Cycles of Evolution

Cycles of Evolution (Video 9 minutes)

Cycles of Evolution

Do human societies evolve in cycles similar to Punctuated Equilibrium in the biological theory of evolution? Or are they different? Here “punctuated” means “puncture,” a huge change, a new epoch greatly different from the old one. Punctuated Equilibrium holds that evolution of species was not a long gradual change, but came in spurts after major punctures, like a huge meteor hitting earth, chilling the climate, and consigning most cold-blooded reptiles to extinction.

Reptiles that could not adapt quickly became fossilized victims of an enduring chill that favored warm-blooded mammals. They became dominant animals in a new balance of nature. After every puncture, evolution spurted, then settled into a slower, more stable pace of change. After a puncture, total ecologies transformed, from microscopic beings to mega-life. Many species never seen before emerged; a few adaptive species survived.

Adaptability and Financial Models

In an environmental puncture all species had to quickly adapt or die, making way for something else. Each species had to adapt to all the new life cycle loops interacting with it. For instance, a food source might change. Or a new predator might be an unchecked microbe, not something bigger seeking a meal.

In biology nothing can adapt to just one change, all else staying the same. However, that assumption is often made to simplify economic models (ceteris paribus in econo-speak). Because neither minds nor models can unravel truly complex systems, we have to simplify, but most business and economic models overdo it. They project the future as an extension of the past. When that future is epoch changing, they break down, unable to adapt. That’s about where economic models appear to be today.

Michael Hudson is a popular rebel economist popular pointing out blind spots in today’s economic models. Being anchored in supply-and-demand markets, they do not include the effects of asset inflation or asset deflation, the core cause of the 2008 financial crash. That’s why they did not predict it.

Hudson examines the power that indebtedness holds over us. Many households, companies, and countries are too deep in hock to ever pay off. If they try to pay debt by selling assets, in time, moneyed masters of the universe own everything and everybody. Hudson contends that without cancelling debts and resetting, the fate of any “free market” economy ends in debt servitude to oligarchs – a 21st century form of feudalism.

Hudson’s projections inflame politics, and he has a big following. However, he minimally considers social change, technological change, and the big one – environmental change – but does note that financial models presume eternal expansion while the physical world can’t stretch that far. To broaden insight we need to fish with bigger nets.

Cyclic Forecasting

To forecast major changes, mankind has long referred to past cycles. Ancient rulers relied on astronomers to precisely forecast seasonal cycles that everyone could see. Other matters troubling rulers were more uncertain, but never mind; they sought a sign from mystic cycles in a complex universe. Modern governments seek signs from economists and their models. However, if both nature and economic systems are on the cusp of a disruptive “puncture” these might be worse than astrology.

If in a bind for longer-range insight, economists may turn to Kondratieff Cycles, or long wave shifts, but few do. They prefer their quantitative comfort zone, but like the rest of us, they are fascinated by social changes wrought by major innovations like the printing press. Today we get a buzz from forecasters like the Medical Futurist or Ray Kurzweil.

Social cycle theories take a much broader view, seeking old patterns in human social cycles in current cycles. Peter Turchin studies “secular cycles” using “Cliodynamics,” quantified analysis of social data in patterns back to ancient societies – like Roman times. According to his Well Being Index and his Political Stress Index, social stress in the United States is trending to levels not seen since the late 19th Century, the Civil War and afterward. “We should expect many years of political turmoil.” (Others sense that without using any models.)

Turchin concludes that if we realize that we are heading for disaster, civilized people should be able to stave off the worst, but doesn’t recommend how. The Compression Institute and related movements need to step up. We have to control our inner nature before we can regenerate our ecology and our economy in a major “puncture.”

However, social cycle predictions don’t factor in the mother of all economic bubbles, economic growth overrunning our planet’s ecological capacity. The issues coping with such a huge “puncture” are difficult to frame because of denial; belief that ecology couldn’t possibly disrupt progress toward technical and economic nirvana. From Hermann Daly to Al Gore, anyone positing the end of growth draws a chorus of boos. That is, to fix the planet, humans must rethink our role on it and what we really are.

From Stratosphere to Ground Level

Once we grasp that we in a deepening global crisis, what should we do? Techniques are essential, but useless unless we use them. Public policy is helpful, but action is necessary to carry it out. Local is where the action is. What do I do about a global mess, right here, right now, with what I have?

That is the stratosphere to ground level problem.

The only actions that I can physically take are local. I see at least 50 reports a day: a reef bleaching in Australia, a cholera epidemic in Yemen, air pollution in India – more catastrophes than I can track. Just trying gives me crisis fatigue.

On the other hand, if my hometown is swamped in a flood, I’m in it along with fellow town folk. No one can deny that it exists. Almost all will react, self-organizing, doing what they can to help in a collective effort.

By contrast, a predictable evolutionary “puncture” is iffy; its nature and timing uncertain. Some sense it coming; others are unsure; no one knows how it will unfold. Naysayers blare that it’s a hoax. Conflicted citizens play video games rather than evaluate facts and what they portend. Business owners want to keep their businesses growing. Opening minds to a broader view goes against our survival instincts. However, believe it or not, the nature to be punctured includes us and our systems.

To compound this, suppose that the prospective change is so deep that a business must change its concepts of purpose, success, and wealth. That blows up the most basic assumptions of today’s economic models. Such a change is more like a religious conversion, the epitome of all “wicked problems.”

What to do at ground level? Usually nothing – or token efforts. We don’t want to think about it.

How Can We Psychologically Prepare for a Puncture?

Success doing this on a big scale would radically transform humanity. Any approach that has been partly successful – like Buddhist meditation – risks relapse. Under pressure Buddhists revert to animal instinct too. Amanda Ripley discovered that we react to disaster, but go into mind block preparing for them, and James Gordon describes how we are neurologically tuned to react to danger more than to anticipate it.

Becoming open to new insights is emotional, not just intellectual. People see no reason to address a problem that they don’t believe exists. We expect the future to be like the past –or better as we see it. As long as contentious factions believe that they know all the facts needed to cover any situation, we remain frozen in social acrimony.

  1. Self-doubt is a first step in personal awareness, which goes by different names: consciousness, introspection, meditation, deep reflection, self-questioning, and others, including that smash mouth redneck idiom, “attitude adjustment.” All mean calling time out to mull things over, questioning your beliefs. Time outs can involve anything from ritualistic meditation to walks in the woods.
  2. Common criteria for accepting facts and causality, a common touchstone of reality. What’s yours? Scripture? An ideology? An authority figure? Monetization potential? Evidence from other people’s experiments? What you observe with your own senses?

Without agreeing on criteria for observation and reasoning, we can’t agree on much else. This hinders the resolution of even “tame” process improvement problems, where management pre-sets the criteria for success and personal interests do not conflict. Common first stage training is to stop scapegoating – blaming a person for a process failure. If we do something – scapegoat – it makes us feel better, and we stop rather than go on to examine the faults buried in the total work process.

Behavioral instinct skews problem solving. For example, dictating use of health care processes because they are “evidence based” – but not open to question. Or rigidly insist on using a tool (like an elaborate House of Quality format, applicable or not). Tool fetishists put on a show of problem solving without deeply engaging in it.

When criteria and interests conflict, as in wicked problems, conflicts are part of each situation to clarify, and eventually to resolve. A person’s beliefs may not be grounded in reality, but that they hold them and will act on them is a fact.

  1. Dialog among divergent people. From conserving water to preserving biodiversity, our human preconceptions and old systems for resolving issues stall resolution when conditions are changing fast. Prior doctrines enshrined in laws and customs are too slow to adapt and need to be questioned. We are a big part of every such issue.

Once people come together with minds open to rethinking, dialog in some form should speed a transition that by historical patterns has required decades of contentious ebb and flow. The objective is useful resolutions without serious acrimony.

Being open-minded to new learning is a counterintuitive habit never fully mastered. Learning to “listen to learn” takes practice. These skills and more are embodied in the arts of dialog, and many people have worked on methods for conducting it. Learn enough to devise a method that works for you without getting hung up closely following a recipe. The terminology is not yet standardized. Yes, you will make mistakes. Everybody does, but keep learning. There are a ton of sources, and people quibble about methods, but here are a couple of beginning references to get started:

  1. Jeff Conklin and the Cognexus Institute:
    One of the pioneer programs; poke around and you can learn a lot.
  2. Derek and Laura Cabrera:
    A popular site that promotes a stepwise version of dialog under the heading of systems thinking; the Cabreras have a lab, a book, and exercises.
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