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The Double Bind of Human Senescence

Why isn’t innovative political thinking taken more seriously by more people? Why aren’t authentically new ideas considered as a way to alter the current dismal state of affairs in the world? The political cemetery is full of freshly dug graves. There are representatives of the Left and the Right residing in their sepulchers. Why are they so consigned?

The two-term U.S. presidency of Barack Obama began with promises of hope and change but morphed almost immediately into a campaign of Wall Street bailouts, a milquetoast Keynesian stimulus, a continuation of the “War on Terror,” an attempt at slashing entitlement programs, and Rube Goldberg healthcare reform. In 2015, the SYRIZA rebellion in Greece against the austerian rulers of the European Union was systematically compromised and then crushed. The 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton was done in by the treachery of the presiding  apparatus of the Democratic Party. Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn likewise has been relentlessly attacked by the media, the opposition parties, and even members of his own party; Corbyn appears to be neutralized as a result.

The Right has fared no better. The triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was quickly followed by the ejection of Trump’s populist advisors and replacement by members of the neoconservative movement. The rebellion in Italy led by Matteo Salvini against the EU’s austerians seems to have been stymied. In France, the nationalist Marine LePen has not been able to survive past the second round of presidential elections in either 2012 or 2017.

While many on the Left attribute humanity’s dire predicament to capitalism or the neoliberal order, I am convinced that evolutionary biology provides the most accurate explanation for our current predicament. This insight came to me after listening to a discussion involving Bret Weinstein, the noted theoretical evolutionary biologist.  In this discussion, Dr. Weinstein proposed that the reason for humanity’s impasse is that we are up against what biologists call an Evolutionary Stable Strategy, or ESS.

In evolutionary biology, when a native population adopts an ESS, it becomes  invulnerable to invasion by an outside population. Reciprocal altruism, coupled with mechanisms to identify and punish cheaters is an ESS that is found in types of guppies, baboons, bats, and other organisms. This is the Evolutionary Stable Strategy at work and it seems to describe the situation that we in the Western democracies find ourselves in now. It explains, beyond sheer politics, why no Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn seems able to gain a toehold in our current political structures.

Let’s turn this problem to another angle. Simply put, humanity currently values short-term success over the survival of future generations. This manifests in various forms, ranging from environmental degradation and dismantling regulations to the declining quality and variety of foodstuffs. It also manifests in the form of increased expenditure on weaponry and defense systems intended to hold on to short-term gains. Ask yourself:  Why do we not prioritize a Green New Deal, a plan to simultaneously 1) reduce CO2 emissions caused by fossil fuel usage and 2) put people to work by way of  job guarantee programs. Or:  Why don’t we implement a more comprehensive plan to convert the massive U.S. military into  a re-industrialization engine focused on rebuilding and updating national infrastructure, or and investment in sustainable alternatives to hydrocarbon fuel sources—a plan proposed by Seymour Melman, the late industrial engineer and peacenik?  These and many other sensible and necessary proposals have all slammed up against a seemingly impervious wall. This wall fits the profile of an ESS.

But why? What exactly is this ESS? A reflexive response on the Left would be:  Blame it on greedy capitalists, oligarchs, and corporations. This is, on one level, true. However, those entities are simply manifestations of another force. A thorough understanding of why requires tunneling deeper into the machinery of life itself.

The human focus on short-term gain, the long-term be damned, this seemingly unbeatable strategy that I nickname the MESS (Malevolent Evolutionary Stable Strategy) is, in part, a fundamentally biological phenomenon. The basic biological component has a technical name: It is called senescence, but it is more commonly known as aging. Senescence, the familiar systemic decline in our bodily capacities, was explained by the late biologist George Williams in his pleiotropic theory of senescence. Williams’ argument was that many of our genes have both benefits and drawbacks, called antagonistic pleiotropies, and that the benefits manifest in youth to enhance reproductive fitness, while the negative consequences appear later in life. One example of this is testosterone levels in males.  High testosterone levels can increase reproductive fitness early in life but can increase the probability of cancer later in life. These cumulative negative consequences (systemic functional decline) are what we call aging. There are myriad other examples of such early-life benefit/ late-life penalties.

The next component of the MESS is humanity’s unique technical and scientific prowess. Mankind has used technology and science to bypass the normal constraints imposed by nature. We have conquered numerous diseases, extended lifespans, produced abundant food, etc. However, this techno-prowess has acted as a force multiplier for senescence. We sit atop the world but our accomplishment is fleeting. This is evident in the heating of the planet, the loss of biological diversity, shrinking aquifers, depleted soil, and many other violations of planetary limits (For those who are curious, Dr Weinstein has a good explanation of this in the following video).

This is exactly what humanity is facing as it prioritizes the short term (“more growth!”) over the long term. I would argue that capitalism and neoliberalism, increased resource depletion, the class warfare waged by the oligarchs, the growth of corporate monopolies across the globe, and the obsession with shareholder value as the primary value in life are driven by an invisible puppet master: senescence. Therefore, the resurgence of Left and Right populism is a reaction to the negative consequences of this macro-level senescence which, boosted by our technology, is driving us toward oblivion.

As a child, I have a vivid memory of being taught a piece of scripture from the Bible. It was Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As an adult living in the Anthropocene, informed by the insights of evolutionary biology, I now know:  The forces of evil do not reside in another plane; they are in our genes.

The next logical question, having identified the source of our ills, is: What can clean up the MESS? Perhaps looking to nature for inspiration is the key, duplicating and scaling up a system of altruistic reciprocity found in other regions of the biosphere. Perhaps the unpalatable answer lies in the East, with China’s neo-Confucian and Orwellian social credit system. No matter the method, humanity must transform itself or suffer extinction.

Haydar Khan is a former mathematics researcher and instructor at a public university in the U.S. South.

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Haydar Khan is a former mathematics researcher and instructor at a public university in the U.S. South.

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