Tag Archives: Heuristics

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 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.

Hard wired 10: Evolution, human culture and the big brain

Evolutionary psychology as we shall see, is tightly bound up with culture. To understand the evolution of culture we need first to explain how we developed our big brain. Without increased brain power it’s unlikely that human culture would ever have developed beyond the level of modern chimpanzees.

Whilst there is good evidence that our species (& its forebears) evolved ever larger brains the question of why they did so is much harder to answer. We do know that it must have resulted from selection pressures and that the process involved pre-existing traits but that’s about all. So far as I can tell there is no definitive evidence to explain the exact process. However there are a number of possibilities.

The following is a ‘just so’ story. It’s not even the only such story that has been proposed. It is, however the one that seems most plausible to me. It’s a speculative explanation for the currently known facts. Those facts undoubtedly will be added to as time goes on. As our understanding increases our explanations will improve. That’s the scientific process. We haven’t reached the end of our journey of discovery. After all, it is only 2019.

What is culture?

In this context ‘culture’ means shared beliefs, rituals, understandings and explanations. That’s not rocket science. It would be hard to imagine any sizeable human group that didn’t have at least some cultural traits. The real question isn’t why humans developed culture but why (and how) our ancestors evolved the ability to do so in the first place. It seems that many changes were necessary to make human culture possible:

Selection pressures and adaptations

  • Habitat changed (our ancestors became increasingly well adapted for life in the open and less well adapted for life among the trees;
  • Brain volume increased significantly;
  • Technology developed and changed (from basic ‘processed’ tools such as flint spear points and arrowheads to axes, jewellery and even boats);
  • Hunting changed (there is evidence of much larger game animals being butchered as the species evolved).

These things must have resulted from selection pressures favouring individuals best suited to cope with change. Collectively they represented significant advantages to those individuals who possessed even some, if not all of the necessary adaptations. The gene pool was changing.

It seems to me (at least at this early stage of my studies) that the most important selection pressures were:

  • Group size;
  • Communication and language needs;
  • Need for larger amounts of food;
  • Need for cooperation to sustain large groups;
  • Need for co-operation to ensure the survival of larger groups;
  • Need to develop shared ‘memes’ to facilitate cooperation;
  • Need to develop explanations to foster group cohesion (and ‘out-group’ alienation).

Many of the ‘mental modules’ we’ll discuss later in the series are refined versions of adaptations resulting from these very pressures.

Existing traits available for natural selection via directional and sexual adaptative pressures seem likely to have included…

Rudimentary communication via mating ‘songs’ & dance

Studies of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos show a tendency to communicate via a range of sounds and gestures – especially during courtship. Gibbons which pair for life advertise their relationships to others via song and studies have shown that they also have different calls (rudimentary language) representing different kinds of threat.

All these things represent viable precursors of language. Assuming, as seems likely, that similair abilities were present in our early hominim ancestors, we have the raw material for natural selection to work with.

But there’s a problem. For sophisticated language to develop the animal would need a big brain. However to build a big brain the animal needs plentiful protein. Obtaining plentiful protein requires effective, co-operative hunting of big game. Co-operative hunting of big game requires communication which requires a big brain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Catch 22!

This was a major quandary for evolutionists for many years. It seemed as though big brain development was impossible and yet it happened. We have the fossils to prove it. What we didn’t have was an explanation. But now we have….

Theory of mind

Cooperation requires ‘Theory of mind’. That means an awareness of self and of others. It also requires an understanding that others may see things differently from ourselves. Without these two insights teamwork (and effective, cooperative big game hunting) would’ve been impossible for humans. And yet for years it was believed that no other primate species exhibited even rudimentary theory of mind. Until…………..…..

Co-operation and empathy

Another set of primate studies revealed not only significant theory of mind but also remarkable co-operation, especially related to aggression, dominant coalition and access to ‘mating rights’. Not only that, studies involving bonobos demonstrate significant empathy – another major requirement for the development of culture as we humans would recognise it. Once again we see the rudiments of another of the elements needed for big brain and cultural development. We can assume that our pre-human ancestors possessed the same rudimentary characteristics before the big brain developed.

So how might these elements come together? The process isn’t quite so complicated as it first appears.

As our ancestors left the forests and ventured out into the grasslands the need for effective warning systems became pressing. Natural selection (predation) favoured the best communicators creating a directional pressure toward more and more sophisticated language.

Improved language facilitates cooperation (largely based upon shared ‘memes’ or ‘explanations of the world’) which in turn facilitates more effective hunting.

More effective hunting meant more protein which allowed better brain development leading to even better communication.

Dependency and parental investment

The mechanics of childbirth provided a new problem for the evolving apes. Bipedalism (walking upright) was necessary for survival out of the woodlands but it meant a narrow birth canal. That means that bipedal hominims need to be born before their brains are fully developed. Otherwise their heads will be too large for the birthing process. This results in extended periods of helplessness for newborns (a characteristic that exists in humans to this day). This creates a serious selection pressure. Only those babies that are well looked after survive.

This explains why, compared with most other primates, human males invest far more of their time, energy and resources in providing for and nurturing their young. Chimpanzee males, our closest relatives typically don’t even know which offspring are theirs. Human males generally do – and they participate. We are a ‘High Male Parental Investment’ (MPI) species.

The extended helplessness of human infants created a significant selection pressure. Empathic and co-operative males provided the best nutrition and protection. Females that selected effective providers and nurturers as mates were most likely to see their young make it to maturity and produce offspring of their own. Their genes will survive.

Consequently males and females are subject to directional and sexual selective pressure favouring empathy, high parental investment and cooperation. This selection pressure (over many generations) imbued our ancestors with the ingredients for social culture and the means to fuel a big brain. The big brain in turn built upon these qualities to facilitate even greater technologies, communication and social interaction. This remarkable combination of selection pressures and adaptations allowed our species to develop, step by step from small bands of hunter gatherers into the large societies with sophisticated cultures that we know today

Hard-wired 6: Why is anything hard-wired at all?

Back into the routine with the mental health YouTube channel. Here’s the latest instalment of the evolutionary psychology series

%d bloggers like this: