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In their book New World New Mind,1 Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich make a strong argument that when we moved out of the trees and onto the savannah, we were competing with animals that had already evolved to survive on the ground. As a result we had to evolve quickly to adapt to our new environment. Being able to notice the dramatic and immediate (a movement in a bush, a carnivore taking a particular interest in us etc.) would have been more than an advantage, it would have been necessary for survival.

Ornstein and Ehrlich argue that this evolutionary preference continues to this day. We notice the immediate and the dramatic and this preference is fed by the tabloid media. The news shows us the immediate and dramatic and that is because it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular. The authors argue that this preference is not a useful preference in our modern environment. Few humans are today in danger of losing their life to an unexpected attack from another animal. As a result the ability to notice the dramatic and immediate is more of an inhibiter when it comes to the problems that humanity faces. For example: 

The growth of human population

The effect of this on the environment

Water and food security

Resource depletion and pollution

Nuclear proliferation

These problems are more of the slow and creeping kind than the immediate and dramatic. Our understanding of these issues is more intellectual than experiential. We cannot experience the growth of the human population in any real terms in one life time, the degradation of the environment is not immediate, water and food safety is not dramatic until it is extreme. Ornstein and Ehrlich focus on two psychological preferences to make their case. These are: 

Preference to notice the immediate and dramatic

Primacy and recency (noticing the first and the last and forgetting the middle)


Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, New World New Mind,

Fortunately this is not the whole story Critics could argue that by focusing in on two preferences, Ornstein and Ehrlich are not discussing our full human perceptual capacity. Noticing the immediate and the dramatic could be loosely equated to the MBTI (MyersBriggs Type Indicator) preferences of noticing the sensate and the emotional. While there are people in the world who have a preference to notice the sensate and the emotional (And we are very fortunate to have them, as many of them are nurses or work in industries that help people with immediate need) we also have a large population of people who have a preference to notice the intuitive and the logical. Looking at the statistics of poverty creates a different response to looking at an individual’s struggle with poverty. When we read that there are 1 billion people who live in poverty and that 29,000 children die from poverty a day, it is easy to dissociate with the issue because the numbers create a distance between us and the issue. When you see a mother in tears as she holds her baby who is malnourished, diseased and dying, you would have to be sociopathic to not feel something. Mother Theresa is attributed (possibly incorrectly) to saying “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” So what this means is that we have the capacity to notice both the immediate/dramatic and the global and logical. As a result we have many people who are working hard to address the very issues that Ornstein and Ehrlich are discussing. Not everyone is sucked in by the tabloid The news shows us the immediate and dramatic and that is because it gets ratings and it gets ratings because the immediate and dramatic is popular. But that does not mean that everyone is sucked in by the tabloid. And not everyone has a preference to focus on the immediate and dramatic. I think there would be some very hard working people in the UN, Not-for-profits, NGO’s, community and grass roots organisations who could take offense to Ornstein’s and Ehrlich’s position. There are many people working very hard to make the world a better place and perhaps Ornstein and Ehrlich are ironically suffering from what they are suggesting is our biggest problem. The work done by a large army of NFP’s, NGO’s, volunteers etc. might not be immediate or dramatic and as a result it seems as though (and I only read the first couple of chapters) their efforts have been missed by the authors. Underestimating the environment Another issue that would be easy to argue with the authors is that we are not just genetic, we are also affected by the environment. Once again I would suggest that the changes in our behaviour to match the environment are slow and undramatic and therefore have been missed or underestimated by the authors.

If we travelled back to ancient Greece, the most honoured members of society were its fighting men and it was considered a disgrace for a fighting man to be seen in the market or even to know how to count. Travel forward to modern day United States and the most honoured males are its entrepreneurs. It would be considered a disgrace for these men to not know how to count or how the market works. Fortunately Jeffrey Skilling, Bernard Ebbers and Bernie Madoff didn’t try the ‘Yeah but if we were in Greece …’ defence.” Fortunately there are a plethora of books that show that we can indeed change our behaviours as the environment requires. These include: In sociology: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell Switch by Chip and Dan Heath Spiral Dynamics by Beck and Cowan In economics: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner In history: The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer Dixon A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley An assumption about evolution Ornstein and Ehrlich write that “Our human mental system is failing to comprehend the modern world. So events will, in our opinion, continue to be out of control until people realise how selectively the environment impresses the human mind and how our comprehension is determined by the biological and cultural history of humanity.” While this may be correct, there is an assumption in this premise that control of the environment is preferable or even possible. This could be argued.

We could also argue that it has never been our ability to foresee the future and yet we have already made phenomenal advancements and improvements. I also understand that this is the ‘so far so good’ argument and, perhaps, with our technology, research, study, knowledge etc. we are better equipped to do this now than we ever have in the past. Alarmist Paul Ehrlich also wrote The Population Bomb2, a modern day Thomas Robert Malthus essay on the principle of population. Both claim that we will eventually lose the battle to feed, clothe, house and occupy the growing population. Critics attack his alarmist tone, amongst other things. The alarmist tone could have more to do with the fact that Ehrlich was one of the first people to popularise science through media. In the 1960’s television brought issues like population into people’s living rooms. Having said that … I do get a little angry when I read drivel like: “Cities lead to epidemics of the diseases of crowding and to large-scale warfare. Public health measures lead to further increases in population and then, by permitting people to live longer, to an increase in cancer and heart diseases. Cities also lead to universities and the uncovering of many secrets of the universe. And uncovering secrets of the universe lead to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.” Are the authors seriously suggesting that we should exterminate 9/10 of the population and the remaining few return to being cave dwellers? When I read sentences like that I can understand why Paul Ehrlich is such a controversial figure. A zealot is both an issues best friend and worst enemy. Examples of clear calm thinking In response to Ornstein and Ehrlich’s argument we could list examples of when the human race has solved complex problems with clear calm thinking. For example:


We have sent people to the space and the moon … and brought them back.

We have developed immunisation and have greatly reduced deaths due to diseases like the plague, the measles, polio, etc.

We have avoided nuclear war on countless occasions. For example: The Cuban missile crises and perhaps many other times that we will never hear about due to the clear and calm thinking of good people.

Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Sierra Club/Ballantine Books, 1968, USA

We continue to be able to create a surplus of food (Unfortunately much of it is wasted in the first world while people in the third world starve. Also, the good work of NFP’s and NGO’s like foodbank. In the end I would agree that as humans and our civilisations have evolved, the decision to act or not to act has had ramifications for increasing numbers of people. In the Rift Valley of Africa between 1 and 2 million years ago, decisions would affect a family or tribe. At the beginning of the common era, such a decision would have implications for up to a million people (the believed population of the city of Rome at its peak), while today a decision to act or not to act on certain issues could threaten all civilisations, the actual existence of human beings and perhaps the even existence of life on the planet. I would also agree that evolving our thinking is our ticket to a better world. Where I disagree with Ornstein and Ehrlich is that they have been very selective with the human capabilities that they have chosen to make their case focusing in on just two psychological preferences and seemingly ignoring the ones we have that help. I would also point to all the work that is currently taking place and the good people already doing work and having completed work that has helped. I would suggest that the authors would do well to balance their approach if they wish to widen their appeal. And I also applaud them for contributing to the discussion in a far more useful way than talking about “Brittany’s Shock Baby Bump Rehab Horror Love Triangle.”

Are We Equipped for the Challenges of the 21st Century?  

A critical review of Ornstein and Ehrlich's perspective on psychological preferences of humans. Is this too alarmist and narrow thinking for...

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