Back into the routine with the mental health YouTube channel. Here’s the latest instalment of the evolutionary psychology series
Let’s be clear about just what ‘hard wired’ means. After all – there aren’t really any wires in the brain. There are nerves that look a bit like wires – indeed they carry electrical signals through the body just like the wires in a plug but that’s not really what we mean in evolutionary terms when we talk about ‘hard wired’.
In an evolutionary context what we mean is that some things are ‘fixed’ and immovable. They are ‘hard wired’ in so far as they cannot be changed.
When we talk about physical attributes this is easy to understand. For example, the colour of an individual’s eyes is hard wired – it’s the result of their particular genetic make-up. So is the ability to wiggle one’s ears (or not). These are genetically determined and they’re not about to change whether we like it or not.
It’s important to be clear about what we’ve just said….
Physical attributes such as these are not negotiable. They’re hard-wired.
There’s another name for this – it’s called ‘determinism’.
Determinism means that the individual has no control over these particular attributes. They’re as they are and that’s all there is to it. Short of modern innovations such as cosmetic surgery we all look the way we do because our genes determined our appearance without any reference to our preferences or desires. That’s why most people have two legs, two arms, four fingers and an opposable thumb on each hand, spines that are notoriously vulnerable to injury and chronic pain and extremely badly designed eyes (the optic nerve passes through the middle of the retina creating an unnecessary blind spot). Nor can we change the fact that our sinuses, perfectly adapted for drainage in our quadruped ancestors, are extremely inefficient in bipedal humans as anyone with a headcold can attest etc etc. We didn’t choose these things – they evolved that way and we’re stuck with them. That’s determinism.
That’s all very well and nobody would dispute the fact that we can’t control the basic evolved structure of our eyes (however poor that structure may be). But what if we couldn’t control our basic behaviours either? For a lot of people that might be a bit harder to accept.
In evolutionary psychology the idea is that our mental ‘modules’ are just as determined, just as ‘beyond our control’ as our physical attributes are. We are what we are, both physically and mentally because our ancestors evolved that way. Some evolutionary psychologists go so far as to suggest that free will is an evolved myth – an evolutionary con trick that lets us believe we’re in charge when really nothing could be further from the truth.
Others aren’t so rigid. They talk about the ‘default’ settings that spring from our evolutionary make up but also include into their theories the possibility that we can overcome those predetermined character traits. In other words that we retain a degree of free will even though the cards may well be stacked against us from the outset.
In large part this blog series will explore these two notions and in the process try to go some way toward deciding whether or not free will is an illusion. But it will also go further. We’ll also examine those aspects of human psychology that seem to be universal with the assumption that they evolved in our species (and other species) in exactly the same way that other characteristics evolved and by precisely the same basic mechanism – natural selection. Let’s look at another example.
Creationists often object to evolutionary theory on the grounds that, based as it is upon natural selection or ‘survival of the fittest’, it cannot account for widespread traits such as altruism. However that’s just not true – it can, and it does.
“The altruist expects reciprocation from society
for himself and his closest relatives.”
Andrew Marvell (1650)
“I’d lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”
JBS Haldane (1974)
Tit for tat
In 1981 Anatol Rapoport won a competition. It was a simple contest – the various contestants had to write a computer programme that would survive in a sort of electronic evolutionary environment. His programme, which he called ‘Tit for tat’ was simple and effective. In short it consisted of just 4 rules to apply to co-operative relationships with other programmes:
1. Never be the first to defect (defecting means ‘cheating’ to you and me)
2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected
3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation
4. Adopt this strategy only if the probability of meeting the same player again exceeds 2/3
The programme beat all other programmes including the selfish and opportunistic, exploitative ones. And it did so with ease. The reason for its remarkable success was that the rules it operated by meant that it rewarded cooperation and kindness from other programmes whilst punishing transgressors by withdrawing cooperation and kindness. In other words the altruistic programme rewarded altruistic others.
Crucially the Tit for tat programme didn’t understand anything about altruism – it was merely following rules and being nice to everyone unless they were unkind to it.
We can see how a genetic mental module that inclines us to be nice to others (so long as we expect to see them again) would thrive in the evolutionary environment where people presumably knew each other in their tiny communities for their entire lives. We can also see how little they would need to understand about the higher philosophy of altruism and cooperation – they just did nice things because their genes drove them to in the same way that people enjoy sugars and fats because the genes for those preferences gave their ancestors an advantage when food was scarce. There’s no need to understand it or even be conscious of it – just doing it is enough.
This unconscious trait – this tendency to act in certain ways in particular situations is what we mean by a ‘mental module’. It’s a genetically predetermined characteristic that responds to circumstance (a fellow altruist or a cheat) in predictable, predetermined ways.
Take that ‘Free will’!