Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Mind? - Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer - Philosophy of Science

Michael Shermer

Michael Brant Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims.

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Michael
Shermer

Author, Founder and Publisher, Skeptic magazine

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Michael some would claim that the existence of consciousness or mind is the, the demonstration that physicalism or materialism is not correct; there's a bigger explanation in the world. The alternative explanation has to do with the evolutionary psychology how evolutionary psychology has developed which has created many of the things that we think about mind. How can we begin to, to distinguish between those two radically different explanations?

Michael Shermer:

Remember when Darwin wrote in one of his early notes, which is that he who understands baboon understands more than Plato. Right. I mean we're connected to all life on earth. We know this. This is a fact of nature and so why, why elevate ourselves to something special when the Copernican principle says you're not special. We're part of, the we're just part of everything right. So why would argue this about chimps or gorillas. I mean they have huge brains. Dolphins bigger brains. Whales, gigantic brains. Right so we can't get past this chauvinism we have that somehow we're special.

So we know that the mind depending on the brain because in strokes, Alzheimer's, senility, dementia, as the brain dies the mind that was there disappears. Now where does it go? As say Alzheimer's patients, my step mom had Alzheimer's so I saw her disappear in the course of years. And everything got smaller. I mean her handwriting got smaller, her gait got smaller, she sort of shrunk down, her memory got smaller. Everything. So as those neurons die, the mind that was there is gone. So until scientists or somebody can tell me where the mind went and how it can be brought back without the neurons, then the logical conclusion is that there's just brain, there's no mind.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Ok but how does, how does evolutionary psychology that select for the different components of what we have in the mind, everything from altruism to aggressiveness, all these different components that, that are part of our way of thinking.

Michael Shermer:

Right, so we have to be careful when we use words like he thought or she remembered or he figured it out. These are just words that we use to describe something that's going on in the brain. We have to get right down to the neurons firing and figure out what's going on. Right there. That's the facial recognition software, whatever metaphor you want to use and that's what it's specialized to do so we know from evolutionary psychology that the brain is modular. It has a lot of different little modules or neural networks that evolve to solve certain problems, like facial recognition or conflict resolution or altruism. Again, altruism is a big fuzzy word. It's just how you're going to interact with another member of your primate species in a certain situation. Are you going to be cooperative or defect, you know this sorts of thing. And so once we deconstruct it in a, in a very objective way then we can see why it would have been there in the first place.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So how powerful is evolution in describing those kinds of mind modules that we all have that we think there is a unity that it's just me. But in fact there are all these different components, these modules that come together to create it and they can be teased apart by injury. So maybe if I have an injury to one part of my brain everything else is normal but I can't distinguish faces any more. That's the only thing I can't do because it used to be part of this unity and now it's not.

Michael Shermer:

I know so we feel like unity and there's probably even a neural network that specializes in uniting all the other neural networks and they're feeling like one whole. Because you'd go crazy otherwise. There would be just too much conflict going on. As it is we have to rationalize why we're not actually hypocritical even though everybody else can see that we're being hypocritical. But, but don't think of something too charged.

Just think of something like there is one neural network that really likes cheesecake. Anything with sugar and fat and we know why that is. And then there's another part of my brain that likes me having a thin figure with a nice build and not too much body fat. Ok. These are always going to be in conflict. And sometimes I cave. Sometimes I have discipline. And even understanding why that is the case. It may have to do with blood sugar level or experience of resisting temptation. I get better at it. Like a muscle, it gets stronger. Anything with that has to do with human nature behavior we can bring back to an evolutionary explanation.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And each of those can be evolutionary explained independently or some co-evolutionary development together. I mean there could be hundreds of these if not more of these mind modules.

Michael Shermer:

Absolutely. Well you know we have a hundred billion neurons, a thousand connections between each of them. And so yeah there's no telling how many are there. And that's why we have a lot of conflicts. But just takes something simple like why you feel guilty. Now certain cultures will say you should feel guilty about this. Or another culture says you should feel guilty about that. What the evolutionary psychologist wants to know is why would you feel guilty about anything. What's the reason for guilt and the answer cause we're a social species and we have to get along. There's going to be conflicts, the group has to impose some kind of penalty. You have to feel guilty about violating the social norm or else you're not going to respond to the cues of don't do that again. So it's there for an evolutionary reason.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And an event occurs and I do feel guilty that I'm going to be accepted by the group and therefore I would have a better chance of mating. I mean you got to, you got to pass the genes on or, or the thing doesn't work.

Michael Shermer:

Well look what hunter-gatherers do to people that are like psychopaths or sociopath that feel on guilt at all. That if they violate enough social norms, they take them out in the back woods and they just don't come back and therefore they're not going to have very many children.