Cooperation and competition can live together in a way that propels humanity and the environment to thrive.
Distinguished professor at the London School of Economics, Michael Muthukrishna (@Michael Muthukrishna), discusses his insights and interests in individual and global topics. His unique educational background in engineering, psychology, evolutionary biology, economics, and statistics exposes why having an open mind and the ability to see from a single perspective is vital for the future. Michael’s new book, A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, is a remarkable contribution that we all will benefit from reading.
“What one can do in a scientific world is to come up with a life’s philosophy consistent with the reality we understand through science.”
– Michael Muthukrishna
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Mark Divine 0:00
Welcome to the Mark Divine Show. I’m your host, Mark Divine. I appreciate your time and attention today, thank you so much for being here. On this show, I love to explore what it means to be courageous, fearless, and innovative through the lens of the world’s most inspiring and resilient leaders. I speak to martial arts grandmasters, Navy SEALs, high-powered CEOs, and economic psychologists who’ve written amazing books, like my guest today, Michael Muthukrishna. Michael is a professor at the London School of Economics. He’s got an educational background in engineering and psychology with graduate training at Harvard in evolutionary biology, economics, and stats. He was brought up in Sri Lanka and Botswana, Papa New Guinea, Australia, Canada, United States, and now lives in the United Kingdom. Michael is the author of A Theory of Everyone; Who we are, How we got here, and Where we’re going. Michael, I’m super stoked to have you on the Mark Divine Show.
Mark Divine 0:56
Michael, welcome to the Mark Divine Show. I’m super excited to have you here today. Thanks for your time, sir.
Michael Muthukrishna 1:01
Likewise, Mark, thanks so much for having me here.
Mark Divine 1:02
Really nice to meet you. You’re over in London. How’s it over there right now? What’s the energy?
Michael Muthukrishna 1:07
Jolly old England, it’s a little rainy. It’s a little foggy. It’s what you might what you might imagine.
Mark Divine 1:13
Yeah, I love England it’s a beautiful place. How’s the mood of the country? Is there a lot of fear and uncertainty and confusion and doubt, like there is over here in the States these days?
Michael Muthukrishna 1:24
Oh, absolutely. Maybe even more so, you know, especially economically, things have been rough since Brexit. And you know, I mean, there’s a lot of people you might talk to said, England is done. We were once an empire world, the world’s largest empire, and those days are long gone. We’re just clawing onto relevance. And I think, you know, there’s moves to try to figure out what the future looks like. And nobody knows, really.
Mark Divine 1:46
You know, I’ve been reading the work of Peter Zeihan, who’s a geopolitical futurist thinker. And it’s been really fascinating to hear his perspective on like, what a post-global order world looks like. And he’s describing a global order being the post-Bretton Woods order that the United States kind of created the worlds by protecting sea lanes, supply chains, and injecting enormous amounts of capital. And he makes the point. And it sounds true to me that we have basically the United States is basically, whether they know it or not, has ended that. You know, we’ve decided to retrench, we don’t have the we don’t have the wealth. We don’t have the mind space as a country to kind of like be the global presence which protects all those supply chains and all that all that old order. So now you’re seeing is starting to fray and reorganize, and Brexit was part of that.
Michael Muthukrishna 2:33
Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot that you could say about that. We’ve been privileged to live under Pax Americana for a long time. But things are more difficult, especially since the you know, the 1970s and the Bretton Woods, global oil crisis and all of that. You know, there’s there’s so many factors that went into it. And some of those are just historical events, like, you know, I still remember when they published the letter from Osama Bin Laden, where they kind of laid out what he wanted to do. And, you know, his plan was, I want to get America entrenched in wars that it’ll struggle to fight. And, you know, in many ways, he succeeded. But then, you know, on top of that, I think, you know, there’s this website WTF happened in 1971. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to it.
Mark Divine 3:10
Michael Muthukrishna 3:10
And it shows how the world comes apart in 1971, you know, end of Bretton Woods, and you see, like, you know, inequality rises, productivity falls, by all metrics, things get a lot worse from there. My explanation for that is really it was the rise in oil prices, the creation of OPEC, and the actual shift in our excess energy capacities, we have plenty of energy, but it was nowhere as cheap as it used to be. And energy is really what, it’s what multiplies human ingenuity, right, you can’t keep the American machine the American military machine moving without that cheap oil.
Mark Divine 3:40
Right. And that’s a key point that the Zeihan character makes is that, you know, really what will accelerate the global disorder is access to oil. And if you don’t access oil, if you don’t produce your own oil, and America doesn’t now, because of the shale revolution doesn’t need to protect its supply lines from the Middle East, then you have this massive reorganization of everyone trying to align with whatever local sources of oil they can get or protected sea lanes. And that looks very different than what we had in the last 60 years or so. You are in economic psychology what, explain what that is to us.
Michael Muthukrishna 4:16
Yeah. So I mean, economic psychology is basically economic behavior. How do people behave especially and how does that interact with our economic systems? But my background is kind of a it’s an unusual mix. So I mean, I started my career as an engineer. And you know, I did a dual degree, where I majored in psychology, but I, you know, I took classes in econ and poli sci philosophy, everything really. And then in grad school, you know, I cross-trained in Economics, Psychology, data science, and evolutionary biology. Went to Harvard, did human evolutionary biology as a postdoc, and then took my current position. So I mean, the book is, you know, has a bold title A Theory of Everyone. What it’s trying to say is look, every disciplines focusing on a particular area, and scientists are often very focused on a single thing, but you have to do the engineering thing you have to step out and be able to zoom in and out of a system. And then you can really see what’s going on. So you know, you’re alluding to some of that the role that energy plays, for example, and that crosses so many disciplines to try to understand that, right? It crosses geopolitics, it crosses human behavior, it crosses economics, and political science, the whole thing.
Just, you know, some longer historical examples. You know, the reason that I live in the country that once had the world’s largest empire was cheap and available coal. The Industrial Revolution kicks off here. And then you know, Europe as a whole takes off, you get the Great Divergence, and eventually other countries, once they access that technology and the ability to put energy to work for them, then you get this kind of great convergence. Right now we’re seeing the opposite, right, where we’re seeing this kind of decline. And it’s exactly what you said, the countries that have access to cheap and available oil have a lot of control, then people are aligning themselves as best they can. And other countries are taking advantage of that. So I don’t know if you’ve ever read, it’s actually in Russian, but there’s lots of translations and rewrites on Aleksandr Dugin: Foundations of Geopolitics, you know, this book?
Mark Divine 5:56
I do. I have not read it, but I think it sounds about time, let’s talk about it real quick.
Michael Muthukrishna 6:00
So Dugin, you know, allegedly was, you know, when a Putin’s advisors, you know, he wrote kind of Putin’s playbook, if you like. His actual relevance is is unclear, but it seems like a lot of his thinking made its way into Russian military training. You know, he has this crazy idea about there are two kinds of civilizations land based and sea based. The United States is like a sea based civilization, you know, Russia is more land based civilization, he looks at the world. And he says, look, America’s military is too large, there’s no way that Russia can compete there. But it is open to fractures within its society. So if we can ferment those fractures, like, for example, the racial divide between blacks and whites and other groups, and we can ferment that we can kind of, you know, destroy America from within. And we can do the same thing in other places. So you know, this is 1997 he writes this, you know. If we cut off Britain from the rest of Europe, this is critical, like we need to, you know, encourage anti-European sentiment because the axis of Germany and Britain together is too strong.
Germany should be given power within Europe, Ukraine should not exist, eventually, we need to take that back. Finland shouldn’t exist, that should be a little scary. So I mean, if you look, actually, if you look at the, you know, the world since, since the 21st century began, it’s very much Dugin’s vision, by accident or by plan.
Mark Divine 7:09
Yeah, you can clearly see how Russia has played that playbook extremely well. Right, and…
Michael Muthukrishna 7:14
Mark Divine 7:15
Especially in the you know, the different political elections and whatnot. Let’s get back to economic behavior. I like to relate it to kind of this massive Green Movement, right. And so this push at a political level, both United States and Europe, and you know, at the Global institutional level for green energy and investing.
Michael Muthukrishna 7:31
Mark Divine 7:32
And all that, and EV’s and whatnot. And yet, human behavior is saying, you know, what, we just want cheap energy, and we want things to work, right? We want our lights to be on.
Michael Muthukrishna 7:40
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mark Divine 7:41
And so now you have Ford and GM, they can’t you know, their lots are full of unsold EV cars, they can’t produce these cars, and then the word starting to get out that, you know, the batteries in technology, and in this green tech is actually far dirtier, so to speak, than fossil fuels. What’s your take on the whole kind of green movement versus fossil fuels from an economic psychology perspective?
Michael Muthukrishna 8:00
So I mean, look, EVs are I drive an electric vehicle, I should say, and I mean, I just love it in terms of its performance, it’s fantastic, how green they are, it depends on you know, what you’re using to generate your power. Like, if you’re generating a bunch of, you know, coal power down the road, then you’re not really a green vehicle, right. And, of course, the batteries themselves, you know, the degree to which they’re recyclable, are also an environmental hazard. I think, you know, there’s a lot of ideology in the green movement, that is kind of worrying. There’s various ways to analyze the Energy Sciences. And you know, I’m an outsider to this kind of reading it, but I can at least read it as an engineer. There is are various metrics, and one metric that I think is really a powerful lens is what’s called the energy return on investment. So this is the amount of energy it takes to get some amount of energy back. And that is really a measure of your excess energy. It’s what you what you want is an energy source that with very little, you get so much back, and oil used to be like that, and you know, through fracking and the shale revolution, where kind of the numbers have gone up again, but when we first, like in 1919, one barrel of oil found another 1000 barrels in 1951, barrel oil oil found, you know, the 100. And by 2010, one barrel of oil found you another five.
Mark Divine 9:04
Michael Muthukrishna 9:05
And so you know, you can see precipitously these numbers are dropping. And if you look at the other energy technologies that we have available, only a few really makes sense in terms of those numbers. So hydropower, fantastic. If you’ve got fast-flowing rivers use them, you know, if you’re Canada, go ahead and use that. Solar is a little bit tricky. It’s got an initial investment, there’s a fusion reactor in the sky, and the more efficiently we can use that that’s great. But of course, transmission is a huge issue. We haven’t solved the battery. Like, so you can think of fossil fuels really, as millions of years worth of stored sunlight, right? So you have the fusion reactor in the sky, photosynthesis, converting to chemical form, and then compressed over millions of years into hard rock, coal and oil and natural gas. And we don’t have that equivalent, like even you know, hydrogen isn’t quite there. We don’t have that. It’s really nuclear is probably our cleanest bet in terms of future in terms of our future and there are great technologies on the horizon small modular reactors, micro reactors.
I mean, fusion if we ever get there would turn us into the first generation of a galactic civilization, it would be unbelievable. But, but even on the horizon, I think part of the the challenges we face is the stillborn nuclear age, had we made the right investments and, you know, looked into better, better technologies there. I think that geopolitics and the levels of global cooperation would look very different today.
Mark Divine 10:20
Why is there so much resistance? Was it just Fukushima? Or what was it? Is it money flowing opportunity money flowing into the other green tech’s? Why aren’t we…
Michael Muthukrishna 10:28
Mark Divine 10:29
…pursuing nuclear power in all its forms, because it’s so much safer now than it was, you know, when Three Mile Island or Fukushima.
Michael Muthukrishna 10:36
This is an open question, there is no known answer at the moment. There’s lots of speculation. So initially, I think, you know, the fact that it was a dual use technology, you know, with massive military applications, as well as applications in the in the commercial sector. That was a bit scary to a lot of people, just the awesome power that we had under our control. And then the devastation that we were able to deploy with that. The hangover from the hippies, that was kind of a movement where somehow he got tied up, you know, these fears, that drove a lot of it a lag between the understanding of the safety that you know, a lot of the problems that are there actually solved. So, you know, in the book, I, you know, I say, look, to think about nuclear technologies today, thinking about 1950s technologies, is like looking at cars or airplanes, like you would never drive or fly, you know, given the safety numbers back in the 1950s, right, but today’s cars are way safer, you know.
Mark Divine 11:21
Michael Muthukrishna 11:22
They brake on command, you know, today’s airplanes that rarely go down. And it’s the same with nuclear technologies, right, like, the amount of waste, we’ve been storing it for years, quite safely on site, because it’s so small, actually. And it requires very little radiation shielding. So you know, when I visited a nuclear power plant last year, for example, you know, I could stand next to it. And in the Netherlands, anyone can, you can go visit their waste facilities, and it’s very, very safe. You know, I think there’s a lot of myths. And some of it just requires a bit of public education, and a shift away from that messaging from the 60s and 70s.
Mark Divine 11:51
Are you seeing any of these more forward looking countries investing in, now, again, in nuclear power, because they see what we were talking about earlier that, you know, access to oil might be a little bit tricky?
Michael Muthukrishna 12:01
Yeah. No, absolutely. Yeah. And you know, especially where you don’t have it. So you know, China has something like 228 reactors under construction. I think it’s because of the over the amount of regulation that emerged and the regulatory environment. Plants are very expensive to build in the West. You know, they take a very long time, and they often go over budget, but the Koreans were able to do it cheaply on time under budget. And so they’re, they’re doing the same thing, even in the Middle East, which is, you know, if the Middle East are building nuclear reactors, I think that should be a sign to everybody.
In this country, too, you know, where there’s a push toward nuclear. And I honestly think for Britain, where I live, nuclear is the future, there’s not much more that they have access to, since the North Sea kind of dried up.
Mark Divine 12:40
Since you seem to be well-educated on this point, how far from a commercial application for fusion do you think we are?
Michael Muthukrishna 12:46
What I will say is, you know, the joke is that it’s always between, you know, next Monday and the next 30 years. Look, I defer to experts like Vaclav Smil, who say the earliest we’re gonna see it is about 2050. That is a while away now., that’s why I think nuclear fission in the shorter term is essential. And you know, I guess natural gas is a backup to solar. One thing that is different is that there’s several viable potential pathways and more investment in the private sector and the public sector, in a startup like ecosystem than we’ve ever seen before. And that’s very exciting, because it means that there’s quite a number of possibilities. There’s a lot of branching chains, if you like, that might lead to a viable fusion. But you don’t know till you get there.
Mark Divine 13:26
I’d like to, to kind of like shift focus a little bit to talk about your work with your book. I have to admit, you know, my audience knows this, but um, I’m a longtime Yogi at heart, right. I started practicing Zen meditation when I was 21. And then I went into the seals and, you know, continued my practice. And I found in martial arts, of course, a lot of similarities, but then I got into, you know, authentic yoga through yoga name Paramahansa Yogananda and Patanjali Sutras, you know, really understanding deep, deep, deep deep dive, and really embracing the practice of so when I saw your last name, Mushnakrishna, I immediately thought of the Bhagavad Gita, and Krishna and Arjuna is, you know path, and you’re an Indian guy, so and then I saw the title of your book A Theory of Everyone. Like, I wonder how much your your spiritual beliefs have, like, guided your work?
Michael Muthukrishna 14:13
You know, no one ever asked me that question, Mark. I’m glad you did. Yeah. So I mean, you know, I would say, diversity has been, you know, has been my life experience. My family’s actually from Sri Lanka, which is, of course, a Buddhist country, one of the last homes of the original Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, right. My mother’s family were, were Hindu. My father’s family are like Catholics, you know, back to like, 16th 17th century. I kind of had this, this interesting blend of cultures always open to me. And I think as a kid, you know, I was always like, look, there’s all these claims on the table. And this has got to be the most important question about how we should lead our lives and we should all spend a pile of time, you know, when I looked at things like Pascal’s Wager, you know, which is like, do I believe in God? Do I not believe in God? You know, does God exist? Does God not exist in my reaction to that look, when Pascal wrote it he was thinking about the Christian God, there was nothing else on the table.
But I think what Pascal is really telling us is that this is an important question. And you should be evaluating these options. I would consider myself an agnostic theist. So that is, as a scientist, I’m agnostic about everything, I’ve got no idea what the world the reality of the world is. Did the Buddha see something that the rest of us did it? You know, what are the depths of understanding that, you know, the, the Indus Valley, were able to understand. If there is a God, the great simulator in the sky does he interfere in the world, did he did he pick a moment in history to place you know, his son, whatever that means, you know.
You know, this, you know, so I think I ended up narrowing it down to in terms of a way of life, a very Buddhist detached, you know, this too shall pass way of living.
Mark Divine 15:44
Michael Muthukrishna 15:45
And I did practice meditation for a long time. And the book actually talk about how I use flotation tanks, like isolation Chambers as a kind of cheat codes and meditation.
Mark Divine 15:53
Michael Muthukrishna 15:53
Shut off all sensory input, and your mind has no choice but to meditate.
Mark Divine 15:57
Michael Muthukrishna 15:57
I’m Catholic, I think there’s a lot of richness in the in the blend of, not at kind of the kind of the level of the people but at the level of the theology between kind of how science and spirituality kind of go hand in hand. Reason, you know, I think, as John Paul the second who said, you know, reason and faith, the two wings by which we fly. They’re more craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists than any other group. There’s a very long tradition there. And, you know, there’s other interesting claims as well, you know, the Bahais, for example, that’s an interesting one, you know, the claim that actually in each moment, if there is a God, he releases in each moment, these individuals, or people, you know, the Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, whatever, and these are manifestations. It’s an interesting claim. You have to look at the details, maybe that should be my next book, everything I talked about in the book is really trying to explain in a very secular way, really, because, you know, I don’t want to I don’t want to commit anyone to any beliefs. But a lot of I think, what we discover, especially when it comes to the evolution of religion aligns.
So you know, in the book, I talked about higher scales of cooperation, working together, in cohesion and coordination at a higher scale, is not only a great secular ambition, you know, a secular goal, but also one that aligns well with the teachings of the major world religions, right, you know, it’s the Atman and the Brahman are one, it is a unified reality for all of us. You know, it’s, it aligns very nicely. So I think the, you know, religion as it has evolved, has picked up on things that help us work together better. But of course, every as I say, in the book, every scale of cooperation is also a scale of conflict. It allows you to reach this higher scale, but then you’re in conflict with people who believe something different, and that’s the great challenge of our age. And energy has a big part to play in that, because it’s easy to be nice when there’s more to go around.
Really true. You’re right, like at the broadest perspective in all religions are pointing toward the same thing. And words can only be pointers, because you know, words are rooted in duality, this-that. up-down, man-woman, and source, Brahman is nondual: Advaita, which is the Buddhist tradition means not two, so we are both and we are that and this. But within this, this contracted human form, you have all stages of evolution, you have the most depraved evil to the highest form, you know, espoused in Jesus or, or maybe even Krishna and Shiva, if they were actual humans, you know.
Michael Muthukrishna 18:14
Mark Divine 18:14
Similar to the Jesus or Buddha. And so what you’ve said about this movement, globally, through humanity to more cooperation, I agree with you, because as individuals evolve along their scale of consciousness, or let more of that light love Satchitananda through, they generally become more loving and inclusive and compassionate. I see that flourishing on planet Earth as a almost like a counterbalance to the crazy chaos and violence that’s going on. I think humanity, despite what people read in the news is actually moving in a very good direction, let’s sayith you?
Michael Muthukrishna 18:49
From an evolutionary perspective, you know, it’s not an accident that the major world religions preach these things, because it’s almost like they any world religion that exists today is a religion that has enabled groups to cooperate and work together at a higher scale. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. There were other faiths, you know, in other traditions that existed the Shakers, right, famously, they were a an offshoot of the Quakers that believed in celibacy for everyone. They’re not around, it wasn’t a good fit. It wasn’t a good belief to have. It doesn’t help your group grow.
Mark Divine 19:15
It’s not great for the human race.
Michael Muthukrishna 19:19
Exactly, exactly. So there’s been a filtering process, I think, you know, and these religions are offering like social technologies, if you like, that allow you to see something and feel something maybe maybe more than yourself, and allow us to cooperate with beliefs that that require us to kind of work together. What one can do in a scientific world is to try to come up with a life’s philosophy that is consistent with the reality we understand through science. When you see that and you realize how much we don’t know, it creates, I think, a lot of intellectual humility. You know, I think there’s Heisenberg who said, “when you first drink from the glass of science, you know, you become an atheist but at the bottom you find God”.
Mark Divine 19:57
I love that.
Michael Muthukrishna 19:58
The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And if we were peoples of the 17th 18th 19th century, we would think we’d worked it all out. And reality, there’s a lot more to understand. So I often think, you know, as me as a scientist, science is a slow prayer, as we begin to understand creation, and we begin to understand our world. And the more we understand if there is a Creator, or greater reality, be it humanity in the future, the universe itself, a great simulator, God as envisioned in the holy books, we begin to understand that reality better by understanding the creation, by understanding the objects that humans make, you can understand a little bit about the psychology of humans. That’s where I see these things really nicely aligned, the more we understand, the more we understand ourselves, and the more we understand any potential reality.
Now, you said that we’re heading upwards? I think we are. But I think there’s also in Christianity, there’s a concept of original sin, which I think one reasonable interpretation of that is that a lot of our behavior we now understand is governed by a kind of cultural software that we acquire from our societies, like you studying, you know, the yogi’s and so on. It gives you new ways of thinking, new tools, new new realities, and it moves us away from a very conflict based, zero sum, animal way of living one’s life. That’s the original sin, in many ways, we live in a thoroughly Christianized world, you know, the idea, for example, that we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. If it was self evident, you wouldn’t have had to say that, you know, the lady doth protest too much. Like it’s a crazy idea, but it’s equal under God. Like if you look at a world that, you know, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt’s like, this is not an equal world, right? Like we’re not equal, but we are equal in some sense, but only if you believe in some kind of creator, we hold these kinds of beliefs. But you know, I think there are greater things. What is it? The greater things in heaven than our than our taught in your philosophies, Horatio.
Mark Divine 21:46
Yeah, you invoked Heisenberg. You know, so Heisenberg also with the Seidenberg principle said that, you know, we affect that which we observe. And then you align that with, you know, quantum physics, which says that we’re part of, and simultaneously be a wave. So when I look at that, I say, oh, interesting, like, the particle is the matter, the wave is the energy, both exist simultaneously. And wherever you put your attention, if you’re putting all your attention as a man, strictly a material, objective, separate thing or a woman, then you contract it into the matter form. And then the dogma and the principles in you know, thinking that you know, reality and grasping for you know, an belief system, and then that leads to positionality and conflict. Whereas if you can relax into the wave form of your life, which is energy or what the yogi’s would call Satchitananda, life flows through you, and you become uncontracted, open, free, and allowing an inviting, and it’s almost like the Yin and the Yang. The Yang is that kind of grasping outer and the Yin is the receptive inner. And the whole philosophy is that those two need to be merged. And even Jesus said that, like the masculine and feminine need to come together in one.
I want to relate this to our culture, and economy, like our economy is all masculine, all Yang, all linear, it is the particle side of science. And so we’re missing that receptivity that flow, that refreshing recycling energy of life flowing through our economies. I don’t see how they can survive long, long term, I mean, maybe 50-100 years. But like, I think, you know, and this relates to energy too, you’re going to see whole new systems arise, which are circular economy and, and allow that kind of like, more of that lifeforce through them, you know, I didn’t articulate it very well, but, um, what do you have to say about that? You know, in terms like Bitcoin is probably a good part of that.
Michael Muthukrishna 23:45
I think I understand what, so it is, you know, can be a useful analogy. The interesting thing, I guess, about the, the wave function is that it is really neither a particle or nor a wave, it’s, it behaves as a particle, under some circumstances, behaves the waves, but it’s fine to say, just shut up and calculate, like, we don’t know what this is. And we’re trying to map it back to something that’s at a meta scale. We’re trying to map it back to something at our scale, where we have particles and we have waves. But what’s happening at that quantum scale is neither of those things. We just have imperfect analogies, like, oh, we have our perceptions, right? If there was, if there was something right in front of us, but that wasn’t accessible to you know, electromagnetism with which we see or vibrations with, which we hear, or chemicals with, which we smell and taste or electrons don’t, you know, whatever, for touch, we would not perceive it. It would literally just not be there. You know, the same way that neutrinos are just simply not there. When evolution first emerged. Darwin, you know, was a Victorian gentleman, he wasn’t thinking about women at all. And he was focused on competition as the driver of evolution and some people still think about that. And you know, actually there were many women at the time. Brown Blackwell for example. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Clemence Royer, you know who pointed out it’s like you’re missing the other half of this, which is cooperation, competition and cooperation go hand in hand.
If you want to know the story of all of life, but you are not an individual organism, you are an ecosystem, you’re the Amazon rainforest. There’s a microbiome within you that you could not live without, that’s made up of billions of cells of things that are not in your DNA. Our greatest achievements and our worst atrocities, were through competition, but cooperative competition, we work together to compete with others. Right, so competition and cooperation are two sides of the same coin. This is all part of this kind of theory of everyone understanding these, you know, these mechanisms and how they play out in our world.
It’s hard to know what the future economic systems are going to be like, capitalism has worked quite well. I mean, it’s lifted a lot of people out of poverty, I actually worry about things like degrowth, for example, because what they artificially do is they create a zero sum world. When growth stops, it means that inequality is entrenched. That means that your win is my loss, and that incentivizes destructive competition rather than productive competition. And at the same time, you know, we live on a planet. And so I think what we really need is the next era of abundance, we’ve reached these eras of abundance in our history; fire was one, then agriculture, the industrial revolution is the era of abundance. We’re now living through the kind of shadow of that the next era of abundance, I think, is nuclear fusion, or whatever it might be. And that will enable us it will give us the power to embody some of the things you’re talking about with enough energy, you can desalinate the water you need, you can you know, plant all the forests you want, you can you know, carbon capture, all of those problems of conservation and of climate change become a lot easier when you have more energy at your disposal literal energy.
Part of the issue as well with capitalism is that it’s a system we’ve come up with it has these nice emergent properties, but because it entrenches inequality over time, and we don’t have good leveling mechanisms. Over time, it breaks down because people fight over smaller and smaller shares as no pieces are captured, and growth is one of the things that helps you escape that. Actually, in the book, you know, I advocate some ideas that might seem radical until you realize how recent they are. So income tax 1913, that was when the income tax first emerged, and you know, capital gains tax at the same time, right, it was 1%. Up to about in today’s money about 100,000. It was 7% at the highest rate up to like 10 million or something like that. Sales tax is 1927, I think it was when it first emerged. These taxes are what economists called distortionary, in that they cause you to work less, you know, because you don’t want to enter that next tax bracket, they cause you to trade less because of sales, tax capital gains, or whatever, they’re not good taxes. What we should really be taxing if anything is things like the land. So land, value taxes, for example, of all the assets you can own and use the one that you did not create. So patents, you created companies, you created works of art you created, whiskey you created, you did not create the land. And so actually, if you look, it’s one of these kinds of secrets that’s supported by economists across the political spectrum, like major economists, as well as Nobel Prize winners, but we just don’t know how to transition. So I suggest some pathways to transition toward, get rid of all the other taxes, stop taxing that stuff. Even inheritance taxes can be kind of distortionary, and they’re difficult to implement, and people take their money with them. They can’t take the land with them. But you can’t take the land to the Bahamas, you know. So if we, you know, there are paths and even with a small tax, let’s say three to 6%, you can pay for the US military, you can pay for Medicare, you can pay for the whole thing. All of these things emerge from this kind of A Theory of Everyone. They suggest the things we should be looking at, that are preventing us from reaching that world that I think you’re describing that you described, so well.
Mark Divine 28:19
What’s the Enron effect?
Michael Muthukrishna 28:21
The Enron effect is what happens when people don’t understand evolution, and they think of it as just competition. So you know, Jeffrey Skilling, his favorite book was Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. And from it you know, he understood evolution as just this competition. He didn’t understand it was about cooperation as well, like you are a cooperative organism, as I said, many cells working together to be you. He wasn’t the only one. But he was he famously pushed forward rank and yank. And this was the idea that you would rank all your employees in every quarter at the end of the year. And then you would just chop the bottom, you know, 5 to 15%. You just fired them.
Mark Divine 28:54
Didn’t IBM do that too?
Michael Muthukrishna 28:56
Many companies did. Many companies did. And the more aggressively they did that, especially when there aren’t enough resources to go around, it creates a zero sum reality, because suddenly, I’m now forming my coalition’s I’m trying to fight for my job, I don’t want to be at the bottom. So yeah, it drives but it can only drive it up under conditions of abundance., right. Now, you can contrast that with more modern forms of governance, like Satya Nadela, who’s the CEO of Microsoft. Microsoft had a very rank and yank type, you know, culture, and he said, look, we got to do away with this. We need to think about this almost as like an ecosystem of startups: when you fail, you fail locally, but when you win, Microsoft needs to win. And it was through that, that they made bets like on open AI. And this same principle, actually, you find it throughout nature, and you find it in the best political and economic systems in the world. So you know, Justice Brandeis in the United States, describe the US as laboratories. Laboratories for like democracy. Every state can try different things; let them all try, give them the autonomy to try that, because if they fail, they’ll only fail at a state level or city level or whatever right county level, and if they succeed, you know, it can be pushed up to the federal level. And I think really one of the missteps in the United States was bypassing that system, you know, the attempts to use the courts or you know, push things through executive orders, without bringing everyone on board without showing this is the right path forward. You’re trying to bully your way through the legal system into forcing everyone to be in and that leads to, it breaks down this evolutionary system.
It’s why Silicon Valley works., by the way, same thing, right? Like you think of Silicon Valley is this kind of bastion of success. Silicon Valley is a graveyard of failure. The MySpaces the Vetoes the cools, it’s all these companies you’ve never heard about, you know, many of those entrepreneurs should have taken a salary job at, you know, at one of the big companies. But the fact that they tried, the fact that they gave it a shot, even though most of them were going to fail, meant that we got the alphabets. We got the Amazons, you know, we got the Apples, we got those who successes, and at a country level, and I would say at a global level, actually, because the world benefited from it. They paid for the rest. It is about competition, but it’s about cooperative competition, productive competition, where we work harder to outcompete one another. We share the benefits at some level through the tax system or just through the the mere fact that these innovations can be built upon, and we localize the failure, but we don’t fall so far that people are afraid to try. That’s one of the strengths of the United States as well.
Mark Divine 31:14
Yeah, for sure. So the title of your book, A Theory of Everyone, give us kind of like the, you know, the three-sentence elevator pitch. What is that theory, I know, we probably touched on different aspects of the vision, butt what are like some of the most important pathways to see this come to fruition.
Michael Muthukrishna 31:30
A Theory of Everyone is a play on the theory of everything in physics, which is this grand unifying theory that connects you know, the fundamental forces, it connects general relativity with, you know, the physics of the very vast with the physics of very small quantum mechanics, right? The claim that I make is that, you know, those who work in this area now realize that we have, for the first time, this major revolution that turns the human and social sciences into a real science. It’s the moment when alchemy turns into chemistry, because we now understand like Newton, he’s a smart guy, but he’s trying to turn lead into gold, why he doesn’t know the world is made up of elements, elements that have patterns that fit into a periodic table, and, you know, recombine in specific ways. And you can make gunpowder, and you can make, you know, you can do all kinds of chemistry, but you can’t turn lead into gold because of different elements. We have that same understanding for humans, and social and cultural evolution.
And that understanding stems from how we evolved, and I don’t want to, you know, you can get into the details., but the essence of the theory is that what makes us a new kind of animal is that we are heavily reliant not just on genetic hardware, as every other animal is, and not just an individual learning what we learned over a lifetime. But cultural software that’s running on our brains that is evolving alongside us, and that we acquire from our societies learning from the Great’s of the past, who have filtered the best stuff over time. And when a child is born, the first thing that they do is catch up on the last several 1000 years of human history. And we do it through our schools, we do it through our societies, and a lot of the things you think of as being human are not , in fact they are cultural. It’s all the way from, we have jaws that are too weak and guts that are too short for anything other than cooked food. But we have no instincts for cooking or even fire. We like fire, we might have some instinct for liking fire, but we don’t know how to make fire. It’s kind of hard if you’re not taught. All the way to numeracy, you know. So like, you might think humans can count for a lot of our history. This is how we count it 123-many, you know, and it took a long time to use stones are body parts. Yeah, it’s true. It’s true.
You know, it took a long time to understand like numbers. And it took centuries before we could even come up with the idea of zero, you know, you’re talking about India’s as the beginnings of zero as a number, and the negative numbers., that was until the 17th and 18th century, when we came up with a number line, a new piece of software that we could download, like an app into our heads, teach it to children., snd now negative numbers were accessible to us. Before that, you know, there’s this quote from the book, from Francis Maseres, uh this British mathematician, he says negative numbers darkened the very fabric of reality: you know something along those lines. He’s like, this is awful. He doesn’t have the know of it, you know, he’s not familiar with this. So once you have that, you’re like, oh, okay, I get it, you know, and then I can do the complex plane, I can do all this other stuff. So what we do, we are different kinds of animal in that, we don’t prefer what we see in the world, we defer to the things that we learn from all of the people around us. Maybe two more examples, Mark, if you if you’ll indulge me, you know, one is that, people believe that it is germs that make us sick, and you ask them, what a germs, they’re like invisible animals. Are the germs with us in the room right now, Mark? You know, it’s like you’ve never seen it, but you know, the smartest people and everyone around you is washing their hands and behaving in ways that are consistent. Now if you, if you were in the Amazon, you were in the Gorani tribe, you would equally have some evidence for spirits making you sick. And the stories of anthropologists you know said it’s the water making you sick, and they’re looking at the water and it’s like nothing’s in this water. And then they start laughing at the anthropologists like he thinks there’s invisible animals, can you see them. You even ignore your own senses.
For most people, I know there’s Flat Earthers, but if you look around the world, the world looks flat for your perception and, and the sun is clearly moving across the sky from east to west. But if I were to try to convince you of that, most people instead believe that we are on a spheroid rotating around us star would have many stars in the Milky Way, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s true. But I personally don’t have access to that. We as a collective as humanity have access, and it is through trust, that we acquire this knowledge, and even ways of thinking about the world. It’s like you were saying these great traditions, you know, they give you a new way to see the world, they give you a new emotional set, a new language with which to speak. That is the secret to what it means to be human the ability to acquire that software. So the same way that if you want to understand pivot tables in Excel or chat GPT, you don’t look in the CPU, you don’t look in the GPU. It’s not, it’s not in the hardware, it’s in the software. And the book is all about how to write that software, how to become more creative, how to become more literally more intelligent on IQ tests. You know, you asked me like, What do I need to do? Well, there I, you know, I refer to kind of four laws that are governing this whole thing, all the way from bacteria, to businesses, from cells to societies. And they are energy and our access to energy and our ability to do that. Our innovations, and so the efficiency with which we can use that and put it to work for us. Cooperation, so how we work together, and what incentivizes higher and lower scales based on energy abundance, typically. And the forces of evolution, both genetic evolution and cultural evolution, which is writing the software of your mind.
And with those four, you can understand a whole bunch of things and lay down a path to a better future.
Mark Divine 36:21
It seems to me that we’re on the cusp of an accelerant with artificial intelligence that can radically accelerate all four of those pathways.
Michael Muthukrishna 36:29
Mark Divine 36:29
And what’s your thought on on AI and what it what it’s going to, or how it’s going to affect us?
Michael Muthukrishna 36:34
I refer to AI as a fourth line of information in the book. So alongside, you know, genes, culture and individual experience, you now have this ability to look across all that humans have created and find tailored specific information, as well as find, you know, in that latent space, new discoveries and new scientific truths, right. And that’s empowered as never before. So I think, you know, we use energy, and we use our technology to empower our muscle, we can travel faster in cars and airplanes, we can, you know, build things faster with factories and power tools, we’re now using that energy and technology to empower our minds as never before. The internet was the beginning, the fact that we can, you know, speak across the oceans as if we were in the same room, that was the beginning. The next step is minds working alongside us capturing this conversation, and doing it in a kind of personalized way. I’m a big data driven guy in terms of life, you know, it’s like, the more data you have, the better your intuitions are, your gut gets better. But a lot of the data that’s available to us is about the average, what makes the average person happy, what makes the average person you know, smarter, more attractive, but the average person is, ironically, pretty rare. None of us is average, the average is some imaginary middle person across all of these different dimensions, that doesn’t exist. I don’t care what makes that person happy.
Mark Divine 37:52
Michael Muthukrishna 37:52
I don’t care what makes that person money. I don’t care what makes that person you know, more attractive. I want to know, what makes me happier, smarter, you know, more attractive, and so that’s what AI gives you, it allows you to kind of by knowing you better, and knowing the data better, you can find you in that space and say, Mark, this is what you need to do to empower your life. I think that’s one of the powers. Now, there’s also a lot of dangers, you know, I don’t want to downplay that. One of them is also just centralization, right? All these companies building an open AI technologies, open AI owns that. There’s also llama, you know, the open source version, but it’s not as good. It’s not as cutting-edge. There’s concern around centralization. And there’s, of course, a concern around how these technologies are used, because just like nuclear power, they’re dual use. They can be used for our great achievements and our worst atrocities.
And so actually, what the book is also describing is how to solve some of the legacy challenges. Like for example, you know, inequality, challenges around governance, how we can trigger a creative explosion, and how to how to create more opportunities for more people, things that are actually holding us back and are going to become worse in a world of AI. If we can solve these problems, AI will be a blessing to the world.
Mark Divine 38:58
Michael Muthukrishna 38:59
But we do have to solve some of those issues.
Mark Divine 39:00
I liked that vision, and I share it, but I do think there’s going to be some rocky times in-between while…
Michael Muthukrishna 39:06
While we figure it out.
Mark Divine 39:06
We and get to…
Michael Muthukrishna 39:07
Well, read the book, and you know, at the end of the book, I basically say, look, if there’s one central message, it is this and that is that the world was made by people no smarter than you. And you and I and, in fact, not as smart as you and I because, you know, we know rising IQ scores our way of getting more intelligent. We have better software than our ancestors did. The folks that you’re thinking about in history stood out, because they were the few that had access to books and knowledge when I many did not. It has always been a small group of dedicated individuals empowered by a set of ideas that have changed our world. It was always that the suffragettes, you know, the Fabians creating the social welfare state here you know, the, the Expanding Circle of morality of those we care about you know, you can see even words like you know, the one that I mentioned earlier, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. The feminists use this as you know, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal. These are the was used by Martin Luther King Jr. on the you know, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he said, You know, I’m calling on America to live out its ideals were that all men are created equal, right?
And so these ideas, I think, when they’re widely spread when they’re widely understood, and I wrote the book, like, I’m not showing you five different studies and saying, trust me, I’m a scientist, I want to show you, I don’t want to tell you, I want to show you how you can understand this is true about yourself about our world, about where we’re headed. And here’s what we can advocate for. And here’s what we can do to create a better future not just for yourself, but your children and every homosapien to follow.
Mark Divine 40:33
Boom, mic drop. Michael, thank you so much for your time. And your book Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, Where We’re Going. Do you just want to send people to the audiobook, or the hard copy? Or do you have any like special website? Or what’s the deal?
Michael Muthukrishna 40:47
Google is your friend, there is a website that’s localized to whatever country you’re in. So, A TheoryofEveryone.com it will point you to links where you can check it out. But you know, just Google it otherwise. Thanks so much for having me Mark. I enjoyed this conversation.
Mark Divine 40:59
Now, it’s been a pleasure, and do you do any social media for some enterprising individual wanted to reach out to you and connect?
I’m on all the socials, so you can find me M. Muthukrishna Twitter or X now I guess, you know, LinkedIn, Michael Muthukrishna, Instagram, Facebook, if there’s a social media, I’m on it.
Mark Divine 41:17
Awesome. Well, it’s been an honor to speak with you, Michael. I really appreciate your time. And congratulations on that great work. I can’t wait to read it myself.
Michael Muthukrishna 41:23
Likewise, Mark, thank you so much.
Mark Divine 41:32
Hooyah. Well that was one of the most interesting and inspiring conversations that I’ve had in a long time, with Michael Muthukrishna,, thank you so much for your time and for your presence here on the Mark Divine Show. Go get his book A Theory of Everyone. I’m going to read it myself. And I’m really stoked to have had the opportunity to speak with Michael. Show notes are up on Mark Divine.com video on our YouTube channel. You can reach me at Twitter X at Mark Divine on Instagram and Facebook @ Real Mark Divine. If you’re not connected with me on my with my newsletter, Divine Inspiration, you might consider subscribing at Mark Divine.com comes out every Tuesday where I disseminate the most interesting inspirational things I come across my desk, through my blog, through the show notes of the week’s podcast, through a weekly practice, and book I’m reading; all of it to help you lead a life with more compassion, courage, and inspiration. And share it with your friends, please. And shout out to incredible team Catherine Divine, Geoff Haskell, and Jason Sanderson, who helped produce the newsletter in this podcast and bring guests like Michael to you every week. Rating and reviews are very helpful. So if you haven’t done so, please consider doing it. It helps the show remain relevant and helps other people find it. Thanks so much for being the change you want to see in your world. Let’s do that at scale. You can do the work on your own or you can get some support from us at Unbeatable Mind. Check out our programs. Our 30-Day Challenge is incredible to jumpstart your your focus your attention and your arousal control. So check out UnbeatableMind.com/challenge or just reach out to us at info@unbeatable mind.com to learn more. Till next week, stay focused, stay calm, be unbeatable, Hooyah, Divine Out.
Transcribed by Mark Divine https://otter.ai