Rebecca Costa: An interview by Bob Morris

Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist who offers a genetic explanation for current events, emerging trends and individual behavior. A thought-leader and provocative new voice in the mold of Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond, Costa examines “the big picture”– tracing everything from terrorism, crime on Wall Street, epidemic obesity and upheaval in the Middle East to evolutionary forces.  Costa spent six years researching and writing The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. In her book, she explains how the principles governing evolution cause and provide a solution for global gridlock. The success of Costa’s first book led to a weekly radio program in 2010 called Rattler Radio. In 2011 the program was renamed and syndicated as The Costa Report, currently one of the fastest growing radio programs on the Central Coast of California.

A former CEO and founder of one of the largest marketing firms in Silicon Valley (sold in 1997 to J. Walter Thompson), Costa developed an extensive track record of introducing new technologies. Her clients included industry giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Oracle Corporation, Seibel Systems, 3M, Amdahl, and General Electric Corporation. Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Costa lived during the Vietnam conflict in Vientiane, Laos, where her father worked in covert CIA operations. She attributes her ability to see the “big picture” to her cross-cultural education and upbringing. She graduated from The University of California at Santa Barbara with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences.

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Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, The Watchman’s Rattle, a few general questions. First, who has had the great influence on your personal growth? How so?

Costa: I spent my formative years in Japan.  My Japanese grandmother was a Zen Buddhist.  Her reverence for nature had a huge impact on how I now view my place in the natural world.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Costa: In 1975, I picked up a copy of Edward Wilson’s watershed book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and it changed my life.  With enormous clarity and compassion, Wilson forged the connection between evolution and the behaviors or modern man.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Costa: Like many college students, once I graduated from the University of California I returned home.  At the time my parents were living in a suburb next to what would later become Silicon Valley.  I found a job at a technology company and worked in Silicon Valley through the eighties and nineties when there was explosive growth.  It was during this time that I began keeping notebooks.  According to the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, data densities would double every 18 months.  But any evolutionary biologist knows that adaptation is very slow – sometimes occurring over millions of years.  At some point, human progress would exceed the capabilities that humans had evolved to that point in time – and what then?

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?

Costa: It was the combination of my education as an evolutionary biologist and my experience with accelerating technology, while working in the heart of Silicon Valley, that caused me to become concerned about the future of humankind.   I knew that the day would soon come where life would become too complex, too over-featured, too specialized for the man on the street to navigate competently, let alone the leaders of entire countries.

Morris: Let’s say that you are hosting a private dinner party and can invite any six people throughout human history as your guests. Who would they be and what would you be most interested to learn from each? Why?

Costa:  That’s an easy one.  Charles Darwin would be seated at the head of the table.  153 years ago he discovered the most important principles which govern all life on earth.  And that includes us, whether we like it or not.  Next to Darwin I would like to seat Ghandi, Richard Feynman, Hemmingway, Kant, and Edward Wilson.  What?  Only six?  May I have that table extension please?

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first entered the business world full-time?

Costa: That I am driven by fear.  Fear of failing, fearing of being judged, fear of embarrassment, fear of being poor, fear of giving the wrong answer, fear of being unprepared or ignorant.  I was successful in business, but it never did a thing to make me feel safe.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) on the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Costa: The problem with charisma is that it’s just like trying to be funny.  The worst thing a person can do is try to be funny.  The same goes for charisma.  Authenticity is the only charisma that works.

Morris: In recent years, there has been severe criticism of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, which area is in greatest need of immediate improvement? What specifically do you suggest?

Costa: The MBA has come and gone and is no longer relevant.  Teaching people how to solve problems – how to think their way out of a jam with speed and agility is the new talent executives need.  That and computing skills.

Morris: Here are three of my favorite quotations. I am eager to share your response to each. First, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.

Costa: Like evolution, the truth is not static – it adapts, mutates and sometimes becomes extinct.

Morris: Next, from Darrell Royal: “Potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.”

Costa: I have always equated the word “potential” with “stored energy.”   If it’s stored then the challenge is to determine where, when and how to release it.

Morris: And now from Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Costa: As the day-to-day complexity we must contend with exceeds our cognitive capabilities, we have a history of substituting facts with unproven beliefs.  Going back to the Mayan, Roman, Khmer, Byzantine, Egyptian and other ancient dynasties, we see the same pattern: issues become too complex for leaders to resolve and they turn toward irrational beliefs to solve society’s greatest threats.  Irrational public policy always precedes collapse.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Watchman’s Rattle. When and why did you decide to write it? The reference to “extinction” in the subtitle certainly caught my eye.

Costa:  When I retired from Silicon Valley, I moved to a remote area north of Big Sur, California where I could be surrounded by nature once again.  Life moves at a noticeably slower pace and there is not much drama other than an occasional run in between my dog and wild skunk.  One day I began going through all the notebooks I had kept and I began to see a pattern – a very large pattern – one that no one was discussing.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Costa: I would not call them “head-snapping.”  They were more akin to “hauntings.”  I would be haunted by a thought or idea until I had researched it and put it down on paper.

Morris: In the Foreword, “The primary cause of all threatening trends is the complexity of civilization itself, which cannot be understood and managed by the cognitive tools we have thus far chosen to use.” How else to understand and manage that complexity?

Costa: One way to view the human organism is in terms of the higher and lower instruments of our genetic inheritance.  When a man sees a beautiful woman, his body may fill with chemicals urging him to procreate.  But if he engages the higher instruments of his inheritance – his ability to preview the future consequences of his actions and to use rational thought to override his biological predisposition – then he need not act on that urge.  In this same way, when humans encounter complex problems which they are not equipped to manage, they have a tendency to resort to unproven beliefs rather than adopt other, more constructive countermeasures – collaboration for example.

Morris: Almost a century ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed that he “wouldn’t give a fig” for simplicity on this side of complexity but “would give his life” for simplicity on the other side of complexity. Here’s my question: Is there a simplicity on the other side of the complexity to which Wilson refers?

Costa: Every second of every day we make new discoveries and by virtue of this, complexity grows. There is no stopping it.

Morris: Wilson goes on to suggest, “humanity lacks an adequate sense of its own history.” Please explain the relevance of that claim to the book you have written.

Costa: Thousands of years form now they will look back at modern man and wince at the thought that we cut off breasts and testicles to save people from disease.  They will be mystified that we were willing to plunge a dagger into the heart of person all because they worshipped a different God than our own.  They will shake their heads at the fact that we cheerfully destroyed the habitat on which our species depended.  In their eyes we will look no more advanced than the Neanderthals.  Modern man does not understand his genetic history, or his genetic future – and therefore, he is the most reckless creature of all.

Morris: In the Introduction, you suggest six “pieces had to fall into place and they were 150 years in the making.” Please explain.

Costa:  When I set out to write The Watchman’s Rattle, I was not at all sure it would be possible to do so.  I feared that it was too ambitious of a project.  To write a book that was readable was my first priority.  And second, I wanted to honor what Edward Wilson termed “the consilience of knowledge.”  I wanted the edges of disparate scientific disciplines to give way to a bigger picture.  That meant weaving together human history, evolution, molecular biology, meme theory, psychology and other disciplines.

Morris: Which of the six – in your opinion – will prove to be most significant to future generations? Why?

Costa: The principles of evolution.  They explain who and what we are.

Morris: Why do civilizations “spiral”? Can that be prevented? If so, how?

Costa: They spiral because man cannot progress any faster or further than evolution will allow.

Morris: Why you consider evolution to be “the single most important principle of life on earth”?

Costa: It explains how every living organism on the planet survives and why we are interdependent.

Morris: What are the early (“tell tale”) signs prior to when a civilization “boils down”?

Costa: Its leader rely on unproven beliefs to forge public policy.

Morris: When is a society most likely to advance quickly, indeed to thrive?

Costa: Societies thrive when there is a balance between the vigorous pursuit for empirical knowledge as well as an accommodation for unproven beliefs.   In the 3000 year old Mayan civilization we see that during periods when they were thriving they build massive reservoirs and used underground cisterns to save water so they could endure drought periods.  But over time, they abandoned rational man-made remedies and just prior to their collapse they had turned exclusively to fetishism and were relying exclusively on human sacrifice to resolve drought conditions.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what are the most formidable barriers to achieving and then sustaining a healthy, dynamic society?

Costa:  To guard against the marginalization of science and fact.  We must resist the temptation to follow opinions, false prophets, uninformed leaders, etc., and give scientists a stronger role in shaping public policy.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter 2’s title, Evolution’s Gift.”

Costa: Neuroscientists have recently discovered a third form of problem solving called “insight” which appears to be ideally suited to complex problems which cannot be solved by traditional left and right brain methods.

Morris: By what process does a meme become a supermeme? So what?

Costa: A meme is any information or behavior which goes viral and becomes commonplace.  A supermeme is a meme which becomes so entrenched that it permeates all aspects of human life and quashes the rise of competing memes.  In the book I use the Crusades as an example of a supermeme.

Morris: Why prevent or eliminate a supermeme?

Costa: They are an obstacle to progress.

Morris: To what extent (if any) can a supermeme be beneficial to human progress?

Costa: For example, some readers have written to me that the “green” movement has become a supermeme.  Everyone agrees that if something is “green” then they should do it or buy it.  On the surface that sounds right, but what happens when manufacturers start making their packaging a green color and calling their products green just to sell more.  Do we really know which products are green or not or why?

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Watchman’s Rattle, you focus on five supermemes in Chapters 4-8.  Briefly explain the significance of each. First, irrational opposition

Costa: One of the obstacles to progress is irrational opposition.  This is when we confuse opposing a solution with actual advocacy.  If we oppose every solution, then the only thing we are advocating is paralysis.

Morris: Next, the personalization of blame

Costa:  In an effort to simplify systemic, highly complex problems which don’t lend themselves to easy remedy, we have a tendency to “blame” an individual or institution.  The idea is that if we just get rid of them the problem will be solved.  But take a look at the Arab Spring.  One year after Mubarak was ousted, ground conditions have not improved for the average Egyptian.  Why?  Because the problems in Egypt which the protesters rallied about were caused by rapid population growth — not a dictatorship.

Morris: And then, counterfeit correlation

Costa: This is a condition where two things occur in the same span in time and we come to believe that one caused the other to occur.  As problems become more chaotic and begin to look like those physicists must contend with, we have a tendency to oversimplify and then suddenly we believe a single stimulus package will fix a global economic meltdown.

Morris: Also, silo thinking

Costa: Working to solve complex systemic problems by acting individually on those problems is futile.  Over time specialization has led to silos which now neutralize each other’s efforts.

Morris: Finally, extreme economics

Costa:  This supermeme is the trickiest of all to describe because it pertains to the fact that everything is evaluated in terms of economic metrics.  We assume that if something is more cost effective, offers a higher return on investment, and so on that it is in the best interest of society and this prevents many technologies and solutions which are good for humankind and the planet to fail – all because they do not fit into an economic model

Morris: Presumably all five supermemes did not originate from the same sources and at the same time. In your opinion, what can be done to prevent the adoption of any/all of what you characterize as “executioners of progress” by future generations.

Costa: Once we are aware of the supermemes, we become inoculated.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from the venture capital community?

Costa: The same one that nature teaches us – diversity is the key to sustainability.

Morris: At the conclusion of Chapter 10, you observe, “It is an undeniable fact that no matter what challenges a biological organism encounters, one way or another evolution gets around to solving them.” I was surprised, frankly, by your faith in finding solutions to all the problems you so thoroughly examine to that point in the book.

Here’s my question: Why are you so confident that, in the long run, evolution will prove to be “nature’s elegant defense”?

Costa: The oldest empirical example of sustainability we have is the earth.  To date over 99 percent of the species which have existed have perished.  With or without us, the earth continues.

Morris: How to avoid or cope with reaching a cognitive limit? Can that limit, in fact, be extended? Please explain.

Costa: The real trick is loading more content into the brain — something every school teacher will tell you is a real challenge these days.  Thankfully, neuroscientists have developed amazing tools which “warm” the brain up before we have to learn.

Morris: I agree that cognition, species, and planet are “inextricably linked.” To what extent are they also  interdependent? Please explain.

Costa: we have reached a time when we must call upon our rational capabilities and think our way into a better future.

Morris: Please explain the relationship between insight and the unconscious/subconscious mind. To what extent can that relationship, in your opinion, help to “cure what ails humanity”?

Costa: If we are falling behind in terms of our ability to cope then we must use what we have and know to catch up.  We have within us the ability to use this third form of problem solving.  In the past we thought “inspirations” such as Newton discovering gravity when an apple landed on his head, or Archimedes discovering displacement theory when the water spilled over the edge of the bathtub – were folklore.  But now that we can watch what the human brain does when it encounters a very complex problem, we have been able to document a third form of problem solving which we all possess.  The next stop will be to be able to have insights on demand.

Morris: Someone has read and then (hopefully) re-read your book and is determined to become actively and productively engaged in efforts to respond to “the clarion call of the Watchman’s Rattle in the dead of night.” Where to begin?

Costa: I don’t have an easy answer for that.  In a perfect world I would ask them to give copies of the book away or at the very least help me to get the word out about it.  Once people read it, they are aware of some of the pitfalls which lead to failure so they are already ahead of the game.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Costa: I’m glad you didn’t ask about my dating life….

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Rebecca cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

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