Archive for August, 2010

August 5, 2010

Why the 20th Century Is Different

What is different about the 20th century? Why is there a crisis of identity and moral relativism now, despite our past achievements?

This is the Dream Time by Robin Hanson is written from the point of view of our descendants as they perceive us from the distant future. They try to understand us by identifying the defining behavioral trends of the 20th century.

Demographic transition

We took far less than full advantage of the reproductive opportunities that our wealth offered us.  Instead, we spent our wealth on purchases that we thought would elevate our social status. We were driven by the self-imposed need for acceptance by others, even those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, as they could never know us e.g. our celebrities.

hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s assessment of our needs, if we behaved rationally

Obsession with super-stimuli

Our evolved survival instincts were overridden so that we chose taste without nutrition. We spent vast sums on things that didn’t actually help on the margin, such as on medicine that didn’t make us healthier, and education that didn’t make us more productive. For many of us, this did not make us happier, but rather less so, despite the comparative comfort and quality of life.

Extreme mating patterns

Capricious and casual attachments are a normal part of adolescent growth into maturity. In the 20th century, these attachments remained lifelong habits. Extreme gender personalities were common.

Many pivotal historical choices were made quickly and emotionally

History hung by a precarious thread on a few crucial choices. Some of these choices were strongly influenced by rather strange delusions. Our delusions may have led us to do something quite wonderful, or quite horrible, that permanently changed the options available to our descendants.


Democracy was our preferred political system. Leadership and policy was driven by the casually considered opinion of the median voter rather than the considered opinions of our best experts. We acted on strange religious, political, and social beliefs. Many of these actions would benefit individuals in the short-term, at best. Plans for the future, and for the good of all, whether globally or even for our small communities were often displaced, or entirely neglected.

Perhaps the most enduring memory will be a legacy of pragmatic behavior that became strange and dreamy: Call it “un-adaptive behavior”.

A less-wrong future?

It remains to be seen whether adaptation will reassert itself.  Perhaps we will be able to place our dream time where it belongs, as a parallel but distinctly separate part of our existence, instead of our only reality. If so, what would happen, in our nearer term future? Adaptation ascendant would solidly connect human behavior to reality.  If so, we should see evidence of such as we traverse the twenty-first century.