Saving Civilization: Healthcare, Tech, Democracy (w/Daniel Schmachtenberger)
- [Zubin] Hey guys, Dr. Z. Welcome to "The ZDoggMD Show." Today, I have a guest I've been wanting to get on forever and ever and ever. You guys know I'm really interested in the social dilemma, in other words, the effect that social media and these exponential crazy technologies that hack our dopamine centers have had on us, the mental health of children, and so on.
A lot of my knowledge on that comes from our guest today, and his partner, Tristan Harris, who runs the Center for Humane Technology. Daniel Schmachtenberger is the founder and director of The Consilience Project, and he is an expert in the (laughs), the catastrophes that can end civilizations, and how we might thread that narrow needle to avoid them. Daniel, man, welcome to the show. - [Daniel] It's good to be here with you, man.
Happy that we're finally here. - [Zubin] Dude, I just saw you on Rogan with Tristan, and I was like, "Oh, man, they're hitting all the buttons "on civilization-level threats," and then I thought, "Well, what are we gonna talk about "when you come on my show?" 'Cause you just were on Rogan. You've been on Lex Fridman.
You've been all over the place. And then we started talking before the show, and immediately, I was like, "Oh my God, this is a conversation no one's having," and it's a, let's start it this way. We have these God-level technologies now that really prey, and I'm talking about social media in particular, but there's other technologies that really prey on our innate brain's addictive capacity, and really hacks it in ways that are affecting our health not just individually, but the health of our entire society. Maybe that's a good starting point for jumping into what you're passionate about, because this is stuff that you've dedicated your life to kind of studying, how we can avoid catastrophe. - [Daniel] Okay, so you say godlike tech, and if it's not obvious for people, so that it doesn't sound like hyperbole, maybe we just take a moment, and say what we mean by that.
When we have the ability to do synthetic biology, like actually make life, and the ability for genetic engineering, CRISPR, other methods, to be able to change the fundamental base code of life, artificial intelligence that can do calculations that no type of biological intelligence can do, when we can extinct whole species, destroy whole ecosystems, build new environments, where the Anthropocene, the human-built environment is the major force shaping whole parts of the surface of the world, that's not the power of an apex predator, right? No, like orcas aren't doing all that. (Zubin laughs) - [Zubin] Are you sure? I don't know if you've read "The Hitchhiker's Guide "to the Galaxy," but I believe dolphins did a lot of damage. - [Daniel] So trying to model humans as, you know, one of the primate hominids, and apply apex predator theory, it just clearly doesn't explain the kind of thing that we are. We've had a curve of being able to develop tech faster than the environment can become resilient to the way we use that tech, right? Predators increase, there's a co-evolutionary process where predators increase their predatory capacity through mutation at the same rate that the prey is increasing its capacity to avoid the predators. The slower ones get eaten.
The faster ones inbreed, that kind of thing. We were able to increase our predatory capacity way faster than any animal was able to increase their resilience to it. So we were able to overhunt an environment, and then rather have our population check to that environment, we were able to move, and become the apex predator in the next environment. Polar bears are not apex predators in the savanna. Orcas aren't on land.
We went and became apex spreaders everywhere. We're able to overhunt an environment, and then enslave them through factory farming, and other things like that. So this really different, it's a different thing, and- - [Zubin] We're a whole new genre of being, right, to be able to do that, and is that, and not to derail you, but is that because we have the capacity for language, communication across large groups in flexible ways that, say, bees, or ants don't have, or orcas don't have? - [Daniel] Yeah, there's a type of abstraction that lends itself towards the nature of our language, and very specifically towards the nature of our tech.
Obviously, we'll see that beavers use, they modify their environment in a particular way. Birds with their nests do. We'll obviously see whether it's birds, or primates' use of certain kinds of objects in their environment that we can call a tool, but they're not evolving the way they do that as time goes on.
They co-evolved with some environmental capacity that they found. So a chimp will use a rock to cut something. They'll experientially try one rock versus another, and whichever one they can tell is cutting better they'll use, but to understand the abstract principle of sharpness, what does this one have more than this one to design one that is sharper, is a thing they don't do, right? But it is a thing that Homo habilis started doing, which was how do we actually start to create stone tools? 'Cause we understand the abstract principle of sharpness, and can make a sharper thing, which is understanding what all these have in common, but it's actually not any of them.
And then, so that process of what humans were doing that was different started with the beginning of stone tools. Obviously, it took a major jump with the Agricultural Revolution, took a major jump with the Industrial Revolution, nuclear, and then obviously with digital. So we find ourselves in the verticalizing part of a long exponential curve of power, and you can say now the power of gods, and yet, not necessarily a corresponding degree of increase in wisdom for how to use that power, and all of the existential threats are because of that, because obviously stone tools, or even agrarian tools, can't destroy the whole world. So catastrophic risks are always, all the human-induced catastrophic risks are mediated by the level of technological power we have that doesn't have adequate wisdom, prudence binding and guiding its use. - [Zubin] So this is a great base to start this discussion from because this idea of all of human history starting with Homo habilis, you said, so this was one of our progenitors, able to use tools, abstract, and actually understand the concept of potentially of sharpness, and that allows a kind of recursive improvement in tools that a chimpanzee, or a primate can't do, because like you said, they're co-evolving that use of tool with their environment. So they, maybe they notice experientially, like you said, that this piece of stone cuts a little better, so they start using it.
But they can't de novo go, "Oh, it cuts better because of sharpness. "I bet I could design a sharper tool." So we have this really interesting ability to do that, and over tens of thousands of years of Homo sapiens evolution, it's now reaching a phase, maybe longer, right, it's now reaching a phase of exponential growth, because the technology itself is allowing a recursive improvement in the technology, right? - [Daniel] And so, you know, you were starting to talk about addiction, and kind of the hacking of dopamine circuits and reward circuits. And one way to think about that is that Homo sapiens are at least a few hundred thousand years old, and obviously, the hominid precursors to that are at least a few million years, and all of that genetic evolution was fit for hunter-gatherer environments, right? Like we were evolving reward circuits that were relevant for hunter-gatherer environments. - [Zubin] Like what, like sweet taste, or- - [Daniel] Yeah, so if we take the reward circuits on food, specifically, fat, salt, and sugar create stronger dopaminergic process than green cellulosic stuff, and whatever else, right? - [Zubin] And dopamine's our reward chemical to make it very simple.
- [Daniel] Feels good, do it again. Dopamine-opioid axis, right? - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] So in an evolutionary environment, you didn't have a lot of salt, fat, or sugar, right? The sugar that you had was only pretty much gonna come from things like fruits that were gonna be seasonal, and before we hybridized the fruits, the fruits had way more seeds, and way less fruit than they have now, right, in terms of most- - [Zubin] Fiber to sugar content, yeah. - [Daniel] And so, getting all of that you could that had more caloric density meant that you had a better chance of making it through a famine, and possibly being able to feed more people. The same was true with fats, and the same was true with when you'd find a salt source.
And so, there was evolutionary selective advantage on getting all of those you could. So those who had more reward circuit on those actually did better. Once we figured out how to make all the salt, fat, sugar you want, and be able to combine them in the ways that maximized addiction, right, and remove all the micronutrients, remove all the vitamins and minerals, and just basically all of fast food is just combining salt, fat, sugar in novel ways with maximum texture palatability, and to drive maximum kind of addictive process separated from all the micronutrients. You actually took something that, where the evolutionary reward was attached to a real thing.
Now, you have, of course, overweight and obesity being one of the main causes of health issues, and yet the reward circuit hasn't changed. And so, you were able to extract the active ingredient from the thing that it was bound to that was actually useful. And the same is true with porn to sex.
The same is true with social media to tribal friendships. The same is true with productivity to meaning, right? There's a whole bunch of places, where the sexual impulse historically would have been attached to that mating opportunity, was bound to you were going to have children for your, there was all kinds of intimacy and things that were required to have that happen. Just extract the hypernormal parts, and maximize them, and you get porn. - [Zubin] Ah. - [Daniel] Same with likes on Facebook, right? You have no real friend. You don't have authentic intimacy.
You don't have authentic trust. But you have lots of positive feedback of certain types, which, of course, then is gonna give you the equivalent of overweight psychologically, which is like narcissism and emptiness. - [Zubin] Ooh. - [Daniel] So you can see that society has been oriented to hijack reward circuits, be able to extract the active ingredient, double down on that separate from the actual evolutionary beneficial thing that it was originally for. And that's one of the things is we're not genetically fit for this environment.
We're not genetically fit for the Anthropocene. And yet, we're an adaptive enough creature, we can adapt, but adapt, the type of creature we become adapting to that environment might not be the type of creature we would choose to be otherwise. - [Zubin] Okay, this is the central foundation of everything we're gonna talk about, because the Anthropocene, this age of man, it's so interesting that man has those capacities and evolves to a point where it can generate technologies in a society that actually feed back to its primitive brain in a way that it almost is compelled to do, like, "Oh, wait, so sugar tastes good, fat tastes good, "salt tastes good."
Fast food inevitably emerges, because we know, and especially when you tie it, which we can talk about, to economic incentives, and capitalism, et cetera, that allow a feedback loop that's, oh, you can actually get, you know, the productivity boost of making money, being secure, et cetera, from selling stuff that actually really plugs right into our limbic mind. And now, we have a world where we have this, you said it on Rogan, we have these paleolithic minds that are in a situation with this godlike technology that really hacks the paleolithic mind to a degree. So whether it's fast food, whether it's social media, whether it's porn, and porn's something I've talked about long time ago, but this, it is. It's a decoupling of that reward dopamine circuit from all the meaning, the relationship, the intrinsic connections that sex meant historically, even when it was less of that, like you know, there were polyamorous societies, and all of this. That's all fine, but the truth is it had more connection and meaning than it does when you're surfing porn and masturbating, right? - [Daniel] I mean, let's just, we won't take too long with this, but- - [Zubin] You can take as long as you want with porn, because honestly, I could talk about it all day. - [Daniel] Even if you look at the multi-male, multi-female earlier mating systems that you'd call polyamorous mating systems, like the ones that "Sex at Dawn" talks about, the Mosuo, or the Canela people, or whatever, the modern interpretation of them, oftentimes, the people who are proponents for it are failing to recognize that they had a completely different social system that made that adaptive that also included a different economic system, right? So you have multi-male, multi-female mating, but the whole tribe raised all the kids.
- [Zubin] Uh-huh. - [Daniel] The woman wasn't left as a single mom, because she lived with her family, not with her, not with her primary, not with the partner that inseminated her. All of the fathers, 'cause there was low paternity certainty, all of the fathers were contributing to all of the kids.
You actually didn't have a primarily private property based system, but commons based system. - [Zubin] Uh-huh. - [Daniel] So you can't extract that one part from the whole rest of it and have it work, right? So obviously, that system could only be adaptive within that context. This was actually a very interesting conversation Bret Weinstein and I had many, many years ago, 'cause a lot of his evolutionary theory background was primate mating systems, and- - [Zubin] Oh, wow. - [Daniel] And he was- - [Zubin] Monkey sex. - [Daniel] Arguing for why institutional monogamy did some really important things that a lot of people didn't understand where the sexual revolution really damaged it, and I don't wanna put the wrong words in Bret's mouth. I'm gonna share kind of how I understand it that was inspired by that conversation with him.
He might hold this with more nuance, but it was, it actually upgraded my thinking on it. He said if you think about what institutional, like when you think about what we call civilization, to be civilized is kind of a domestication program for wild humans to be able to operate together at larger than tribal scale- - [Zubin] Yeah, makes sense. - [Daniel] And for hundreds of thousands of years, we never got tribes bigger than about 150 people. They stayed at very small scales, where everybody knew everybody, so that the sacrifices you made for others were non-anonymous people.
They were people that you knew really well, and that you wouldn't do that at much larger sizes. And so, then the much larger thing, the thing we call civilization, can also be thought of as a domestication program. - [Zubin] Huh. - [Daniel] And the main things you have to domesticate out of people that make them not work other well have to do with sex and violence. And so, this is also where most of the psychological shadow comes, and it's why the intersection of sex and violence is the deepest part of most people's psychological shadow. - [Zubin] Oh.
- [Daniel] They're kind of put into the same areas. But if you think about what institutional monogamy occurring with that context, one of the things that it was designed, or a few of the things it's designed to do, if you couldn't have sex until getting married, and then you weren't allowed to divorce, and that was actually held, and of course, no system will be perfectly held, but like just the idea, then in order to get laid, a guy had to get a girl's parents, and preacher, and community to decide that he was an acceptable husband and father. - [Zubin] Hmm. - [Daniel] And that, and the binding of his ability to get laid to his ability to be a good father long-term meant that there was an incentive for him to actually be a good guy long-term, which meant who, him being a good guy for civilization and him being a good guy as a father were bound to his need to get laid, right? And that there was a vetting beyond her, who might have already got oxytocin to not be, you know, assessing him well, 'cause of the crush that the father, and the mother, and the whatever would also be helping to assess, to grant the right to do the thing. And then in the wedding ceremony, does anyone object? If he had been an asshole to other people, and they got to bring that up, so he has to be an asshole to nobody, otherwise, he's never gonna be laid.
Then this would also be even where the slut-shaming came, which is such a terrible thing in our modern context, but I was coming to understand where a possible evolutionary relevance of it was- - [Zubin] Yeah, yeah. - [Daniel] Was that if any women would start to have sex with guys outside of the marriage context, which would mean that assholes could get laid, it creates an evolutionary niche for assholes to actually be able to make it, and then those guys figure out how to get more women to do that thing, and so, the idea was almost like herd immunity. The idea was a collectivist idea. You actually have to close the niche for assholes comprehensively.
If you want a civilization to go well, guys are going to do what they need to do to get laid. So if you bind the opportunity to get laid to being a good citizen with multiple people vetting it, that's a good system. It's actually interesting, right? Like most people, myself included, who kind of grew up in a more post-sexual revolution, liberated idea, thought of that as just oppressive nonsense.
- [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] And then I'm like, "Oh, that's actually interesting." So then the idea was that with birth control, you kind of have a sexual revolution.
It seems like it's liberating for women in particular, because you decouple sex and reproduction for the first time. - [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] Where historically you could never really decouple sex and reproduction well, which is also why that was gonna inexorably affect her biology more than his, because he could possibly get laid, have a genetic benefit to do so, and have no consequence, and she could not have no consequence. It'd be a life or death possible thing for her, right? And so, of course she'll have higher criteria and more bonding biologically oriented, which makes perfect sense that it should be that way. But then she's able to kind of let that go and be a liberated modern person because of the birth control pill, but her evolutionary biology hasn't changed. Again, just like I can't eat all of the chocolate cake that I want and not get fat just cause I want to, right? The biology is the way that it is- - [Zubin] The biology's still there- - [Daniel] I don't get to just separate the reward circuit.
- [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] And so, then the idea that after that there was more of an evolutionary niche where assholes could get well-laid as a result of that, and that that actually has a culture-damaging property. So if you wanna go the convention of marriage, if you wanna not drop to pre-conventional developmentally meaning more selfish than the convention, but go to truly post-conventional, the post-conventional has to be, okay, well, how do I have, how do the individuals have more freedom than the institution of marriage to make that choice while still paying attention and not creating niches for bad behavior to be able to propagate? Just an interesting topic. - [Zubin] You know, it's (laughs), man, I didn't think we'd be talking about that, but it's fascinating, and you know what's really interesting about it is it binds this idea that you have this particular hardware, this biology that's evolved over however many millions of hundreds and millions of years, but then you have the software of the world that feeds back onto it, and emerges from it. So the particular constraints of the hardware may create a social dynamic where, again, guys have to be good, they are vetted by the family, wait 'til marriage to get laid, reduce asshole agenesis, and that helps civilization, and helps the short-term marriage.
And so, that dynamic feeding back with the biology creates the emergent civilization. Now, we're in a situation where we've, and like you said, a good example of birth control, and again, neither one of us is saying, "Oh, dude, get rid of birth control, "go back to a dowry," right? No, we're saying the environment and the hardware actually interact, and we better be aware of how that happens, because now it's happening in a way that may not lead to a civilization that we want collectively. - [Daniel] Yeah, I mean, you've addressed the thesis-antithesis issue, and kind of the distinct moral intuitions that cluster more on the right and more on the left. And if you were to try to make a dialectic like that, like say traditional and progressive, or conservative/traditional and progressive, innovative, one way of framing, there's lots of ways of framing this.
There's problems with all the things I'm gonna say, 'cause I'm, but one way of framing the- - [Zubin] Models are limited, yeah. - [Daniel] The conservative, or traditional intuition is the idea that if there's a social system that made it through the trials of evolutionary history, and there's lots of them that failed, it probably has a lot of embedded wisdom that isn't obvious. It probably made it through for a reason.
So go back to the old, keep the old thing, whether it's the Founding Fathers, or Christianity, or whatever the thing is, right, that you're trying to conserve, that there might be reasons why it worked that we don't even understand well, but that were, that it was tested, and you know, tried and true, and so- - [Zubin] Proof is in the pudding- - [Daniel] Of that. - [Zubin] Yes, yes. - [Daniel] The progressive intuition is we're facing novel situations that we never faced, and that the things that worked in the past couldn't possibly work for that, and innovation is needed. These are obviously both true, and need to be in dialectic. So the idea that either of those would be adequate is nonsense, 'cause if the new thing you're doing doesn't factor that most of the environment is still the same and the things that worked might work for reasons you don't know, and you throw the traditional thing out too fast, then realize it was doing things you didn't realize, and you just fucked up- - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] Right, so the progressive often doesn't pay enough attention to the traditional impulse, and vice versa.
- [Zubin] 1,000%, and the way that's intuitively felt by people who I think, a lot of people in my audience, and we use this term alt-middle, because it's kind of a meme-y phrase, but it's really not quite right. It's a parody of alt-right, and it's saying, "Hey, no, we're actually looking for a synthesis position." We're saying, "Oh, there's actually a higher order thinking "and complexity that's needed to integrate the two sides," because each side on its own is missing a big piece of the complexity. So how do we integrate that? And again, to have that standpoint actually, or at least have it aspirationally, means inhabiting each side, right? And again, I promise we'll get back to the Anthropocene and how we, how the technology, and all that.
But to be able to inhabit each side is necessary to emerge the thesis. Otherwise, you know, we're stuck in this left-right sort of dichotomy, or a thesis, antithesis, or whatever subject you're talking about, where you have two sides, or more than two sides. - [Daniel] There's a guy I know from the integral community, Clint Fuhs, who did a doctoral thesis that I found really interesting several years ago on this, in the field of developmental psychology what are higher stages of development, meaning people who can process more complexity with more nuance, and what are the things that correlate with that the most. And for a long time, there had been this idea that perspective-taking was the key to the correlation of that. People with kind of higher stages of hierarchical complexity could take more different perspectives, and the kind of nuance, if I'm understanding rightly what his work added, was it was actually not perspective-taking as much as perspective-seeking.
It was actually an impetus to seek the perspectives, not simply the capacity to take them without doing it. - [Zubin] Oh, interesting. - [Daniel] And so- - [Zubin] Intention, drive, motivation to actually see another's perspective. - [Daniel] And so, it's interesting to think that the thing that would be the generator function of complexity of thought the most is the innate impulse to try to understand where people are coming from, and be able to see their worldview, and then be able to run parallax across lots of those. So perspective-seeking, then perspective-taking, then perspective analysis, can I error correct them, then perspective synthesis.
- [Zubin] Okay, so that's the process. You know, it's interesting, because I find that one of the biggest rushes I get is when somebody that I disagree with explains their position to me in a way that I deeply inhabit it, like I'm like, "Oh my gosh!" That's like a, it's like a dopamine rush in itself, like, "I understand, okay." Now, I can actually, and I actually have that desire to understand it. But there are some spaces where I'm much more closed off to understanding other perspectives, like if I'm having an argument with, you know, a friend, or something else, there's more of a block.
So it's not a one-size-fits-all, but in general, I think that that intention, that desire, that sort of little internal reward from getting to inhabit another perspective, in other words, the possibility of it leads to the intention to some degree. - [Daniel] Okay, you just mentioned something that I think is real interesting, and we'll go back to where we were earlier, which is you said you get a bit of a dopamine hit from understanding the view of someone that you hadn't previously understood, where kind of the world opens up, something makes more sense. There's like a reward circuit on increased clarity, or insight. The thing I would bring up here is that not all reward circuits are equally healthy, right? There are hijacked reward circuits that are mostly entropic, and then there are reward circuits that are mostly healthier, syntropic. - [Zubin] So entropic meaning leading to disorder- - [Daniel] Mostly degrade the system. - [Zubin] Degrade the system.
- [Daniel] And so, basically, everything in the direction of addiction is kind of entropic reward circuit, or a kind of downgrading reward circuit, and almost all of the upgrading reward circuits don't provide a easy spike of reward. They require some work, and then reward occurs, and this is the one marshmallow, two marshmallow thing. - [Zubin] Mmm-hmm, explain that for folks. - [Daniel] Very, very, very famous, classic, many times repeated study. There's a lot of interesting nuance on the study, but basically, you put kids in a room, and the study is set up. They get one, there's a marshmallow on the table.
The researcher sets a clock for some amount of time, like 15 minutes, says, "If you wanna eat this marshmallow "at any time you can, "but then you only get that one marshmallow. "If you wait the whole 15 minutes, and you don't eat it, "when I come back, I'll give you two marshmallows." Well, first, assessing they'd rather have two marshmallows than one.
So it's a impulse, a delayed impulse and impulse control kind of study. And it was found that the kids that ate, could wait and got two marshmallows succeeded more at almost all areas of life. The one-marshmallow kids had higher incarceration, did less well on their SATs, had more divorce rate, like all kinds of things, and that you could assess this starting at like age five. And so, it was pretty, almost bothersomely deterministic- - [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] About how successful people would be based on delayed gratification.
Can I avoid immediate gratification associated with long-term goals? 'Cause then, it was basically an assessment of capacity for long-term orientation. - [Zubin] Hmm. - [Daniel] And intentionality. And so, there are two different reward circuits, right? There's two different relationships to the nature of that reward circuit.
And so, as you were mentioning, you can hear a point of view that you disagree with, where at first, you might actually feel more uncomfortable. - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] You might actually be squirming in your seat, like, "Fuck, maybe I'm wrong about everything."
- [Zubin] Which is the worst feeling (laughs), right? - [Daniel] And then you're like, "Oh, wow, "I learned something," and it's very much like the reward circuit of exercising. Like at first, exercise doesn't give you the hit that just eating the chocolate cake in the moment does. I get an instant hit of increased pleasure from the chocolate cake- - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] Whereas with working out, like I'm sweating, and it's painful, and my muscles hurt, and whatever, but the baseline of how good I feel in my body as I keep doing that over time goes up. As I keep eating the chocolate cake regularly, my baseline goes down as I'm getting more inflammation, and obesity, and those types of things, right? So the chocolate cake reward circuit gives me an immediate spike and then a drop, and then the drop says now that I'm low blood sugar, 'cause the insulin overcompensated, now I'm craving more sugar. As that keeps going, my baseline erodes.
- [Zubin] It's a downward spiral into entropy, yeah. - [Daniel] With exercise, it's the other one. The same is true, 'cause what you just said is when you listen to the point of view you disagree with long enough and earnestly enough that you understand it, you get a reward on the other side, but the reward actually increased the complexity and the accuracy of your thinking. There's a reward circuit on the chocolate cake side of this one, which is the reward circuit on quick certainty. - [Zubin] Being right. - [Daniel] Yeah.
Certainty and sanctimony, and obviously, this is what our information environment is optimized towards right now. The Facebook News Feed is gonna show things to people that will maximize their engagement and their stickiness. And most people, if you put a very long, nuanced research paper in front of them that has views that they don't agree with, they're just gonna bounce. - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] They're only gonna stay engaged, because it makes them feel right, or pisses them off, or scares them. It does some kind of limbic hijack, and also in a short amount of bits, 'cause their attention span is bad, and the short amount of bits means inherently it won't be complex, or nuanced. - [Zubin] So I, okay, man, so much here.
I don't know how you managed to tie it all back to social media and addiction, but I'm gonna give you kudos for that as somebody who does interviews (laughs), 'cause I was like, "How are we ever gonna, ah." So a couple things you said, limbic hijack. I just wanna let people know hijacking our lower sort of brain functions of that primitive paleolithic mind that is susceptible to that, that dopamine addiction. The addiction circuits are there, et cetera.
And the idea that there's two sides of that, and actually, this is a good idea to introduce this term of hormesis, which you and I were talking about offline, the idea that you have this addiction circuit where you get a reward, but then you drop to a baseline that's below the original baseline, and then it's a downward spiral, versus hormesis, which is more like exercise. Can you explain hormesis? - [Daniel] Yeah. And I just wanna say, because you have an educated audience, we're simplifying everything for model purpose and speed purpose. Obviously, it's not just dopamine, right? You can have a limbic hijack that is more around fear, or outrage, and it's epinephrine, and adrenaline, and cortisol, but it is also gonna create a certain kind of motivational process. And so, when we say dopamine reward circuit, we're really simplifying some kind of quick motivational neurochemistry. - [Zubin] 1,000%, and even the neurochemistry, there's even epiphenomenon around neurochemicals, and glial cells, and all of that, yeah.
So we're making, yeah, again, all the models are models. - [Daniel] Useful to start to help understand the thing, and then don't idolize 'em. - [Zubin] Yes. - [Daniel] Okay, hormesis, so the idea with exercise that if you're moving an amount of weight that is really, really easy, you're probably not gonna get that much muscle growth, because there's no reason for a bunch of muscle growth.
Muscle growth, like you're gonna have to be able to consume more food to support those muscles. There's energy involved in the anabolism there. So the body's only gonna do it if it has to, and it has to because you're stressing its current capacity.
So it's when you are at the edge of your adaptive capacity that the system says, "Oh, we might actually not be safe "if we don't increase adaptive capacity, "'cause we're having to engage in situations "that need all of the capacity we currently have. "Let's generate more," right? So hormesis is the property of systems to upregulate their capacity and response to stress that is near the boundary of what they can handle. And exercise is a classic example, but that's why you do hot-cold therapy is, one of the reasons for hot-cold therapy is you're creating a kind of metabolic hormesis, and as you're exposing yourself to more variance of temperature, the body actually regulates.
It has an impetus to regulate its own temperature, which means more kind of metabolic flexibility. But hormesis in general, like the two-marshmallow reward circuits are usually more hormetic, right? They usually involve stressing your current capacity, and then you get a reward on new capacity. But obviously, the addictive things generally don't require you stressing your capacity. They give you some kind of hit within the current capacity limits, and usually in ways that downgrade the capacity levels- - [Zubin] Overall, yeah.
- [Daniel] So there's a cognitive hormesis. There's an emotional hormesis. There's spiritual hormesis, right? So the cognitive hormesis, like if weightlifting, or sprinting, or whatever it is, is gonna be like a physiological hormesis, the cognitive one is you're going to feel some kind of stress, pain associated with being at the edge of your attention span. Like if I'm reading text, and my mind's wandering, it's the ability to keep fucking focusing my mind on purpose. It is growing attention span as a, like a muscular capacity.
- [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] But I don't get it if I'm not actually working at it, and if I'm not at the limit of my attention, I'm not gonna grow my attention- - [Zubin] It won't push, yeah. It won't push through. So this idea that in a way, when we're seeking other opinions, or we're trying to use an integral perspective, an alt-middle perspective, to try to synthesize, we're pushing ourselves through a discomfort, not to the point of failure, where we've injured the system, but to the point where the system goes, "Wait, humans are anti-fragile," which we'll probably talk about, where that kind of stress actually does create that hormetic effect, where the system then responds by getting more capacity.
- [Daniel] And then there's a reward circuit on that that is fundamentally a healthier, more aligned one, both healthier for the being, and healthier for the way that being can relate with the world. - [Zubin] Exactly, so it's actually a virtuous reward system as opposed to the addictive reward system. So how then, now we have this human mind that's, you know, paleolithic, and it's now put in a world where we have a different technology that is relying on reward circuits that maybe are not as virtuous as we would like. Is that where we are now in this conversation? - [Daniel] I would argue that capitalism can exploit one-marshmallow processes better than two-marshmallow processes. - [Zubin] Interesting.
So are you some kind of communist? I'm just gonna establish this now. - [Daniel] No, the critiques of, I mean, capitalism doesn't mean one thing. For some people, they think about that as any system primarily based on private property ownership, which would've included feudalism, and a different version, whatever. And obviously, Adam Smith capitalism and Milton Friedman capitalism are not the same kinds of structures, so with and without a central bank, with and without AI high-speed trading of complex financial instruments.
They're totally different structures. I would say all versions of it are inadequate for a long-term viable system, but so are all versions of communism, socialism, and other economic systems as we've proposed them, so- - [Zubin] Perfect. - [Daniel] There's a lot to learn from all of them.
There's a lot about theory of markets that's important, but the long-term system, like what isn't, what do we have to think about in terms of economics for making it through all of the catastrophic risks the world faces? And if it's not obvious, briefly, what the catastrophic risks are, you have all the environmental risks that are the result of the cumulative effects of industrialization and globalization. And so, dead zones in oceans, overfishing, biodiversity law, species extinction, topsoil erosion, climate change, blah, blah, blah, all of those things, peak nitrogen, phosphorous, whatever, all of those are the result of being able to extract resources from the world much faster than they can replenish themselves, and turn them into waste much faster than the earth can process them, i.e. a linear materials economy running on a finite planet that is bound to a monetary system that has a need for exponential growth to keep up with interest. And so, the exponential growth of the monetary system forces an exponential growth of depletion on one side and pollution on the other side.
You get all the planetary boundary issues. So that's one set of things, and obviously, there's an economic driver associated with all of that, right? We have to change economics to be able to make sure that the social sphere and technosphere are compatible with the biosphere, right? Now, the social sphere-technosphere combo is debasing the biosphere they depend on. - [Zubin] And you can probably point at the root of that being the primary economic drivers now are one-marshmallow drivers that do not necessarily promote two-marshmallow, delayed, longer term thinking when it comes to those planetary boundaries.
So in other words, if I don't go out and fish the oceans, another country will, if I, like sort of tragedy of the commons, like if I don't mine that particular ore, some other company will come, and knock the top of that mountain off, and pollute the rivers, and so on. And it's all in the service of the particular economic model, that is, you're trying to generate revenue, and those things are rewarded in the current system. - [Daniel] Yeah, and you know, the economic system creates a discount rate on future value, one, 'cause you can't predict it fully, but two, the current value gives me the ability to invest that capital, and make compounding interest, or other kinds of financial services investments with it.
It also gives me increased optionality in a changing environment. And so, not knowing what the environment will hold, and wanting to do the best I can, I want the most choice tokens, right? And the dollar is a choice token. It's the ability to, with very high optionality and high liquidity, do whatever would be adaptive, whereas if I have a bunch of farmland, and the thing that I want in the moment isn't farmland, selling it is gonna be, take a while. If I have a bunch of mining rights, or I have a bunch of timber, or whatever it is, and especially if I have a bunch of trees that aren't yet timber, and then I decide that I want to turn them into capital for some purpose, there's a long lag time.
So there's a game theory optimization towards more optionality, which means that the thing that has no real value, right, the dollar is purely representational value, but with maximum liquidity and optionality. I don't want the things with real value. I want to convert things with real value into the things with the only fictitious value, but that maximizes my optionality. And that's very much a short-term interest multiplied by a competitive collective action problem that is just where each agent making the choice that is good for them in the short-term is, creates a collective making maximally bad choices for the whole for the long-term.
- [Zubin] And that in itself, and this idea that cash is king for that reason, the idea that those long-term choices are the potential civilization-level risks that we face, whether it's environmental, whether it's technological, whether it's national defense, whether it's nuclear war, all the things that you talk about. And I think, so going back to the capitalism is a one-marshmallow sort of optimizer, how does that then relate to where we are technologically, say, with one civilization-level threat, which is big tech, social media attention hijack? - [Daniel] Yeah, I mean, it's like something that anyone one would learn in the beginning of their business career that every business wants to optimize the lifetime revenue of a customer. And addiction is a really good way to optimize lifetime revenue of a customer, right? - [Zubin] Every hustler on the street knows this. - [Daniel] And so, I want, like the best business will apply to the most number of people, and have the most need for continuous purchases.
And so, it's like, it's hard to beat fast food, right? It's hard to, like we can start when they're young. We can make it apply to almost everybody, and have it be a daily point of purchase for forever. And that's why McDonald's became very big, and Nestle, and you know, whatever, and Coca-Cola, and all those. But even that is actually dwarfed by social media, because obviously, a kid can start with an iPad before they can talk. - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] And start getting conditioned to hypernormal stimuli and customized environments to them.
So we can start very young. The most time someone gets a Coke is still less than they check their phone, right? And so, the total number of points of contact, and it's optimizing for hypernormal stimuli across lots of vectors, right? It's getting your- - [Zubin] News- - [Daniel] Media outrage. It's helping, you know, sex appeal, food that you're interested in, stuff like, and- - [Zubin] Social credit. - [Daniel] And it's personalized to you with AI optimization. - [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] And so, your newsfeed is like if I got to test every different version of salt, fat, sugar, artificial flavor combinations that maximize addictiveness to you, and Hostess could do that for each person, that's what social media is for the newsfeed. - [Zubin] That's terrifying, but it's absolutely true.
Anyone who's seen the ads that they get directed, anyone's seen YouTube's, YouTube's algorithm I've been noticing quite a bit lately, because it is supernatural at reading my mind. It knows how to connect me to people that I'm interested in. It knows, interestingly, here's a scary thing as a creator, it knows how to connect me to people who are making videos that create FOMO for me as a creator. "Oh my God, how did that guy interview so-and-so? "I've been trying to get that guy on my show forever. "How did, Daniel Schmachtenberger? "How'd he get Daniel Schmachtenberger? "Rogan, you loser!" Like I'm like, "Put 'em up!" And it actually knows me in a way better than I know myself. It's almost hacked into my brain stem, and reading that, and it's able to monetize that.
- [Daniel] And so, if it wasn't doing that for a fundamentally extractive purpose, it'd be a pretty cool tech. - [Zubin] It'd be pretty amazing if it could do something good. - [Daniel] If you could configure it to do that in a developmental direction. - [Zubin] Ah.
- [Daniel] Right, if you had some controls over it. And so, there's a category of tech that I would say, there's a few categories of tech that are distinct from previous categories. So for instance, autopoietic tech, self-replicating tech, is different than non-self-replicating tech. If I, and this is one of the reasons that so many people have gotten really concerned about bio recently, whether it's synthetic bio, or CRISPR, or whatever, is because as fucked up as nukes are, they don't make more nukes. They don't automatically perpetuate more nukes, unless you have a mutually assured destruction type scenario, which is the deterrent to not use it.
But if you release even accidentally a living self-replicating thing, you've initiated a cascade phenomena that is way harder to predict what it's gonna do, or ever stop. And we know it happens when you introduce an invasive species to an environment, where the environment didn't develop natural resilience to whatever that thing does. It can really fuck up an environment. But what about if you release an invasive species that is more different than anything else was, 'cause it didn't even arise through evolutionary process? - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] Well, it might just die off, 'cause it's not that hardy, but if it has faster feedback loops, that could be destructive to everything very quickly. So biotech the soonest, but then nanotech and AI all have these kind of self-replicating properties.
That needs to be its own risk category that's separate from everything else, because the ability to do risk calculus on it is so hard, and the ability to ever do post facto mitigation is so hard. There's another category, but you can say something about that- - [Zubin] No, I was just gonna say you reach the end of your ability to model those things. They reach a kind of singularity, where they're doing things that you could never have predicted, because the emergent properties of the system are way more complex than any model you have to model it, and that's what's scary about it. That's actually the argument people make about GMOs, and things like that.
And I'm not sure, you know, I don't think it's necessarily applicable to most GMOs, but in theory, it certainly is. - [Daniel] The risk-reward calculus, and the risk tolerance has to change under really catastrophic risk possibility, even if it's very low possibility, very low probability, but you're doing something that's gonna have a lot of total numbers of things with that low probability- - [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] What tolerance do we have for any probability of something that's totally existential? - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] And yet, there's a perverse game theory in the incentive, which is whoever's oriented to the opportunity will do better than whoever's more oriented to mitigate against the risk, right? Because if I say, "Eh, the risk isn't that high.
"You guys are scared of a bunch of nothing. "You're being hyperbolic. "Look at the opportunity. "We can," blah, blah, blah, "cure cancer, "connect the world," blah, whatever the thing that the exponential tech can do in that positive application is, they're gonna go get the market share, get the money, whatever, and then the harms are gonna be socialized. They're not gonna be held accountable fundamentally, or they'll figure out how to bankrupt it, and restart, or whatever it is that is the legal strategies a big company with limited liability can use and good lawyers. And so, they have the incentive.
You have a lot of incentive on opportunity, and that's the kind of Silicon Valley move fast and break things motto. - [Zubin] Yup. - [Daniel] And so, you privatize the gain, socialize the losses, awesome. Now, if your focuses do really good anticipation of second and third-order effects, identify wherever there might be an externality, figure out how to internalize it, you're just gonna go so fuckin' slow, and spend so much research money that you just lose. - [Zubin] You'll go broke.
- [Daniel] Yeah. - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] So unfortunately, again, there is a perverse incentive to do the riskier versions, pretend they're less risky, only do bullshit versions of risk analysis for plausible deniability that you did it. - [Zubin] Wait, why does this sound like everything Zuckerberg's doing right now? - [Daniel] You can pick him, but you can pick others too- - [Zubin] I'll pick anybody, I'll pick anybody. But so, this is interesting. Have you, I imagine you've seen the movie "Don't Look Up," and- - [Daniel] I haven't actually seen it, but I know- - [Zubin] You know the premise. - [Daniel] Yeah. - [Zubin] So
everything that you're pointing to, everything that, and honestly, I watched the movie, and I don't see it as a, you know, climate change thing. I saw it as a COVID thing, 'cause you frame it however you wanna frame it- - [Daniel] Any catastrophic risk. - [Zubin] Any catastrophic risk, and COVID isn't really a catastrophic risk, but I saw it framed as the science versus, thesis-antithesis kind of thing. It was so depressing to watch because it held up a mirror exactly to these kind of things, like the short-term gain issue. They wanna mine this asteroid, instead of destroy it.
So the equivalent of Zuckerberg decides he's gonna do this, and I mean, it was crazy, and I was watching it going, "No, that's exactly what would happen." That's exactly what would happen with our current thing, and the social media was deployed tribalizing people. There's a meaning crisis and there's a sense crisis, like what even is real? Is the asteroid even there? Hence the title of the movie, "Don't Look Up." Well, don't look up, or you'll see what's actually there. (Zubin laughs) It's right there.
- [Daniel] Yeah, so I mean, this is also important, obviously. We live in a reality where most of the stuff that feels most consequential that we believe we have no first-person sensing of. - [Zubin] Right. - [Daniel] We are getting it
mediated through a 2D screen, through other people's thinking, and other institutions, and you know, those types of things. That's significant, right? It's significant to people's ability to have collective intelligence systems work. There's a book, I think it was called "The Politics of the Invisible" that was looking at regulation issues after Chernobyl, where, you know, should farmers be allowed to grow food here and sell it that the countries had to deal with downwind of where Chernobyl was given that the uranium was invisible. And for the first time ever, not the first time ever, but like for the first time it became really obvious that there was totally invisible stuff that was totally consequential. So the farmers and the layperson had to trust those who had the ability with the Geiger counters, and whatever, to tell us stuff that only the priestly class that understood how to do that could do.
- [Zubin] Oh. - [Daniel] Because now, we're engineering in the invisible in a really fundamental way. - [Zubin] Which we're not designed to deal with as humans- - [Daniel] We don't have the ability to all check and balance and go through the same epistemic process. So unless you happen to have the Geiger counters, and the knowledge of nuclear physics, and et cetera, and then the biophysics to say, well, how much increased radiation of what type is gonna create how much mutation to then be able to weigh against the difficulty of the farmers not losing their jobs, and those types of things. - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] And so, having created a very scientifically advanced society also means that then you need a lot of scientific insight to weigh in on the policy things. But that also means now people have to just trust a priestly class.
And, or they all have to be adequately educated, and have access to all of those tools, and that, like adequately educated about virology, and nuclear physics, and epidemiology, and climate, and et cetera- - [Zubin] Not possible. - [Daniel] So you start to reach information limits. So then you have to say, "Well, fuck it, "we need institutions that are trustworthy "that can do that." Well, how do you get trust? How do you get everybody to be able to trust institutions? Even if you had an institution emerge that everyone trusted, 'cause it had some transparent way of being able to show real good epistemic process, and lack of vested interest, and rigor, and checks and balances on power, and it became a kind of legitimate authority, there's so much power to being a legitimate authority, to being able to be the arbiter of what is real that everyone who wants to win at the game of power will have a maximum incentive to try to corrupt that thing. - [Zubin] Hmm.
- [Daniel] And so, then who wins? The scientists, and mathematicians, and philosophers focused on the thing, or the best players at the game of power, who are funding the thing, who have a maximum incentive to start moving it in one particular direction? So how do you maintain legitimate authority and have it not get captured? It's a real tricky thing. - [Zubin] Why does this feel so familiar, Daniel, to a certain experience we've had over the past two years, where there are factions, who just, there's no way to even make sense, and anybody can hijack the mantle of authority, including the mainstream, including the antithesis, including it doesn't matter, put some letters after your name, and say some stuff. And how is an average person without the education in virology, epidemiology, biostats, all the other stuff supposed to make sense of it? And this has been a fundamental problem.
- [Daniel] Well, I'll just say it live on your show. This is why, since you do such a good job of steel manning the various points of view, being able to look at synthesis and antithesis with regard to COVID, I mean, thesis, antithesis, I think it would be fantastic for you to get leading earnest thinkers on both sides of the lab leak hypothesis, the vaccine mandate, the small molecule approach, all of the major issues, and be able to facilitate a structured dialectic that identified what they agreed on, where they disagreed, what the basis of that disagreement was, what it would take to resolve it that used really, that oriented away from rhetoric and towards good formal methodology, and that everybody got to watch and see. I think that would be amazing, and I think you're the right guy to do it.
- [Zubin] How dare you, number one, okay? Number two, what you're describing is a solution, is one solution to this sense-making crisis, which I think I feel very strongly about as well, this idea, and you used a term that I think we should explain, steel manning. You said steel manning. So it probably behooves us to understand what a straw man is, and then we can talk about a steel man. So very quickly, a straw man is where you take an opponent's argument, and you actually distort it in a way that you, and you can correct me if I'm explaining this wrong, and you put it out there, and go, "Well, see, what they're saying is "that they wanna kill all kids by not vaccinating them." That's called a straw man, 'cause you're building the straw man, then you attack it, 'cause it's easy to attack, right? So it's misunderstanding, or purposefully misrepresenting what they're saying to create a straw man.
A steel man, on the other hand, is actually deeply re-conveying what the argument is in very clear terms to where even the people who believe this argument are like, "Yeah, you nailed it, that's what we're saying." - [Daniel] Yeah. Straw man's where you are obviously just putting them down and being pejorative, appeal to your own base, but that's about it.
The worst straw mans are the ones that look like they're steel manning, but they aren't, right? You say, "Well, it's understandable why such-and-such, "and why they would think this, "and they care about this and this," and it seems like you're empathizing, but it's a faux empathy, 'cause what you're doing is setting up what looks like you empathize, so that you're setting up what looks like a solid understanding of the thesis, so that then when you critique and take it down, people will assume that you understand it well, except you constructed it in a way that looked earnest, wasn't, and had weakness in it, right? So the faux steel man straw man is the most common dreadful one. - [Zubin] Uh-huh. - [Daniel] Real steel manning is where someone who has actual expertise and care on the other side would say, "I have nothing to add." - [Zubin] Yeah. - [Daniel] Like you actually
comprehensively did the thing. - [Zubin] You got it good, yeah, and that's important, because first of all, then it eliminates the straw man effect where you're deliberately weakening the opponent's argument by misrepresenting it, and ad hominem-ing, and all of the oth