Stephen Hawking on how the world might end

When Stephen Hawking was asked (Jan. 2016) whether the world is likely to end on account of humans, or through natural disaster, he selected..humans. According to The Telegraph1, Hawking responded to student Paul Ost's question "Will the world will end naturally, or will man destroy it first?" with "We face a number of threats: nuclear war, global warming and genetically engineered viruses" and added “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Criticism of progress as an agent of planetary disaster has rarely come from a foremost scientist. Indeed questions have been asked, by Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, Homer-Dixon, Norbert Wiener and recently by astrophysicist Niel deGrasse Tyson, to name but a few.

Tainter noted that complexity can be the undoing of advanced societies, whether or not they have had advanced science and technology:

    Complexity is a long-term paradox of problem solving. It facilitates the resolution of problems in the short run while undermining the ability to solve them in the long term. Maintaining a society or other kind of institution requires that the problem-solving system itself be sustainable. 2

Feedback - the science of ‘learning from mistakes.’
Norbert Wiener became sceptical of unbounded progress. He had formulated the discipline of cybernetics – the observation of the results of actions, their consequences, and of adjusting actions to improve the outcome. Cybernetics made a science of ‘learning from mistakes.’ The concepts of feedback loops, positive and negative, entered technical and popular culture, providing an objective concept of the learning cycle. In a chapter on Progress and Entropy, Wiener cautioned:

    This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be very inconvenient for our own survival... Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions 3.

Who is afraid of the mystery of progress and collapse?
There is no shortage of learned views on the shortcomings of progress, but few experts seem to take up the challenge of finding out why we humans consistently develop ingenious ways of living that compromise our future stability and survival. There are indeed many analyses of the features of these up and down trajectories, but analysts seem to stay away from the issue of behaviour and the way that it causes this sad cycle.

Undoubtedly more is being spent on planetary exploration with a view to colonization – once earth has become uninhabitable – than has been spent on determining why we behave in such a way as to make it uninhabitable. Hawking himself sees migration to other planets a a viable way of escaping a man-made earthly catastrophe.

What's our excuse?
The lack of response to the matter of causes of environmental degradation is illustrated nicely in Niel deGrasse Tyson's eloquent question in episode 9 of Cosmos: a Space Time Odyssey. After lauding human civilizations he observed:

    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...

and asks

Tyson does not offer any answer, conjectural or otherwise, to his question, which seems odd. It must be a very tricky question if Jared Diamond himself is to write "How did so many societies make such bad mistakes? ...a baffling phenomenon: namely, failures of group decision-making.."5

The Progress Trap investigation, since 1990
This author's quest — begun a quarter-century ago — for underlying behavioural causes of progress traps has identified overspecialization and the lack of corrective behaviour as a likely cause. Indeed the symptoms revealed by this line of inquiry are many, enough to warrant the label 'syndrome'. Furthermore, there is increasing support for the view that this overspecialization imbalance may have a neurological correlation, seen in the lateralization of brain function. And here we see why this could be the elephant in the room. Ian McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and literary scholar, in his book about The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, concedes:

    V. S. Ramachandran, another well-known and highly regarded neuroscientist, accepts that the issue of hemisphere difference has been traduced, but concludes: ‘The existence of such a pop culture shouldn't cloud the main issue – the notion that the two hemispheres may indeed be specialised for different functions.’

McGilchrist observes further: "Discouraged by this kind of popular travesty, neuroscience has returned to the necessary and unimpeachable business of amassing findings, and has largely given up the attempt to make sense of the findings, once amassed, in any larger context."6

The bigger picture
Thus it is understandable why respected behavioural scientists would fear to tread in the swampy area of neurology as it relates to behavioural and ecological imbalance. McGilchrist does go boldly towards providing exhaustive insight into the baffling paradox that is man in his environment. Indeed his scientific paper "Reciprocal organisation of the cerebral hemispheres" provides clinical findings that may explain the human/environment imbalance:

    ..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.7

This may be the strongest indication yet that the conflict between humans' short and long-term interests may have its roots in the cerebral architecture that encourages ingenuity, yes fails to inhibit its excessive long-term use. Where ingenuity causes environmental harm, this is potentially a vicious spiral.

Nature's checks and balances
It is a fact that life is sustained by equilibrium. In medicine this is called homeostasis8 and there are countless biological balancing functions within the body and mind9, constantly at work. If the organism experiences extremes or trauma, it brings itself back to equilibrium as soon as possible. Living organisms have remarkable means for correcting and even healing themselves, in order to survive.

This is where we should focus our attention, and leave the planets in peace.

by Daniel B. O'Leary, January 25, 2016

  2. Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Joseph A. Tainter Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2000
  3. Wiener, N. (1989). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (pp. 46–47). London:
    Free Association Books.
  4. Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey Episode 9 - The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth, National Geographic, Fox Network, 2014
  5. Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. p420
  6. McGilchrist, Iain The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, USA: Yale University Press. 2009 p2
  7. McGilchrist, Iain. Reciprocal organization of the cerebral hemispheres, (2010). Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 503–515.

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