Are People Smarter Than Chipmunks?

by Rob Dietz

A curious thing happened recently when I was driving home from a weekend camping trip with my daughter in the Cascade Mountains. We came around a tight curve and the road opened into a long straightaway. Far up ahead, I could see a small animal perched right on top of the double yellow line that divides the lanes. As we got a bit closer, I recognized it as a chipmunk and asked my daughter if she could see it (spotting animals is a favorite pastime on car and bike rides).

As our vehicle was bearing down on the little critter, it looked up and started to head toward the left shoulder of the road. But, obeying some muddled directive from its brain, it spun around and started heading to the right. Not content with that change of direction, it went back left again. I honked the horn to make sure it knew we were getting close. The chipmunk then proceeded to do an erratic dance, leaning left then right then left again. Finally, it just sat back down in the middle of the road atop the double yellow line. The wheels of our car whizzed by its delicate body at a speed that the chipmunk couldn’t grasp.

Care to guess which one’s the smartest?

Checking the rear-view mirror, I saw it saunter to the side of the road and stroll into the woods, looking completely unfazed by its brush with disaster. After witnessing this eccentric behavior, I began wondering why the chipmunk would behave so illogically. It didn’t take too long to realize that it simply doesn’t possess the right equipment to understand the threat posed by a car. A chipmunk’s brain and the behavior produced by it are the result of ages of natural selection – a process that took place in the absence of roads and cars. The mind of a chipmunk, therefore, is incapable of properly interpreting the data coming its way, especially when it’s coming at 60 miles per hour.

The chipmunk’s maladaptive behavior has some prominent parallels with our own predicament. The data are approaching us at a fast and furious clip. We have ample and disturbing evidence about climate destabilization, dwindling energy resources, social breakdowns, and a host of environmental maladies. We know that the economy is a subsystem of the finite planet, and that increasing the scale of the economy impinges on the earth’s ecosystems. In an age of biodiversity die-offs and political buy-offs, however, we don’t seem to possess the wherewithal to interpret the data correctly.

A few years ago, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a fascinating opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times (July 2, 2006). In the article, he brilliantly summarizes some shortcomings of the human brain when it comes to interpreting the danger posed by global warming. He notes that the human brain evolved to respond to threats with four features, features that the threat of global warming lacks:

  1. We respond to threats with a human face. To quote Gilbert: “If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.”
  2. We respond to threats that outrage our moral sensibilities and that produce a sense of repulsion or disgust in us. Gilbert: “The fact is that if climate change were caused by… the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.”
  3. We respond to immediate threats that are right in front of us. “We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.”
  4. We respond to threatening changes around us that happen rapidly. “Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly.”

For most of us, economic growth is an even tougher threat to interpret and take seriously than global warming (even though the former is a root cause of the latter). As Bill McKibben highlighted in his book Deep Economy, bigger and better used to go hand in hand, economically speaking. But over generations, the consequences of exponential economic growth have outstripped the benefits. What used to be a boon is now a bane, and the threat is upon us; overgrown economies are undermining the life-support systems of the planet, but we simply aren’t sensing it and responding appropriately.

It’s no simple feat to determine when an economy has reached its optimal size – the inflection point when it should transition from growth to a steady state. An individual organism (e.g., a chipmunk or a person) has an unconscious and almost magical ability to do this, to stop growing and become a grownup. Human economies don’t possess the same unconscious when-to-stop mechanism. The people who make up the economy must collectively decide to reach maturity consciously.

The question now is how much longer humanity will choose to sit on the double yellow line as the consequences of runaway growth scream down the road at us doing a zillion miles per hour. Or to paraphrase, are people smarter than chipmunks?