Jorge Wagensberg: "We are individually intelligent and collectively stupid"

Jorge Wagensberg:

By Jaume Grau

"We only have a planet" is a book published by Icaria editorial that gathers an interesting dialogue between two people from two apparently distant disciplines, such as economics and physics. Joan Martínez Alier, an economist, and Jorge Wagensberg, a physicist, discuss the planet, trying to analyze its future from a broad and global perspective.
We have spoken with Jorge Wagensberg in his home office, a room where books, fossils and various objects coexist in a harmonious disorder. The conversation runs from physics to politics, from biology to art, from economics to history, from religion to linguistics. Elvis Presley's pelvis even shows up. According to Wagensberg, knowledge has no borders or is divided.

"We only have one planet" is the title of the book. Does the title refer to the fact that we only have one planet because we cannot travel and colonize another, or is it because perhaps we would need more than one planet to subsist according to the current consumption levels of resources?

The reason is obviously twofold. The closest planet is in alpha centauri, 4 light years away. The 7 planets that have now been discovered seem to me to be 40 light years away. This means that we are alone within the immensity, and that if we do not take care of this planet there is nowhere else to go. There is a historical example of what can happen to Earth. On Easter Island, as a consequence of the beliefs of its inhabitants, they managed to quickly exhaust all the natural resources they had available and were left in the middle of the Pacific and could not even make boats to get out of there, and this is quite similar to what what will happen to Earth.

In the book he talks about a geological period in which we would now find ourselves, the Anthropocene. What changes define this new period?

Well, the theme is strong because it means that the name of the geological age is given by man. This means that the planet is already changing directly under the influence of man. And that in principle is neither good nor bad, the planet changes, it has always done so. The problem now is that we depend on ourselves, that is, we depend on our intelligence, and I believe that if we have shown something, it is that man is individually intelligent, but collectively not so much, to say the least.

Man is individually intelligent and collectively stupid.
In the book you claim that we are collectively stupid


One of the characteristics of the Anthropocene is the decline in diversity, the mass disappearance of many species. What reasons do we have for striving to maintain a species?

There are four reasons: one ethical, one aesthetic, one economic, and one scientific. We can start with reasons that may seem soft, such as ethics. Why conserve only one species? Man, because it is already here, that is, it has had an evolution and a history of millions and millions of years of coevolution with the other species ... And then there is an idea that does not excite everyone, but that is also very important, and it is aesthetics. Any piece of nature, if you look at it closely, is incredibly beautiful. Why conserve only one species? For aesthetics. And for economic reasons. 100% of what we eat has an origin in biodiversity, and a third of medicines also, the immediate principles that make them up come from nature. There is one last question. There are species that disappear without scientists having the opportunity to study them. And why do we want to study them? Because in biodiversity surely there are the solutions to many problems that even at this moment we do not even know that they exist.

In this sense, the book talks about diversity being a mechanism of resistance to changes in the environment. At the last minute a diverse system is stronger and more durable than a low diversity one.

Well, that is very clear, because the process is as follows: at times when the uncertainty of the environment decreases, species can be installed in any strategy, this causes diversity to increase. What happens when there is a crisis? Well, it happens that when we have more possibilities or alternatives, the probability of finding a solution is higher. In other words, this fight between the uncertainty of the environment and the diversity available is extremely important ...

Can this same reasoning of the advantages of diversity be applied to human populations? Does diversity contribute to making the whole of humanity more resistant?

Well, this is a very interesting topic! There are aspects that it is very clear that yes…. That a language disappears is a great cultural problem! Culture is part of the brain's function, which is precisely an organ that has developed to precisely anticipate uncertainty. I believe that the conflict is in traditions and beliefs, as long as there are too strong traditions and beliefs, human diversity will be a problem. The moment a tradition intervenes, that is, a fixed idea that you cannot change, is when we arrive at violent systems, and intolerance. Faced with the problem you pose, about whether diversity among people is of interest? I would say yes, but without ever abandoning reason.

You affirm that you are clearly betting on democracy, because it is closer to the scientific method, because there is dialectic. Is a democratic society more resistant than an authoritarian one? Are you dealing with problems better?

I believe that the possibility of living in a democratic country should be part of human rights. Working for democracy and the rule of law is a pending issue, even in the countries that are already known as democratic. We must think that half of the planet's inhabitants do not live in a democratic country. In other words, the owner of the farm, whoever he is, imposes his rules.

"The advantage of Homo sapiens over Neanderthalensis is the ability to tell lies."

In this sense, the book also talks about how easily a minority can exploit a majority must be understood and that this has to do with the acquisition of language in Homo sapiens.

Yes, this comes from a theory by Yuval Harari, the Israeli historian and writer, in reference to the extinction of Neanderthal man in relation to Homo sapiens, understanding that the Neanderthal was stronger and with a larger brain. According to Harari, the advantage of sapiens, modern humans, is the ability to create myths, tell lies, gossip…! This makes one individual able to maintain leadership over many other individuals.

Capitalism, which is the system that, let's say, defines the economic and social relations that we have, is it the result of an evolution or is it an imposed process?

I do not consider myself authorized to give an idea in this regard. There is a part of capitalism that is self-explanatory ... There is a reality, that a few make a large group work. If we follow history, this has been the constant: there is almost always a myth that puts a privileged group at the center. But humanity has progressed when it has made eccentric movements: With Marxism, which removes the bourgeoisie, with the French Revolution, which removes the aristocracy or with Darwin, who removes man from the center of creation.

I would like to talk about competition and collaboration in natural systems and in human societies. What strategy wins in this duality?

Very good question because for a long time Darwinism has been interpreted as a competition and that whoever went ahead with evolution was the winner of this competition. But this vision has changed a lot, especially with the works of symbiogenesis, by Lynn Margulis, where it is shown that when two species collaborate with a symbiosis, for example, the mutual benefit is much greater than in competition. Also in human culture. Solidarity or collaboration is, in fact, more interesting, even selfishly speaking, for all the actors in this play, than this tragedy at times.

"Complexity is associated with collaboration"

Now that we talk about Lynn Margulis and symbiosis, with which two bacteria come together to form a larger organism, a cell with more complexity. Is complexity associated with collaboration?

Definitely. In fact, complexity does not ensure survival, because a simple system can also survive. There are simple animals that have resisted, crocodiles, for example, that do not have a pelvis. Later, thanks to the pelvis, the birds developed, and Elvis, because Elvis would be nobody without the pelvis. In other words, complexity helps us a lot to face the uncertainty of the environment, but it is true that it cannot be just any complexity.

"The working hypothesis that you cannot not grow has to be broken"

When we talk about growth we know that the most immature and not very diverse natural systems grow the most, and that the most mature systems with high diversity have zero growth. It's the same thing that happens with economies: the countries that grow the most are the most unstable. Is it possible for a society to have zero growth?

I think so. You are right about one thing and that is that the economies are right or left, have whatever ideology they have, it seems that in the end they will grow. If the economy does not grow, the system does not hold. I believe that this is the topic that must be broken. And therefore, economists and physicists must speak up, something they have not done so far. This working hypothesis that you cannot not grow is the first thing we have to break.

To talk a bit about the history of economics, in the book he talks about the fact that two terms must be distinguished, that of efficiency and that of effectiveness. What is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness?

Efficiency is simply achieving the goal. And efficiency is to achieve it with the least possible energy. Nature has known how to find what is the most interesting pairing between efficacy and efficiency, on the other hand, in the race of humanity we have been concerned above all with efficacy.

Capitalism is based on an irrational principle such as assuming that resources are inexhaustible. In the book he talks about capitalism being a pyramid system that needs to grow and consume continuously. Can this system end a disaster on a planetary scale?

I think so. The average life of a species is ten million years and we have been here only one hundred or two hundred thousand years. We are very young. But due to the aspect that you comment, we will not reach the average that corresponds to us.

Given the speed of change, how temporal do we put this disaster? There are those who speak of a hundred years.

One hundred years may be too short ... But it is not very wrong. The recycling culture can take it a bit longer. This leads us to ask that the exploitation of resources be done in a more homogeneous way, and this would be the beginning of a new ideology, which I do not know if it would be of the right or of the left, it would be something like the left but more globally. It is useless to think that we can live in the first world by burning seven planets, while the others are starving. This inequality cannot be maintained even in the interests of those who live in the first world.

"It is like a collective left that we are looking for"

You talk about this new ideology that should emerge. What principles should you have to be able to face these challenges that humanity has?

It should be done as a declaration of the human rights of the peoples that talks about natural resources, that talks about emissions, and that also talks about the political system. What cannot be is that a system is democratic with respect to itself, and that it is not so with respect to another country that is in Africa or elsewhere. This is somehow left, collectively, it is like a collective left, what we are looking for. The most terrible phrase that can be said against the planet is "America for the Americans", "America first", and then we'll see what happens to the others.

This is reflected in the book when it says that societies remain homogeneous and cohesive by projecting hatred outward.

That is why a new ideology and collective generosity are needed. If we want to save the planet we need collective generosity.

"A planetary constitution should be made, in favor of the planet"

We are talking about environmental problems, economic problems, social injustices, climate change, resource depletion… Are there many problems, or just one that encompasses all?

You could search as always what is the common problem to all these problems, and we would find some. The first is to be aware that we are reaching the red line, the red line in which the planet is no longer infinite, it has never been. This, one by one we accept, but we do not have it collected in a kind of planetary constitution. A planetary constitution should be made, in favor of the planet.

You are a great defender of the scientific method, but you recognize in the book that science cannot always explain everything and that art goes where science does not. Can it be known through emotion in the same way that we can do it from reason?

Art serves above all to inspire scientific knowledge. And this has happened on many occasions, which is why the relationship that has existed in the Renaissance, or in the Enlightenment, or in the Vienna era of the 1920s, between scientists and artists is so interesting. The scientist has a limit that he imposes on himself in terms of ideas. Ideas that are too crazy embarrass him. Not the artist. The artist can intuit without understanding. And the scientist can understand without intuiting. What is very clear is that in the evolution of humanity, science and art, when they have gone together, there has been very important progress. We must trust that this will continue.


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