Portrait of an Artist: Rebecca D. Costa

Sociobiologist Rebecca D. Costa publishes new book about the increasing complexity of the world’s problems


Sociobiologist Rebecca D. Costa publishes new book about the increasing complexity of the world’s problems

Rebecca D. Costa is a sociobiologist whose first book, “The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction,” explores current problems plaguing society—from economic recession to global warming—and why we seem unable to resolve them. Costa argues that the accelerating complexity of world problems has outpaced the human brain’s ability to develop new skills to manage them. The book utilizes a new form of publishing technology, featuring not only a print foreword by E. O. Wilson, a research professor in the department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, but also multiple e-forewords authored by individuals including Tina Brown, Richard Branson, and Donald Trump. On October 19, at the Harvard Coop, Costa will participate in a dialogue with Wilson about the increasing complexity of the world.

The Harvard Crimson: Give us an overview of “The Watchman’s Rattle” and the idea behind it.

Rebecca D. Costa: “The Watchman’s Rattle” is an exploration that began for me about seven years ago. I became curious about why we seem to struggle with the same problems generation after generation, and we don’t seem to be able to get our arms around it, particularly now when we have so much more research and information and technology and options available to us.

The first third of my book is looking back into past history to see what happened to the people before the cataclysmic events occurred that caused them to collapse. I go into the history of the Mayans, the Romans, the Egyptians and the Khmer, and it turns out that there are two signs that begin to occur very early on prior to the collapse, several generations beforehand. That is, that they become gridlocked, unable to solve their problems, as the problems are getting worse and worse, until eventually, one of them can’t be stopped. The second thing that happens is, when the facts become too complicated, when the problems exceed the cognitive capabilities that we as a biological organism have evolved to that point… We substitute beliefs for facts. There’s an abandonment of rational problem-solving that goes on…and that leads to collapse.

THC: If our problems exceed our cognitive abilities, how can we fix those problems?


RDC: We have two things, in my view, available that ancient civilizations did not have. One: we have models for high failure rates, for situations when no amount of due diligence will allow you to pick the solutions that will work from the solutions that won’t work. The easiest one to grasp is venture capitalism. Venture capitalists are experts at failure. They’re not really experts at success. For every 100 companies they invest in, 80 are going to be average or fail. 20 percent are going to be so spectacular that it diminishes the failure.

The second thing is brain fitness and neurological tools… We have discovered by looking at images of the brain that every now and again, a little portion of the brain called the ACC [anterior cingulate cortex] lights up like a Christmas tree, and we suddenly have what scientists are calling an “insight.” It turns out all human beings—this is not nurture, this is nature—have these spontaneous ‘a-ha!’ moments where they make connections of data in their head and they solve an elegant and really complicated problem. This seems to be a method of problem-solving that is suited to high levels of complexity that exceed left and right problem-solving abilities that we have evolved.

THC: How can we maximize our use of insight?

RDC: What we need to do is develop insight on demand… But because we can’t evolve on demand, that’s why mitigation is so important. When you know that you’re up against complexity that exceeds what the human brain has evolved to be able to handle, then you can mitigate, but you must also do everything possible to catch the brain up to complexity.

THC: Your book is a bit of a hybrid in the way that you combine traditional publishing with new technology through the use of e-forewords.

RDC: I was very privileged and very honored to have Dr. E. O. Wilson offer to write the foreword to my book. Simultaneously, I had offers from several other people whom I truly respect… It occurred to me that it might be interesting to have a hybrid book. The book was coming out in a physical package, but what would happen if we just published all these different e-forewords and said, self-select the person whose thoughts about the book you care about the most. What authors are really doing [when they select someone to write a foreword] is saying, “Well, this person is important to me, and you can see the book through their eyes and not through anyone else’s.” That seemed to not really take advantage of electronic publishing in the flexibility that it offers.