The Other Extinction

image by Marsel van Ooosten via
“Listen to this,” Ren said, looking up from his laptop. “This cog scientist Donald Hoffman ‘has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction’.”

He smiled at Gabrielle, who was playing with Ren’s cat. The cat, named Vegan, was jumping between several dozen handmade padded shelves that extended up and down all the walls of the main room of Ren’s house. Apparently the whimsical display, which included a swinging bridge, a solar-powered elevator and a three-level tree-house, had been written up in the local paper, and friends often brought their cats over to play with Vegan and try out the contraptions. Some cats were apparently more impressed than others.

Ren continued: “That idea is entirely consistent with non-duality. The apparent reality of the separate ‘self’ arose as an adaptation of the survival instinct, and it’s a complete fiction, but, as Einstein said ‘a very persistent one’. C’m’ere a minute and watch this.”

Gabrielle stopped and watched the video.  “Seems reasonable,” she said. “But what use is that information? What we may perceive may not be ‘real’ reality, but it’s all we have. It’s not like we have a choice to give up perceiving the world through the ‘interface’ of the self, and see it as it really is.”

“Yes, you’re right, ‘we’ don’t have a choice, but that’s because there is no ‘we’. When the self falls away after it’s seen to no longer serve a useful evolutionary purpose, suddenly true reality, or what non-dualists call ‘natural’ reality, is seen. What was the apparently separate ‘we’ vanishes, and what is left is the awesome inseparable oneness that is all-there-is. Or so I’m told.” Ren smiled, turning up his palms.

“And what makes you say that the self no longer serves an evolutionary purpose?,” Gabrielle replied. She sat on Ren’s brightly-coloured hammock swing in the middle of the room and slowly began to move it back and forwards.

Ren picked up Vegan and perched her on his shoulder. “I’m going even further than that. I’m saying it never really did. It was an evolutionary mistake. The evolution of our large brains was what actually increased our survival fitness — the brain’s capacity to model reality, anticipate and identify possibilities and prepare for them. But then something went wrong: The self emerged as an unanticipated consequence of the brain’s capacity to model reality. It mistook the map for the territory, the model for the reality. The brain’s very useful model seemed to suggest that there was something called ‘separateness’, and the emergent self was the embodiment of this ‘enhancement’ of the model. The self/mind reasoned that if survival was advanced by mis-perceiving entities as being separate (as the model did), then those entities were (in its ‘reality’) in fact separate, and the self could and should fear and protect the separate entity from ‘others’. But that mis-perception is actually leading to a great extinction that includes our own demise. And in the process that mis-perception has made us self-inflicted, anxious, dysfunctional basket cases.”

Gabrielle laughed and raised her eyebrows. “Well if there’s only oneness, it’s a bit of a conceit to believe self-deluded humans can actually destroy it, don’t you think?”

Vegan launched herself from Ren’s shoulder to a perch on the swing above Gabrielle’s head, landing ungracefully but righting herself quickly as if that was her intention all along, and swatting a cat toy suspended from the ceiling each time the swing passed close enough.

Ren replied: “We don’t actually destroy it, we just inadvertently make it apparently unfit for us, and for all life on Earth, until extinction takes us out of the game. But the game goes on, and will continue perfectly without us. Apparently.” He started drawing on the white board behind his computer:


He pointed at his drawing and expounded: “Imagine that the newly self-inflicted ‘individual’ is like a young child given a new laptop and being told that this laptop monitors and controls critical events in her life and protects her from unknown dangers, so she needs to use it diligently. Unfortunately the interface isn’t very good — the keyboard doesn’t work very well and error messages keep randomly appearing for no clear reason. And there’s no instruction manual, just what others have told her to do or not do. And everyone else has also received a similar laptop and they seem to be doing OK with it, so she just keeps trying her whole life to make the best of it — to run the right apps at the right time and fix the bugs and update for new virus protection and so on.”

He sighed and looked at what he’d drawn. Then he continued: “What she doesn’t realize is that all her frenzied activity at the machine really makes no difference at all — the laptop actually works autonomously with nearly-perfect software to protect and support her, and it completely ignores everything she does through the keyboard. The ‘desktop’ displays what’s going on, and usually it seems to be responding to the user’s keystrokes and other inputs, but this is entirely to humour the user — the program itself is far too complex to entrust control to someone who doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing. Now imagine that the user suddenly realizes this— that she ‘herself’ need do nothing, after years of struggle with this awkward and poorly-functioning tool. How would she feel — astonished, annoyed at the wasted effort, puzzled? Liberated?”

“That’s a pretty fragile metaphor,” Gabrielle replied. “But I like the distinction between the brain and the self/mind. I never thought about it that way: the large, imaginative brain being the successful evolutionary advance, and the self/mind being a rather useless, high-maintenance appendage that happened to come with it — an interesting but problematic emergence made possible by the capacities of the large brain, but in the long run mainly just a source of great anxiety and commensurate stressed activity. The worm in the wonderful new apple. I like that part of it. Most people probably couldn’t conceive of the brain functioning without the mind controlling it, or of them even being separate ‘things’.”

“But I have a better metaphor for you about the interface thing,” she added. She took the markers and eraser from Ren’s white board, erased the right side of what he’d done, and filled in the blank area anew:


“You’re going to love this,” she said, smiling. “You’re the one who says organizations actually operate through workarounds by the people at the front lines doing what the customer wants and needs despite what the policy manual says and what the technology tries to enforce. Think of your body as an enterprise, or a complicity if you will. The front line workers in the enterprise are the senses, tuned into the customers’ needs, and the collective intelligence of the whole organization — what by consensus and knowledge-sharing (rather than by fiat) gets invented, iterated, agreed upon and done — is its brain. Now tell me if it isn’t obvious what its ‘mind’ is?”

Ren jumped up and clapped. “I love it!,” he exclaimed. “Just as enterprises would do just as well, if not better, without their over-rated, mostly-useless disconnected management, the human animal would do as well if not better without the self/mind. Not without the brain, but without the self, without the mind. You’re a genius!”

Gabrielle bowed. Vegan looked at them curiously.

Jumping off the swing and grabbing her coffee mug off one of the cat wall shelves, Gabrielle wandered into the kitchen, calling back to Ren: “And my metaphor is analog. Organic.”

.     .     .     .     .

“So now I have a question for you,” Gabrielle said, returning with a fresh cup of coffee. “To what extent do you think humans are actually ‘blank slates’? I’m not talking about morality or gender identity or anything like that when I say ‘blank slates’ — only idiots and economists still deny that humans and most other creatures are inherently cooperative and unselfish within their ‘tribe’. I’m talking about what we are, or would be, without the influence of our culture. I see culture as inherently propagandistic and coercive, another unfortunate artifact of evolution. What do you think a human being would be if she were completely free of any cultural influence?”

Ren had taken Gabrielle’s place on the swing, and Vegan was in his lap. “Hmmm,” he said. “Well, in the first place, cultures don’t actually exist. Just as ‘systems’ aren’t real — they’re just generalizations about the complex and unknowable, mental patterning by a species that loves to see cause and effect and correlation even when it means nothing and is completely useless — so too are cultures just a fiction, a meaning we assign to what we perceive as collective behaviour, when there is really none.”

“But,” he went on, “it might be interesting to speculate about what a human might be without enculturation — without any of the beliefs and behaviours that stick to you because they are reinforced so often by so many that you cease to question them. For a start, I’d guess that a tribe of un-encultured people would do things together intuitively rather than ritually, and not need or value an abstract language of any kind. They might not have ‘selves’ at all — no ‘individual’ beliefs or behaviours or habits or patterns of activity — because they wouldn’t be seen as needed.”

“So how would the ‘blank slate’ be filled in?,” she asked. “Take me through one of your weird ‘thought experiments’. Let me picture her growing up.” She sat beside Ren in the swing. Ren looked concerned — the swing wasn’t meant for two. But he shrugged and said:

“OK. Let’s imagine we kidnap a whole bunch of new-born babies and smuggle them away to some ‘uncivilized’ place — let’s say some remote place in the tropical rainforest. They’re still just oneness at that age. They have no sense of self. So we hire some shape-shifting empathic language-free adult-looking aliens, and have them act out the role of care-givers: Breast-feeding, lots of physical contact, affection, attention and appreciation for several years, the whole Gabor Maté thing. The rainforest gives them all they need, and they’re generally safe in the trees, though jaguars are occasionally a concern. So they grow up together, relatively anxiety-free, without formal language (they don’t need it), and without being affected by the neuroses of adults. What do they do? Like all young wild creatures, they play. That’s how they learn. In accordance with Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour, except when some rare issue of stress or scarcity comes up, when they would presumably cooperate to deal with it, they would spend their time doing things that are easy and fun.”

“And then they’d grow up, and then what would they do?,” Gabrielle asked. “Would they be more like chimps, or bonobos? Or Robert Sapolsky’s baboons?”

Ren went over to his fridge and pulled off a page from an anarchist magazine that he’d taped to it. He handed it to Gabrielle. “This is how Wolfi Landstreicher thinks they would turn out” he replied:

In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

“That’s how I think we would be without enculturation,” Ren said. “It’s how some of us seem to be even with it. Maybe Wolfi is one of them. Maybe E E Cummings was, too. Maybe there’s not much difference between being “nobody but yourself” and being self-less. Or undomesticated. Or uncivilized. I don’t know.”

They swung back and forth silently for a few moments, with Vegan sitting half in Ren’s lap and half in Gabrielle’s as they stroked her together. Vegan was purring. Finally Gabrielle stood and pulled Ren to his feet, taking his hand and leading him out of the room.

“Where are we going?,” he asked.

“We’re going to extinguish our selves, and the truth,” she replied.

He looked at her mischievously. “That sounds like fun.”

“Not what you’re thinking,” she said. She pulled him out to his art-and-tool shed. She pointed to some lengths and panels of wood, then to his toolbox, and then to the apple tree in his yard. “We’re going to build a tree house. A home for wayward bonobos.”

For the next three days they worked around the clock, with Vegan supervising. When they finished, they had built a two-story playhouse, extending between the apple tree and an oak tree nearby. It had a roof, a rope ladder between the two levels, a ramp leading down to Ren’s hot tub, a rainproof carpet, a screened area for sleeping, and a set of solar-powered night-lights. And of course, a swing.

The evening they finished, they sat in the lower story, watching the sunset and an approaching storm. They ate raw veggies and dip from Gabrielle’s garden (Vegan, perched above them, ate fish that Ren had recently caught for her), and drank Ren’s homemade wine. They played a cooperative board game, and spoke using sign language:

<<“Desires immediately realized”>> he signed to her, smiling and looking at the reflection of the lights on the leaves of the apple tree.

<<And look,>> she signed back, plucking an apple from the tree just above her head:

<<No worms.>>



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6 Responses to The Other Extinction

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dan Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey To The Heart of Being Human lays out a different, and I think better, way to think about the mind. The mind is NOT what the brain does. The mind is an emergent property which arises from the flow of energy and information through our bodies, our brain, other people, and the environment. Thus, the mind is real, and no two people have exactly the same mind. The mind is also capable of influencing the flow of energy and information, and thus, like a plant, is capable of influencing the properties from which it arises.

    Don Stewart
    PS Apologies to Dan for any mischaracterization of his work.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. Non-dualists would likely say that the mind IS undoubtedly real, and an emergent property of energy — to the PERSON, but actually both the mind and the person are constructions, “nothing and everything mind-ing and person-ing”. They would argue that the mind as a construction actually influences nothing. But it certainly seems to, so ‘we’ continue to act as if it does. I’ve read some of Dan’s writing, and think he’s right but only up to a point. But that’s only an instinct on my part — Dan has more (apparent) ‘evidence’ to support his position.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Have you read Lab Girl? There is a quote from Helen Keller. She said that ‘my mind was born when I shared the word ‘water’ with my companion’. The words, of course, are created by our society. Thinking about how we would look in the absence of our society should perhaps start with Helen Keller before she learned to communicate.
    Don Stewart

  4. JPL says:

    Hi Dave,

    One thing that bugs me is why this obsession among some teachers of non-duality, which group includes Tony Parsons, with making everything revolves around the “self”. The ‘self’ cannot be the origin of distinction, separation and duality; it is at best its outcome or product. Duality, whatever its precise nature, pre-dates the evolutionary emergence of the human ‘self’. The polarity I/other pre-existed the ‘self’; It became explicit with the emergence of life. The evolutions of the nervous and immune systems hinge, reflect and embodied that duality.

    I understand that Advaitan and Buddhist philosophers living thousands years ago may have fallen for such simplistic narratives (self as source of duality, etc.) given their rather primitive understanding and views of the world but teachers or anyone else today don’t have that excuse …

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    The level of misunderstanding of radical non-duality is amazing. In the first place, they assert that they are NOT teachers. I happen to use the word ‘self’, because I think it’s the one that makes the most sense, but many radical non-dualists don’t use it because it’s been used to mean too many things (they often use ‘the me’ instead). Duality needs no origin and never became explicit — it’s an illusion, a theory, a concept. Everything, including evolution, is just an appearance, a playing out of the game of nothing manifesting as everything. But it’s still just one.

    I would agree that the illusion of the self/duality predates humans — it probably evolved (apparently) in many creatures with large brains, and probably continues to do so. In our ‘self-ishness’, as in everything else, there is no reason to believe that humans are unique.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Regarding ‘level of misunderstanding of radical non-duality’ and the mind ‘being a construction’. I admit to not having spent very much time talking to non-dualists, since I don’t consider myself to be a dualist and don’t understand what the fuss is supposed to be about.

    But think of low pressure centers and high pressure centers in the atmosphere. On one level, all the atmosphere is one unity at any given time (it evolves over time, however). But it is clearly useful to talk in terms of cyclones and anti-cyclones when we are trying to understand cold fronts and warm fronts and hurricanes and droughts. Arguing that low pressure centers don’t exist because of some non-duality principle seems to me an utter waste of time.

    Similarly, if we follow Siegel’s suggestion and consider our mind as what is most essentially ‘us’, and that this mind is an emergent property linked to everything else in the universe, it seems rather silly to attach some great importance to questions of duality and non-duality. Of course we all come from the same raw materials and experience the same flows of energy and information, but it is still helpful to distinguish a rock from a plant and a human from a lizard. It is even useful to distinguish me from you.

    Siegel doesn’t particularly like the word ‘self’, but uses it sometimes because it is hard to avoid it. He also coined the word M/We to signify the importance of the social flows of information and energy.

    It seems to me that if we start from the right place, the arguments about duality and non-duality just fade into irrelevance. If we start from the place that there are certain people who are ‘chosen by God’, then of course we are going to begin to believe in absurd things and may even be enticed to argue about angels dancing on pinheads.

    Don Stewart

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