Sociobiologist Rebecca Costa

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Former Silicon Valley CEO and author of the much-talked-about new book The Watchman’s Rattle shares what happens when humans reach their cognitive thresholds.

Rebecca Costa has a track record of introducing new technologies and spotting and explaining emerging trends. A sociobiologist and former founder-CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up, she pioneered early markets for many pivotal innovations, including the first low-cost multimedia semiconductors. After retiring, she spent five years researching and writing her first book, The Watchman's Rattle, which explores current problems plaguing society. Raised in Tokyo, Costa lived in Laos during the Vietnam conflict and is based in Central California.


Tavis: Rebecca Costa is a former Silicon Valley CEO who has consulted with a range of clients including Apple, HP and GE. She has spent the past five years researching her first text. It’s called The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. Rebecca, good to have you on the program.
Rebecca Costa: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: This is the one of the most fascinating books I’ve had come across my desk in a long time and I’ve been thinking for a while now how I do justice to this book in like a 12-minute conversation. I think one of the best ways to do it, though, is to start with an excerpt from the book that I think will properly contextualize what we can get done here in the next few minutes.
Let me just read this quote. “Today, the issues that threaten human existence are clear: a global recession, powerful pandemic viruses, terrorism, rising crime, climate change, rapid depletion of the earth’s resources, nuclear proliferation, and failing education.
Though at first glance this list appears daunting, it is also true that we have never been in a better position to circumvent a repetitive pattern of decline. This book is the sound of the watchman’s rattle in the dead of night, a summons for help, a plea to change the course of humankind by calling on the greatest weapon of mass instruction ever known: the human brain.”
Which raises question number one – whether or not you really think that our brains, given all the smart people that we have running things today who can’t seem to navigate us out of the mess that we’re in right now, why so much faith in the human brain?
Costa: Well, it’s a good question. You know, 150 years ago Charles Darwin set the pace at which we could evolve new capabilities. Although he may not have known it at the time, he also determined that civilizations could only progress as far as our evolutionary capabilities.
So if that’s the case, then at some point, we will progress beyond the capabilities of our human brain. And if that were the thing that was going on today, if it’s the reason we’re experiencing gridlock in Washington, D.C. in our own lives, I don’t know about you, but in this recent midterm election, I walked into the voting booth and I had a heck of a time trying to understand all the ballot measures and I felt guilty about the fact that I may be casting a vote based on 30-second commercials and lawn signs.
You know, I noticed five of my neighbors that I like had all the same lawn signs. I was really tempted to cast my vote that way. But if I’m going to be that irrational, what kind of democracy do I expect to live in? I mean, if I’m going to act in an irrational way, we’re going to wind up with irrational public policy. That’s the outcome of it.
So if we’re hitting some kind of cognitive threshold that earlier civilizations have hit, what do we do about it? And that’s the last third of this book. The first third is to go back into history and see if other civilizations such as the Mayans or the Romans encountered some form of gridlock that was based on the fact that the problems that they had to solve exceeded the cognitive ability they had developed to that point.
And, in fact, I did find that. I found that in the Romans, the Khmer Empire, the Mayans, the Byzantine Empire. The fact is, is that when they reach this cognitive threshold, two things occur. They become gridlocked, unable to comprehend their situation and unable to solve their problems. Then once they can’t get access to facts, they begin shifting over to beliefs. They substitute their beliefs for facts.
For example, in the case of the Mayans, as drought conditions got worse and worse, they completely abandoned building reservoirs, underground cisterns that they had been building for years and years, and they reverted completely to sacrifice to solve the drought problem.
Tavis: I guess the question, though, is, Rebecca, if we have the mental capacity to sync our way out of this mess, why weren’t we smart enough to not get caught up in the gridlock on the front side?
Costa: Well, first of all, we didn’t know the pattern until now. My book looks at the pattern of human collapse in a completely different way, in a novel way, based on biological science. We’ve gotten so far away from realizing that every one of us is trapped in the same biological spacesuit. So it doesn’t matter if you throw the incumbents out. People with the same brain that you and I have are now moving into Washington, D.C. This is not a Democrat or Republican problem.
Tavis: But I’d like to think, though, that you and I are smarter than some of these guys we sent to Washington, though.
Costa: Well, again, you can have whatever beliefs you want (laughter).
Tavis: Otherwise, you just insulted me (laughter).
Costa: Well, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to insult anybody. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter who’s in Washington, D.C. relative to their cognitive capabilities. Things have become too complicated. They’re too complex for the rate at which the brain has evolved to and, when that happens, you’re going to hit some kind of impasse.
Imagine for a moment going to the grocery store and seeing 24 types of milk. On what factual basis do you buy one percent or two percent, acidophilus, soy milk? You just buy what you think is good for you. You’re not doing it based on any fact. You’re doing it based on emotions and belief or something someone told you or what you drank when you were a kid.
Tavis: Right.
Costa: Now imagine every one of those types of milk now is a solution to the Gulf oil spill or to terrorism. In the Gulf oil spill case, we weren’t able to pick which solution was the best one. All the smart scientists in the world gathered in Washington, D.C. and the first solution we picked was dropping a concrete box on the hole.
Twenty days later, we found out that wasn’t gonna work. So the all the smart people said, “Well, the next solution is to drill from the side and relieve some of the pressure in the oil” and, 20 days later, we found out that didn’t work. Fortunately for us, the third solution, static kill, worked. But imagine for a moment if that solution had been solution number 87.
Tavis: I know you’re not because I’ve obviously had a chance to peep the book, but if I’m a viewer watching you right now, I’d say Rebecca is a doomsayer.
Costa: I’m not. I’m such an optimist because, for the first time in history, the first time since humans have been on the earth, we have the capability now to look below the skull into the human brain and we’re discovering that, in addition to solving problems using left and right brain, every now and again a small part of the human brain called the ASTG, about 300 milliseconds before you’re going to have a breakthrough, lights up like a Christmas tree. That’s a process that neuroscientists are now calling insight.
We have made so many discoveries about how to catch the brain up to complexity. For example, brain fitness tools. A lot of people don’t know that we have taken 23,000 children out of Jacksonville, Florida and given them 15 to 17 hours of brain fitness before they started school. Now we’ve studied those kids for four years.
Tavis: Brain fitness is what, quickly?
Costa: Brain fitness are simple video games designed to work the brain out before you have to accept new content. If you think about a marathon runner, he doesn’t just put his tennis shoes on and run out and try to run a marathon. He’s gonna warm up, eat a banana and, you know, some peanut butter. He has a whole ritual before he gets ready to do something that’s difficult. In the same way, brain fitness teaches the brain how to learn. It warms it up before we have to load content.
So when you give this to school children, these children in Jacksonville, Florida, we’ve studied them for four years and they now have twice the academic achievement of children who had no brain fitness. Now you can’t show me in education – and I know education is a big topic right now around this country. You cannot show me one thing that you can do that will achieve twice the academic fitness as brain fitness does. Yet that’s not even on the table relative to educational reform.
Tavis: How much of this has to do with arrogance and elitism as much as a lack of brain fitness?
Costa: Well, you know, we are biological organisms, so we come into this world with a genetic inheritance that our ancestors used for their survival. So when food was scarce, those that hoarded best, cheated, snuck food, those were the ones that survived. We are their descendants. So when you think about it from a biological standpoint, you realize that some of the tendencies we have about, I’d say, 80 percent of the tendencies we have because 80 percent of our DNA is remarkably similar to our nearest ancestors, the Bonobo monkey.
But 80 percent of us wants to and is inclined to do things that really get in the way of modern progress – cheating, hoarding, lying, taking over and fighting other groups that have different ideologies. By the way, that’s inherited. We’re a very groupish species. You know, you have a different ideology than me. As a group, we want to fight you or take you over. What do you think is going on with the Democrats and the Republicans? To me, that is just part of their genetic inheritance.
But 20 percent of our genetic inheritance is our ability to look at these things rationally, to accept our biological origins and to say, “I know I have urges to eat donuts and lay on the couch all day, I have urges to fight people that have different ideologies than me, but I don’t have to be that way.” We’re better than that. We can choose better.
Tavis: On that note, as I told you at the top, there’s no way I could do justice to this conversation, this book, in just a matter of minutes. But I think you got a sense now of why you’ll want to pick up the book that a whole lot of folk are talking about now. It’s called The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. It is written by Rebecca D. Costa, who I am honored to have had on this program.
Costa: Thank you so much.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm