Michael Muthukrishna is an associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics.
Below, Michael shares five key insights from his new book, A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. Listen to the audio version—read by Michael himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Energy abundance is at the heart of all humanity has achieved.
In physics, a theory of everything is an overarching, unifying, coherent theoretical framework that connects, for example, quantum mechanics and general relativity. There is a similar revolution going on in the human and social sciences where, for the first time, we have an overarching, unifying, coherent theoretical framework that connects, explains, and predicts human behavior and social change. That theory, sometimes called dual inheritance theory, culture-gene coevolution, the extended evolutionary synthesis, and cultural evolution, explains who we are and how we got here. A theory of everyone explains how an unremarkable African ape ended up making Zoom calls across the planet. More importantly, that theory is telling us where the descendants of those apes, everyone alive today and in the future, are going. Or at least where we could go, given the right decisions.
If you look at a graph of wealth, population size, size of countries and polities, declines in violence, child survival rates, literacy, health, lifespan, or just about any other indication of progress, you’ll notice something odd. The fall of the Roman Empire, the violent conquests of Genghis Khan, the devastation of the Black Death, the innovations of the Renaissance, the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution—and much more of what you covered in high school history—are mere blips in the history of the world. They are wiggles and bumps on all those progress metrics, but everything is pretty flat from the beginning of history to the mid 1700s. Then, everything explodes.
Everything before the mid-1700s is completely dwarfed by the enormous progress that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution. A theory of everyone describes four laws of life: the law of energy, innovation, cooperation, and evolution. These laws tell us what happened. When energy is available, life harnesses it by working together in larger, more complex units and discovering innovative ways to do more with that energy.
“Everything before the mid-1700s is completely dwarfed by the enormous progress that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution.”
For all animals, including humans for most of our history, the energy return is a one-to-one return on time. Humans had one key energy technology that allowed us to predigest foods, shrink our guts and jaws, and grow our brains: fire and cooking. But even so, as hunter-gatherers, the amount of food you gathered was a function of how long you spent gathering food. If game was large and easy to find, then populations grew to meet this energy ceiling until abundance once again turned to scarcity. It was a Malthusian zero-sum world of tooth and claw.
The next major energy revolution was agriculture. Rather than wandering around hunting and gathering, agriculturalists switched to harvesting and grinding, harnessing the sun’s energy for a reliable food source, using it to grow their populations and outcompete smaller, less energy-rich hunter-gatherers.
Our most recent major energy revolution was the Industrial Revolution, when we discovered stored sunlight under the ground. Plant matter, algae, and other ancient organisms stored solar energy in chemical form through photosynthesis. Millions of years of time and pressure had turned them into dense fossil fuel batteries: coal, oil, and natural gas.
We have been draining these batteries in a matter of centuries, using that awesome power to exponentially multiply human ingenuity to unimaginable levels. On the back of cheap and available coal, England was able to create the largest empire the world had ever seen and the reason you’re reading this in English. Eventually many other societies caught up, and the unlocked energy incentivized working together in ever larger, more peaceful groups. But today, things are different.
2. Energy scarcity is the ultimate cause of today’s problems.
There is a metric in the energy sciences called energy return on investment (EROI). It captures how quickly our energy ceiling is falling. Take, for example, how much oil it takes to discover more oil. In 1919, one barrel of oil found you another 1000. By 1950, one barrel found you another 100. By 2010, one barrel found another 5.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how fancy or efficient your gadgets are if you can’t charge them, because without a charge you can’t use them. We assumed that we could ignore energy because we would always have enough or use technology to do more with less, but as financial advisors warn, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Fossil fuels are becoming costlier to mine, process, and use. Continued peace and progress require getting to the next energy level—likely some mix of nuclear fission, solar and natural gas, and hopefully, one day, nuclear fusion. But reaching the next level isn’t inevitable.
As energy declines, the probability of conflict between large, energy-rich coalitions of countries grows. The probability and cost of corruption and civil unrest are greater when energy is scarce. As the energy ceiling descends, the threat of both global war and civil conflict comes ever closer.
Here’s an analogy: Imagine yourself waiting for a bus. Let’s treat the rate of buses as the total energy available. Let’s assume buses arrive every five minutes and there’s plenty of space for everyone. If there’s plenty of seats available, you might graciously let someone ahead of you in the queue. Even if you miss out, there will be another bus in five minutes. There may be mumblings and grumblings about the one percent with special passes to the front of the line, or about people favoring their friends or ingroups, but it’ll remain mumbling and grumbling so long as there are seats available.
Now imagine if the frequency of buses slows down to one an hour, then to one a day. Seats per person decreases, but the number of people is the same or increasing. The mumbling and grumbling erupt into something hostile. It’s easier to be nice when there’s more to go around.
3. We need systems-level solutions.
Systems-level thinking is essential for permanent change. One of many cautionary tales about what happens when these interconnections are ignored in favor of proximate patches is the story of cane toads in Australia.
In the early twentieth century, the new nation of Australia had a burgeoning sugar cane industry. The cane crops flourished in the fertile soil of sunny, tropical Queensland, Australia’s Sunshine State. The only problem was the native Australian cane beetle, so fond of sugar cane that it bore its name. Cane beetle larva feast on sugar cane roots, stunting or even killing the plant. Scientists and politicians saw an obvious problem and an obvious solution: Kill the cane beetle.
But how could they do this without hurting the plants? In 1935, 101 assassins made their way from Hawaii to Australia—not dalmatians, but cane toads. The toads liked their new home, and their numbers have grown to hundreds of millions. But cane toads found more than the cane beetle to their liking, wreaking havoc on the Australian ecosystem. The cane toad is poisonous from egg to tadpole to toadlet to toad, dangerous to those they eat and those that eat them.
“They are a constant reminder of how a single-minded solution that ignores the broader system can create new problems requiring even more solutions.”
Australia is famous for dangerous wildlife, but its native species, isolated on the island for so long, have no defenses against such a successful predator. Crocodile versus cane toad? Cane toads poison the crocodile even after the cane toad is dead.
Today, cane toads are everywhere in Queensland. They are a constant reminder of how a single-minded solution that ignores the broader system can create new problems requiring even more solutions. Systems-level thinking is necessary for long-term solutions that don’t make the world worse.
We are surrounded by cane toad proximate solutions. Cane toad solutions are used to create more representation in businesses, schools, and government without tackling the underlying problems that led to the lack of representation. Cane toad solutions are used to tackle inflation, rising house prices, and even foreign policy and international conflict, without considering the ultimate causes of these problems.
Imagine a world with no income tax, no sales tax, and no capital gains tax. That may sound like fantasy, but not when you realize income tax and capital gains tax were only introduced in 1913, and sales tax was introduced in 1921. We shouldn’t be taxing things that cause people to work, invest, and trade less. One alternative: land value taxes are supported by a range of economists across the political spectrum as a way to make housing affordable, increase development, and (at just six percent) pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Defense budget, and more.
4. The secret to intelligence, creativity, and innovation lies in crowd computing and our collective brains.
Humans count, humans read, humans reason. These abilities are often attributed to our big human brain as a piece of hardware. But just as the usefulness of Excel, Google, or ChatGPT are not found in computer circuits but in the software that runs on them, most of our cognitive abilities are not the result of anatomical evolution. This has been one of the major breakthroughs in our understanding of human intelligence.
Our brains have barely changed since the rise of modern humans—if anything they’ve shrunk in the past few thousand years. But in that time, we have gotten smarter. Our thinking has improved as a result of successive cultural software upgrades. Thousands of years of evolving knowledge, skills and ways of thinking have been passed down through generations from parents, grandparents, and most recently schools, books, TV, and the Internet.
Take numbers, for instance. Our ancestors had a limited counting system. They counted 1, 2, 3, and then “many.” Those that went further used stones, notches, or body parts, but these systems don’t make the concept of zero obvious, let alone negative numbers. That required a software upgrade in the 17th and 18th century when the number line was developed, moving the mental model from objects in front of us to positions in space. The number line made both zero and negative numbers more intuitive and teachable, opening a world of complex arithmetic.
Human babies must learn several thousand years of human history to function in society, and the most efficient way to download that software package is school. Our societies reflected the spread and improvement of schools; even entertainment became more complex. Think of the “Wham, Bam” Batman of the 1960s compared with the Dark Knight of the 2000s. Today’s lowest-brow TV has more characters and more convoluted storylines than anything our grandparents watched. But then progress stopped.
“Humanity needs a software upgrade.”
Schools remain fossils from a world before the Internet and certainly before AI. Schools were the factory model applied to creating factory workers for an industrial society. Schools are faltering in the face of a postindustrial, information economy. They were built for a world before the vast library of human knowledge became instantly accessible, through the computers on our desks and smartphones in our pockets. Humanity needs a software upgrade.
Some countries are already upgrading their citizen’s software. Estonia, for example, went from half the country without a telephone in 1991 to the highest performing students in mathematics, reading, and science in the Western world, and the highest number of “unicorn” $1B companies per capita in the world, and they spend less money per pupil than the OECD average. The way they do it is radical decentralization: a startup-like ecosystem of schools that reflects why Silicon Valley is so successful. The same model can be applied to solve other problems, such as developing better models of social media and governance.
5. You and I can make the world better.
Harvard Biologist E. O. Wilson once wrote, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” He was juxtaposing our individual limitations against the astonishing achievements of humanity.
Rousseau believed human nature was naturally good but corrupted by society. Hobbes believed human nature was nasty and brutish but civilized by society. Hobbes was wrong. So was Rousseau. They weren’t asking the right question because there is no single human nature. Human nature is deeply nurtured. How we nurture comes from our nature. The nature versus nurture debate for human behavior makes as much sense as a right leg versus left leg debate for human walking. We have a dual inheritance of genes and culture, inextricably entwined.
It has been ten generations since the Industrial Revolution. Up until now, our energy ceiling has been in the rising phase. That ceiling has been so high for so long that almost every generation alive today lived through periods where growth and abundance felt limitless.
Our economic systems, invented after the Industrial Revolution, are focused almost entirely on innovations in efficiency—how to do more with less energy (the law of innovation), ignoring the total available amount of excess energy (the law of energy). But our energy ceiling is now falling. We are living through a Great Stagnation in productivity as we run out of ways to improve efficiency through non-energy-expanding technological innovations.
We stand on the shore of a sea of possibilities. We must be careful in how we address the coming waves—waves that threaten our precarious fossil-fueled civilizations. Collapse doesn’t happen overnight. Collapse is a gradual decline. We are currently heading down this cold, dark path, but it is not yet inevitable.
Watching world events sometimes leaves us feeling helpless. What can I do about the world’s ills? But there is reason for hope. We don’t have to accept the world as it is. Change is possible. The world was made by people no smarter than us, and thanks to rising IQ scores, probably less smart. The difference between utopia and a better world is accepting the constraints of our species, and our moment. We can wield that knowledge, that theory of everyone, to reunite humanity, develop models of governance for the twenty-first century, shatter the glass ceiling, trigger a creative explosion, improve the Internet, and become brighter. A committed, well-connected, and well-resourced group powered by easily understood ideas has always been capable of moving us to a better world.
To listen to the audio version read by author Michael Muthukrishna, download the Next Big Idea App today: