Hard wired 15: The unthinking mental module

It’s easy to understand how humans and other species evolved physical characteristics as a result of adaptation and natural selection. Helpful variations confer their advantages down through the generations whilst less helpful variations die out. So longer-legged (fast-running) wild horses outrun their predators but those with overly long legs suffer broken shafts and are eaten. The optimum leg length is maintained by natural selection. That’s straightforward enough.

But what about mental and behavioural evolution? Evolved psychological traits are a little harder to grasp. To make sense of this fascinating topic it’s helpful to begin by considering evolved animal behaviours…. animal instincts, in other words.

Animal instincts

The following examples of instincts from the animal world are directly analogous to human behaviours that are often described as ‘just human nature’:

  • Social (non reproductive), sexual behaviours (including promiscuous chimps and mutually masturbatory bonobos);
  • Protective behaviours from cats with kittens to soldier ants defending their nests;
  • Slave making behaviours such as ants carrying off pupae;
  • Parasitic behaviours such as cuckoos laying eggs in the nests of other species;
  • Flight distances that determine how close a gazelle will let the lion approach before it flees (abandoning its meal);
  • The Ichneumon wasp cruelly ‘sacrificing’ caterpillars of other species so that its own young can thrive.

It’s unlikely that all these creatures are fully aware of the implications of their actions – they act unconsciously and with sometimes ruthless efficiency. That’s instinct.

Homo sapiens shares these same instincts, often with just as little awareness of their true motivation.

These instincts – these ‘mental modules’ , are just as influential for our physical behaviours (homemaking, status-seeking) as they are for our psychological behaviours (paranoia, pattern-seeking, deference to authority).

Robert Wright’s acclaimed book The moral animal provides an accessible and detailed account of mental modules, using the life of Charles Darwin himself to illustrate the point. I won’t do the book justice here (I’ve read it twice so far and I still haven’t taken it all in). But I will try to give an outline. Here’s just one example…

Loyalty

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Most people like the idea of loyalty – in fact they value it. Governments and religions, businesses and family groups alike consider it a great virtue. And yet even a moment of thought shows that in truth, loyalty is far from a universal virtue in the modern world and may actually be better thought of as a vice.

Why loyalty is a vice

People generally behave differently toward members of their own group than toward others. This is loyalty. So freemasons will favour other freemasons when seeking employees and racists give preference to strangers of their particular skin colour even though they know absolutely nothing more about them than. It doesn’t take much to realise just how unfair and unethical these sorts of distinctions, these group loyalties are. These are the more obvious of loyalty’s problems. There are other, less obvious but equally damaging examples too.

image Imagine a support worker who sees a visitor beating a vulnerable care home resident with a stick. What should the support worker do?

The answer, of course, is obvious – he should report the assault in the knowledge that adult protection is his legal obligation. This would allow the law to step in, protect the victim and prosecute the abuser. There’s nothing very difficult about that.

wpid-Panorama-abuse-allegation-007.jpg

But what if the abuser was a friend and colleague? What if the abuser was the victim’s husband disciplining his wife in accordance with religious doctrine (a religion such as Islam, for example, which the support worker also followed)?

The law is still the same. The abuse is still the same but the loyalties will be different. And that’s where the problems begin.

Loyalty prevents us from doing what we believe to be right. When the support worker fails to report their colleague or fellow worshipper through loyalty they make continued abuse more likely. The same is true of ‘no grassing’ cultures where victims and bystanders alike are seen as disloyal to the group (think of schoolyards) or some vague notion of honour (think of adult crime). Loyalty that prevents reporting of offences is no more than an abusers’ charter.

And yet that’s the whole point of loyalty – to get people to bend or even break the rules. Without loyalty people are likely to do what they believe to be right. Loyalty simply interferes with right action. Far from being a virtue it is a major vice, a cause of great unfairness and superficial prejudice. So why do humans across the globe value it so highly?

Loyalty as a universal human trait (hard wired)

Remember our earlier discussion about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)? That’s the environment in which most of our species’ characteristics were developed in response to the prevailing selection pressures.

In that environment early humans (and their evolutionary predecessors) lived in small groups where survival. of every individual (and their genes) depended upon the survival of every other individual. They were truly interdependent in ways that modern humans generally can only imagine. In order to survive they had to help each other, ensure mutual co-operation and, if they came into contact with other human groups, make sure that their own kin didn’t lose out. The principle of loyalty was born.

The mental module of loyalty

We covered heuristics in an earlier post too. The mental shortcut that gets us to solve problems without having to think about them. Loyalty is an heuristic. It’s a mental module hardwired since the pleistocene that says

“Favour members of your own group”.

In the early days of human evolution that may have been a vital principle but today it’s just unfair and unethical. Nationalism, sexism, racism and a host of other ‘isms’ really just boil down to arbitrary loyalties based upon irrelevancies such as skin colour, religious cultural tradition and place of birth.

And now the good news

The universal nature of loyalty based cultures shows us that this particular mental module is hard wired. And yet many people have managed to get beyond these petty loyalties and act in accordance with their conscience instead. This must give us cause for optimism.

The fact that whistle-blowers exist and that most people have moved beyond racism shows that it is possible to overcome hard-wired mental modules. I suspect that greater understanding will go a long way toward this goal as we discover more and more about the various mental modules bequeathed to us by our earliest human and pre human ancestors. Knowledge is power. If we want to outgrow the primitive behaviour of Homo habilis we’ll do well to try to understand him/her first.

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