October 19, 2010
Posted: 05:52 PM ET
It must be obvious that we live in oppositional times.
No matter what candidate, ballot measure, idea or program we put on the table, those who will oppose it always far outnumber those who are willing to advocate. It isn’t even a close call.
If you doubt me, just listen to any radio talk show that encourages its listeners to phone in, or read the Sunday letters to the editor. By an overwhelming majority, we oppose. In fact, so much so that it’s easy to see why we have become gridlocked in the nation’s capital. If we oppose every solution, then how can we progress – the last time I checked, pervasive opposition was the same as gridlock.
For example, take increasing our troops in Afghanistan, illegal immigration, healthcare, social security, epidemics of autism and depression, climate change and offshore drilling regulation. Opposition everywhere. It doesn’t matter which side we take, we don’t like what has been proposed, though we don’t really have any solutions either.
What causes a society to mistake opposition for advocacy? What makes us passionate about what we are against? Become our greatest obstacles toward progress?
The answer lies in a pattern of human behavior that is as old as the organism itself.
When the complexity of the problems we must solve exceeds the cognitive abilities we have evolved to that point in time, we reach an impasse. In a nutshell, human beings cannot progress any further than evolution will allow. We simply do not have the biological capacity to understand and solve every problem we face, despite having the biological imperative to continue progressing. So what do we do? History shows that we begin substituting unproven beliefs for facts and rational thinking. Over time, irrational beliefs find their way into public policy and once this occurs, great civilizations begin to decline.
If that sounds like a mouthful, then just take a look at where we are today. Climate change? We can’t even agree on whether it’s a real problem or not. How about healthcare reform? First we pass a complicated initiative that few people can understand and now we want to stop it because it is imperfect. Never mind the reality that there will never be a perfect initiative.
But perfect or imperfect, don’t we need to do something? Venture capitalists seem to do well even with an 80% failure rate. In a business where no amount of due diligence in the world will lead to perfection, venture capitalists know that the impact of a few wins is enough to dwarf the losses.
We now find ourselves facing the same realities that venture capitalists face everyday. When it becomes impossible to pick the winning solutions from the losers, we have to accept imperfection and waste. That’s just the way it goes, lest we oppose everything and progress stops. Imagine a venture capitalist that opposed every investment opportunity that came across the desk because they had a better than 80% chance of being wrong – how long would they stay in business?
It can be demonstrated that over time, the human brain – which requires millions of years to evolve new capabilities – begins to lag behind, and it becomes unable to separate solutions that will work from those that will fail. Take the recent Gulf oil spill as an example. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men believed dropping a concrete box on top of the hole was our best option. Three weeks later we discovered that wasn’t going to work. Then we tried drilling through the side of the main pipe to siphon off pressure and oil, and two weeks later we discovered that wasn’t going to work either. Fortunately, our third try hit pay dirt: the static kill method. But what if that had been solution number 86? What would the fragile southern and eastern seaboard look like today as currents swept the oil this way and that?
If we had honestly faced the limits of our cognitive ability to choose a solution that would work, we would have acted like good venture capitalists and effected many solutions at the same time, knowing that 80% might fail but the 20% that worked would have stopped the oil from spreading to fragile habitats within a matter of days.
But the key to mounting multiple solutions in tandem is advocacy, optimism and a realistic assessment of our odds of calling it right. And in an oppositional society where organizations such as the Tea Party movement, moveon.org, Democrats and Republicans have raised opposition to a fine art, what chance do we have of resuming progress? How can we move ahead?
Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist and evocative speaker whose unique expertise is to spot and explain emerging trends in relationship to human evolution, global markets, and new technologies. She lives on the central coast of California. Please see www.rebeccacosta.com.
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