Category Archives: genetics

Cultural and genetic evolution

From this article:

“The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker in the 1990s. […] This all seems plausible and intuitive, doesn’t it? The trouble is, the evidence behind it is dubious. In fact, if we look closely, it’s apparent that evolutionary psychology is due for an overhaul. Rather than hard-wired cognitive instincts, our heads are much more likely to be populated by cognitive gadgets, tinkered and toyed with over successive generations. Culture is responsible not just for the grist of the mind – what we do and make – but for fabricating its mills, the very way the mind works.”

“The evidence for cognitive instincts is now so weak that we need a whole new way of capturing what’s distinctive about the human mind. The founders of evolutionary psychology were right when they said that the secret of our success is computational mechanisms – thinking machines – specialised for particular tasks. But these devices, including imitation, mind-reading, language and many others, are not hard-wired. Nor were they designed by genetic evolution. Rather, humans’ thinking machines are built in childhood through social interaction, and were fashioned by cultural, not genetic, evolution. What makes our minds unique are not cognitive instincts but cognitive gadgets.”

“The mind of a newborn human baby is not a blank slate. Like other animals, we are born with – we genetically inherit – a huge range of abilities and assumptions about the world. We’re endowed with capacities to memorise sequences, to control our impulses, to learn associations between events, and to hold several things in mind while we work on them. […] These skills and beliefs are part of the ‘genetic starter kit’ for mature human cognition. They are crucial because they direct our attention to other people, and act as cranes in the construction of new thinking machines. But they are not blueprints for Big Special cognitive mechanisms such as imitation, mind-reading and language.”

“To be fair, evolutionary psychology did something crucially important. It showed that viewing the mind as a kind of software running on the brain’s hardware can advance our understanding of the origins of human cognition. Now it’s time to take a further step: to recognise that our distinctively human apps have been created by cultural, not genetic, evolution.”

‘Neurosexism’ debated

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill takes issue with a Feb 2019 Nature favorable book review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain.

Cahill’s response prompted an interview by Medium Neuroscience writer Meghan Daum.

Scientific findings have a way of upsetting apple carts, especially when we consider our oft-demonstrated human capacity to bend science to advantage some power-coveting groups over others.

Valid research amply shows there are real differences in male and female neuroanatomy and functions. Honest science must follow the evidence where it leads. Clearly, any discovered differences cannot be allowed to justify unequal social or economic opportunities or treatment. Cahill compares the situation to genetics. That people differ genetically in a vast number of ways cannot be taken as cause to misstate scientific findings or preclude further learning about genetics.

There are times and circumstances in which certain research approaches must be blocked for humane or other reasons but that is a different argument than denying the findings of a body of research because they are uncomfortable or inconvenient.


Ideas of Stuart Kauffman

If you are familiar with complex systems theorist Dr. Stuart Kauffman’s ideas you know he covers a broad range of disciplines and concepts, many in considerable depth, and with a keen eye for isomorphic and integrative principles. If you peruse some of his writings and other communications, please share with us how you see Kauffman’s ideas informing our focal interests: brain, mind, intelligence (organic and inorganic), and self-aware consciousness.

Do you find Kauffman’s ideas well supported by empirical research? Which are more scientific and which, if any, more philosophical? What intrigues, provokes, or inspires you? Do any of his perspectives or claims help you better orient or understand your own interests in our focal topics?

Following are a few reference links to get the conversation going. Please add your own in the comments to this post. If you are a member and have a lot to say on a related topic, please create a new post, tag it with ‘Stuart Kauffman,’ and create a link to your post in the comments to this post.

the evolution of synergy

Good quick summary of some of Deacon’s ideas. Deacon: “We need to stop thinking about hierarchic evolution in simple Darwinian terms. We need to think about it both in terms of selection and the loss of selection or the reduction of selection. And that maybe it’s the reduction of selection that’s responsible for the most interesting features” (9:40).

The agency of objects

An interesting take on the agency of artifacts in light of the discussion of memes and temes. From Sinha, S. (2015). “Language and other artifacts: Socio-cultural dynamics of niche construction.” Frontiers in Psychology.

“If (as I have argued) symbolic cognitive artifacts have the effect of changing both world and mind, is it enough to think of them as mere ‘tools’ for the realization of human deliberative intention, or are they themselves agents? This question would be effectively precluded by some definitions of agency […] In emphasizing the distinction, and contrasting agents with artifacts, it fails to engage with the complex network of mediation of distinctly human, social agency by artifactual means. It is precisely the importance of this network for both cognitive and social theory that Latour highlights by introducing the concept of ‘interobjectivity.’ […] Symbolic cognitive artifacts are not just repositories, the are also agents of change. […] We can argue that the agency is (at least until now) ultimately dependent on human agency, without which artifactual agency would neither exist nor have effect. But it would be wrong to think of artifactual agency as merely derivative.”

Test determines approximate year of death

Age-at-death forecasting – A new test predicts when a person will die. It’s currently accurate within a few years and is getting more accurate. What psychological impacts might knowing your approximate (± 6 months) death time mean for otherwise healthy people? Does existing research with terminally ill or very old persons shed light on this? What would the social and political implications be? What if a ‘death-clock’ reading became required for certain jobs (elected positions, astronauts, roles requiring expensive training and education, etc.) or decisions (whom to marry or parent children with, whether to adopt, whether to relocate, how to invest and manage one’s finances, etc.)?

The Third Way of evolutionary biology

Interesting website on this innovative exploration of the field. From the link:

“The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon intervention by a divine Creator. That is clearly unscientific because it brings an arbitrary supernatural force into the evolution process. The commonly accepted alternative is Neo-Darwinism, which is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation. Neo-Darwinism ignores important rapid evolutionary processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis. Many scientists today see the need for a deeper and more complete exploration of all aspects of the evolutionary process.”

Why did consciousness evolve?

From David Barash, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at University of Washington.

“Brief explanatory excursion: it is a useful exercise to ask what brains are for. From an evolutionary perspective, brains evolved not simply to give us a more accurate view of the world, or merely to orchestrate our internal organs or coordinate our movements, or even our thoughts. Rather, brains exist because they maximise the reproductive success of the genes that helped create them and of the bodies in which they reside. To be adaptive, consciousness must be like that. Insofar as it has evolved via natural selection, consciousness must exist because brains that produced consciousness were evolutionarily favoured over those that did not. But why? One possibility is that consciousness gave its possessors the capacity to overrule the tyranny of pleasure and pain.”

“Even more intriguing than its use as a facilitator of impulse control is the possibility that consciousness evolved in the context of our social lives. Human societies privilege a kind of Machiavellian intelligence whereby success in competition and co-operation depends on our evolved ability to imagine another’s situation no less than our own. That isn’t so much out of intended benevolence (although this, too, could be the case) but because such leaps of the imagination allow us to maximise our own interests in the very complex landscape of human societies. Thus, consciousness is not only an unfolding story that we tell ourselves, moment by moment, about what we are doing, feeling and thinking. It also includes our efforts to interpret what other individuals are doing, feeling and thinking, as well as how those others are likely to perceive us in return.[…] The more conscious our ancestors were, according to this argument, the more able they were to modify — to their own benefit — others’ impressions of them and, hence, their evolutionary success.”

“It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness. And it is at least possible that the more conscious you are, the more accurate is your Theory of Mind, since cognitive modellers should be more effective if they know, cognitively and self-consciously, not only what they are modelling, but that they are doing so.”

Homo deus

Power Valued Over Truth

Dear Ed and All,

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul

PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).

The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).