Why Evolution Matters at This Juncture in History

I'm not going to engage in a debate on the merits of the theory of descent with modification which forms the basis for much of our understanding of biology. Instead I am going to make a plea as to why efforts to understand and thereby address the implications of our evolution are essential if we are to survive. On the basis of biological causality we come to some pretty sobering conclusions:

  • Evolution involves descent with modification.
  • Descent with modification results from natural selection operating on mutations in a gene or new combinations of existing genes in a population over time.
  • Gene mutations affect the encoding for an existing structure or structures
  • In essence then, evolution results in re-purposing of existing structures or development of novel structures derived from existing ones that confer a reproductive survival advantage (either through displacement of existing competition or migration into new niches).

That's the problem. If human evolution is correct then our brains are the result of incremental modification of predecant brains, i.e. they are cobbled together from the bits and pieces of our ancestor's gene mutations relating to neurological development. Presumably, these changes provided a reproductive advantage based upon the selection pressures that were important at that time. If mind is a construct of the brain's basic anatomy then our cognitive functions likewise arose as a result of the same incremental changes or re-purposing of existing neural responses which were advantageous in dealing with the dangers of the period. Why is that such a problem? The rules of the game have changed. Brains evolved to handle ancient selection pressures have been dropped into a different environment all together. Our incrementally evolving brains are being asked to operate in a geometrically expanding array of complex decision environments spurred on by explosive technological development for which we were not designed and are quite ill equipped to handle. Our technology has created new selection pressures which may overwhelm our ability to adapt either through the slower 'NeoDarwinian' (genes) evolutionary path or our more rapid 'Lamarckian-like' (memes) form of cultural adaptation which is still limited by our biological design. If we continue to view our mental processes from a magical or soul-based rather than a mechanistic perspective we will be unable to study its structure or create cultural safeguards to mitigate its limitations.

Certainly such an approach would fly in the face of our typical species strategy: Stay the course – until we hit the rocks – then blame the rocks... But it may be the only way to survive.

We have a long way to go. Humans appear to have inherited rather unfortunate tendencies from our proto-human ancestors. We infer causality in cases of simple coincidence. Rarely is our first response to an event about which we are ignorant, to stop and say 'whoa, I'm going to sit down and try to figure out what I just saw in light of a logical assessment of known facts”. Instead, when confronted with the unknown, we make shit up and act accordingly. This gift is further supported by our well studied tendency to ignore negative data in our deliberations. The bar for 'successful' analysis is set pretty low when you can ignore inconvenient facts. And if we are fortunate enough to not suffer from our arbitrary confabulations, the next time we experience the same situation we feign authority to anyone who will listen. If you are bold enough you may even be able to leverage your claims into a career as a soothsayer – or its modern equivalent, a Fox pundit. Get enough people to accept your groundless conclusions and a belief structure is borne. Such structures become self-perpetuating impediments to future progress. Unfortunately hairless apes seem to be particularly open to accepting 'because I said so', as being sufficient to establish credentials.

If we approach these limitations from an evolutionary developmental perspective, it's not too hard to hypothesize why this would be. Back in our African savanna days, when groups of our ancestors were gathering food and one saw what could have been a face with centrally located eyes buried in a pattern of tall grass, logical analysis may not have been a particularly good survival strategy. Sadly (but fortunately), we are the descendants of those who ran from anything remotely looking like a face in the shadows while the budding scientists of the day may have walked over to check out their assumptions trying to determine probabilities and negative data – unfortunately only serving to improve the survival chances of the lion hiding amongst the tall grass. (Fortune may favor the bold, but natural selection favors the skittish.)

Making snap decisions on insufficient data worked really well for our species for a long time. Better to be rash, incorrect and alive than deliberate and a meal with respect to the only measure of success that natural selection considered – viable offspring. For much of human history this is how we moved forward because every now and then, the blind hog really did find and acorn, and there actually was a tidbit of causality in what was inferred. Given a few thousands of years, a body of conventional wisdom (almost always based on an erroneous foundation) was collected which worked reasonably well. There are still times when this gift of fear (as Gavin de Becker wrote) comes in handy. The wild eyed guy arguing with himself at the bus stop may rate a quick change in direction and a crossing of the street without further consideration. Unfortunately, with the advent of nuclear weapons, ICBM's, and complex geopolitical problems like global warming and interdependent economies, it ain't always a good thing to act impulsively or with your gut. But instinctive reactions may be a larger part of our inherent programming than we would care to admit. But admit it we must.

Over the next few weeks I plan to continue this thread in greater detail with examples. Next time the focus will be on human difficulties with determining causality. And how this impacts, or distorts, our world view.


mac said...

The hairless ape's succeptabilities?

I love it !

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Well, actually a number of the men in my family are kind of in between on that one...