Not so Fast Cultural Evolution in the Twenty-First Century

Evolution can be brutal. Our ancestors who survived for millions of years on the African veldt endowed us with tools for survival and reproduction. Some of these ancient drives serve us well today in our concrete canyons, while others, such as sexism, tribalism, and the thoughtless consumption of our natural resources, result in many of our self-inflicted woes.

One of the problems is that humans tend to be fast thinkers. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, focuses on the idea that we have two modes of thinking: fast and slow. Type 1, or fast thinking, is the automatic mental process of intuition, perception, and memory. As we evolved it helped us survive by creating a coherent pattern of beliefs that results in quick assessment and decision making. Fast thinking causes us to neglect ambiguity and confirm our biases. Type 2, or slow thinking, involves more open-minded, rational, deliberate, and effortful thinking.

Fast intuitive thinking is needed in most daily aspects of life. You don’t survive a lion attack by taking time to analyze the situation. Your finely tuned instincts about a person lying are generally pretty accurate. Still, acting on our instincts without deliberative confirmation leads to many errors. Kahneman and his associates have shown that even so-called “expert” intuitions by psychologists, stock traders, and economists are no better than chance. We have an unwarranted arrogance about our powers of intuition. Moreover, we are biased in our fast thinking toward subconscious genetic impulses that may not serve us well in modern society.

Humanism as a life stance promotes Type 2 thinking. As children of the Enlightenment and Modernism, we value the use of reason and open-minded critical thinking. Some have criticized this, saying we ignore the more intuitional and emotional aspects of our being and this is certainly true in some cases. Still, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. As Robert Heller of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors said, “Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it is enough.”

Using Type 2 thinking is hard work. It’s a lot easier to spout off your ungrounded prejudices with self-congratulatory confidence than to carefully consider the evidence and be willing to change your mind. It’s a lot easier to give into racism and tribalism in our dealing with other groups than to step back and widen our circle of compassion. Humanism is a demanding life stance as it often calls on us to transcend our harmful, instinctual evolutionary drives.

Steven Pinker, in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has become a believer in the value of Modernism since, contrary to popular belief, we humans are becoming less violent with time and culture. We are learning how to transcend our basest tendencies. Slow thinking works.

In fact, many of the culture wars today may really be due to a difference in slow and fast thinking. We all know many educated and intelligent people who fall for the most ridiculous and harmful ideas due to their lack of critical thinking, and who remain in quick-thinking mode where reason becomes a mere tool to argue one’s prejudices. Type 1 thinking is not just fast thinking but can be lazy thinking as well.

When I see racism imbedded in virtually every political decision where I live in the South, I see a subconscious, evolutionary fear of the “other tribe” at its core. Recent studies show conservatives may even have a genetic “negativity bias” that makes them more sensitive to perceived threats. They may quell their heightened fears with tribalism, for example, and guns. Such a bias also coincides with an intolerance for ambiguity and a need for absolute answers.

Regardless, all of us are driven by our fears and our dreams. Humanists have a dream of healing the earth with the best tools of reason and compassion. With an acknowledgement of our inherent genetic biases comes a skeptical, sensible humility. With a confidence born of the power of reason and history, we know we have the tools to overcome our own inherent flaws and the brokenness of the world. With compassion we can overcome our fears and embrace each other’s hopes, dreams, and our common humanity.