Thinking, Fast and Slowby: Daniel Kahneman
WHAT TO DO? It seems as if the human race is ready to throw itself over a cliff. Or, rather, get thrown by the technology it has itself created. We run the risk of going extinct, and the irony is, we did it to ourselves. The ‘smarty pants’ brain that created advanced weapons, complex global economics, vaccines and antibiotics that save lives, universities, YouTube, and public parks (not to mention Bach and baseball) is routinely bossed around by the brain that shoots from the hip, makes often terrible decisions, and reacts more to fear and greed than to reason.
Climate change, nuclear weapons, deadly viruses, crashing markets, poverty and intolerance (to name a few) do not lend themselves to the kinds of solutions that this bossy, ancient brain, which runs most of our lives, can even understand. And the faster our lives go (and the speedier our technologies), the worse things get, because the smarty pants brain is also the slow brain; often, things just happen too fast for the slow brain to get a word in edgewise.
No one in their right mind would deliberately create the means of their own extinction, but that’s what we seem to be doing. The only conclusion is that we’re not in our right minds — which appears to be true. The two books considered in this review may not have an obvious relationship. Fred Guterl’s The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, tells a compelling if disturbing narrative of what went wrong, with great stories, clear explanations and just enough optimism to think we might make it after all. But his book, by design I think, doesn’t deal with the biggest danger of all: the very nature of human thought. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow deals with the very nature of thought, and it just may be the most important book I've read in many years. Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, offers potential solutions that actually might work. In tandem, the books provide a useful map of where the dragons lie (almost everywhere, alas) and also potential paths to safety.
So just how might the human race be rushing toward extinction? Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, doesn’t deal much with the human mind. He also doesn’t focus on the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert or other non-cyber military threats. He argues that commercial interests may be harder to counter than armies, because they’re so much a part of our everyday lives — and oh so deeply seductive. High on commerce, we create and consume and regurgitate so much stuff that we’ve altered the atmosphere, the oceans, and everything in them; we’re causing mass extinctions of species at an alarming rate — species we depend on for survival. (If it’s any consolation, the rest of life wouldn’t miss us much at all; if humans disappeared from the biosphere, it’s unlikely, according to biologist E.O. Wilson, that any insect species at all would go extinct — with the exception of a few forms of lice.)
Our bloated population and overcrowding combined with agricultural practices and good old evolution (we didn’t invent that, at least) has resulted in a situation where viruses, of all things, may be the single biggest threat to our survival as a species. To take one example, Bird Flu — an innocuous sounding bug that became super...read more