Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self Awareness and Natural Selection

I've seen many attempts to show how reptiles became birds or bats learned to use sonar, but I have not seen any (they may exist) attempts to give a step-by-step evolutionary explanation as to why self awareness was so useful that it flourished. And in a related way, why would self-deprecation, depression, and all the other aspects of self awareness contribute to better dispersal of genetic matter?

I should probably leave it for another post, but I have a tendency to think in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Personalities have a very substantial range of differentiation within humans. One would say that these differences could not all be beneficial, yet they all seem to be universal throughout various societies and over time. Shouldn't some of them have selected out by now.

If you agree that these aren't related, tell me. I'll be happy to separate them.

24 comments:

Tom Foss said...

1. Not all expressed emotional/intellectual traits necessarily have a genetic basis. Emotional state isn't necessarily going to be affected through selection.
2. Humans have done quite a bit to ease the pressures of natural selection. Things like medicine, nutrition, and sanitation allow many more people the opportunity to reproduce and pass on their genes than would have survived long enough to have that opportunity otherwise.

Randy Kirk said...

Assuming I agree with that, what are the potential long term consequences of such.

Tom Foss said...

In what sense? Evolutionarily, it means that it will take much longer for selection pressures to produce substantial changes. This doesn't mean that it isn't happening still; the fact that people in the West are much taller now than they were even a hundred years ago is not simply due to nutritonal changes.

As far as emotional state or personality goes, it just means people will always have different personalities. Not much of that is genetic, and even what is isn't a hindrance to procreation.

Duck said...

Just to add to what Tom said, it is wrong to think that depression or certain illnesses are selected for or that any trait that appears is necessarily beneficial. One of the best books I've read on evolution is The Red Queen by Matt Ridley. The title is based on the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass who has the chess piece that runs to stay in the same place. That seems to be the main reason for the sexual method of procreation, that a generational mixing of genes is necessary just to stay in the same place, so to speak, and not to fall prey to diseases and parasites.

So think of it also as the "shotgun " effect. Don't shoot one bullet, shoot a whole swarm of bullets in the hope that one will hit the target. It's a trial and error guessing game. The main rule of the game seems to be that nature has to mix it up each generation and send out a swarm of diffences, hoping that some will have the right stuff to survive to reproduce.

So you shouldn't look at evolution gradually perfecting a genotype until every instance of that genome posesses all the optimum traits. Nature never "gets it just right", it is constantly rolling the dice just to stay in the same place.

Hey Skipper said...

And in a related way, why would self-deprecation, depression, and all the other aspects of self awareness contribute to better dispersal of genetic matter?

You have fallen into the trap of posing everything as being a consequence of natural selection. No foul there -- it is easy to do.

Cancer is not a product of natural selection, but it is an unavoidable consequence of DNA's malleability. (Which, BTW, puts ID/Creationists in a bind. Evolution doesn't put cancer at God's feet, but rather acknowledges it as an unavoidable byproduct of adaptable life. ID/Creationists just as unavoidably, though they either do not either recognize, or acknowledge it, must give the credit for cancer solely to the Designer -- aka God.)

Similarly here. A brain sufficiently complex to derive explanations and communicate them, as well has possessing notions of time, will also have depression and all the other aspects of self awareness as emergent properties.

Can't have the former without the latter. So if selection favors the former, the latter will come along for the ride.

bernardo said...

I think the mistake here is to assume that "self awareness" was always a single integrated system of mutually-beneficial cooperative parts. It might seem that way right now, but if you think about it, it's quite possible that the mind is really the lumping together of a hodgepodge of different processes involving sensory input, memory recall, thoughts, instincts, hormones, and muscle actions. Each of those processes may have evolved on its own, or in small groups, and only when they were all developed enough could the "mind" arise and make them all seem like one unified thing - which, in some ways, it still isn't.

That having been said, once the mind did appear, you have to see how it's the ultimate survival mechanism. Once the mind is complex and unified and powerful enough to allow for deliberate foresight - once a person can go "If I do A, X will happen, if I do B, Y will happen. I remember liking X better than Y, so I'll do A" - this allows us to overcome instincts and impulses, and make long-term decisions that refine our survival processes.

The person who uses his mind to make choices is driven by the thought of not liking certain consequences. This person must desire certain conditions, must find certain conditions preferable to other conditions. So there must be a motivation of avoiding pain. So just the thought of pain should steer someone away from certain actions. The problem is that this pain/worry - or the scary thought of potential or probable pain - can become too intense in the brain (due to chemical imbalances or whatever), leading to many mental problems, depression, anger, self-pity, etc. The mind is like an engine that drives us to make decisions. But it can be slightly out of balance, it can run a little rich or a little lean. Like the human body, the human mind depends on the simultaneous and harmonious working of millions of small parts. As stable and self-repairing as those systems are, it is a consequence of their complexity - and of their very effectiveness - that sometimes things go wrong. (Like DNA and cancer, as has already been said).

I'm doing a terrible job of explaining this. Dan Dennet and Douglas Hofstadter can say it much more elegantly. But you get the idea.

Randy Kirk said...

But you make no bones about the fact that this is all idle speculation about what might have happened. And I suppose to some extent the question asked for such. However, I think the sportsman among us will agree that self-awareness works against us in golf, baseball, bowling. There may be some benefits to it if you are the quarterback. But for the most part, it is muscle memory and getting out of your own way that makes champions.

It just seems hard for me to figure out how self awareness, anger, bitterness, ego, and such are survival benefits.

bernardo said...

Remember the moth and the logarithmic spiral into the flame:

Not all things are survival benefits. Many things are side-effects of beneficial things. The mind gives us a survival advantage in the wild (and in the modern world). The mind does not make us perfectly reasonable and rational - we are still subject to animal impulses and non-optimal brain chemistry - but this is better than no reason at all.

And in sports, I would guess that even the most "intuitive" players learned from, or are coached by, people who put a lot of deliberate thought into studying, modeling, and perfecting tactics.

Randy Kirk said...

I suppose this should be a third post instead of a comment, but I'm starting to see another problem. Our very intelligence is messing up natural selection. That sounds like a good idea for a cool science fiction story.

Such an idea also fits well with my theory that humans are devolving. We may be taller and know more, but I don't think the average human today is smarter or wiser than 200 years ago. Otherwise we should have 1000's of Jeffersons.

bernardo said...

"Our very intelligence is messing up natural selection."

Oh, HECK yeah. The point has been brought up a few times on this blog: Modern society has eased off the pressures of natural selection. Natural selection is not very humane, you know. We now actively work so as to ensure survival not only for the healthy and strong but also for the sick and weak, since they are human too. "Medicine" could indeed be defined as "our very intelligence messing up natural selection" - a good and very desirable thing.

But while our innate physical abilities will probably stop improving (on average), our systems of beliefs and social justice will probably keep evolving. An intelligent species is an ecosystem of memes, and our ideas and systems of beliefs are subject to the pressures of natural selection: The successful ones overwhelm the unsuccessful ones, or are actively emulated by the unsuccessful ones. Debate, trial and error, activism, the internet, literature, and self-changing systems of government, are the stage for the evolution of ideas and beliefs, rather than of biological systems.

So evolution is not dead in modern society. It's just that now the competition is between ideas and beliefs and values, rather than between genetically-determined physical (or mental) characteristics and abilities.

Randy Kirk said...

So over time we could become quite less advanced than today. Bigger, live longer, live better, but not quite as smart.

Now, it would seem that a powerful meme would be dominance. Most folks I know feel better when they are winning, successful, acquiring. While it sometimes works to our favor to achieve these goals through a servants heart, empathy, etc., it is so counterintuitive that most folks (even Chritians - even me most the time) never get it.

The road to these goals seems most likely achieved by backbighting, undermining, shoving aside, etc.

What will balance that kind of thinking?

bernardo said...

"So over time we could become quite less advanced than today. Bigger, live longer, live better, but not quite as smart."

I fail to see why this is a consequence of the slowing down of genetic evolution and/or of the speeding up of memetic evolution.

"The road to these goals seems most likely achieved by backbighting, undermining, shoving aside, etc. What will balance that kind of thinking?"

One, compassion, a conscience, a sense of justice, the golden rule, whatever you want to call it. Two, systems that catch you when you cheat (so as long as you're not cheating, be as competitive as you can!). Three, the realization that, sometimes, the compassionate-humble-servant attitude gets you further than the authoritative-cunning attitude. Isn't that plenty?

Creationists say "There is no way you could possibly ever figure out a naturalistic mechanism by which these biological structures arose". It sounds like you're making the same (and equally defeatist) argument about morals: "There is no way you could possibly ever 'be good' AND 'be successful' just by analyzing values and systematic outcomes - only by religious morals". Again, I don't see why you can't have both the "systems" approach AND the "God" motivation at the same time, or why you can't ignore the "God" motivation as I tend to.

Randy Kirk said...

I suppose a naturalist could come to those conclusions, but show me one who even today, 2000 years after Christ, is promoting such conclusions.

Unfortunately, we have Christians in leadership who don't get it after 2000 years, either. And really unfortunately, there are plenty of days or hours within days that I don't get it or at least don't do it.

Anonymous said...

Randy,

When you ask for Bernardo to show you a naturalist who is promoting "such conclusions", would you please be clear on which conclusions you're talking about?

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

"One, compassion, a conscience, a sense of justice, the golden rule, whatever you want to call it. Two, systems that catch you when you cheat (so as long as you're not cheating, be as competitive as you can!). Three, the realization that, sometimes, the compassionate-humble-servant attitude gets you further than the authoritative-cunning attitude. Isn't that plenty?"

No I would add turning the other cheek, praying for my enemy, forgiving anyone who harms me, being submissive to my spouse, those who are in leadership over me, and my government, revering our husbands, loving our wives like Christ loved the church, and humility.

Anonymous said...

Randy,

Was that post a response to my question?

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

Sorry Kit, yes it was. And now I think we have two threads with almost identical subjects going.

Anonymous said...

Randy,

With all due respect, I don't see how that's an answer for my question.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

I want anyone to show me a naturalist or a humanist or an AynRandian or a atheist who has proposed any set of principles of living that are as provably likely to produce joy, yet so counterintuitive as those in the Bible.

Bernardo listed a few, but I added to them.

Loving unconditionally
Loving sacrificially
Loving without motive
Loving your neighbor as yourself
Being concerned about the welfare of your enemy and wishing for his good (praying for your enemy)
Putting aside envy and jelousy
Being thankful for whatever you have
Being content with your situation
Forgiving those who harm you, especially at a deep level
Accepting forgiveness for your own harm to others
Being submissive to your spouse
Loving your wife like Christ loved the church
Revering your husband
Honoring your parents even when the don't deserve honor
This is a very, very short list off the top of my head.

Randy Kirk said...

Kit,

This was the first thing on Google regarding CS Lewis. There are probably better articles, but this one tells most of the story:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis

Anonymous said...

Randy,

Of course I've read the wikipedia entry on CS Lewis. Numerous times, in fact. You'll notice that nowhere in that article does it make the claim that he was an atheist speaker, much less a famous one.

In fact, I very much encourage you to re-read the article's description of his time as an atheist, because it doesn't match up with your claims.

Lastly, I'm still surprised that people take his "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic" argument seriously. It's a false trichotomy.

----------

Regarding your list, I see all of those as being part and parcel with my understanding of secular humanism, being that I'm a secular humanist. I would simply describe the items in your list much differently, but I see the fundamental parts as being identical.

A couple of other things:

1. Why would you present "as Christ loved the church" to nontheists? How do you expect us to parse that?

2. It's my opinion that Ayn Rand is a horrible writer, and I disagree with her about most of her opinions.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

OK Kit, you're on. Give me a corresponding humanist idea for each item on the list. But it would also be helpful to have some individual or website or something where I could see such things comprehensively proposed as benefiting human life.

Loving your wife as Christ loved the church. He gave his life for it, not only physically, at the end, but devoted his entire life to its creation (nurture.) He was also unconditional and forgiving at all times. His love was empathetic, not judgemental, and he desired the best for everyone he met.

Anonymous said...

I'll get to your list, although I find it strange that you require I present you with an "authority figure", as if my own explanation and possible argumentation for them isn't enough.

You wrote:

"Loving your wife as Christ loved the church. He gave his life for it, not only physically, at the end, but devoted his entire life to its creation (nurture.) He was also unconditional and forgiving at all times. His love was empathetic, not judgemental, and he desired the best for everyone he met."

Randy, I know what it means within the context of christianity. As I've said before, I was a christian for a little over half of my life, and it was through studying the bible that I got out of it, and that I was witnessing to atheists. You can't get far doing that without having to tackle the "bible is against women" argument.

My question wasn't: "What do you mean by that". My question was: "Why would you present "as Christ loved the church" to nontheists? How do you expect us to parse that?"

I should have been more clear. The key phrase there is "why would you present [that] to nontheists?" Randy, "as christ loved the church" isn't something we, nontheists, can relate to.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

I get your point on the use of "as Christ loved the church."

The reason I asked for authorities is that my question has to parts. One is what humanistic proposition comes close to each of the items on the list. To the extent that you can make such a list, it would be pretty meaningless if it wasn't being promoted. The beauty of the Bible is that it compiles all these things in one place and has 2 billion or so folks talking to others about these things and trying to live out the ideas.