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OVERSHOOT LOOP:
Evolution Under The Maximum Power Principle

by Jay Hanson, 11/12/13, minor revisions 7/16/14

A COLLECTIVE BEHAVIORAL LOOP

The consequence is, that in comparison of what [Attica] then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. — Plato, 360 BC

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, “Western civilisation” or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation. — John Gray, STRAW DOGS

...it may be time to recognize the maximum power principle as the fourth thermodynamic law as suggested by Lotka. — H.T.Odum, 1994

POLITICS: n 1: social relations involving authority or power. — Jay Hanson

FORWARD

I have been forced to review the key lessons that I have learned concerning human nature and collapse over the last 20 years. Our collective behavior is the problem that must be overcome before anything can be done to mitigate the coming global social collapse. The single most-important lesson for me was that we cannot re-wire (literally, because thought is physical[1]) our basic political agendas through reading or discussion alone. Moreover, since our thoughts are subject to physical law, we do not have the free-will to either think or behave autonomously.

We swim in “politics” like fish swim in water; it’s everywhere, but we can't see it!

We are “political” animals from birth until death. Everything we do or say can be seen as part of lifelong political agendas. Despite decades of scientific warnings, we continue to destroy our life-support system because that behavior is part of our inherited (DNA/RNA) hard wiring. We use scientific warnings, like all inter-animal communications, for cementing group identity and for elevating one’s own status (politics).

Only physical hardship can force us to rewire our mental-political agendas. I am certainly not the first to make the observation, but now, after 20 years of study and debate, I am totally certain. The “net energy principle” guarantees that our global supply lines will collapse.

The rush to social collapse cannot be stopped no matter what is written or said. Humans have never been able to intentionally-avoid collapse because fundamental system-wide change is only possible after the collapse begins.

What about survivors? Within a couple of generations, all lessons learned from the collapse will be lost, and people will revert to genetic baselines. I wish it weren’t so, but all my experience screams “it’s hopeless.” Nevertheless, all we can do is the best we can and carry on...

I am thankful for the Internet where I can find others bright enough to discuss these complex ideas and help me to understand them.

Today, when one observes the many severe environmental and social problems, it appears that we are rushing towards extinction and are powerless to stop it. Why can’t we save ourselves? To answer that question we only need to integrate three of the key influences on our behavior: biological evolution, overshoot, and a proposed fourth law of thermodynamics called the “Maximum Power Principle”(MPP). The MPP states that biological systems will organize to increase power[2] generation, by degrading more energy, whenever systemic constraints allow it[3].

Biological evolution is a change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. Individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic (DNA/RNA) material from one generation to the next.

Natural selection is one of the basic mechanisms of evolution, along with mutation, migration, and genetic drift. Selection favors individuals who succeed at generating more power and reproducing more copies of themselves than their competitors.

OVERSHOOT!
Energy is a key aspect of overshoot because available energy is always limited by the energy required to utilize it.

... in the first place, I put forth a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. — Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN

In fact, telling primates (human or otherwise) that their reasoning architectures evolved in large part to solve problems of dominance is a little like telling fish that their gills evolved in large part to solve the problem of oxygen intake from water. — Denise Dellarosa Cummins

Since natural selection occurs under thermodynamic laws, individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of resources[4] whenever system constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

Overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power attainable for the group with lower-ranking members suffering first. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain it. Meanwhile, social conflict will intensify as available power continues to fall.

Eventually, members of the weakest group (high or low rank) are forced to “disperse.”[5] Those members of the weak group who do not disperse are killed,[6] enslaved, or in modern times imprisoned. “By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of Stone-Age people died at the hands of other humans.”[7] The process of overshoot, followed by forced dispersal, may be seen as a sort of repetitive pumping action—a collective behavioral loop—that drove humans into every inhabitable niche.

Here is a synopsis of the behavioral loop described above:

Step 1. Individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

Step 2. Energy is always limited, so overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.

Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.

Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.

Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.

Step 6. Go back to step 1.

The above loop was repeated countless thousands of times during the millions of years that we were evolving[8]. This behavior is inherent in the architecture of our minds — is entrained in our biological material — and will be repeated until we go extinct. Carrying capacity will decline [9] with each future iteration of the overshoot loop, and this will cause human numbers to decline until they reach levels not seen since the Pleistocene.

Current models used to predict the end of the biosphere suggest that sometime between 0.5 billion to 1.5 billion years from now, land life as we know it will end on Earth due to the combination of CO2 starvation and increasing heat. It is this decisive end that biologists and planetary geologists have targeted for attention. However, all of their graphs reveal an equally disturbing finding: that global productivity will plummet from our time onward, and indeed, it already has been doing so for the last 300 million years.[10]

It’s impossible to know the details of how our rush to extinction will play itself out, but we do know that it is going to be hell for those who are unlucky to be alive at the time.

To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent miles out into the ocean. Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory. — Frederick Jackson Turner

Genocide is as human as art or prayer. — John Gray

Kai su, teknon. — Julius Caesar


[1] The structure and function of the human mind are much different than is taught in universities. To understand the basics, one must integrate material from multiple disciplines. Here is a sample: http://www.jayhanson.us/denial.htm

[2] Living organisms were created by the Second law of thermodynamics (a law like gravity) to deplete (dissipate) available energy in order to survive and reproduce. In the discipline of open system thermodynamics, living organisms are called “dissipative structures” because they “dissipate” energy.

A dissipative structure is a thermodynamically open system which is operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which it exchanges energy and matter. When dissipative structures occur, they are required by the Second Law of thermodynamics to enhance local energy gradient dissipation. (Development and Evolution of the Universe, by Stanley N. Salthe, 2010).

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one way a system dissipates an increasing amount of energy over time. As Jeremy England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” (A New Physics Theory of Life, by Natalie Wolchover, January 22, 2014).

“Power” is energy dissipation for a purpose; proportional to forces x flows = work rate + entropy produced (Maximum Power and Maximum Entropy Production: Finalities in Nature, by S. N. Salthe, 2010). (A surplus resource is stored power.)

[3] Originally formulated by Lotka and further developed by Odum and Pinkerton, the MPP states that biological systems capture and use energy to build and maintain structures and gradients, which allow additional capture and utilization of energy. One of the great strengths of the MPP is that it directly relates energetics to fitness; organisms maximize fitness by maximizing power. With greater power, there is greater opportunity to allocate energy to reproduction and survival, and therefore, an organism that captures and utilizes more energy than another organism in a population will have a fitness advantage (The maximum power principle predicts the outcomes of two-species competition experiments, by John P. DeLong, 2008).

[4] The best way to survive in such a [typical] milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

Not only are human societies never alone, but regardless of how well they control their own population or act ecologically, they cannot control their neighbors’ behavior. Each society must confront the real possibility that its neighbors will not live in ecological balance but will grow its numbers and attempt to take the resources from nearby groups. Not only have societies always lived in a changing environment, but they always have neighbors. The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

To see how this most human dynamic works, imagine an extremely simple world with only two societies and no unoccupied land. Under normal conditions, neither group would have much motivation to take resources from the other. People may be somewhat hungry, but not hungry enough to risk getting killed in order to eat a little better. A few members of either group may die indirectly from food shortages—via disease or infant mortality, for example—but from an individual’s perspective, he or she is much more likely to be killed trying to take food from the neighbors than from the usual provisioning shortfalls. Such a constant world would never last for long. Populations would grow and human activity would degrade the land or resources, reducing their abundance. Even if, by sheer luck, all things remained equal, it must be remembered that the climate would never be constant: Times of food stress occur because of changes in the weather, especially over the course of several generations. When a very bad year or series of years occurs, the willingness to risk a fight increases because the likelihood of starving goes up.

If one group is much bigger, better organized, or has better fighters among its members and the group faces starvation, the motivation to take over the territory of its neighbor is high, because it is very likely to succeed. Since human groups are never identical, there will always be some groups for whom warfare as a solution is a rational choice in any food crisis, because they are likely to succeed in getting more resources by warring on their neighbors.

Now comes the most important part of this overly simplified story: The group with the larger population always has an advantage in any competition over resources, whatever those resources may be. Over the course of human history, one side rarely has better weapons or tactics for any length of time, and most such warfare between smaller societies is attritional. With equal skills and weapons, each side would be expected to kill an equal number of its opponents. Over time, the larger group will finally overwhelm the smaller one. This advantage of size is well recognized by humans all over the world, and they go to great lengths to keep their numbers comparable to their potential enemies. This is observed anthropologically by the universal desire to have many allies, and the common tactic of smaller groups inviting other societies to join them, even in times of food stress.

Assume for a moment that by some miracle one of our two groups is full of farsighted, ecological geniuses. They are able to keep their population in check and, moreover, keep it far enough below the carrying capacity that minor changes in the weather, or even longer-term changes in the climate, do not result in food stress. If they need to consume only half of what is available each year, even if there is a terrible year, this group will probably come through the hardship just fine. More important, when a few good years come along, these masterfully ecological people will/not/grow rapidly, because to do so would mean that they would have trouble when the good times end. Think of them as the ecological equivalent of the industrious ants.

The second group, on the other hand, is just the opposite—it consists of ecological dimwits. They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences. Think of this bunch as the ecological equivalent of the carefree grasshoppers. When the good years come, they have more children and grow their population rapidly. Twenty years later, they have doubled their numbers and quickly run out of food at the first minor change in the weather. Of course, had this been a group of “noble savages” who eschewed warfare, they would have starved to death and only a much smaller and more sustainable group survived. This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbors in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbors two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides. The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth. The moral of this fable is that if any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long-term successful society, in a world with many different societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the “Garden of Eden” unless the neighbors do so as well. Only one nonconservationist society in an entire region can begin a process of conflict and expansion by the “grasshoppers” at the expense of the Eden-dwelling “ants.” This smacks of a Darwinian competition—survival of the fittest—between societies. Note that the “fittest” of our two groups was not the more ecological, it was the one that grew faster. The idea of such Darwinian competition is unpalatable to many, especially when the “bad” folks appear to be the winners.[pp. 73-75] (Constant Battles: Why We Fight, by Steven A. LeBlanc, St. Martin, 2004)

[5] “Dispersal” is important in biology. Many amazing biological devices have evolved to ensure it, such as the production of fruits and nectar by plants and the provision of tasty protuberances called elaiosomes by seeds to attract insects. Often a species will produce two forms:

(1) a maintenance phenotype (the outcome of genes and the structures they produce interacting with a specific environment) that is adapted to the environment in which it is born, and (2) a dispersal phenotype that is programmed to move to a new area and that often has the capacity to adapt to a new environment.

According to the present theory, humans have developed two dispersal phenotypes in the forms of the prophet and the follower. The coordinated action of these two phenotypes would serve to disperse us over the available habitat. This dispersal must have been aided by the major climatic changes over the past few million years in which vast areas of potential human habitat have repeatedly become available because of melting of ice sheets.

The dispersal phenotypes might have evolved through selection at the individual level, since the reproductive advantage of colonizing a new habitat would have been enormous. They would also promote selection between groups. This is important because selection at the group level can achieve results not possible at the level of selection between individuals. One result of the dispersal phenotype includes ethnocentrism (the tendency to favor one’s own ethnic group over another) and the tendency to use “ethnic cleansing.” The other result, as previously noted, is selection for cooperation, self-sacrifice, and a devotion to group rather than individual goals. Factors that promote selection at the group level are rapid splitting of groups, small size of daughter groups, heterogeneity (differences) of culture between groups, and reduction in gene flow between groups. These factors are all promoted by the breaking away of prophet-led groups with new belief systems.

One of the problems of selection at the group level is that of free-riders. These are people who take more than their share and contribute to the common good of the group less than their proper share. Selection at the group level gives free-riders their free ride. They potentially could increase until they destroy the cooperative fabric of the group.

However, the psychology of the free-rider, which is one of self-aggrandizement and neglect of group goals, is not likely to be indoctrinated with the mazeway of the group. Nor is it likely to be converted to the new belief system of the prophet. Therefore, theoretically one would predict that cults and New Religious Movements should be relatively free of free-riders. Such an absence of free-riders would further enhance selection at the group level. Moreover, this is a testable theoretical proposition.

Cult followers have been studied and found to be high on schizotypal traits, such as abnormal experiences and beliefs. They have not yet been tested for the sort of selfish attitudes and behavior that characterize free-riders. If a large cohort of people were tested for some measure of selfishness, it is predicted that those who subsequently joined cults would be low on such a measure. Predictions could also be made about future cult leaders. They would be likely to be ambitious males who were not at the top of the social hierarchy of their original group. If part of why human groups split in general is to give more reproductive opportunities to males in the new group, it can also be predicted that leaders of new religious movements would be males of reproductive age. Female cult leaders are not likely to be more fertile as a result of having many sexual partners, but their sons might be in an advantageous position for increased reproduction.

Conclusion: The biobehavioral science of ethology is about the movement of individuals. We have seen that change of belief system has been responsible for massive movements of individuals over the face of the earth. Religious belief systems appear to have manifest advantages both for the groups that espouse them and the individuals who share them. It is still controversial whether belief systems are adaptations or by-products of other evolutionary adaptive processes. Regardless of the answer to this question, the capacity for change of belief system, both that seen in the prophet and also that seen in the follower, may be adaptations because they have fostered the alternative life history strategies of dispersal from the natal habitat.

Moreover, change of belief system, when it is successful in the formation of a new social group and transfer of that group to a “promised land,” accelerates many of the parameters that have been thought in the past to be too slow for significant selection at the group level, such as eliminating free-riders, rapid group splitting, heterogeneity between groups and reduction of gene transfer between groups. Natural selection at the group level would also favor the evolution of the capacity for change of belief system, so that during the past few million years we may have seen a positive feedback system leading to enhanced cult formation and accelerated splitting of groups. This may have contributed to the rapid development of language and culture in our lineage. (The Biology of Religious Behavior, edited by Jay R. Feierman, pp. 184-186)

[6] The results of the study are striking, according to Robbins Schug, because violence and disease increased through time, with the highest rates found as the human population was abandoning the cities. However, an even more interesting result is that individuals who were excluded from the city’s formal cemeteries had the highest rates of violence and disease. (Violence, Infectious Disease and Climate Change Contributed to Indus Civilization Collapse , Science Daily, January 17, 2014)

[7] The Slaughter Bench of History, by Ian Morris, THE ATLANTIC, April 11, 2014

[8] My discussion will revolve around two basic propositions regarding long-term human population history: 1) the near-zero growth rates that have prevailed through much of prehistory are likely due to long-term averaging across periods of relatively rapid local population growth interrupted by infrequent crashes caused by density-dependent and density-independent factors; and 2) broad changes in population growth rates across subsistence modes in prehistory are probably best explained in terms of changes in mortality due to the dampening or buffering of crashes rather than significant increases in fertility (Subsistence strategies and early human population history: an evolutionary ecological perspective, by James L. Boone, 2002).

Also see: A persistent theme in much anthropological writing is the concept of the deliberate control of population numbers by hunter-gatherers so as to achieve moderate family size, adequate nutrition and constrained adult mortality. This paper examines the mix of theory and field evidence leading to this conclusion and finds the case not proven. It argues, on the contrary, that Malthusian constraints can operate, and probably did operate, to produce a society where most adults were reasonably robust and healthy even though child mortality was high and life expectancy short. It draws attention to the fact that the absence of population limitation in pre-Neolithic times implies high mortality as well as high fertility, and weakens the argument positing a Neolithic mortality crisis. (Pretransitional Population Control and Equilibrium, by John C. Caldwell and Bruce K. Caldwell. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, Volume 57, Issue 2, 2003.)

[9] Sustainable Engineering: Resource Load Carrying Capacity and K­phase Technology, by Peter Hartley, 1993

[10] pp. 118-119, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-destructive? by Peter Ward, 2009