How Humans F*#ked Up -- A Review By Susan Price

Humans: How We F*cked It All Up - Phillips
Tom Phillips published this book, Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up in 2018.
Then and now it could hardly be more relevant.

Everywhere in the 'western world' or 'the developed world' people with half a brain are asking themselves: How the f*ck did we get to this? What the hell happened?

In this book you will find part of the answer.

It begins with a prologue about Lucy, the famous Australopithecus, and how she ended up as one of our most noteable museum exhibits by falling out of a tree and dying. The fractures to her bones suggest that's what happened to her -- in fact, that we were f*#king up even before we were fully human.

Except that, this being a history of bungles and failures, another group of experts claim that the fractures were all post-mortem. Take your pick. There are plenty more undoubtable examples of what the cartoonist Martin Rowson calls 'fur-cups' and, indeed, wordlessly illustrates as such. (One of the pleasures of Rowson's cartoons is spotting what the fur-cups are up to this time.)

[With apologies to the brilliant Rowson and a link to his website, here (below) is a fur-cup masquerading as a coffin.]  

The first chapter of Humans is titled: Why Your Brain Is an Idiot -- and pretty much sets the ground-work for all that follows. We are the end-product of millenia of evolution, a notoriously hit and miss process. As Phillips puts it:

Evolution gets results not by planning ahead, but rather by simply hurling a ridiculously large number of hungry, horny organisms at a dangerous and unforgiving world and seeing who fails least.

And there you have it. We have the bloody cheek to call ourselves 'sapiens' and yet we're only here because we failed least. By a narrow margin.

One of the failures evolution cursed us with is the compulsion to see patterns in everything, even when they're not there. When we're scared, we'll see patterns even more quickly and be even more than usually reluctant to give them up. During WW2, for instance, many Londoners became convinced that certain neighbourhoods were being targetted by German missiles, while others were untouched because -- obviously -- that's where the German spies were living. This rumour became so pervasive that the government had R. D. Clarke, a statistician, check over the figures. He concluded that the missile strikes were completely random: the notion that any district was hit more or less than any other was illusory.

Did this stop Londoners believing that the Germans were bombing some areas more than others while leaving the bed-sits and semis of their spies untouched? Of course not. Our brains are idiots. We don't stop believing in something just because some silly evidence proves us wrong. No statistician or scientist or economist is going to tell us what to think!

Instead, as the history of the world bears witness, being proved wrong makes us believe the wrong idea even more strongly than before. This applies a thousand times more if the people around us believe the wrong thing too. Even if we didn't believe the wrong thing to begin with, we'll cave and start believing it if everyone else seems to.

When your mum asked you as a kid, 'Oh, and if the other kids jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?' the honest answer was, 'Actually, there's a pretty good chance, yeah.'

And once our idiot brains have committed to a belief...

You'd think that once we'd made a decision, put it into action and actually seen it start to go horribly wrong, we would then at least become a bit better at changing our minds. Hahaha, no. There's a thing called 'choice-supportive bias', which basically means that once we've committed to a course of action, we cling onto the idea that it was the right choice like a drowning sailor clinging to a plank... it is why government ministers continue to insist that the negotiations are going very well and a lot of progress has been made even as it becomes increasingly apparent that everything is going quite profoundly to shit. The choice has been made, so it must have been the right one, because we made it.

I bet that sounds familiar.

As if this wasn't enough, there's the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger were the psychologists behind the 1999 paper: 'Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties In Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment.’ Their research found that people who actually are exceptionally good at something are usually modest and very aware of the areas where they need to improve, while people who lack knowledge or skill in the same field usually overestimate their own competence to a ridiculous degree. Having little knowledge or practice in whatever they’re attempting, they don’t realise where the pitfalls are, they don’t see their own mistakes and judge what they do achieve much more favourably than they should. On and on they cheerfully blunder, unaware that everything is falling apart around their ears and plummeting into the shit.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, wikimedia
Now there have probably been occasions when we've all come over a bit Dunning-Kruger. Speaking for myself, it's usually when I’ve been in need of cash and have claimed experience in some work where I had little or none and then had to wing it – but since the highest pinnacle of my employment was operating a Co-op till, little lasting harm was done. As I can barely manage my own affairs, it’s never crossed my mind that I might be capable of governing a country. Or acting as foreign secretary to one.

Unlike  some.

In fact, the Dunning-Kruger effect lends some to support the theory that we should hand governance over to those who least want to do it. Their keen awareness of their own inexperience and unfitness for the role would quite possibly result in a better job done and less wasted money and resources (fewer unbuilt garden bridges and useless buses and water-cannon, for instance.)

The book's other chapters briefly cover some of humanity's more memorable fur-cups. In Nice Environment You've Got Here, Philips raises the question of whether we should have begun farming at all. It's looking increasingly like we should have stuck to hunter-gathering. He goes on to describe how, with the encouragement of their government, American farmers turned the Mid-West into a vast dust-bowl. Let's not pick on Americans, though -- environmental idiocy has come thick and fast from the governments of Soviet Russia, China and Australia, among others. Some of this idiocy was perpetrated both by home-based British idiots and by idiots Britain had exported, so the fur-cup of us Brits is brimming full. (Just look at what we've elected to our 'Mother of Parliaments.' And what a mother she is.)

The most chilling section of the book, arguably, comes in the passage about Hitler.

...we still tend to believe that the Nazi machine was ruthlessly efficient... so it's worth remembering that Hitler was actually an incompetent, lazy egomaniac and his government was an absolute clown show... 

Even after elections had made the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag, people still kept thinking that Hitler was... a blustering idiot who could easily be controlled by smart people...

That's not how it worked out... within two months Hitler had seized complete control of the German state, persuading the Reichstag to pass an act that gave him power to bypass the constitution... and the Reichstag itself. What had been a democracy was, suddenly, not a democracy any more.

Remind me, what clown is it who wants to prorogue Parliament? -- Oh, right, the one we've made Prime Minister.

Why did the elites of Germany so consistently underestimate Hitler? Possibly because they weren't actually wrong in their assessment of his competency -- they just failed to realise that this wasn't enough to stand in the way of his ambition... Hitler was really bad at running a government... [He] hated having to read paperwork and would regularly take important decisions without even looking at the documents his aides had prepared for him... His government was constantly in chaos, with officials having no idea what he wanted them to do...

From 'The Times'
[Hitler] was deeply insecure about his own lack of knowledge, preferring to either  ignore information that contradicted his preconceptions or to lash out at the expertise of others -- he was said to 'rage like a tiger' if anybody corrected him...

Hitler's personal failings didn't stop him having an uncanny instinct for political rhetoric that would gain mass appeal, and it turns out you don't actually need to have a particuarly competent or functional government to do terrible things. [It probably helps you to do terrible things: S.P.]

We tend to assume that when something awful happens there must have been some great controlling intelligence behind it... how could things have gone so wrong, we think, if there wasn't an evil genius pulling the strings? The downside of this is that we tend to assume that if we can't immediately spot an evil genius, then we can chill out... because everything will be fine.

But history suggests that's a mistake and... one that we make over and over again. Many of the worst man-made events that have ever occurred were not the product of evil geniuses. Instead they were the product of a parade of idiots and lunatics, incoherently flailing their way through events, helped along the way by overconfident people who thought they could control them.

I don't know about you, but that passage rang an awful lot of bells with me.

Oh, the bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling


Sandra Horn said…
Wow! Go, Sue! Smack on the button. All very scary, but on the plus side, here we are still - or quite a few of us, anyway.In amongst the furcups, there must be some nuggets of common sense, surely, rare though they are. That's me on a good day, when Brexshit and climate change don't knock on my brain and remind me of mega furcups coming our way.
Umberto Tosi said…
cc to all the pundits: This explains it all! I had to share it!
This is excellent.
Coincidentally, only the other day we were talking about politics in the office (only briefly as none of us can stand the thought of what's happening just now) and I said I was beginning to understand how Hitler came to power. My Italian colleague said yes, a few people voted for him and the rest stood back in disbelief about what was happening.

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