Tag Archives: evolutionary psychology

Hard-wired 17a: Coincidence and irrational humanity

In terms of the psychological spandrels we discussed earlier, the tendency to make ‘false positive’ (type 1) errors is an evolved characteristic. Paranoia, pattern-seeking and agency-detection may well be the by-products.

So we assume that things are related to each other
Further we assume that they’re deliberately caused by some thinking intelligence – an agent.

This leads us to take offence that nobody meant.
This leads us to make up agents like Karma, God, ghosts or the universe.
This leads us to define places, people and events as lucky, unlucky or even cursed.

In short – this makes us all irrational and basically unfit to leave the house without adult supervision – except that we ARE the adults.

Scary, isn’t it?

 

Hard-wired 17: Bias and the evolutionary ‘spandrel’

In this video we’ll consider three of the most widespread (and misleading) of our evolved mental modules. We’ll look at ‘selective abstraction‘, ‘arbitrary inference’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Each of these is related in its own way to pattern recognition as described in part 16.

What’s most interesting from an evolutionary perspective is that these three aspects of human psychology, although universal, may not be advantageous in themselves. They may, in fact, be no more than evolutionary by products of pattern recognition.

There are many examples of by products, both physical and psychological. Certain genes seem to confer a variety of traits as though some evolutionary advantages cannot exist without other less positive or neutral correlates. The trade off between sickle cell anaemia and protection from malaria discussed in part 9 is an excellent example. Evolution isn’t perfect and so neither is the human body – or the human mind.

Sometimes these extra ‘add on’ characteristics can fool us. They look like the evolved characteristic that was favoured by natural selection but they’re not – they’re just the baggage that comes along with it. They’re what Stephen Jay Gould described as evolutionary ‘spandrels’.

Hardwired 16: Pattern recognition

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.

This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.

This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.

It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control

This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

 

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

wpid-Loyalty-is-My-Honour.jpg

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.

Hard-wired 13: Creationism? Bring it on!

I was recently challenged to a debate by a creationist who confidently informed me that evolution is a lie, even going so far as to ask me if I knew that it’s ‘only a theory’. Yes, I know – it’s hard to accept that in 2019 such a level of scientific illiteracy continues to plague our society.

Ultimately, this creationist appears to have bottled out of the debate he challenged me to so I though I’d make this little video instead. Creationists – please watch and learn. Trust me – you really do need to learn!

Unfortunately, when putting the above video together, late one night after a shift at work, I messed up. The diagrams I used to illustrate the fallacious Kalam cosmological argument didn’t make sense. So I made this shorter video to correct my mistake. Sorry about that.

 

 

 

Hard-wired 12: Know thy enemy

Nobody seriously can deny that our evolutionary journey, from the simplest chemical compounds to the complex organisms we know as Homo sapiens involved extreme callousness and even casual cruelty.

Survival of the fittest has never been noted for its compassion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must always remain slaves to ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. The selfishness of natural selection is not the model for a compassionate society.

As Richard Dawkins put it in his groundbreaking 1976 book The selfish gene:

“Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.“

To put it another way……

Know thy enemy!

Hard-wired 11: Heuristics – our evolved psychological shortcuts

Heuristics are the psychological shortcuts that keep us going in a complex world. They shorten decision-making time and allow us to function without constantly having to stop and think about our next course of action.

Selection pressures 2

Our series on evolutionary psychology continues with the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of natural selection and its impact upon speciation, survival and behaviour (flight, hiding, sexual attraction etc). This necessarily brief overview sets the scene for the rather more complex work on evolved psychology to come. These selection pressures have been the drivers that led our species to become fully human and to develop the enigmatic set of behaviours and attitudes we call ‘human nature’.

Hard wired 7: The evolutionary environment

What do we mean by EEA?

The acronym ‘EEA’ stands for the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation/Adaptiveness’, otherwise known as the ‘Evolutionary Environment’ or the ‘Ancestral Environment’. Originally coined by John Bowlby it has come to mean the conditions in which a species adapts because of strong naturally selective pressures. (Schore 2012)

Badcock (2000) estimates that for around 99% of its existence the human species lived in small groups of hunter gatherers. The bulk of human adaptation took place during the pleistocene (beginning around 1.8 million years ago) and continuing until around 12,000 years ago (10,000 BCE). The first human (homo) species arrived on the scene around 2.5 million years ago. Our adaptation during that time, whilst well-suited to primitive societies, isn’t always helpful in the modern world of the last 10,000 years or so.

The figure of 10,000 years isn’t arbitrary by the way. That’s the time when humans first began to form larger societies – a change that our evolved psychology still seems to struggle with. We know that middle-eastern cities such as Jericho were founded around 7,000 years ago and that other cities such as Ur were founded sometime earlier.

http://history-world.org/firsttowns.htm

The fact is humans didn’t evolve to live in large towns and cities with national identities and we certainly didn’t adapt through the ages to spend our lives surrounded by strangers. But why not? To answer this we need to consider a few fundamental points:

  • Evolution is slow;
  • Evolution occurs on ‘islands’;
  • Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation.

Evolution is slow

Although 10,000 years seems like an almost unimaginably long time for humans it’s actually a very short period in evolutionary terms. The process of evolution by natural selection, even in ideal conditions takes millions of years. For example a recent article estimates that the most recent common ancestor linking all the great apes lived some 18/9 million years ago.

The process relies more on numbers of generations than years passed & we’re really only talking about around 2000 generations over that time. So one answer to the question ‘why not’ is simply that our species hasn’t had enough time to evolve past hunter-gatherer societies.

Evolution occurs on ‘islands’

Evolution by means of natural selection happens most rapidly when survival pressures are most prevalent and life is so hard that new adaptations create genuine procreative advantages. It’s also important that any new adaptation isn’t ‘swamped’ by too much competition as it (and the human being that carries it) competes for survival/procreative advantage. In short natural selection works best when life is short and the breeding population is small. Otherwise genetic changes get lost before they can establish a foothold.

This is what we mean by ‘islands’. An evolutionary island doesn’t need to be surrounded by water but it should be isolated. This isolation could be the result of a natural barrier (a desert or mountain range, for example) or just the result of a small population, rarely coming into contact with other human groups. In these circumstances small, adaptive genetic variations can take hold and thrive. In large, modern, industrial societies adaptive mutations (for example keener eyesight) have much less impact on the population as a whole. My own short-sightedness is easily corrected by my glasses in modern UK whereas in the EEA of a million years ago it would have been a major handicap that may well have resulted in death long before I had a chance to breed.

At this point it’s worth pre-empting one of the more superficial and tiresome objections regularly raised by creationists. We’ve already covered the ‘naturalistic fallacy’:

but I want to restate the point:

The fact that natural selection callously lets

the weakest die doesn’t mean that it is right.

The ancient evolutionary environment was hard and ruthless, in one sense that was because early humans lacked the technology we have today to make things better. Acknowledging that life was cheap ‘back then’ doesn’t mean we think that’s how it should be. But let’s be clear:

Natural selection doesn’t care what you or I might think.

Natural selection doesn’t care about anything.

Evolution isn’t concerned with individual comfort unless it aids procreation

As we will see throughout this series evolution isn’t the result of any grand design to ensure human happiness. It’s simply a ‘mechanism’ a process by which different organisms compete with each other to survive.

Personally I wish it was different. I wish there was a plan. Perhaps a divine creator would have designed a world without so much pain and suffering. But that’s not how it is – unless you believe that starvation, disease and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ are somehow the hallmarks of a benign, intelligent designer.

Evolution has no plan, no compassion and no interest in ‘right and wrong’. Those concerns are solely human. To shirk our responsibility for creating our own moral code (whether we take our morality from nature or from Divinity) seems to me to be nothing more than intellectual and moral cowardice. If we can learn anything from either religion or the evolved natural world it’s that both are capable of creating almost unimaginable catastrophe. We accept uncritically either of these at our peril. So let’s stop pretending that Darwinism has anything to teach us about how things ‘ought to be’. Darwin’s great gift was to provide us with a way to understand how we evolved in the past. What we do with that knowledge is another question entirely.

REFERENCES

Badcock, C. (2000). Evolutionary psychology: A critical introduction. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.

Schore (2012) http://www.lifespanlearn.org/documents/Schore%20Slides2012.pdf