Despite pessimism today, we must become optimistic

December 29, 2010 

These are tough times for optimists. According to the latest Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans rate the economy as "poor," and 61 percent see it as "getting worse." The Gallup Economic Confidence Index is at negative 29, and declining.

I’ve heard more than one person snarl “good riddance” to 2010, but few welcome 2011 with higher hopes. Hey, I feel your pain; it wasn’t a great year for me, either.

But things have to improve, don’t they? The economy is cyclical, right? Isn’t there some kind of natural law that the pendulum has to swing back in the direction of prosperity?

Two recent books suggest that while human cultures, including their economies, will experience short-term peaks and valleys, the larger governing force is evolutionary, which in turn follows the laws of natural selection.

In “The Watchman’s Rattle” (Vanguard Press, 2010), sociobiologist Rebecca Costa warns that civilizations, like species, can fail and become extinct. Her thesis is grounded in evolutionary neuroscience and based on the premise that brain evolution is vastly outpaced by cultural evolution; hence, complex societies reach a “cognitive threshold.” At this point, there is stagnation and gridlock. Unsolved problems get passed along to the next generation, until the whole house of cards collapses. Sound familiar?

That’s not to say that there’s no hope. Costa thinks that our salvation lies in our ability to admit that traditional attitudes and institutions no longer work. In her words, we need to kill our sacred cows, or our “super-memes,” which are “any belief, thought or behavior that becomes so pervasive, so stubbornly embedded, that it contaminates or suppresses all other beliefs and behaviors.”

Above all, the capability that we need to cultivate to combat those villainous super-memes is insight. Lightning-strike epiphanies don’t come often or easily, but they need to be sought, seized and implemented. Empires fall for lack of vision.

A perspective that is at once a complement and a counterpoint is found in Matt Ridley’s book, “The Rational Optimist” (Harper, 2010). In it, Ridley, a science journalist who writes on genetics and human behavior, maintains that not only do human cultures evolve, but they also invariably improve.

Like Costa, Ridley sees memes being exchanged all over the place, as they have done since the origin of humankind, when “big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other and that once they started doing so, culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic progress began.”

Ideas intermingle — Ridley says they “have sex” — and when they do, natural selection goes to work, picking and choosing the best of each. Although the path toward universal progress is uneven and leaves some people behind, the global trend is toward increased health, prosperity and quality of life. That should be obvious to anybody with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Ridley’s interpretations of economic history and his theory that innovation requires that the government leave the marketplace alone are questionable, especially, to my mind, where he would leave it to entrepreneurs and businesspeople to figure out how to fix our environmental problems.

But Ridley does convince me that, despite the malaise of pessimism today, we must become consciously optimistic before we can make things better. Pessimism is actually contrary to human nature.

What I find particularly intriguing about these two theses is that they put forth scientifically-grounded world views that inspire us to dream and to hope. Costa would encourage us to be fearless in seeking insights. Ridley practically shouts for us to remain steadfastly optimistic.

And that is precisely how I’d like to begin 2011. So, here’s hoping we all have a happy, insightful and optimistic new year.

Gregg Sapp, a freelance writer in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” will be published next spring by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press. He can be reached at sappgregg@aol.com.

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