predators, sexual attractiveness, presence of absence of key digestive enzymes, etc etc... those are wealth, and they're no less real for being context-relative.

I dunno. I'll give you territory, food hoards, mates and progeny... but many of the others are probably better described as precursors, predisposing factors, etc.

Anyway, since you're abandoning the cute little things (I hope you've provided retirement packages), we won't quibble.

More later, I'm sure.

Actually it's sickle-cell trait that confers the advantage. Unfortunately, when it's present in both chromosomes instead of just one, it causes the anemia, which confers a disadvantage. Such are the complexities of biology that, as in this case, everyone is not equal.

You're quite right, I was sloppy. That sorta day. By the expansive definition I was going for, the trait would constitute probable relative wealth for offspring in a malarial environment and relative disadvantage in a non-malarial one.

I should have grabbed a better example. Still, I'll stick with my contention that there is real wealth disparity of many kinds in many species/ecosystem situations, and it it central to the working of things.


Hey Greenish,

However, it's not really an overt conspiracy of the shamans. Religions have evolved virally in symbiosis with human minds and in competition with other religions. And I don't mean "viral" as a metaphor, but as a literal description of the process.

Totally agree. Dawkins' explanation of memes is compelling. However, the degree to which a given shaman is just a dupe or a megalomaniac is another matter.

Regarding your reference to The Time Machine, I recently read and interesting article about Isle Royale (in Lake Superior) that describes the Wolf-Moose relationship. Around 1900 the first known moose arrived on the island - perhaps a swimming anomaly. The moose (your eloi) feasted upon the lush vegetation and grew in population to around 3,000 - in the process stripping the island's vegetation and bringing its ecology close to collapse. However, in 1949 an unusual ice bridge formed and wolves came to the island (the morlocks) and restored balance - kind of like the morlocks harvesting the eloi. The Wolf-Moose relationship is quite fascinating (except for the possible demise of the wolf) - for further interest see:


we need benificent but pragmatic alien game wardens

However, I'd suggest that a less messy alternative to wolves and game wardens: its called birth control. [BTW, it is not a family friendly tourist attraction to watch the wolves "control" the moose population] Perhaps the best use of our technological prowess is to develop thinner, stronger, and cheaper condoms. Concurrent with this, we need the shamans to promote their use. In the context of one popular religion, the message should be that it is a mortal sin to engage in sexual intercourse without using birth control - only exception being a carefully planned and responsible pregnancy (one that fits into a population reduction goal).

Regarding your thoughts on fairness. Perhaps this is another and much longer discussion. On one hand, I find the idea of fairness to be a very powerful human motivator within certain contexts - and personally don't respond well to perceived unfairness that is too egregious. On the other hand, I can see the idea of fairness being carried to an extreme that creates lots of other problems. Exploring this could be interesting - maybe another post for Nate.

What is perceived as "fair" depends entirely on sociocultural context. What is "fair" in Japan regarding the treatment of Fukishama refugees would most emphatically not be considered "fair" in the U.S. Thus, what is "fair" in one time and place is most certainly not considered "fair" in another time and place.

For example, in the time of the Founding Fathers it was considered "fair" that only land-owning white American citizen males should have the vote. We no longer consider that as fair at all.

Hey BikeDave.

It's tempting, in my insomniac haze, to reply at length; but it shouldn't be done in the comment string to this superlative keypost... though I think it's as least as relevant as talking about cars.

However, the degree to which a given shaman is just a dupe or a megalomaniac is another matter.

Heavens, I have too much appreciation for irony to deny the ubiquity of megalomania and doofusness in human affairs.

Perhaps the best use of our technological prowess is to develop thinner, stronger, and cheaper condoms. Concurrent with this, we need the shamans to promote their use. In the context of one popular religion, the message should be that it is a mortal sin to engage in sexual intercourse without using birth control - only exception being a carefully planned and responsible pregnancy (one that fits into a population reduction goal).

I'm onboard with thinking it would be great if the pope did a televised demonstration with a banana, a condom, and suggestive body movements, and the time for that is past ripe. However, he exists in a system which has evolved to make that sort of thing unlikely, with less idiosyncratic freedom of expression than we might suppose. (Giving an open mic to someone reputed to be infallible is probably something the system prevents).

Of course, in general the religions which incorporate high reproduction tend to out-compete others by simple attrition. (Cancer cells have a really effective strategy while it lasts.) My parents were one agnostic and one sorta-christian. Their 12 great-grandchildren are all fundamentalists on the fast track to making more, since the one child out of four in their family who became religious significantly reproduced while the others didn't. I get emails very often that another one is on the way. Not That There's Anything Wrong With It. But that's offtopic for this post.

Regarding your thoughts on fairness. Perhaps this is another and much longer discussion. On one hand, I find the idea of fairness to be a very powerful human motivator within certain contexts - and personally don't respond well to perceived unfairness that is too egregious. On the other hand, I can see the idea of fairness being carried to an extreme that creates lots of other problems. Exploring this could be interesting - maybe another post for Nate.

Strickly speaking, it's offtopic for the keypost, but there are few enough posts about human cognitive peculiarities anymore that I shoehorned it in. In my doofy insomniac way, I'm throwing out the notion that our drive for a particular sort of "fairness" constitutes one of the major impediments to solving our resource & other problems. I don't like the notion either, but it won't go away.

I'm baaack.

In my doofy insomniac way, I'm throwing out the notion that our drive for a particular sort of "fairness" constitutes one of the major impediments to solving our resource & other problems. I don't like the notion either, but it won't go away.

Well, if it won't go away... prepare to present.

it would be great if the pope did a televised demonstration with a banana, a condom, and suggestive body movements

Greenish, you do have a vivid imagination! Hope you don't mind if I plagiarize this if a good opportunity arises.

BTW, try to find some time to look at the Isle Royale piece - I think it is really interesting.

Pix is totally off topic but what a magnificent fellow traveller! And we have many of his genes and behaviors.

Off topic pix, not so sure. Coming to terms with our true place in the natural order of things is a big part of any survival possibilities.

Hi ryeguy,

I grew up in Northern Minnesota (Duluth) in the '40s & '50s. Many times, walking home from school, I would see 2 or 3 of these guys hanging as trophies on some trappers front porch. They cut off the ears to turn in for a bounty payment - something like $40. We slaughtered nearly an entire species of our close relatives in our fear, ignorance and anachronistic beliefs/superstitions.

It remains to be seen if we can find "our true place in the natural order of things". Seems doubtful.

Hi dave,

How sad. I have been to Duluth, even thought about moving there.

I'm wondering if the main motivation for killing the wolf is our struggle for maximizing our feel good/feel powerful neurotransmitter production. This is similar to a drug abuse issue but in this case creating settings where we can be/have "king of court" status is what provides the rush.

This logic does seem to fit well and does seem to explain much of the predicament we find ourselves in. I read this quote for the first time yesterday and it seem to fit here.

Jimi Hendrix
When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.

The main motivation for killing wolves is that wolves kill livestock, and they also kill dogs. The eradication of wolves from Minnesota was seen as a great achievement at the time. Personally, I like the reintroduction of wolves to MN, because they tend to keep the deer population down. My sister, who kept goats and chickens, hated wolves--and with good reason. Wolves can be as big a nuisance as bears some years.

It is, however, nice to see the occasional wolf in the headlights as you drive around rural N. Minnesota.

In regard to moving to Duluth--spend a winter there before deciding if you really want to move there permanently. I'll say this for Duluth: It is a great place to sail from.

I was trying to make a bigger point and maybe from an anthropomorphic standpoint the wolf was not the best example. Of course, the question remains what gives humans first rights to the earth’s resources. My point is that the belief system that supports this human first viewpoint is an indicator of what is causing our own destruction.

What I am trying to figure out is what are the nefarious motivators of our behavior that causes this. I am thinking that it comes from our need to feed our feeling of power. Some would argue that evolution predisposes us to this. I think that evolution may also predispose us to cooperation. Thru cultural mechanisms, maybe it might be possible to encourage more feel good neurotransmitters thru the influence of cooperation and less thru power trips.

As far as Duluth being cold, I live in Rangeley, in mountains of western Maine, and yes, the cold is not for everyone. Right now is 42, rainy and I am hungry to experience the warmth of summer.

What I am trying to figure out is what are the nefarious motivators of our behavior that causes this.

It may not be nefarious at all. At one point in our history we understood predators like wolves to be just an enemy or competitor.
Now we begin to understand them differently.

We have very high expectations, and we are impatient, but it takes time for entire societies to learn new things. I know many are afraid that Climate Change presents a challenge which requires a faster response than human societies are capable of, but I think if you look at history you'll see some pretty fast change at times. Japan in 1870 might be a decent example.

Nefarious, good point, maybe I should have picked a different word. I used it with the implied meaning that if our goal is a peaceful sustainable society then these motivators are seriously counterproductive.

Impatient, I think you are so wrong but I so hope you are right.

Wolves can be as big a nuisance as bears some years

Don, I know you are a thoughtful guy so I'm surprised you said the above. We may find it necessary to kill other inhabitants of our turf, but it really sounds dismissive to call them a "nuisance". I've been chased into a lake when bears wanted our catch of trout. I was mad a hell at those 3 bears but I still respect thier existence. I even lived through the "bear invasion" when the Blueberry crop failed one year - we responded by trying to feed the bears garbage (which had some interesting results).

Cold in Duluth: when I was 10 years old I had a paper route. One morning my mother was horrified when she discovered I was out on my morning route - it was around 40 below zero! Doesn't seem to get that cold anymore.

I think we did have colder winters back in the 1940s. I walked to school (and walked home for lunch--about seven blocks) several times when the temperatures were close to forty below zero. The prosperous kids like me were all bundled up by their mothers, but I remember boys and girls from poor families did not have adequate clothing for cold weather. Indeed, poverty was a lot worse in the 1940s than it is today; it was common to see third graders with all their teeth rotten, kids who had never been to a dentist.

Before romanticizing wolves excessively, I suggest some discussions with sheep ranchers. Sheep used to be big in northern Minnesota, and the sheep ranchers were the ones behind the bounty on wolves, and they were the ones who cheered when wolves went extinct in N. MN.

I like bears and wolves both, but they should not interact with people. "Dances with Wolves" was a terrible movie, IMO. Also, half my ancestors came from Russia (the other half from Denmark), and hatred of wolves goes deep into Russian and Scandanavian folklore.

Before romanticizing wolves excessively, I suggest some discussions with sheep ranchers.

Before romanticizing sheep ranchers excessively, I suggest some discussions with wolves. And, maybe, sheep.

kalliergo, although I suspect a bit of tongue-in-cheek, it is interesting to think about the evolution of both wolves and sheep. Just like the Isle Royale case, we don't seem to be necessary to sort things out for them. I don't know alot about wolf-sheep interactions but I do know that sheep in the wild are not "sheep" like we see on farms today - they can be pretty tough critters also.

My biking buddies in Ireland - I've seen these guys go down a cliff where no wolf could ever make a successful kill:

Just like the Isle Royale case, we don't seem to be necessary to sort things out for them.

No, I don't think we are, Dave. Indeed, I'm very doubtful of our qualifications as Sorters-in-Chief. Nevertheless, given our current unchallenged planetary dominance, that is our role, regardless of how wisely we perform it.

My slightly sarcastic comment was prompted by Don's (very common among humans) apparent assumption that the narrow, special interests of livestock producers somehow "naturally" justify the wholesale eradication of competing predators.

Ecosystems are complex and we, like all species, depend utterly on them for survival. There is, already, a long list of unintended and undesirable consequences that have arisen from our often shortsighted, large-scale alterations of the environment. We aren't always smart enough to foresee them, so caution and restraint seem advisable.

I'll leave questions of moral philosophy alone, for now, except to note that I don't think humans have a claim on the Earth and its resources that is inherently superior to that of, e.g., the wolves.


I doubt anyone is following this thread any longer so I guess it is OK to digress a bit.

I lived in the far East End of Duluth (most people think North) in a place called Lester Park. A few blocks from my house was the Lester River and one could probably walk in the woods all the way from there to Canada without seeing any other humans (but a very long walk!).

What I've often mused about is this "walked to school" thing you mentioned. There was this mile or two stretch of main road that most kids had to traverse to get to my school. Almost nobody got a "ride" to school. At 7:30 in the morning there would be this long parade of kids, bundled up in the dead of winter, scattered along this roadway. 4-6 foot snow banks on the roadside (no cleared sidewalks) maybe 10 or 20 below zero, and most of the kids were having fun. Well, except for the targets of a few bullies. Cars and buses were few and far between even though this was the main drag - children occupied most of the roadway.

I'm sure I sound like one of those old curmudgeons grumbling about pampered kids today - but, I can't help but compare that scene to the car culture of today. We use enormous amounts of energy to get kids to school - often for shorter distances and under much milder weather conditions. The most common rationale for this model of transportation is "safety". Parents don't want their kids getting hit by cars or abducted by some guy in a van. While biking in Ireland, I found parents there had exactly the same concern and would not let their kids bike a mile to school if there were heavily used roads in the mix.

I think our car culture is fundamentally flawed.

Re: wolves. Yeah, "Dances" and that movie maker who thought he could live with Grizzly bears (got eaten) are not the most realistic portrayal of cohabiting with these critters. But, (always a "but" :-) it might be interesting to know more about how the indigenous Americans felt about wolves, bears, and big cats. Obviously, they did not try to eradicate them (or the Buffalo) like we did. I'd guess they did not like them very much, but did they have that "hatred" we got from our European ancestors? Or did they have a much different attitude. Of course they were not herding sheep either - which maybe a good thing.

An interesting read is "Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization" which deals with human culture after the start of agriculture.

in Ireland, I found parents there had exactly the same concern

As best I can tell, this is fear of "stranger danger" - a peculiar modern paranoia. Children today are over controlled by parents because of fear.

Free the children!

Hear, hear!

We are now, in the US, at least a couple of generations into a culture in which the kids are prisoners and the parents are indentured wardens--and chauffeurs. It's really ridiculous.

I agree, and I think the problem is getting worse. When I was eight years old I was allowed to bike out of town (up to about four miles) when with a group of my friends. I spent time at the beach unsupervised and was checked out on using an outboard motor, all at around eight years old. Me and my friends would go boating all over White Bear Lake with no adult supervision.

Here is a story to illustrate lack of parental overprotection in the forties: My sister (about ten years old) discovered a wino sleeping off his hangover one morning by a culvert that joined our property. He gave her a nickel to leave him alone, and my sister promptly brought the nickel home and breathlessly told of her encounter with the bum. Nowadays, parents would immediately call 911 and report the guy, but my mother just asked my sister if she had remembered to say "Thank you." to the guy for the five cents.

Kids cannot have fun anymore; they are constantly watched by hovering parents.

Yes, when I was 10 years old I could travel anywhere my bike could take me, and no one worried.

I think there's a relationship here between the use of "stranger danger" and the use of demonization of "terrorists", "communists", and drug dealers to scare and control people.

I think TV has had a great deal to do with wildly and insanely increased parental paranoia about protecting their children from perverts and other hazards.

In small-town Minnesota, people used to be so trusting. Every now and then a bum would come to the door and ask for a meal. My Mom would always give him eggs and ham and all the buttered toast he could eat. Once a shabby man came to the door, and she offered him a bath and to get him newer clothes. She did that, and the man took his courteous leave after giving thanks. We never locked our house doors or our car doors (usually left keys in the ignition, too) or our bikes. Nothing got stolen. Strangers never let themselves into our house at night to rob and kill and burn.

By the time a kid was eight or ten years old, it was considered quite safe to leave him alone in the house--free to come and go and invite friends over--for hours at a time.

Also, rich people and poor people lived across the street or next door to one another. The gang of kids I ran with went from lower-lower class (father a drunk in and out of jail) all the way up to the richest family in town. Nobody looked down on somebody poor or deferred to the rich; we were all neighbors.
Sounds corny, but that is the way it was, back when movies cost twelve cents, and you could get a cherry Coke at the drugstore counter for six cents.

Hardly anybody was bussed to school; some had to walk over a mile, but we all walked, through all weathers, and nobody was ever hit by a car, because we had crossing guards. I think the nineteen forties were one of the best of all possible decades to be a child in. World War II and its aftermath were some of the best times to be alive, especially in contrast to the horrors of the Great Depression, which lasted until 1940.

I think TV has had a great deal to do with wildly and insanely increased parental paranoia

I'm sure, but why? What's the driving dynamic? Just selling things through fear? That doesn't like enough to explain it.

One problem is that the strangers have got stranger.


On the offchance you're not joking - do you have any evidence for that?

There is some time series data on deviant behavior that sociologists have built up over the decade. Some of the data go back into the early nineteen hundreds, but there is a lot more and better data from roughly 1950-2010.
Surprisingly, crime and other deviant behavior FELL during the Great Depression and was at low levels during World War II. Study the World War II data carefully: Even the mental institutions had their inmate load decrease radically during WWII. Those who were not drafted got jobs in war factories. Alcoholism fell to lower levels during the nineteen forties than during the twenties (Prohibition!) and thirties.

The nineteen fifties were a decade of unprecedented prosperity, but social problems in general and deviant behavior of all kinds increased, but not very rapidly. Teenage gangs became a big problem in some areas, e.g. Chicago, where I lived in the middle of the fifties.

In the sixties all hell broke lose. Sex, drugs, rock & roll and all kinds of deviant behavior, from muggings to homosexual rape increased rapidly, along with worsening race relations as whites were driven from their traditional urban neighborhoods out to the suburbs, largely due to a fear of black gangsters. By the way, the fear of young urban black males was entirely rational: I knew of numerous muggings, some rape, and at least one murder committed twenty feet from my front door in Chicago.

The seventies were a continuation of the sixties, but most everything got worse in terms of criminal and other kinds of deviant behavior. During the eighties a lot more people got put in prison, but rates of violent crime actually went down a bit and then went down a lot more in the nineties and the first decade of the twenty-first century. I think we have about two million people now locked up in jail, prison, or institutions for the criminally insane.

I've known a number of serious criminals rather well; a former student of mine who spent a lot of time blustering in my office is now doing life with no possibility of parole for shooting at the sheriff. He had formerly been convicted of no fewer than two hundred felonies, but he kept moving from state to state, and when he had finally surrendered to the sheriff their were at least a dozen bench warrants out against him. Another criminal I knew quite well did his first murder when he was in the eighth grade and got off after a few years of soft juvie time to get into hijacking of trucks and other criminal enterprises. There really are a lot of dangerous deviant types out there, but they are concentrated in certain areas and tend not to rove in good neighborhoods--either urban or suburban.

So is the increased fear of strangers based on a real phenomenon? Yes, it is, but it is all exaggerated out of proportion to what actually happens.

By the way, the fear of young urban black males was entirely rational: I knew of numerous muggings, some rape, and at least one murder committed twenty feet from my front door in Chicago.

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say entirely rational, but there is no question that unrest and street crime, among minority urban populations, increased significantly in the 50's and accelerated thereafter.

Now, why might that be? As a sociologist, you will not have failed to notice that southern blacks (for instance) were drawn, in large numbers, to northern and coastal industrial centers during WWII, by job opportunities that had been previously unavailable.

With the return of the white male working population after the war, and the white flight and job relocation made possible and encouraged by the policy- and subsidy-driven suburbanization that began in the 50's, those populations tended to be stranded in impoverished and abandoned inner-city neighborhoods. When society noticed this problem (we tended to call it "blight"), our response was a wrong-headed scheme which we called (Orwell couldn't have done better) "urban renewal." In that process, we bulldozed the last vestiges of countless functioning neighborhoods, ran freeways through our cities and stacked up poor people in ungodly-ugly and inhuman towers we called "projects."

The beat goes on. And I could go on, for pages. I'll just say this:

If I had found myself in similar circumstances, with similar "opportunities," mugging and burglary would have been among the career choices I seriously considered.

I'd say that much of this increase in crime was manufactured by criminalizing first alcohol (prohibition), then things like cocaine (Coca-Cola) and heroine.

Don - what would you suggest as the best statistical time series for looking at crime stats since the 1920s? 1950s?

Oh boy, so many numbers, so many choices. The FBI series is good. But if you really want to get into sociological data, let me suggest the journal, SOCIAL PROBLEMS. All the best stuff is in the journals--and typically not found anywhere else. States also compile crime data, as do individual cities. It is very enlightening, for example, to look at the data for Detroit or Chicago over the past eighty years. The rawer the data you look at the better. Beware of "adjusted" data, unless you thoroughly understand the adjustments.

Now the bad news is just as you need graduate seminars in economic data to really understand economic numbers, you also need graduate seminars in sociological research and data interpretation to understand sociological numbers.

Economic data is easier to interpret than is sociological data, because in economics both the parameters and the variables are fewer than in sociology.

If you are willing to lay out a few dollars, join the American Sociological Association: This membership will give you immediate access to mass quantities of journal articles and data--stuff that you would need a major university library plus a lot of time to dig out on your own.

All great sociologists love to wallow in the data. A good starting point for sociological data analysis and how it can be applied to building models and theories is the classic, SUICIDE by Emile Durkheim, which is a fascinating and well-written book with oodles of nineteenth-century data in it. Indeed, if you could read only one book of sociology, that is the single best book. Should be available cheap on amazon.com.

look at the data for Detroit or Chicago over the past eighty years.

I looked at the City of Chicago website and couldn't find historical data. Any suggestions?

Try "Cook County crime statistics" and see what you come up with on Google.

Warning: getting into crime data is drinking at the fire hose--just tons and tons of numbers.

You might also look at the FBI statistics; I think many of them are broken down by state and perhaps some by city, too.

Because crime numbers make the news, you can also search the archives of, e.g., "The Chicago Tribune." Another interesting source is "The Chicago Defender," a newspaper by, for, and about Blacks in Chicago.

If all else fails, just go to the public library and get the reference librarian to help you; I often do that.

As Don says below. Add to that my UK experience where people were turned out of the mental hospitals into, cough, 'community care' where they were all but abandoned. You'd bump into, or rather try very hard not to bump into, some very troubled people. Go back a while and you just would not experience these sort of people on the street.


Also, rich people and poor people lived across the street or next door to one another. The gang of kids I ran with went from lower-lower class (father a drunk in and out of jail) all the way up to the richest family in town. Nobody looked down on somebody poor or deferred to the rich; we were all neighbors.

Astute and critically-important observation, Don.

The ghettoization by economic class that has developed as a result of auto-centric suburban sprawl has been a key factor in the disintegration of local civil society in our towns and cities.

In the nineteen forties, we had a strong sense of community. To some extent you can still find "communities," such as Highland Village in St. Paul, MN, but the bonds of community were much stronger in the forties.

I highly recommend the classic work by Robert Nisbet, "The Quest for Community."

Yes. Agreed.

Nisbet, the epitome of a thoughtful, careful and humane paleoconservative, is a constant reminder to me of the many places and ways that paleocon values overlap with those of many of us on the left.