Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"

Peter Sterling

In this viewpoint, I tried to integrate my early studies of “alienation,” as Marx described it 150 years ago, with my lifelong professional studies on brain circuits. The result, I believe, helps to explain the explosive growth of consumption that drives the rise of atmospheric CO2. The piece also reflects, although not explicitly, my last decade—farming with my wife in a small community on a mountainside in western Panama. Here I have observed the growth of alienation in real time. So now, rather than revisit nineteenth-century satanic mills, I would like to begin by summarizing our personal observations of a community before alienation and after—a rough sort of experimental anthropology. 

Palmira Abajo Then

We cultivate the local plants: citrus, avocado, coffee, and sugar cane for market, plus vegetables for our table, and beans, plantain, banana, yucca, and otoe (starchy roots) for the table of the large Ngobe family who live on the farm and tend it. Our hamlet, Palmira Abajo, comprising a few dozen intermarried families, lies a few kilometers away—where the asphalt ends in a network of rutted, stony roads. When we arrived in 2005, the primary tools were hoe and machete, primary transportation was by foot, and the primary source of horsepower was a horse. Absent electricity, the day began at dawn with men walking to their fields and ended at sundown with a black sky lit by brilliant stars.

Palmira’s preindustrial agriculture involved diverse activities. Each crop has a different rhythm from seed to harvest. Each crop is challenged by pests and pestilence: grasshoppers half a foot long, leaf-cutter ants that can strip a tree overnight, two kinds of fruit flies whose larvae infest the ripening oranges and avocados, two kinds of minuscule insects that chew the avocado skin and cause the fruit to drop. Two kinds of fungus attack the coffee, one in the dry season and one in the wet, plus a beetle devours the bean from the inside out. All the crops need protection in the dry season from shredding by the northern trade winds that howl down from the cordillera, and they need protection in the wet season from the pounding rains.

Urban readers are probably thinking, “Diverse surprises, yes, but they all sound nasty.” So what comprises the “small satisfactions”? To name just a few, labor is self-organized and self-regulated, and there are neither bosses nor punch clocks—nor any clocks beyond sun, wind, water, and season. There is nothing mindless about it—this sort of farming is far more complicated than rocket science. If only we could rely on a few straightforward equations! Second, a man’s labor is palpably his own. The row he hoes this morning, plants tomorrow, and waters the next day, will eventually, gracias a Díos, deliver his beans. Third, the challenges render each harvest so unpredictable that the smallest success delivers a moment of relief that the family will eat. Fourth, without a supervisor or “recording to ensure quality,” people take time to greet and talk. So there are daily pleasures in social intercourse.

Fifth, there are frequent satisfactions from altruistic acts. When I drive our pickup into a ditch, four men appear out of nowhere and lift it out. Their effort is more than repaid by their amusement and my gratitude. Of course, these are the same machete-bearing men whom I have picked up many times along the road. Such acts are not for sale, but simply for the twin satisfactions of spontaneous altruism reciprocated by gratitude. Sixth, our neighbors are immersed in nature: they know the trees and medicinal plants, plus the animals and birds by sight, call—and savor. They draw satisfaction from sharing this knowledge—teaching—and from guiding us on foot to an ancient tree or a hidden waterfall. Seventh, Palmira hosts a small Evangelical chapel, a small Catholic chapel, plus a Jehovah’s Witness meeting a few kilometers toward town. Marx’s observation that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world” applies to this community.

Such are the rhythms that served Homo sapiens for millennia without consumerism. But this does not imply that there is nothing hard-wired in our brains making us consume. Myriad neuroscientists have worked on identifying the hard-wired circuits that govern our appetites for food, water, salt, sex, and so on. They discovered specific circuits that, interconnecting diverse brain centers, receive electrical and hormonal signals from the gut, liver, kidney, adrenal, and so on, to initiate foraging for food and salt. Excite a particular component experimentally by electrical, chemical, or genetic manipulation, and feeding stops; excite a different component, and feeding proceeds to excess. Other circuits do the same for drinking, mating, and so on.

Each circuit needs to know when its goal has been achieved. Then it can turn off to allow a different circuit to address the next need. All the “seeking” circuits share the same notification signal: a chemical pulse that we experience as satisfaction. Yet, “satisfaction” per se is not what we seek. We cannot eat satisfaction; it is simply notification that we have found or accomplished something valued: a salty chip, a kiss, a prayer, or an altruistic act. The chemical pulse also signals diverse brain regions to store the circumstances so that it could be repeated. Thus, the pulse signals “enough for now” and “remember.”

These circuits wire up under the control of genetic programs because, just like heart, blood, gut, and bone, they are fundamental to life. But something happens when these circuits, which evolved over half a billion years, can suddenly fulfill their primary goals with far less effort. 

Palmira Abajo Now

Palmira had been sufficiently deep into the Third World to attract a succession of Peace Corps volunteers. But the asphalt road reached us six years ago, and private bus service followed. People stopped walking. Electric power penetrated deeper into the community, reducing the need for horses to grind, haul, and transport. The weed whacker, powered by combustible (fuel), replaced the machete. Neighbors, who formerly socialized with us while their cell phone charged, now plug it into their own wall. Streetlights obscure the stars. Communal dances and galleras (cockfights) gave way to private “entertainment”—earbuds, Internet, and television.

The transition from a life of diverse efforts and unpredictable satisfactions to a life of convenience and predictability is well underway. And we see the early effects: homegrown vegetables and home-slaughtered meat give way to fast food; physical fitness gives way to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. Narcotics have arrived and, in their wake, the first murder in living memory. Handcrafted sacks and containers give way to styrofoam, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans—that litter the gutters. Truck and car traffic increases, forcing our neighbor to install speed bumps at his cattle crossing. The community’s shared skills and rich interactions decline, and its carbon footprint expands.

What Drives Alienation in Palmira?

Several commenters assert that consumption is driven by intentional cultural manipulation, including advertising [Fred Magdoff, Kerryn Higgs, David Korten]. Others emphasize structural factors and social practices [Halina Brown]. Of course, the original essay did acknowledge these contributions in the opening paragraphs: “… economic growth, driven on the production side by capitalist competition, pursuit of profit, and financial manipulation” and “… social factors, such as competition for status, and personal factors, such as shaping a self-image. Advertising plays on these factors…” 

But was our neighbor, José Kuchler, manipulated to alienate a parcel of his unproductive land? Was he duped by advertising to buy a Nissan pickup? I think he was simply using his evolved frontal cortex to make his life a little easier. That Nissan transports his beans, tomatoes, and peppers to town so that he can peddle on the street without a middleman. That truck transports his family to their preferred church, sparing them a strenuous hike of 16 kilometers. Was our neighbor, Oliver Menendez, compelled to alienate his future labor for a bank loan to replace his one-horse cane mill with a five-horse electric mill that starts with a switch?  

Alienation advances rapidly because people seek convenience, control, safety, power, status, and so forth. This is true for all animals. Nematode worms congregate where the concentration of their bacterial prey is highest, assuming the oxygen, acidity, and temperature are right. Birds congregate where we set out ripe bananas, assuming there is good cover against predators. It is the same for Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) at Gombe Stream and for their nearest relatives, Homo sapiens, in Palmira. A variant organism that ignored easy food and other necessities would be swiftly eliminated by natural selection—and thus we evolved neural circuits that direct us to find, remember, and share.

But there is a problem, foreseen by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: “The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses the habit of such exertion and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” (edited for brevity).

Palmira’s people now grow stupider and more ignorant of their rich environment. They trade their birthright—land—for conveniences. Before long, they, and their children, will all work for someone else in town. Some commenters decry this behavior as short-sighted and greedy, but the neural circuits we inherited from the apes who preceded us include an app for “temporal discounting”—a circuit that assigns a higher value to the offer at hand and a lower one to a better offer in the future. This weighting procedure is so deeply human as to be chronicled early in Genesis, where Esau sells his paternal blessing for a bowl of lentils. Certain humans learn to throttle back this impulse with age and education; thus, it is wired, but not “hard-wired.” Capitalism exploits our app for temporal discounting but certainly did not invent it.

Various commenters reflected on the impact of their own satisfactions and the possibilities for personal change, and that is good. But I was really thinking about integrated lives before alienation and dis-integrated lives afterward. The slogan “provide more satisfactions” was meant more broadly: How can we regenerate our innate intelligences, sensitivities to nature, and our sensitivities to community, all of which atrophy for lack of exercise? How can we render work complex enough to provide multiple satisfactions during the day so that people need less chemical relief in the evening? True, preindustrial societies always found ways to get a little high—betel nut, coca leaf, chicha, ganja, and so on. But the levels of consumption and rates of addiction were not a major issue before the advance of alienation. Lacking the multiple small pulses during the day, people want big ones at night.

How to grasp that individual members of our species differ by design? Because neural computations are costly, a community with distributed skills outcompetes a community where all brains are alike. How can we reorganize education based on this design principle? If brains differ by design, how can we convince potential comrades not to judge? Why does Fred Magdoff believe that competitiveness is bad? It is just one human characteristic among many—Jacob got it; Esau did not. Joshua and David—don't get me started. Ditto for altruism and sociopathy. Of course society should encourage cooperative (non-competitive) and altruistic behaviors even from sociopaths. But we cannot depend on it, so we need a workaround. And it is unhelpful for someone dealt an altruism app to denigrate others dealt the opposite.   

Has Evolution Set Us Up to Fail?

Some may read the essay and conclude that we are in deeper trouble than we are yet willing to face. And what are the chances for a deliberate shift in time to matter? Evolution, of course, cannot literally “set up” anything. It is a blind process by which natural genetic variation is acted upon by selection—such that an organism fortuitously “pre-adapted” for some new condition can survive and reproduce. As documented most famously, among “Darwin’s” finches on the Galapagos Archipelago, a few with slightly thicker beaks survived to reproduce when drought produced more large, hard seeds, whereas those with finer beaks, evolved for small, fragile seeds, failed.

The same blind process produced the brain of Homo sapiens and imbued it with a computational architecture that appears to have been stable for 100,000 years. But how could Homo sapiens’ brain, “hard-wired” by a genetically controlled program, guide the manufacture of a stone tool and, millennia later, the robotic repair of a heart valve? Does this involve something beyond “mere neuronal circuits”? Once we embrace what Darwin called “descent by variation with natural selection,” there simply isn’t anything more. Some readers accept this, but several humanists expressed doubts and even scorn through this adjective “mere.”

But there is nothing “mere” about a neural circuit. One cubic millimeter of cortical tissue (like a grain of sand) contains four kilometers of neural wires. Every circuit changes with experience. Every neuron learns. It is fundamental principle of neural design that arose via variation with natural selection.1 The proximate mechanisms for learning are organized at the cellular and molecular levels via diverse proteins and genes that turn on and off as learning proceeds. The point I would convey to the humanists is that basic circuits are laid down by genetic control, and they are imbued with the capacity for modification—learning—by genetic control. So the terms “innate circuits” and “genetic control” do not imply “determinism” or “essentialism.”

Since Darwin, biologists have known that this is all we have. Consciousness, spirituality, and so on are real; they are potent aids to reasoning and human cooperation. But they are expressions of brain activity. Just as a pulse of dopamine is experienced as a pulse of satisfaction, so, too, do these experiences arise as one sort of neural response to activation by another sort of neural response.

Now, back to stone tools versus heart surgery. The “learning circuit” is highly stable—recognizable in function and structure, though not identical, across diverse species from mouse to human. It is stable probably because its responses to small, unpredicted rewards are mathematically optimized—it cannot beat the dealer, but it can match.2 When evolution finds an optimal or nearly optimal solution, almost any new tweak will make things worse, so effective solutions tend to be stable. Ask not this circuit to adapt to new conditions; ask new conditions to adapt to this circuit.

Other brain circuits seem designed for opportunistic rewiring on the time scale of a human life in ways that support invention. For example, a small sector of visual cortex is initially wired to recognize “objects”—orange, pencil, clock. That is what it did for 100,000 years, until a mere 5,000 years ago when humans learned to read. That process can begin around age seven, but, if delayed, can occur well into adulthood. As it proceeds, the “object area” repurposes to recognize and store orthographic squiggles—writing. As the area builds new circuits for letters or characters, it dissolves the old ones for objects. The capacity to radically repurpose certain neural circuits for invention is our blessing and our curse, as attested so often in our legends: Adam ate that fruit of knowledge; Pandora opened that box; Prometheus stole that fire. And Watt invented that steam engine—whose date is marked by a vertical line in the figure here.

Now consider a plot of atmospheric CO2 for the past 1,000 years. The curve starts to rise shortly after Watt’s new engine, and the curve follows the mathematics of an explosion. 2016 places us at the highest point on that curve—riding the bullet from a rifle whose trigger Watt unwittingly pulled 250 years ago. Any scientist who can bring himself or herself to stare comprehendingly at that curve must feel a chill of terror. Curves like that rarely end well.

The curve would turn down if we ran out of fuel, but long before that, climate will have become too unstable for reliable agriculture. We may have a century of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium—but they are inedible. The flourishing of our species has depended on a relatively stable climate and relatively stable harvests. To feed the world’s seven billion people, we lack even a year’s reserve. Thus, it is imaginable that we could resemble a weak-beaked finch in a drought—brilliantly adapted to conditions that no longer exist—because we changed them. Is it possible that Homo sapiens will go extinct in the social chaos and disease that accompanies famine? This is what the fossil record documents—continual production of new species upon the extinctions of the old.

Could We Awaken Rapidly?

One can recall periods on a scale of our lifetimes when serious threats were addressed by relatively peaceful change. Here is one that might lend us courage to stare at that curve.

In August 1944, white transit workers in Philadelphia staged a strike to protest the training of some black workers to move menial jobs to become bus and trolley drivers. The city was paralyzed for several days, slowing critical war production, until President Roosevelt federalized the transit system, brought in 5,000 troops to run it and ordered the strikers back to work or be drafted into the army. Thus, the Philadelphia transit system was integrated nearly overnight without public disorder. Four years later (July 1948), President Truman promulgated Executive Order 9981 that abolished racial discrimination in the US armed forces. Desegregation of military schools, hospitals, and bases followed, and the last all-black unit was abolished in September 1954, just ten years after the affair in Philadelphia.

The next year (1955) marked the successful Montgomery bus boycott that led in 1956 to a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on buses. Then came the lunch counter sit-ins (1960), the Freedom Rides (1961), and Freedom Summer (1964), culminating in federal laws to protect universal suffrage. Of course, there were martyrs, and, of course, the job is unfinished. Yet, the pattern of slavery and rigid segregation that had lasted 350 years changed radically over 20. That is what needs to happen now. Otherwise, Homo sapiens may fold into the fossil record along with the other species it has already extinguished.

Reductionism, Essentialism, Neuro-determinism

Several readers referred to the mechanisms at issue as “mere neuro-circuitry” and labeled the essay as “essentialist,” neuro-determinist, reductionist, and so on. I respond with three points.

First, let us revisit the difference between general conditions and proximate causes, both of which are important. The disease “malaria” in nineteenth-century Italy was named for the general conditions thought to cause it: mal aria—bad air from swamps. The proximate cause took a long time to work out—a parasite injected into the blood stream during a mosquito bite. Swamps are where mosquitos breed. Thus, there was an environmental context (swamps), a social context (poor people live near swamps), and the proximate cause. To identify a proximate cause is not “reductive” or “essentialist”; it is simply a step toward understanding a larger chain of causality and figuring out alternative solutions.      

Second, we don't call a physicist who accepts the significant evidence for gravity a “Newtonist,” nor one who accepts measurements of the speed of light a Michaelson-Morely-ite. So knowing, as I do, the evidence for specific brain circuits and how they shape (not determine!) behavior, it is hard to accept patronizing labels such as “essentialist,” “reductionist,” or “neuro-determinist” with total equanimity.

Such expressions effectively say, “Oh yes, I’ve seen this all nonsense before.” Generally, those expressions accompanied lapses of accurate reading. Such readers swept past various qualifying statements in the opening paragraphs, and tended to substitute what they imagine I wrote for what I actually wrote. Recalling the fate of excellent geneticists termed “Mendel-Morganist” in the Soviet Union, let us eschew labels that obscure new information and new thought.

Third, over five decades, my concern has been to understand how capitalist society (alienation) affects the “mind” by reshaping neural circuits whose activities continually reshape the body and mind. My early goal with Joseph Eyer was to identify social conditions associated with excess mortality.3 We then tried to connect these patterns to biological mechanisms that are known proximate causes of death.4 To more precisely connect social structure with health, we sketched a new theory of physiological regulation.5 Struggling against the application of “neuro-technologies” to mental illness, I continually wrote and testified in state courts, federal court, state legislatures, and the US Food and Drug Administration. My published critiques included lobotomy and psychosurgery, “anti-psychotic drugs, and electro-convulsive shock treatment.6 Recently, my anti-neuropharmacology message surfaced in an “establishment” journal.7

We did not “reduce” social organization to neural circuits. To the contrary, we tried to connect the successive levels coherently and rigorously. This effort culminated in a book, Principles of Neural Design, that spans the scale from molecules to society.8 It explains non-reductively the rich relationships between physical events and perceptual and emotional experience. Like Rabbi Hillel, asked to summarize the Torah, I can only conclude “go study.”


1. Peter Sterling and Simon Laughlin, Principles of Neural Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
2. Richard Sutton and Andrew Barto, Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).
3. Joseph Eyer and Peter Sterling, “Stress Related Mortality and Social Organization,” Review of Radical Political Economics 9, no. 1 (April 1977): 1–44.
4. Joseph Eyer and Peter Sterling, “Biological Basis of Stress-Related Mortality,” Social Science & Medicine. Part E: Medical Psychology 15, no. 1 (February 1981): 3–42.
5. Peter Sterling and Joseph Eyer, “Allostasis: A New Paradigm to Explain Arousal Pathology,” in Handbook of Life Stress, Cognition and Health, eds. Shirley Fisher and James Reason (New York: Wiley, 1988); Peter Sterling, “Principles of Allostasis: Optimal Design, Predictive Regulation, Pathophysiology, and Rational Therapeutics,” in Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Costs of Adaptation, ed. Jay Schulkin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Peter Sterling, “Allostasis: A Model of Predictive Regulation,” Physiology and Behavior 106, no. 1 (April 2012): 5–15.
6. Peter Sterling, “Ethics and Effectiveness of Psychosurgery,” in Controversy in Psychiatry, eds. John Paul Brady and H. Keith H. Brodie (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1978); Peter Sterling, “Psychiatry's Drug Addiction,” The New Republic, December 8, 1979, 14–18; Peter Sterling, “ECT Damage Is Easy to Find If You Look for It,” Nature 403, no. 6767 (January 2000): 242.
7. Peter Sterling, “Homeostasis vs. Allostasis: Implications for Brain Function and Mental Disorders,” JAMA Psychiatry 71, no. 10 (October 2014): 1192–1193.
8. Sterling and Laughlin, Principles.

Peter Sterling
Peter Sterling is Professor of Neuroscience in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the co-author of Principles of Neural Design.

Cite as Peter Sterling, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume," Great Transition Initiative (February 2016),

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