Category Archives: natural selection

A war broke out in heaven

See Zak Stein’s reflections on how the pandemic signals the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. This could be an opportunity to transform our dominant cultural worldview if we but accept the responsibility and get busy enacting it. Just a brief excerpt follows. Click on the link and be rewarded with the rest of this inspiring scripture.

“One world is now gone and a new one has yet to emerge; we are now at the beginning of the beginning. We are living in the liminal: a time of pure potential and change, a time between worlds. This is it: we have arrived at the end of the world. Finally. Now we can start to build a new one.”

The Cognitive Bias Codex

Many (all?) cognitive biases are built-in features of the human attention-sensation-perception-memory-cognition chain of sense making processes. It would not be surprising to learn many of these biases have effects that are relevant to questions regarding how natural selection shaped humans for particular embodied functions in a particular environment. Much has been said and written about how the pre-modern environment evolution calibrated us to function within is in many respects quite different from our modern environment.

Humans are still evolving

From this article. See it for details.

“Evolution is an ongoing process, although many don’t realize people are still evolving. It’s true that Homo sapiens look very different than Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominin that lived around 2.9 million years ago. But it is also true that we are very different compared to members of our same species, Homo sapiens, who lived 10,000 years ago — and we will very likely be different from the humans of the future.

“What we eat, how we use our bodies, and who we choose to have kids with are just some of the many factors that can cause the human body to change. Genetic mutations lead to new traits — and with the world population now above 7 billion and rising, the chances of genetic mutations that natural selection can potentially act on is only increasing. Don’t believe us? Inverse presents three examples of recent changes to the human body.”

Storytelling as adaptive collective sensemaking

Bietti et al. (2018), Topics in Cognitive Science. The abstract:

“Storytelling represents a key element in the creation and propagation of culture. Three main accounts of the adaptive function of storytelling include (a) manipulating the behavior of the audience to enhance the fitness of the narrator, (b) transmitting survival‐relevant information while avoiding the costs involved in the first‐hand acquisition of that information, and (c) maintaining social bonds or group‐level cooperation. We assess the substantial evidence collected in experimental and ethnographic studies for each account. These accounts do not always appeal to the specific features of storytelling above and beyond language use in general. We propose that the specific adaptive value of storytelling lies in making sense of non‐routine, uncertain, or novel situations, thereby enabling the collaborative development of previously acquired skills and knowledge, but also promoting social cohesion by strengthening intragroup identity and clarifying intergroup relations.”

How cooperatives are driving the new economy

See this Evonomics article on the topic based on Tomasello’s research in this article. You can also see his latest research in his 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. You can find a free copy here. It supports that cooperatives are much more in line with our evolutionary heritage than the corporate structure, thus highlighting the different focuses in evolutionary theory itself.

“New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn about sharing as a result?

“Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner. Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as Homo habilis emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

“However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges: Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social selection that favored cooperation: ‘Individuals who attempted to hog all of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,’ writes Tomasello, ‘and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.’ […]

“The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

“Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal. ‘The result,’ says Tomasello, ‘was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.'”

Rutt interviews Bret Weinstein

An excerpt from the transcript follows. The podcast is here. Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist. Weinstein:

“So more or less our problem is that the magic of humans arose through an evolutionary process driven by an arms race in which human beings were their own worst competitor. So at that point that one reaches what my PhD advisor called ecological dominance, that arms race causes a massive jump in, essentially, computing power. And that computing power came along with all of our best and worst characteristics. So it resulted in a spectacular capacity for collaboration, but the objective of that collaboration is increased competitive capacity against other groups with similar powers.

“Now I don’t think we can spend too much time worrying about whether or not that was a good process, it got us this far, and it has given us the capacity to understand where we are. But what it has done is it has created a drive that is now outstripping our capacity to compensate for its consequences. So that quote you read from my website, essentially, is about what I would call a sustainability crisis. Now conservatives often hear, when a liberal like myself starts talking about sustainability, they assume that we are cryptically talking about climate, about which there is much disagreement in some circles. I’m not talking in particular about climate, I do think we have a climate problem, but even if it were false, we still have a sustainability problem in which we are simply using resources and creating waste in a way that simply, mathematically, cannot continue indefinitely.

“So you have to at least be a cornucopian to imagine that the problems we are creating will be dealt with in due course by solutions that will magically emerge. I don’t think it’s reasonable to be a cornucopian, but you would have to at least make that jump and say, ‘Well yes, were we to continue down this road, we’d be in big trouble, but we all know that solutions arise when they’re needed.’ So if you don’t believe that, then you would end up in my camp and, what I know from experience, to be your camp thinking, ‘Oh shit, we’ve got a very serious problem, and we don’t have a very long time horizon with respect to figuring out what the solution looks like.'”

Divine transport

From this article. Now if we can only interpret trance states postmetaphysically. The religions that formed around trance states in the article, though evolutionarily adaptive at the time, have solidified into metaphysical dogma and are no longer adaptive to our world today. It though does beckon us to create postmetaphysical rituals with music, dance, invocation, incense etc. so that we can bond together via embodiment instead of just intellectually.

“So there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited, revised and rendered more testable. It reaches back a century to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim who observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.”

“The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our palaeolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness. Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. ‘It is not about the fine details of theology,’ Dunbar told me, ‘but is about the raw feelings of experience, and that this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states.'”

“Dunbar believes that a few hundred thousand years ago, archaic humans took a step that ramped up this capacity. They started deliberately to make music, dance and sing. When the synchronised and collective nature of these practices became sufficiently intense, individuals likely entered trance states in which they experienced not only this-worldly splendour but otherworldly intrigue. They encountered ancestors, spirits and fantastic beasts, now known as therianthropes. These immersive journeys were extraordinarily compelling. What you might call religiosity was born. It stuck partly because it also helped to ease tensions and bond groups, via the endorphin surges produced in trance states. In other words, altered states proved evolutionarily advantageous: the awoken human desire for ecstasy simultaneously prompted a social revolution because it meant that social groups could grow to much larger sizes via the shared intensity of heightened experiences.”

“Meaning-making, the transcendent, and openness to revelation and discovery are core parts of the human niche and central to our evolutionary success. […] The trance hypothesis is neutral about the truth claims of religions whether you believe or don’t, though it does suggest that transcendent states of mind are meaningful to human beings and can evolve into religious systems of belief.”

More on Haidt

Continuing this previous post:

I’m looking at the section “conclusion and critique” of Haidt starting on p. 31. Gibbs appreciates that we should account for our earlier human history and more primitive brain centers in describing morality. But to limit it to these structures and history at the expense of later brain structures and evolutionary development is another thing.

“The negative skew in Haidt’s descriptive work discourages study in moral psychology of higher reaches of morality such as rational moral reflection, empathy for the plight of entire out-groups, moral courage, and the cultivation of responsible, mature moral agency —broadly, study of ‘the scope of human possibilities, of what people can do morally, if they are prepared, through development and education, to approach life’s important issues in a thoughtful way’” (34).

Several neuroscientific studies make clear which parts of the brain are emphasized in liberals and conservatives. The amygdala (indicative of fight or flight fear) is a much older evolutionary brain structure, while the anterior cingulate cortex (higher thinking functions) much newer. Hence there is neuroscientific brain evidence for the evolution of morality per Kohlberg. Haidt admits that conservative morality is rooted in these more evolutionary earlier brain structures, and liberal morality in the newer structures.

The newer neocortex then coordinates and integrates the older brain functions so that the latter do not dominate and send us backward in evolution. It’s not that liberals don’t have the conservative moral traits like Haidt claims; it’s that those earlier evolutionary traits are now modified under neocortex control. Yes, there is a value judgment involved here, but it’s supported by evolutionary science, not ideology.

The abstract from “Neural correlates or post-conventional moral reasoning”:

“Going back to Kohlberg, moral development research affirms that people progress through different stages of moral reasoning as cognitive abilities mature. Individuals at a lower level of moral reasoning judge moral issues mainly based on self-interest (personal interests schema) or based on adherence to laws and rules (maintaining norms schema), whereas individuals at the post-conventional level judge moral issues based on deeper principles and shared ideals. However, the extent to which moral development is reflected in structural brain architecture remains unknown. To investigate this question, we used voxel-based morphometry and examined the brain structure in a sample of 67 Master of Business Administration (MBA) students. Subjects completed the Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) which measures moral development in terms of cognitive schema preference. Results demonstrate that subjects at the post-conventional level of moral reasoning were characterized by increased gray matter volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, compared with subjects at a lower level of moral reasoning. Our findings support an important role for both cognitive and emotional processes in moral reasoning and provide first evidence for individual differences in brain structure according to the stages of moral reasoning first proposed by Kohlberg decades ago.”

From Mendez, M. (2017). “A neurology of the conservative-liberal dimension of political ideology.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

“Differences in political ideology are a major source of human disagreement and conflict. There is increasing evidence that neurobiological mechanisms mediate individual differences in political ideology through effects on a conservative-liberal axis. This review summarizes personality, evolutionary and genetic, cognitive, neuroimaging, and neurological studies of conservatism-liberalism and discusses how they might affect political ideology. What emerges from this highly variable literature is evidence for a normal right-sided cconservative-complex’ involving structures sensitive to negativity bias, threat, disgust, and avoidance.”

The dirty secret of capitalism

And the way forward. Granted it’s not full-blown collaborative commons but more like a healthy social democracy of the kind Sanders promotes and Scandinavia has. But I think it’s a necessary stepping stone on that road. The blurb:

“Rising inequality and growing political instability are the direct result of decades of bad economic theory, says entrepreneur Nick Hanauer. In a visionary talk, he dismantles the mantra that ‘greed is good’ — an idea he describes as not only morally corrosive, but also scientifically wrong — and lays out a new theory of economics powered by reciprocity and cooperation.”

History of complexity science

Here’s an interesting infographic of the main concepts and thinkers in complexity science across time. Notice S. Kauffman is slated in the 1980s column, suggesting the graphic depicts when influential thinkers first make their marks. 

https://www.art-sciencefactory.com/complexity-map_feb09.html