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Should Women Run The World?
10,000 years of men have led to this
Last week I interviewed Ajit Varki, a physician-scientist who, inspired by the work of Danny Bower, published a new theory on the origin of the human species. In Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind Varki and Bower argue that, 100,000 years ago, before our ancestors left Africa, there was a singular evolutionary event which developed the human mind and set homo sapiens apart.
They suggest that every other intelligent species on the planet has a psychological evolutionary barrier impeaching them for achieving this form of evolutionary consciousness, rather than humankind in itself being particularly special. Ajit and Danny propose a new theory of mind to explain how human beings overcame this barrier.
A theory of mind is one in which we are aware, not only of our own existence, our own self-awareness, but of others as well, others as having distinct, independent mind from ours and therefore existing in a network of minds.
They argue that upon coming to that realisation, any intelligent being would become aware of the mortality of others—that their fellow species’ members die, that their minds will be extinguished—and, therefore, become aware of their own mortality.
They claim that such an awareness would be too terrifying for that individual to propagate the species, that this awareness would induce such terror that the individual would freeze, unable to face life, rendering this awareness an evolutionary handicap.
So, how is it that, given our awareness of our own mortality, we not only survived, but came to dominate the planet?
Bower and Varki suggest that, concurrently, alongside this theory of mind, we also developed reality denial, an incredible capacity to completely ignore the facts in front of us. We see this in many things: smokers who ignore warnings about what they're doing to their own bodies, people who don't exercise to take care of themselves, rebuilding cities in places where natural disasters occur frequently, and, of course, the climate crisis—our inability to change course despite our excessive consumption causing the destruction of the environment we depend on for life itself.
Mankind is quite literally out to destroy the only life that we know of in the universe. That's how good we are at denying reality.
And here’s the kicker—it really is mankind doing this, not humankind, says Ajit. He claims that men suffer more from reality denial and extreme optimism than women, perhaps a function which allowed hunters to take bold risks tens of thousands of years ago. Contrary to their optimism, women are more prone to depression and, therefore, reality awareness—and have a better theory of mind. Women are more collective, more empathetic, more collaborative. Men, on the other hand, are more unrealistic, take more risks, and put themselves and others in danger.
The split between the sexes, Varki says, is the same pull that you can see cognitively between this theory of mind (mortality awareness) and reality denial (optimism). And he says the only way forward is elect women leaders, because only women are capable of both confronting reality, and the necessary connectedness to navigate the climate crisis.
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The first three nations in the world to offer Loss and Damages payments to the global south were Scotland, New Zealand and Finland—all led by women. These are reparations for the damage caused by climate change (thanks to global north consumption) that will help these nations rebuild when rocked by the crisis. I’ve written about the limitations of this scheme, but it is an important first step which was taken by women where male leaders vehemently resisted taking responsibility to help their neighbours.
Ajit says 10,000 years of male domination, of reality denial, has destroyed the biosphere. Is it time to hand over to women? No doubt there is much more research on the nuances of this argument, but for not I’ll leave you with this wonderful study which showed electing women leads to carbon emission reductions in nations and corporations alike.
The Grandmother Hypothesis
Ajit also introduced the grandmother hypothesis in the episode, which suggests that this theory of mind, this incredibly special form of group awareness and collective intelligence which sets humankind apart, perhaps was borne from the necessity of collective child-birthing and child-rearing.
Even amongst the great apes, a pregnant female simply goes away by herself in the night, gives birth, brings back the infant and does every step of the process single-handedly. Human beings and orcas are the two species which have post-menopausal females as an important fixture in social organising. Now, why why would you need a post-menopausal female in a world built on natural selection? If she's not reproducing, what good is she?
Helping her daughter give birth, and helping raise that child.
Both human females and infants are helpless during the birthing process and so, by helping, the grandmother is still propagating the species, only this time on the sidelines. And without that grandmother, it is likely both mother and child would perish. The propagation of the human species must be a collective effort, and it has been suggested that it was in this very collectivism that the theory of mind first arose, making it a feminine intelligence that allows for the best of us.
Human intelligence began with care, and it will end with neglect unless we act.
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