The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming - what's our excuse?

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves" - Shakespeare
Allow me to transcribe some eloquent lines spoken by Niel deGrasse Tyson in Episode 9 of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey. The topic is mass extinction of species, such as befell the dinosaurs. After extolling the human skills that gave rise to civilizations, Tyson observes:
"There is nothing like the inter-glacial period—one of those balmy intermissions in the ice age—and the great news is that this one is due to last for another fifty thousand years. What a break for our kind!
    Just one problem, we can't seem to stop burning up all those buried trees from way back in the carboniferous age in the form of coal, and the remains of ancient plankton in the form of oil and gas. If we could we'd be home free - climate wise. 
    Instead we're dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past - the ones that led to mass extinctions.
    We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kind of fuel that'll bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs - a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on our environment and our ability to feed ourselves.
    All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us?
    The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming - what's our excuse?" 1

A similar question has been asked by the author of Collapse, Jared Diamond:

it is clear from all the cases discussed in this book that precisely such a failure has happened repeatedly. How did so many societies make such bad mistakes? ...a baffling phenomenon: namely, failures of group decision-making..2

Diamond offers several explanations, including: absent prior experience, reasoning by false analogy,  imperceptibility, distant managers, creeping normalcy, landscape amnesia, rationalized greed, sunk-cost effect, denial and resource exhaustion. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter linked the loss of creativity to the growth of complexity.3

Clearly human behavior has a lot to do with it, in addition to the obvious ability of vested interests to preserve the status quo and create diversions. What is baffling is why science has not formally taken up the challenge of determining how as humans we often undermine our best efforts and compromise our survival.

Ongoing research for the author's progress trap project shows that the following behavioural factors may also contribute:

  • habituation
  • inattentional blindness
  • epigenetics (change passed down from parent to child, one generation to the next)
  • impaired emotional intelligence
  • addiction
  • technocratic obsession
  • incomplete paradigm shifts
  • cognitive overload
  • impaired (environmental) feedback loops
  • disconnection syndromes
  • phenomenal dissociation
  • institutional bias

In other words, a recurring syndrome that allows humans to put long-term survival at risk.

The neurological aspect has been discussed by Antonio Damasio. In Descartes Error, he criticized the pioneering philosopher-mathematician and lamented the exclusively rational tendencies of science. In a lecture on Emotion and reason in the future of human life, he applies the same thinking to the environmental context:
It is difficult to conceive of any future for human life without an abundance of collective human wisdom and such wisdom depends upon a well-tempered machinery for decision-making within which emotion and reason are interwoven.4

Examination of the neurological factors could make the whole issue a lot less baffling. Indeed, the unfairly maligned left-brain right-brain debate does throw light on this paradox, providing insight into 'normal' human actions that are often at odds with our own long-term interests. As Iain McGilchrist, also a critic of Descartes, wrote:

the left hemisphere may be 'inadequate for the more rapid complex syntheses achieved by the [right] hemisphere...This broader field of attention, open to whatever may be, and coupled with greater integration over time and space, is what makes possible the recognition of broad or complex patterns, the perception of the “thing as a whole,” seeing the wood for the trees... In short, the left hemisphere takes a local short-term view, where the right hemisphere sees the bigger picture.5

The explanations that Diamond and McGilchrist offer are surely the beginnings of serious inquiries that will answer Neil deGrasse Tyson's question.

The rest of us would also like to know.

by Daniel B. O'Leary FRSA - first published at


  1. Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey  Episode 9 - The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth,  2014
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. p420
  3. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; 1988
  4. Antonio Damasio, "Emotion and Reason in the Future of Human Life," Mind, brain, and the environment, Bryan Cartledge, ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1998, p. 57.
  5. McGilchrist, Iain. Reciprocal organization of the cerebral hemispheres,  (2010). Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 503–515.


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    "The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
    the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)