Understanding Humanity: The Limitations Of Evolutionary Perspectives

Brain (image source - www.wired.com)
 
Ever since Darwin, the temptation for many has been to regard human behaviors as biologically based, instinctive, and most likely advantageous from an evolutionary point of view. But explanations of human psychological behavior in evolutionary terms are necessarily more speculative than are explanations of the human digestive system, for example.

 


 

Understanding Humanity: The Limitations Of Evolutionary Perspectives

 Ever since Darwin, the temptation for many has been to regard human behaviors as biologically based, instinctive, and most likely advantageous from an evolutionary point of view. It’s certainly true that bodies require water, food, breathable air and protection from hostile elements (such as extreme temperatures, excessive humidity, corrosives, toxins…) and the biological sciences have done much to assist our understanding of these facts. But explanations of human psychological behavior in evolutionary terms are necessarily more speculative, more prone to ideological biases, more difficult to verify than are explanations of the human digestive system, for example.

Looking at the work of neuroscientists, it’s tempting to see an association between certain thoughts and specific areas of the brain as evidence that consciousness is generated by evolved brains, and that seems to be the default assumption of evolutionary psychology.  But for all I know the brain might be a receiver of consciousness rather than a consciousness generator…

Brain (image source - www.wired.com)

Historically, human beings have been demonstrating most convincingly their ability to organize collectively, to adapt and endure all kinds of threats to their future survival. Responses to the existential problem of ‘right livelihood’ have been many and varied, with some societies apparently better at reproducing themselves than others.  This suggests to me that cultural conditioning is a task master vigorous and insidious as any alleged biological imperatives. I’d say there are at least three issues requiring serious consideration before jumping to any conclusions about evolution, brains and consciousness.

First, many people seem to believe that they belong to a species that is the master of its own destiny. According to philosopher John Gray, “Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments. Species cannot control their own fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans. Yet it is forgotten whenever people talk of ‘the progress of mankind’. They have put there faith in an abstraction that no one would think of taking seriously if it were not formed from cast-off Christian hopes.” [1] Basically, what Gray is saying is that for all our high-mindedness, we humans operate within limits just like all other life forms, and we ignore them at our peril. Unlike science, human life isn’t a cumulative activity, and the gains made by one generation may be lost by another. Knowledge doesn’t make people free. Humanity will never tame nature or make a paradise on Earth.  Have to say I kind of agree, and I part company with humanist philosophies and religious scriptures that elevate humanity above all other life forms. The way I see it, we’re all in samsara [2] together, and human beings can learn a lot from other animals about how to live with their limitations.

Second, there are hints that biological forces as yet unknown may exist. Why, for example, do broken limbs heal and remodel themselves? Why do brains compensate for blindness by increasing the perceptiveness of other sensory organs? Why do flatworms when cut in two grow a new head or tail? As pointed out by maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake, there appears to be some intelligence at work which enables an organism to knows itself, and its parts, in their entirety. So-called ‘morphic fields’ may be located within and around the systems they organize. [3] While the verifiable evidence for it may be slim, the ‘morphic fields’ idea might be pointing to a mechanism that underlies the organization of proteins, cells, crystals, plants, animals, brains, and minds. It offers a possible explanation for habits, memories, instincts, telepathy, the sense of direction, bird migration, the synchronous growth from embryo to Evolution (image source - www.telegraph.co.uk)adulthood and the growth of body parts in proportion to the whole body…  Such things can’t be explained by genetics alone.  According to medical doctor and writer James Le Fanu, there simply isn’t enough room inside the human genome to store all the necessary information – “The imperative to condense within those double strands of CGAT molecules the diversity, form and attributes that so readily distinguish man from fly and from all other forms of life would seem to pose an impenetrable barrier to scientific understanding”. [4]

Third, neuroscientist Robert Burton reminds us that the mind exists as felt experience and abstract concepts: “It is the human condition to experience a largely involuntarily generated mind that feels quite strongly that it can explain itself… Ironically, even if there were to be a final and last word on the nature of mind, we wouldn’t recognize it unless we all thought the same way – and that’s a psychological impossibility… Not one of us, not the smartest or cleverest or the most profound neuroscientist, philosopher, or observer of mankind, has the final word. Each of us is weaving stories, not uncovering absolute truths. The mind is and always will be a mystery.” [5]

Using pseudo-science, ‘New Age’ philosophies and religion to fill the holes in scientific knowledge is a temptation that few people seem able to resist. On the other hand, anyone who insists that genes or chemicals are solely responsible for any of the examples of unexplained phenomena mentioned above, is filling holes just the same. No one really knows how water, sugars, fats, proteins and chemicals are able to become self aware. I think that genetics has been great for medicine and horticulture, but is not a final explanation of all we are and all we do. Religions, philosophies and sciences can be complimentary or contradictory but no single approach can account fully for all aspects of human behavior. For each of us the proper response right now, surely, is ‘don’t know’.

_________________

Notes

[1] John Gray, Straw Dogs, Granta Books, 2002, p. 3.

[2] “Samsara literally means ‘wandering-on’. Many people think of it as the Buddhist name for the place where we currently live – the place we leave when we go to nibbana. But in the early Buddhist texts, it’s… a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.” – “Samsara”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010. < http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/samsara.html>

[3] Rupert Sheldrake,  ‘Morphic Fields and Morphic Resonance’ in Neotic Now: Issue Four, November 2010. < http://www.noetic.org/noetic/issue-four-november-2010/morphic-fields-and-morphic-resonance/>

[4] James Le Fanu, Why Us?, Harper Press, 2009, p.146. [5]  Robert A Burton, A Skeptics Guide To The Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 2013, pp. 229-30.

[5]  Robert A Burton, A Skeptics Guide To The Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 2013, pp. 229-30.

Image Credits

‘Brain’ (www.wired.com)
‘Evolution’ (www.telegraph.co.uk)



 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *