Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? (Part 2 of 2) - Patrick McNamara

Patrick McNamara - Neuroscience

Patrick McNamara

Patrick McNamara is Director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory in the Department of Neurology at the BU School of Medicine and the VA New England HealthCare System.

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Patrick
McNamara

Neuroscientist, BU School of Medicine

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Patrick, in trying to understand what is the nature of our consciousness, there are generally two big positions. One is that it's only the brain, a so-called naturalism or materialism, and some kind of other – a dualism, something special, an immortal soul or some – something of that. One of the ways that science has approached this is from an evolutionary psychology point of view, to show how the mind has developed. As a neuropsychologist, how does that argument work?

Patrick McNamara:

Evolutionary psychology gives us a framework within which to ask the right questions. So, the mind presumably has functions. And the functions, according to evolutionary psychology, should serve fitness, or be fitness enhancing. So, those are things like mating, and eating, and survival, and that sort of thing.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, the genetic structure that you have will be perpetuated and increase within the population.

Patrick McNamara:

Right, so, the – so, the default assumption, with respect to the nature of the mind brain, is that it's a device to enhance fitness. And so, then – then, you can reverse engineer it and say, okay, how would it go about doing that, given the current ecological conditions the organism is facing? And well, in order to mate, it will need to – the mind will need to pay attention to these cues, and not those cues, it will have to look for fitness indicators and its mates. So, men will look for fertility signs in women, and women will look for other signs in men, and so forth. And the studies bear that out, so we probably would not have discovered that as easily if we didn't have evolutionary theory with which to give us the framework to ask the question. So, I think that's how evolutionary psychology contributes to understanding nature of mind.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And – and so, as we look upon different things that evolutionary psychology says about mind, we can see the different modules of the mind, like you're defining how men find women attractive and what women find attractive in men, which is one small aspect of mind –

Patrick McNamara:

Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That those can be shown from an evolutionary standpoint of how those developed?

Patrick McNamara:

Right, yeah. We – we – we see those behaviors manifesting. I mean, men tend to choose younger women with signs of fertility, you know, being, being fertile and – and women tend to choose men with resources. And evolutionary theory predicts that. Now, there's all kinds of exceptions. There's all kinds of problems with the theory. But, you know, statistically speaking, that tends to be what people at least say they are looking for in a mate, you know, and that comes straight out of predictions from evolutionary psychology.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Do you see the evolutionary development of religion, which you've studied, as a – a parallel to the evolutionary development of the mind?

Patrick McNamara:

To some extent, insofar as mind is dependent on culture, for sure, yeah. Among the products of the mind are symbols. And – and all the – all the things we call culture, ritual practices, symbols, language products, all of these very complex things that are really extensions of mind. And if you look at the history of religions, a lot of these things first were generated in ritual contexts, you know? So, paintings or sculptures, or temples, these all came out of religious context. So, they're products of the mind, yes, but they're products of the mind as mediated by religious impulses.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Mm-hmm. Within specific cultures.

Patrick McNamara:

Sure.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so, the expression is, is, has the variety of different cultures, but the fact that they occur is – occurs in all cultures, because obviously, mind – human mind is in all human beings, and we find religion in all different cultural expressions of human beings.

Patrick McNamara:

Absolutely, yeah. Religion, to that extent is – is an expression of the mind and – and the mind's capacities. But on the other hand, the – the interesting thing is to ask the question, to what extent does religion give us access to capacities of the mind we would not otherwise have, if we didn't have religion? And one of those things is we become better killers, you know? If – if religion helps us becomes better killers sometimes, that's what the record shows, religion also helps up become better healers, and it helps us become better cooperators, so that cultural complex we call religion is a device the mind uses to access powers of the mind we wouldn't otherwise get to. We become better killers, better healers, better cooperators, so on and so forth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So – so, here's the hard question though. Does religion, in that case, access powers that the mind has? Or does religion, in that sense, in a historical development, co-create and co-develop aspects of the mind that never existed? Because this is the, this would be the big discussion. Does the mind always exist, and therefore it may have some ontological or great being difference, like an immortal soul or something always there that religion recruits? Or in a – in a more robust, evolutionary psychology theory, it – you'd have the religious part actually co-creating the mind, so the mind would develop because of – of this relationship? That's the key.

Patrick McNamara:

Yeah, that's a really good question. I – I think that it's a little bit of both, probably, and probably religion and other cultural complexes start off by just accessing what's already available and modifying it, enhancing it, inhibiting it, so on. So, it's like a selection device. But then, as the two co-evolve, then religion starts generating platforms that then become part of the mind, and then the mind uses that to generate further cultural, you know, it's – it's this co-evolutionary scenario. You see it in – in all aspects of human behavior. Religion's just particularly good at it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, it – so, you would then believe that the evolutionary development of the mind would have a direct relationship to the evolutionary development of religion.

Patrick McNamara:

I think the human mind co-evolved with religious ideas, you might say, or religious practices. We can go back as – as far back as Neanderthals and there are indicate – indications of religious practices, very clear indications of religious practices. So, at the dawn of human kind, most archae – most anthropologists, I would say, put the dawn of human kind about fifty thousand years ago. I mean, the first humans were three hundred thousand years ago but, you know, some – something special occurred about fifty thousand years ago and – and we have clear evidence of religious artifacts, religious practices going back fifty thousand years. So, it must have influenced subsequent development; it must have. It's too – it – it – it influences too many of those fitness-enhancing behaviors for it not to have had some sort of effect on permanent human behavioral capacities.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

In that sense that the cultural aspect of religion co-develops with the personal psychological development of an individual mind, and the two have co-evolved together.

Patrick McNamara:

Yeah, I, I would say so, I would say so.