06/02/2010 03:44 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Big World, Small Brains

From a review by Eleanor Bader of Howard Zinn's "Afterword" emerges the startling fact that the world's 793 billionaires have assets that total $2.4 trillion -- roughly equivalent to the entire income of the world's poorest 3 billion people.

In LA, where I live, it would be as if I had the same amount of money as all the other people living here.

My first thought on reading this was that you are either one of two kinds of people. You either find this statistic appalling, or you don't. But that probably makes it a little too easy for me to feel morally superior to those who might shrug at this number, instead of trying to understand why this is so.

I've decided that it's less that people don't care, than that they can't care. Not on such a scale.

Our brain will give equal weight to the story of one individual in a million as it does to a story about one million individuals. If a well is dug to bring water to a single Afghan village, we will accord it the same amount of cranial cells as the fact that one-third of the world's population does not have dependable access to clean water. We do not have the mental capacity to assign perspective on a proportionate scale. We can mourn Anne Frank more easily that we can cry for her six million fellows.

In the face of incomprehensible numbers, we are likely not to comprehend. That's because our physical evolution proceeds at the same glacial pace as it has for millions of years, whereas our cultural evolution now moves at relative hyper-speed. We are operating with basically the same brains that evolved to worry about the 40 or so others in our immediate tribal grouping, and maybe the three or four other clans in the surrounding valley. Whether the day's hunting or gathering would be successful occupied the lion's share of our consciousness. It's no wonder that such a brain prefers to concentrate on the bottom two couples on Dancing With the Stars than contemplate the bottom two billion of the world's human beings living in poverty.

I hold out some hope that the sheer volume of the world's population might increase the likelihood of positive mutations that used to occur over tens of thousands of generations. Because we need better brains. We need a less abstract comprehension of trillion dollars deficits, global warming, epidemics, and what 50,000 gallons of oil spilling a day really is. Otherwise the simple and the parochial explanations are bound to trump the complex but accurate realities.

Our cups runneth over: we need bigger cups.