Saturday, 11 May 2013

Letter to my Cousin - Evolution, mind and risk

My dear Cousin,

I'm bundling a year's time of study and reflection, peppered with a flavour of hypotheses.

Starting off

Life is likely to be abundant in the universe. Life including intelligent life-forms happens to evolve with time. In our case some billions of years of evolution have been needed.   Self-organisation of matter leads to intelligent life-forms as long as external conditions favour lasting evolution of increasingly complex systems; on Earth it happened on Mars not.

Currently we, humans, put that process a step further by establishing a global economy that influences the future development of planet Earth; we onset the Anthropocene in a world of "tribal" conflicts. We must master that man-made trouble.

Intelligent life-forms distinguish between their external environments and their internal self-concious representation, which may be called "mind". The mind is the internal  self-concious representation of the external environment. It is a virtual image that can be manipulated in a wide sense. Intelligent life-forms having their own mind emerge, because a mind is a flexible and versatile feature favourable for self-replication.  The "mind" evolves with its carrier  - brain and body (for humans). The particular state of mind determines the action and interaction of individuals in the external environment for the common purpose, survival through reproduction.

Karhun Ukko
Myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts emerged with early humans as a lasting part of their minds and cultures favouring persistence of tribal groups, intra-tribal cooperation and inter-tribal conflicts. Myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts are "virtual", just "a setting of mind". However they take effect in the external environment through the actions of their carriers.

Due to the evolutionary path of human species it is likely that  myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts are favoured by the current brain-mind structure of humans. The  human brain-mind structure evolved  in palaeolithic times and persist in recent and current social contexts. Emergence of brain-mind structure shifted the effect of the evolutionary pressure from body-brain, over brain-mind to mind-culture. Insight into the particular evolutionary path of our species should help to mitigate risks inherent to our contemporary intra-species conflicts, in particular if they are caused by our inclination to myths,  religions and other metaphysical concepts.

It seems debatable that myths,  religions and other metaphysical concepts are helpful for survival of the global village, on the contrary as current conflicts show. However we have to live with these concepts because they are important features of the contemporary world, which easily boost conflicts. This is worrisome because we are living world in which our species consumes  the bigger share of the resources of the globe for its reproduction and is shifting the biogeochemical functioning of the globe into new, unknown stages.

In view of that riks, I'm putting expectations on the enlightenment, the unfinished movement at the roots of the modern world! Insight is needed, "sapere aude"!  Therefore, my dear cousin, I like to share some thoughts about evolution of mind, related risks and options.

A short story of evolution of life

Initially stars from of hydrogen only but soon they are fusing more complex  chemical elements. Exploding stars, super-novas throw matter into space where it aggregates to evolving planets like Earth[1].

Bubbling water - own photo
Geochemistry emerges from chemical processes. The increasing complexity of the geochemical environment, the geosphere  settles into processes that are fostering replication of substances. That is critical  for emergence of "living beings" and the biosphere, because replication of structures is the essential, initial key feature of life. Replication tuned to self-replication leads to reproduction, thus to produce "more of about the same" namely  "living beings".

Controlled interaction of "living beings", of organisms is limited by death, by haltering their functioning. Therefore the lasting existence of a "species" requires that many of the individual organism reproduce before they die. For survival the self-replication  - the reproduction -  has to be of a quality and quantity that “a bit more of about the same” is produced in a kind of "copy and past me into the environment" process. Biological evolution emerges, the self-replication in a changing environment. Organisms and environment enfolded into each other and unfolded from one another.

A short story of evolution of mind

Biological evolution has lead to the development of signalling and information processing systems, of neural systems, and of brains. Neural systems and brains are means to process information about the environment with the effect to better master survival and reproduction.  The processing can be done by fixed, hard-wired, neural connections up to a certain level of effectiveness. However "a mind" is more effective means to process  information about the environment. Evolution of "a mind" requires that much of the processing is done by softer neural connections, that are less stiff and more elastic. Increasing complexity of  neural systems and brains offer that capacity.

Carl Milles 1875-1955, Immigrants
With further increasing complexity of neural systems and brains they acquire the additional feature to act autonomously and doing other different signal-processing task than reaction to external stimulus. At that stage of development the individual organism starts to emerge. Foundation of conciousness and self-conciousness is evolving with improved capabilities to create internally in the mind "virtual images" of the external environment. With further evolution of the brain the manipulation of these images - in the mind - is getting possible, and the manipulation can produce a range of scenarios that is much wider than what can be observed happening in the external environment. For humans we call that manipulation "thoughts", "insights", "feelings", etc. At that stage of evolution actions of the individual organism are coming possible on the basis of the "virtual image" hold internally in the brain and setting the mind of the organism. This new capability adds to  the features of the organism that determine its relative fitness for survival and reproduction. In return on "relative fitness" an evolutionary pressure is exercised on the brain-minds-system favouring "virtual images" that enhance further relative fitness; in a balanced manner of the individual organism, its kin or its group.

Thus evolved brains, very complex neural systems are carriers of minds - initially "very simple minded" and of limited "intelligence". Minds emerge as additional feature of organisms in due course of their evolution  when complexity of neural systems has increased sufficiently. Minds are internal and virtual representations of  the external environment of the organism; representations that are hold and processed by the brain. The mind-full representation of the outer world can be modified by information received from the external environment that is transmitted by the neural system and processed by the brain. The internal, virtual representation of the external environment may be distorted, and also it may evolve following its own intrinsic processes; it does not have to be faithful but effective for survival. How they may be, once these  internal virtual representation emerged in a species then they are important drivers on which evolutionary pressure acts. Evolutionary mind-setting is the new game to play for competition, survival and reproduction.

More evolved brain-mind-systems include also a virtual representation of its carrier, the individual organism
Song  -  for bonding the group 
in relation to other living beings including relations to members of the own species and group. The specific mind-setting has the purpose to steer, manipulate actions of the individual organism in the outer world. The organism is self-conscious, has a concept of its environment and its fellow-beings, and acts as it deems suitable following its own internal, virtual representation of the external environment expressed as the individual organism's mind. To bundle and coordinate mind-setting of  several individual organisms a mechanism is needed to shape a collective mind-setting. To that end creation myths, religion and other metaphysical concepts emerged to fuse cooperation groups of their carriers to master their competition with other groups.

Evidently evolutionary pressure then is setting onto this feature too  fostering development of more complex systems, cultures [2].

A short view on the mind that we have

Neural systems including brains and minds relate to each other somewhat like computer hardware to computer software; the hardware is the carrier on which runs the software. However, current understanding makes it plausible that part of the mind-setting involves some structural responses of the brain, such as temporal lobe transients  that are related with spiritual "god experiences"[3].  Thus the hardware-software analogy is not to be taken mechanically, and mind-setting likely is different than reprogramming using fixed
circuits. Anyhow, hardware and software have to match regarding their basic features to avoid dysfunction of the software. The brain, the neural system and the body form the hardware on which the software, the mind, runs. The basic features of the brain or hardware impact on the functioning of mind or software. But beyond a basic match, a variety of minds can be carried by the same kind of brain or neural system.

However the basic purpose of the system "body-mind" is still self-replication in a quality and quantity that is at least “a bit more of about the same”. To survive, as species, body and mind have to evolve jointly. The currently most evolved body-mind system, the "human cognitive system is an emergent outcome of the self-organisation of matter; external reality is perceived in the way as it is because evolution has shaped the human perceptual system to be such as it is"[4].

Evolution of minds opens a development path to cooperation and bonding between individuals. Individuals are similar but not identical body-mind-systems. The evolution of the bonded cooperating individuals or groups leads to sharing of know-how among them and finally to the emergence of craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology as new features represented in the external environment  having affect on the internal mind-setting of individuals[2, 5]. The individuals act coordinated as groups, networks or societies shaping the external environment in which they have to survive and to reproduce in a quality and quantity that is at least “a bit more of about the same”. Thus, "t[T]he human mind has not evolved to provide a coherent picture of the world, or to solve metaphysical problems, but to solve quite practical problems, related for the most part to survival and reproduction. It thus deals with practical, not logical necessities".[4]

Since early palaeolithic times  the mental and immaterial bases of our societies, namely common rules, ethics and moral codes, were made up in human minds to improve fitness for survival  - of the individual, of its kin and of its group. The common rules, ethics and moral codes were tested in cultural practice to be fit for purpose and were inherited by traditions and customs in junction with genetic setting for the formation of the brain. The evolutionary pressure on early humans has given us a peculiar brain-mind system to process
Stone age grave setting in Spain (from:
internally images of the external environment. The brain-mind system has a solid capacity for logical and abstract analyses and ample skills to gain insight by analogy, intuition or emotion. As well the brain-mind system is inclined to perceive super-human agents, creation myths, religions and other super-natural forces[4]. These different capacities, skills and perceptions form the features of the peculiar brain-mind system of humans. Some features are tuned to invent the technical means needed for our survival. Other features are tuned to provide explanation for our place and purpose in the wider world. And further features ease our rapid and strong action. Together these features form a terrible powerhouse to anticipate, to shape and to steer action. For that reason our body uses 20% of its energy-intake to power 2% of its mass to run the brain-mind system. The rapid expansion of  different human species over the globe testify its effectiveness.

Our  brain-mind system, thus our consciousness driven by emotions coupled to rational insight, being shaped in millions of years of life-and-death struggle had evolved initially for practical survival and reproduction of tribal hunter-gatherer societies. Too little time has passed since the tribal hunter-gatherer societies started to fade away, a best less than 10.000 years ago,  that our brain will have evolved much in response to different environments of agriculture and urban societies. Pressure to evolve in response to these changes is acting on our social mind-setting, thus on our cultural compromises as well as on our acquired or enforced customs. Our social mind-setting  developed since neolithic tribal hunter-gatherer societies faded away. The social mind-setting and the needs of more modern societies, their production, reproduction and governance modes relate in mutual feedbacks. "The social mind has co-evolved together with the development of society. It is neither the mind alone that has shaped society, nor society alone that has shaped the mind; both have shaped each other in a process of interaction" [4].

Unavoidable inbuilt risk

Even in contemporary societies creation myths and related religions settings are a powerful means to set minds and to govern, in particular in times or in regions of unrest and conflict, and as well for private as for public purpose.Myths, religions and other metaphysical concepts force bounds, project power and carve out differences. One of the most striking contemporary example is the conflict in Palestine that is extensively argued in notions reflecting creation myths. The insight that "since early palaeolithic times each of the countless thousands tribes likely invented its own creation myth; gods being shaped by the environments of those who invented them" [5] does not limit our regular recourse to creation myths and derived religions. Thus, still today gives "t[T]he specific creation stories [gave the members of the tribe] an explanation for their existence, their place in the wider environment and purpose of their actions [5]."

Temppeli Kirkko (Helsinki) - own photo
Evidently, religion driven governance, rule-setting and identity-shaping is a feature of the power-play and power-projection in contemporary world; and that for all its societies and for many of their respective private or public reactions. Indication for that are ample be it the bible-belt in the US, Islamic governments, acceptance or rejection of gay-marriage or abortion, or religious services at the occasion of public events. This feature of the contemporary world indicates that the initial palaeolithic creation myth had developed into a major device in our evolution that is well-rooted in our mind-brain system and that can easily be activated for multiple purposes[6].

Thus religion-mediated steering of our societies likely makes use of a palaeolithic feature of our brain-mind system, and it is therefore that religious steering is so deeply rooted in our daily lives. It does not seem to be too speculative to assume that many  non-religious contemporary political, social or cultural movements activate features in our  brain-mind system that originally support the creation myth, and by that support cooperation and identity building of the respective movement.  Non surprisingly, because we can only use the brain-mind system that we have! We may wonder what kind of brain-mind systems other intelligent life-forms could have, lie-forms that may have evolved without a stage in which bonding of individuals into competing groups was essential for survival of the species.

What to make of all that?

We have to handle the situation that "h[H]umanity today is like a dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world." [5]  This is a risk for our survival because we mix "a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, Medieval Institutions, God-like technology [5]. That is a dangerous mix in a world of billions of individuals needing most of the resources of the planet for reproduction.

Likely the creation myth was an important drivers of our social development. It facilitate evolution of cooperation in and competition between groups during  palaeolithic times fostering brain-mind systems and related cultures that favour survival of the respective groups [2]. Apparently that driver is still active in our contemporary societies, and we get easily caught in fighting between groups that each show strong and effective internal cooperation.

The inclination of our species to act for the "survival of my group" may hinder us  to find ways to handle our contemporary global problems before they put in question the survival of our species; to recall: extinction of species is the rule not the exception. Our inclination to inter-group competition may hinder us to perceive the bigger, global picture in due time, namely that mankind modifies the functioning of planet Earth and ravages its treasures.

However, understanding why humans evolved with a mind-set favouring inter-group competition may help us to mitigate its inherent risk.

We should understand that our natural mind-setting was made for a different than the contemporary world, that body, mind and soul are shaped by the natural evolution of our species. We have a chance to tamper our inclination to seek cleavages in the global village; sapere aude!

 Ukko El'Hob

[1] The Story of Earth: The first 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to a Living Planet, Robert M. Hazen, 318p.; How to build a habitable planet: The story of earth from big bang to mankind, Ch. Lagmuir, W. Broecker, Princton University Press, 2012, 720p.
[2] "Wired for Culture. Origins of the Human Social Mind", Mark Pagel; Penguin 2012 , pp. 432,  Human behaviour: A cooperative instinct, Simon Gaechter, Nature 489
[3] Michael A. Persinger (1983) Religious and mystical experiences as artefacts of temporal lobe function: A general hypotheses. Perceptual and Motor Skills 57.
[4] Ilkka Pyysiäinen, How Religion works - towards a new cognitive science of religion, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 272p.
[5] "The social conquest of earth" by Edward O. Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, 352p.
[6] Born believers, Justin L. Barret, New Scientist 39, 17th March 2012; Religion, Economy, and Cooperation, Ilkka Pyysiäinen (ed.), De Gruyter 2010, 240p.