Is the “metaverse” or any totally digital world good for us? Can our mental capacities evolve fast enough to exist in the digital world without anxiety and anger?
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, the sometimes controversial evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying talk about their new book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.
They discuss humans’ insatiable need for novelty, and how the desire for progress should not necessarily mean embracing every new thing. They explain that while solving problems through an engineering mindset makes us more efficient, it does not make us more human.
Weinstein and Heying argue that we have been infantilized by the digital marketplace. They detail why it’s so much harder today to have cross-generational conversations, and why so many of our current battles spring from the repeated denial of basic biological and scientific realities.
Whatever your views on present-day culture wars, don’t head to the metaverse without this conversation.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Last week, we were focused on the strange notion of the metaverse. What is essentially supposed to be that moment in time when our digital life is worth more than our physical life. Today, every important part of life is going digital. We’re going from factories to laptops, from boardrooms to Zooms, from neighbors to followers. We find like-minded people, not in communities but on Twitter, on Reddit.
And today, kids play more Fortnite than basketball and football, combined. So, if we imagine this forward another 10, 20 years, we’ll cross into what’s defined as the metaverse. Once upon a time, our attention used to be 99percent on our physical environment. Statistics show that TV dropped that to 85 percent, computers to 70 percent, and phones to 50 percent. So, how does any of this line up with how human beings have evolved?
Where was the evolutionary jump that took us from Planet of the Apes to Ready Player One? And how much of our modern-day anxiety comes from this mismatch? My guest today, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying take this on in their new book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist. He currently focuses on the intersection between genetic and cultural evolution.
He worked for 14 years as a professor at Evergreen State College from which he resigned amid woke controversy in 2017. He has sparked added controversy with some of his views on the origins and treatments of COVID. He’s testified before the US Congress and been a visiting fellow at Princeton and he hosts The DarkHorse Podcast. Heather Heying was also, until 2017, a professor at Evergreen State College.
Her doctoral research focused on evolutionary ecology and she’s written controversial and much-debated articles and opinion pieces related to evolution and cultural politics. She’s also a co-host of the weekly DarkHorse Podcast. It is my pleasure to welcome Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying here to talk about A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenge of Modern Life. Bret, Heather, thanks so much for joining us here on WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Bret Weinstein: Well, thanks for having us.
Heather Heying: Thank you for having us. I have to say the introduction of the world that we’re in gave me shivers.
Heather: And exactly as you allude to, we would hope that caution about embracing the metaverse would be something that we can encourage people to do.
Jeff: Bret, I want to start with you. Talk a little bit about how this idea evolved in your mind. Obviously, you’ve been working in this realm of evolutionary biology for a long time, but the connection between the work that you were doing in that field and really beginning to look at it in the context of the way that we were moving first technologically forward and, combined with that, the rapid speed of change in general in our society.
Bret: Well, that’s a deep question that could take a long time to answer. I think the short version is, back in college, I realized that there were things about the story that we tell about the way Darwinian evolution proceeds that are not satisfying, and that the closer you get to human beings, the less satisfying the story is. There are, in fact, missing elements that need to be understood so that we can view ourselves correctly and understand what we are to do.
And as I started to explore those things, I realized that there was a core feature called novelty. And novelty was both the explanation for human specialness and our greatest challenge going forward. And the farther you pursue that thread, the more you realize that either you’ve spotted the problem of novelty both in its original form and its current hyper-novel form or you will be incapable of understanding why it is that we are so at odds with our environment.
Jeff: And as we become more at odds with the environment, Heather, talk about ways in which we have adapted to that and, on the other hand, ways in which it is impossible for us to adapt given the speed at which evolution moves.
Heather: Well, we argue in the book and are not the first to come close to these sorts of arguments that much of what our evolution is is actually not in the physical space, in the bones, in the blood, and even in things like the size of the prefrontal cortex, all of which are things that people who understand that we are evolved creatures will point to as surely evolved.
But because we are so much more software than hardware, and some of the evidence for that includes that we have the longest childhoods on earth relative to our lifespans and what childhood is, is the time during which we learn how to be adults. Because that is true, much of our evolution is happening in software space, in behavior space, in culture space. And so, in fact, evolutionary change in humans is happening at the speed of all of the change that we are seeing because we argue it is all evolutionary.
Of course, changes to, for instance, the relative length of our long bones to our pelvis is going to happen at a much slower pace, but the fact that we are, in fact, changing in the 21st century does not suggest that we are hunter-gatherers living in the 21st century. We are to some degree, but we are also agriculturalists. We’re also post-industrialists. And if you go backwards in time, we’re also primates and mammals and even fish. So we are adapted to all of these moments in our history, but to better and worse degrees.
So as we have accelerated the rate of change, we have, for instance, yes, enabled ourselves to take in a diet that is largely agricultural in origin. We are adapted to eating the products of agriculture, but we are not nearly so well-adapted to eating the products that are in the middle of supermarkets that have additives in them that allow them to have shelf lives that are months long. These things are too new and, in fact, too toxic even for our rapid adaptation.
Jeff: To the extent that so much of the adaption though is, as you say, software, shouldn’t that argue for the ability to adapt more quickly to some of these things?
Bret: Yes, this is really the key and, possibly, the most challenging message in the book is that we are the creature that has mastered the art of adapting to rapid change, but the rapid change that we face is so fast that even our amazing capacity is not up to the challenge. And you can see this when you realize that there is a close relationship, a close analogy between the way adaptation shapes a species to an environment and the way childhood shapes a person for adulthood. And the fact that we are born into a world that by the time we become adults is gone and replaced by a different one tells you there is no conceivable solution at this rate of change for a creature like us to be ready for the place that we find ourselves.
Jeff: But, in fact, we have to be, so the net result of that is what?
Bret: Well, the net result of that is that you have to figure out how to, A, increase the rate at which we can deal with novelty, but, B, decrease the rate at which novelty comes at us in an arbitrary form. And you alluded in your introduction to this idea of metaverse as Facebook would put it. Now, anybody who’s been paying attention, who has recognized, in fact, what Facebook and Twitter and the other social platforms have done to us, anybody who recognizes the way the phone has transformed us that it has made us vastly more capable and it has also made us edgy and prone to conflict in a way that we weren’t before, knows that the metaverse is either going to flop if we’re lucky or going to be some new kind of disaster.
Now, that does not mean that we have a language in society for saying, “Hey, yes, we could do this, but is it a good idea? What ought the rules be? Are there conditions that would tell us we needed to reverse course and unplug the metaverse?” Of course, we’ve done none of that. And we will simply find out what the harm of the metaverse is when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Jeff: And even putting the metaverse aside for the moment, there is just the increasing speed at which life moves, at which information comes at us as a result of all of this technology.
Heather: That’s exactly right. We are, as Dickens said at a much earlier moment, living in both the best of times and the worst of times and we see that. We see sort of the Steven Pinker side of the equation that we are living much better lives. And more of us are enhanced by modernity than even 50 years ago and certainly more than 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, but we are interested in progress. We call ourselves progressives still even though there is much in modern progressivism that we do not agree with.
We are progressives who are arguing that those things that we retained from our past that either are still functional or cannot be changed, and there aren’t that many of those things, but there are some — we need to understand. And those things that can be changed, we also need to understand so as to better make decisions about how to move forward and, furthermore, that those things that are coming at us that are exactly the results of our own processes changing the environment in which we live, many of them are extraordinary.
But to be in favor of progress is not the same thing as being in favor of every new thing that is introduced. We would ask for a more careful analysis of what of those things that are being introduced are actually good for us and to not make the mistake of a sort of reductionist, metric-heavy, science-ish approach to the world. We are scientists and we would ask for a scientific approach to the world, which recognizes that those things that can be measured are not necessarily those things that are the best measure of a system.
Jeff: And yet so much of that technology comes out of what those that created see as solving problems. And to that extent, the technology is simply providing what human beings want.
Bret: Yes, and this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, we humans inherited our amazing capacity for problem-solving from all of our ancestors who had no language for it and, indeed, did not think of it in any sort of conscious terms. But evolution is a process that seeks inefficiency and does away with it because, effectively, a calorie saved is a calorie found. Now, that obsession with solving problems in the modern world when we have so many technologies at our disposal becomes a problem of its own.
Because we can see the things that render us inefficient and we can address them. We cannot know ahead of time what the unintended consequences of these changes will be. And so, in effect, it’s like we are treating the symptom that annoys us, the inefficiency of the way we are forced to do things in life. And we deliver ourselves some efficient solution and then we discover what’s wrong with it.
Jeff: To a certain extent though, technology will always find a way, some would argue, that it will evolve, the technology will evolve whether we want it or not.
Heather: Well, this is the difference, I would say, between an engineering perspective on humanity and life and a biologist’s perspective. And, of course, our bias as biologists will be the biologist’s perspective, but there is a complexity in life that, too often, an engineering set of solutions does not address. It is inherently reductionist and it will be very good at solving short-term problems and sometimes very good at solving long-term problems as well.
But it will too often miss subtlety and nuance and, most to the point, emergence, so complex systems are emergent and they are complex. And we are arguing that an evolutionary perspective on what we have been and what we are now and what we could be is going to provide a better map to a future in which everyone can thrive than a short-term, more reductionist, engineer typical set of solutions.
Bret: And I think it’s also important to say, there’s nothing about the argument that we make that is Luddite or anti-technology. What we’re arguing is that we should embrace technology in an enlightened mature fashion, not simply embrace things because they are new and because they appeal to us in some way. That turns us into suckers. And so we define two different roles. There is a question of how to figure out how something should be done versus figuring out what should be done. How things should be done is something that is very well-solved by markets and it is an appropriate task to which to point markets.
What we should want is not an appropriate task for markets. That’s a question of our values and we have to come together without market forces intervening and figure out what kind of world we want to live in, and then we will know which technologies to employ. Now, of course, we have to employ them carefully with awareness that there will be consequences we don’t foresee and an ability to reverse course when those consequences are more costly than the problem or than the solution.
Jeff: Isn’t the Holy Grail, really, to figure out how to use what we bring to the table from an evolutionary perspective, from a software perspective, and use that to better understand and better adapt to this technology and modernity in general?
Bret: Well, you know, the funny thing is we humans have the same evolutionary purpose as every other creature. And that means it’s not much of a purpose. It’s not very interesting if you have the same purpose as an oak tree and a malaria particle, right? So, it’s not a good purpose, but we have the most incredible machinery in the known universe for dealing with that purpose. Our consciousness is an incredible marvel. It’s actually, at the moment, still beyond our ability to explain it. Now, the question is, what is that consciousness for?
At the moment, it is dedicated to solving mundane, little problems that are created by the fact that our entire world is not something to which we are adapted, right? That is occupying our consciousness with totally pointless problem-solving. What we need to do is have a world in which things are intuitive, in which we are so well-matched to our environment that our conscious mind is free to do the incredible stuff that a human mind can do. So, that’s really the objective, to liberate ourselves, to do something that’s worth our time.
Jeff: That comes back to this idea of finding balance and to use a word, Bret, that you used a minute ago, a degree of maturity that we seem to be incapable of as a society right now.
Heather: Well, we have infantilized ourselves. And so to the degree that some number of people of all ages are acting like children is true. And the younger they actually are and the greater the degree to which they were, in fact, kept from gaining wisdom as children, the less we should be blaming them and the more we should be looking at societal-level changes and attitudes and try to fix them. So, we have a perfect storm of parenting that is so protective that it keeps children from risk and serendipity and discovery.
Providing children with drugs for symptoms that themselves maybe or we would argue absolutely are the result of things like modern schooling, such that boys who can’t sit still in tight rows and look ahead at the teacher get drugged for ADHD and girls who are deranged by constant indicators that their peers are doing better get medicated for anxiety. And we have, of course, the ubiquity of screens — put aside for the moment what is on those screens — but just as you discussed in your introduction, the more we are engaging with each other in virtual space, the fewer indicators of our humanity we actually have. Science doesn’t yet know. Science may never know all of the ways in which we actually communicate in physical space. But we know for sure that over screens, we have no senses of smell or of tactile information, which includes even just the way that the air is moving in a room as you are yourself moving in a room with someone else.
Are we conscious of the effects of those things? Of course, we’re not. Has the virtual world provided us much greater opportunity and the ability to break down barriers across space that we could not break down before? Yes, it has, but it has also come with some costs, and recognizing the trade-offs is part of what we are advocating for.
Jeff: And to some extent, it is feeding on itself because it is producing a level of anxiety and a level of uncertainty, which feeds all the worst in human behavior in many respects.
Bret: Yes, in fact, you could use anxiety as a kind of rough barometer for how close to a reasonable path you are on. Now, it’s not a perfect guide because, of course, before you make a breakthrough, things may be very uncertain, but to the extent that anxiety is just a general condition that most people feel most of the time. And, frankly, they’re probably just simply perceiving accurately enough to know that the future is hazardous. We can realize we are off-track. And getting on track, therefore, we’ll feel like a world that is more reassuring that you understand what to make of the things in front of you.
Now, I do want to go back to a point from a minute ago. It is true that we are in an infantilized state, but the key thing to recognize is that we are being infantilized, that there is a perverse incentive in our markets to keep us from maturing because, effectively, young people aren’t wise enough to resist. They are still prone to leap at things that sound very good because they haven’t had the experience that tells them it’s too good to be true. And so by keeping us in that immature state, those who would be eager to transfer our wealth to them have an easier time of it.
Jeff: And to what extent are young people that are growing up in this kind of world that we’ve been talking about, to what extent are they more naturally adapted?
Bret: I would say very little. And even to the extent that they are adapted, the fact that we all know that we cannot describe the world in which they will be adults in which they will have to make a living and be productive, the fact that we can’t describe that world tells us that they will not be healthy in it. They will suffer from anxiety. They will suffer from physiological disorders. And at some level, some generation, and may it be ours, is going to recognize this problem and realize we are obligated to deliver a world to people in which they can be healthy.
Heather: I will just add to that anecdotally. Bret and I were professors at Evergreen by chance at exactly in the period 2002 through 2017, when we were effectively teaching the generation of millennials. And our students were extraordinary almost to a person. They really were very, very capable, although many of them arrived in our classrooms, not only, not being very capable but imagining having been told that they weren’t and were not capable of learning.
So, this points to a problem with the educational system, of course. But they showed up and they were able to demonstrate facility with technology in the era when we were transitioning to the so-called digital natives, and yet what they were capable of doing with that technology was less and less empowering.
So, again, these students were actually — when you gave them the opportunity to ask good questions and to sit with uncomfortable answers and, even more so, to wonder what the answers were without immediately googling them, were extraordinarily capable. But the so-called digital natives actually seemed less capable of navigating their way around the machines that they were using. They were less likely to be coding. They were less likely to have actually taken apart the type that they were using and tinkered with it and put it back together.
Bret: They were expert users with the tech stuff.
Heather: They were expert users. They were expert consumers, whereas what we would hope for in a truly digitally-native world is that everyone has a really deep sense of what it would mean to be producing such things.
Jeff: And what do you think is the reason for that? What do you think is the dividing line there and why?
Bret: Well, it goes back to what you were pointing to earlier, which is that there is this insatiable desire to solve problems. And, effectively, the generation who created the digital world that these kids are now growing up in figured out how to hand them something that was easy and intuitive for them to pick up, and so we have to learn the conventions of it. But to them, it’s as normal as walking down the stairs. But the point is that’s on the user interface side. They have no idea, for the most part, what takes place on the inside of the machine.
And what’s more, they don’t really have a mechanism for figuring it out. And this was actually spotted by the folks who invented the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino. Two separate groups of computer scientists, who are roughly Heather and my age, recognize that the world of computers that they could actually open up, solder things into, and hack did not exist for these kids. The computers that they have are simply too complex. And, therefore, there was nothing to train them about how these things actually function.
Jeff: It’s interesting as you talk about millennials and Gen Xers that also because people are living longer that we have this multigenerational society, that we have boomers alongside of Gen Xers, alongside of millennials, et cetera, et cetera. And the degree to which that clash in response to all of this change is creating some of the problems, some of the anxiety.
Heather: Well, to some degree, intergenerational living side-by-side has been a feature of humans throughout our entire history and as it has been of all of the, what I call the usual suspects, the social species who are long-lived, who have long childhoods, who have generational overlap, which includes the whales and the elephants, the parrots, and the other apes and the wolves.
So, we are more than any of them are with regard to our sociology and language and tool use and all of the usual things, of course, but generational overlap itself isn’t the thing that makes us unique. What has changed recently? And we have, we do have a growing average lifespan, but our maximum lifespan has not changed. And we have argued and Bret has argued specifically that it will not change.
But even though our expected, our average lifespan has increased some, what has changed most is the rate of change itself such that when you have, say, three generations talking together and living together now, the world in which they each came of age is so radically and fundamentally different from one another that it is increasingly difficult to talk across those generational differences even if a hundred years ago, those same generational differences would have existed.
Bret: Yes. In fact, the older generations have wisdom that may be completely counterproductive. And many of us Gen Xers recognize this when we started to hear from our boomer and silent-generation parents that they were, in some sense, disappointed that we weren’t succeeding in the way that they had.
And it took a long time, you know, even in one-on-one communication to convey, “Look, that world of opportunity, that boom that you grew up in is gone.” It was true that if you were smart and you have put your nose to the grindstone, you could make something of yourself in the ‘60s, but that’s just a very different world and it is yet still more different for Generation Z and the millennials. So that is, in and of itself, a measure of hyper-novelty.
Jeff: And how then do you see all of this playing out within our social, political construct today? Because, clearly, none of this is going away. Heather?
Heather: Well, we actually do know how to communicate with one another. The experience, again, that Bret and I had in the classroom around both literal and metaphorical campfires to use a trope that we invoke in the book a lot reveals that most humans, if you start with the assumption that they too like you are human on the inside and are not superheroes or supervillains, can be talked to and respond well when that happens.
So, reinforcing the reminder that we are humans and engaging with one another in physical space, not to say that we should throw away our phones, throw them into the ravine, but taking sabbaticals, having Sabbaths from them in which we actually, intentionally engage with, not just the physical people in our lives but the physical world will help bring us back to a sense, not just of our own embodiedness and our own embodied cognition but also help to reveal to us our sense of purpose.
Jeff: Bret, last word on the same question.
Bret: Well, I would say, definitely, don’t throw away your phone, responsibly.
Bret: I think Heather’s making exactly the right point, which is it wasn’t so long ago that we could talk to each other. And Thanksgiving has famously been a bit fraught, but the fact is people dealt with it. And to the extent that we have been dragged away from communications that we have to get to the end of and into a world where we can opt out at any second and block the person we’re disagreeing with, we have to reverse course and retrain ourselves what it is like to have a disagreement, to be passionate about it, not to imagine that it is a moral failing on the other person’s part, and come to a resolution that’s better than either person could’ve done on their own. That is what we are built for. It is our past and it is also the solution to our present problems.
Jeff: And do we get to the point that there’s just a backlash to all of this that pushes us together, pushes us towards talking to each other, that finally, the anxiety level reaches max and we just are forced into it?
Heather: I hope so. However, there is a risk that the ever-increasing tribalism, the divisiveness too often in the name of unity will continue to drive us apart. And so you will end up with splintering of groups, further siloing, both in the virtual world and in the physical world. So as people become more and more aware of our collective addiction to outrage and to the virtual world, what we need to do is continue to really force ourselves, recognizing that it actually feels better in the moment and in the long-term to engage with people who don’t already agree with everything that we agree with.
Bret: I would also just point out, the tension is clear and this is unfolding in real-time. You have a mainstream media, which delivers a message each and every day about a world that is divided on a razor-thin margin in which every election is going to come down to a photo finish. And then you have a world of podcasts in which people are having a much richer, more interesting, more nuanced conversation. And it is taking over the world because, in some sense, people have had it. They do not want to be separated this way. And if it means sitting with people that they’re being told are demons, so be it.
Jeff: Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, the book is A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenge of Modern Life. Bret, Heather, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Heather: It has been a pleasure.
Bret: Thanks so much.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.