Psychology, Evolution and Pandora


This text was submitted to an internet forum on behavior. It is immediately followed by a reply to this text on the same forum. These two texts are presented as originally submitted and are therefore not as formal as actual essays written on the subject might have been.


Many years ago I was an engineer working with airborne combat computers. These were constructed from vacuum tubes, therefore terribly unreliable, and based on analog techniques and therefore as inaccurate But it was the leading edge in technology at the time and they were quite effective. I had spent years learning the intricacies of the components we used and the circuitries that forced these recalcitrant parts to behave. It was at Hughes and we were known all over the world for our technical proficiency.

Then we began to hear rumors about digital computers, and other rumors about a little gadget called a transistor. It was all very interesting, but hardly practical. Digital computation would require millions of active devices, we were working with hundreds and almost overwhelmed with that. Transistors were terribly non-linear and quite prone to thermal blowout. Besides, what we had was working quite well. And surely, we told ourselves, we could work this new stuff in with the old. It would be an easy transition.

The path became clearer every day. These were the coming things. The change might not be so leisurely or easy. There was a growing demand in both civilian and military sectors for computers that far exceeded the capability of even the largest vacuum tube mechanisms and requiring accuracy that would have been impossible with them. The transistors were much smaller than the vacuum tubes, with promise of being made much smaller yet. And that smallness could allow a practical digital computer of reasonable size. It became time to get on the band wagon with both feet.

The problem was that the one excluded the other. Vacuum tubes were not electrically compatible with transistors. Digital methods are not compatible with analog except in input/output devices. Packaging was entirely different. Even the power supplies were not compatible, and cooling requirements were different. Essentially none of the prior technology carried over. It was an entirely new ball game. Bookcases full of the latest MIT publications on active electronic theory became obsolete, to be replaced with a small volume on boolean algebra and a physics text on semiconductor theory. Then the flow of information began. It seemed so fast. One day you are a bright and productive engineer. The next you are a fumbling clod, struggling not to look foolish. The newer engineers coming on line were more resilient. A few of our older ones found the transition too difficult and turned to selling real estate. The rest of us burned the midnight oil. Thankfully, we found the engineering thought patterns to be the same and we already had a good grasp of the problems that needed solution. All we needed to do was cram in the new knowledge, most of it being developed as we studied.

This same process is happening in the field of psychology today. Psychologists have paid lip service to genetics and evolution for many years, while the evidence mounted to critical mass. It must now be faced. Genetics describes the human mind as consisting of billions of neural cells. In comparison with the old ideas of discrete but overlapping behavioral functions, this new approach becomes far more complex. Moving from the idea of the brain being a knowledge bucket to learning how it developed into its now visible far more complex structure and function will be a painful one. As with the computer revolution, two new texts have been added to the psychologist's library, "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts and "Neurobiology" by Shepherd. The rest of the library will then slowly and agonizingly follow my old MIT electronic series into the round file, to be replaced one by one with new texts from an entirely different viewpoint. Unfortunately, in the case of the psychologist, even the old thought patterns must be retrained. No longer will imagination, conjecture, speculation and hearsay (other people's imagination, conjecture and speculation) suffice. The emphasis now turns from philosophy to science.

Pandora's Box Has Been Opened

How can this be? Why can't these new ideas coexist with the old?

The answer is simple: They are directly opposed. The one contradicts the other. This is not the acquisition of an optional and parallel approach. Genetics and evolution can't be tacked on current knowledge, it underlies all psychological knowledge with all the authority that only measurable fact can have. It negates all dogma which disagrees. The situation is one much like the old saw which says that no one can be just a little pregnant.

All modern psychological knowledge is based on three premises:

  1. The human is intelligent. He will behave properly with proper education (nurture). Aberrant behavior indicates trauma, disease, chemical imbalance or poor environment. Proper behavior is judged against the current academic elitist ideology (or is it that the current ideology was formulated by the psychologist?).
  2. The human mind can create knowledge without reference to the outside world. In fact, some believe, true knowledge is best developed without the taint of the real world. Perfect thought comes from pure minds. Psychologists have pure minds.
  3. Sufficient data about human behavior can provide a basis for determining the cause of that behavior. Determining cause from effect is a valid logical process.

It is now recognized: that: genetics is a strong factor in the behavior of man; the current genetic configuration of man is the result of a process called evolution; and the human neural system is a part of that genetic configuration, therefore subject to the same forces as the physical part of the body. Once the human neural system is recognized as an evolved neural biological mechanism, none of the above three premises hold true. If they are not true then all of the knowledge based on those suppositions becomes highly suspect.

The myth of human intelligence

Man has studied the evolutionary process by which he was formed, and has found it to be primitive, unpredictable and brutal, without intelligence, planning or goal. His physical and mental structures are both poorly engineered and suffer frequent malfunction, poor and erratic performance and early wear out. As man progresses into the study of the genetics of man and the process by which man was formed, it becomes more and more apparent that man, far from being a wondrous creature, is a makeshift creature at best, one which is now archaic and a misfit in a world suddenly crowded and technically complex. The wonder is that he is able to function as well as he does.

The human is quite proud, and justifiably so, of his technological accomplishments. He looks at the chimp, his nearest relative, and finds him dim-witted and with deplorable social habits. All other animals fall even farther behind. Man then becomes arrogant as he surveys the differences between himself and all others. This is an arrogance that is not justified. Man is intelligent only when compared with the others. Actually, he is quite error prone and self delusional.

The human neural system began its development when the first hominid appeared (the ape that walked). That was about 4 million years ago. During the next 2 million years, the early hominid developed as a herd herbivore. Almost all of the tribal social instincts were developed during that period. With the invention of tools and fire, about 2 million years ago, the human shifted from the herd herbivore to the hunter/gatherer tribe form of social structure. It was successful. The population began growing. Competition developed between tribes for territory. Relationships between tribes became militant. The hunter/warrior tribal system began forming. The neural system of modern man is honed for the hunter/warrior mode of living. The need was for fast decisions while under stress. Speed was more important than accuracy. Survival depended on it.

The human neural system is primarily a parallel mode reactive decision mechanism, one ideal for controlling an automobile, hunting tigers, or designing a trap for the tribesman next door. The conscious thought system makes iterative use of the same mechanism. It was designed for relationships within the tribe and waging a defensive posture against territorial encroachment. The human mind was not developed for tribes with memberships in the millions, for urban (ant hill) living, for mixing of cultures, for being ruled by strangers of another tribe, for high-technology living, etc.

The truth of the matter is that the function of the human brain, the mechanism which accepts and processes knowledge received through the senses, then provides behavior appropriate to the situation, is determined by a genome formed by chaos squeezed through a mindless random variable filter. Evolution is a process which is unplanned and without goals or standards. As is to be expected with any complex mechanism which was built with no engineering, our genome is a pile of junk. Worse still, man, having eliminated the filter portion of the evolution mechanism, is now subject to the accumulation of all mutations not immediately fatal. Since the neural system is more complex than the balance of the body, it receives a major share of these mutations. Not only is the thinking apparatus fixed by a genetic code designed by an idiot, that code is now wandering all over the map, and deteriorating all the while.

In the lottery of being born with a genome of a particular configuration, the individual human may be an imbecile or a genius, or anywhere in between. Since the reasoning apparatus is a fixed mechanism, its change in capability with experience is quite small. Only the behavior of the individual changes, in response to the quality and quantity of the knowledge absorbed as processed by the fixed intellectual quality of the individual. The intelligence of man, therefore, is very questionable. One only needs to read the front page of a newspaper a few days to understand that. It only appears wonderful to us because there is nothing better around.

Instead of boasting about his intellectual ability, man should be humble and careful, knowing that his every thought is suspect.

The myth of human intellectual creativity

If the human neural system is a biological mechanism (genetics and evolution prove this is so), then it is shorn of magic, spirituality and mysticism. It can not create gold from lead, truth from falsehood, or knowledge from dogma. Any mechanism has a finite capability. No machine can provide more than its fuel. There is always a loss in every machine, none may even reach 100% efficiency, much less produce more than it is given. The human brain can no longer be considered creative. It can not create knowledge, it may only discover it. The knowledge produced by thought must be contained in the premises (input data) on which that thought is based. Knowledge may be discovered by the human brain only when it has adequate truthful data on which to work. If the input knowledge (data) is inadequate or untruthful the output conclusions can be disastrous, and often are. Using unproven premises negates the reasoning that follows by the amount of its error. In the computer world we refer to this process limitation as "garbage in, garbage out."

Conjecture, imagination, hearsay, and introspection are all useful tools in the formation of new theory. They will not reliably provide working knowledge, separately or collectively. Theory must be proven before it is applied, whether the subject is a space shuttle, bridge, or airplane. It is even more important if the subject is human. A human culture should not be used as experimental fodder.

Can cause be determined from effect?

Any study of primitive tribal knowledge (lore) is a study of cause determined from effect. If, for example, there should be a partial solar eclipse, it becomes obvious to the village shaman that the fairest village maiden must be sacrificed. The effect is quite visible. Without knowledge of the actual cause, however, there are a multitude of possible causes that may be imagined. One of those would be an angry God whose ire may be appeased only through the death of a lovely young woman.

In the modern engineering world, the source of designs for human service, it has long been known that the loop must be closed. No idea is useful unless both cause and effect are known (verified, measured), the effect is desirable and the side effects are known and are a reasonable price to pay. Only when both cause and effect are known sufficiently well to reliably predict the effect(s) should an idea be used in the service of man. It is dangerous to do otherwise.

The tribal shaman discovered the cause by noting the magnitude of the event. Obviously, this was an important occasion, one that only the Gods could control. Modern psychology uses similar logic. It ascertains the cause of human behavior by analysis of human behavior. And its answers are often no better.

An excellent example is shown by the current controversy in our schools over the proper method for teaching small children to read. The two procedures in question are "whole language" and "phonics". The problem provoking the argument is that children are not, on the average, learning to read very well.

The psychologist says that the human learns everything in the same way. The brain is a bucket into which knowledge is poured, therefore, if a young child learns to speak through immersion in an environment rich in the spoken language, it will learn to read if immersed in an environment rich in the written language.

The problem is that the two processes (learning to speak and learning to read) are not even remotely equivalent, and that difference lies in the structure of the brain, a structure defined by genetics. The human brain is not a sponge. It has structure and that structure determines its capability to learn. As a result of that structure, it learns different things in different ways.

The first hominid, four million years ago, required tribal living for survival. Tribal living requires communication. Tribal success depends a great deal on communication. Those tribes with the best communication tended to survive the best. The ability to communicate verbally is instinctive in the human, as it is in all animals, though to a lesser extent.

Internal thought is composed of electrical and chemical signals. To communicate, these internal thought signals must be converted into physical movement (behavior). To send a message, those internal thoughts to be expressed aurally must be converted into a combination of phonemes (aural elements). To receive a message, those phonemes heard must then be converted into internal thought equivalents. A bidirectional thought/speech lookup dictionary is required. Evolution developed a specialized area in the brain which mechanizes the learning of phoneme-to-thought and thought-to-phoneme conversions. It is called the Broca's area and is located in the male human brain in the left frontal lobe and in the female in both frontal lobes.

Immerse a child in an environment rich in spoken language and it will instinctively learn to verbally communicate. Careful instruction in proper pronunciation and idea construction augments this natural ability.

Written language is a different thing entirely. From the viewpoint of evolution, a multimillion year process, written communication is a very recent invention. It is an intellectual skill that has no special neural circuitry to aid in its acquisition. There is no mechanism in the brain for converting the written word, as seen by the eye, to thought. A different sense is used. Verbal communication uses the voice and ears. Written communication uses the hand and eyes. There is, however, a mechanism available for converting the spoken word to thought. So when we learn to read, we convert the written word to its spoken equivalent and run that through the Broca's area to obtain the meaning (internal thought equivalent). When we write, we run the thought through the Broca's area to obtain the phoneme equivalent, recall the visual pattern associated with that phoneme set and then tell the hand to write that word.

It is a duty of the education system to teach a child the proper pronunciation of his spoken thought elements, for it is that pronunciation which is cross-referenced to the proper thought. It is sheer idiocy to expect a child to learn a written word that it does not already know both the meaning and the proper pronunciation.

Does this mean that the child can not learn to read using the whole language concept? Of course not. The human child is extremely adaptable. One could hang some of these children by the heels and require them to study with the book held sideways and they would still learn to read. For the maximum benefit to the most, however, the education process should fit the mechanism instead of requiring the mechanism to adapt to the process.

Does this mean we should cancel whole language and go back to phonics? Not completely. We have not been teaching phonics properly either, but that's another story. And once a child is proficient with a verbal and written vocabulary of a particular size and complexity, his immersion into an environment rich in written communication that does not exceed his ability is indeed quite valuable. The key is that the child must know the pronunciation and meaning of a word before it is allowed to tackle the written equivalent.

How many of these problems are there? There must be multitudes.

In Conclusion

My sympathy for the plight of the psychologist is sincere. I know from experience the devastating experience of having your life's work suddenly tossed out the window like so much garbage. I write this text on a machine that is beyond the wildest dreams that I ever had in those early vacuum tube days. I now look at the widespread use of digital technology in music, business and communications and realize that it was worth all the pain.

A few psychologists will grasp the need and attack the new approach with vigor. Many will avoid basic learning by reading only the pop authors. Others will try vainly to fit genetics and evolution in with the old premises and reasoning. Still others will build a protective wall of cute quotations, hiding business as usual. Many will not make any change, choosing to blunder through. Some, like many of my engineering friends, will turn to real estate. It will be painful for all.

Worse still, it appears to be a long and arduous transition. Unlike an engineering field which produces a product directly for public use, a position demanding immediate accountability and responsibility, psychology is a behind-the-scenes function. It provides the basis for education, politics, journalism and jurisprudence without ever appearing directly to the public. If psychology errs in education, for example, it is the education system which bears the brunt of the blame. Complaints from the education system may then be shunted rather than corrected by claiming complexity, misunderstanding, improper application, etc. Psychology is largely peer controlled. It need not be right as long as a majority of other psychologists agree. The entire field of psychology is a mutual admiration society. It is also highly reactionary, staunchly resisting the shift toward becoming a true science.

Being cushioned from external accountability and responsibility, archaic premises and the resultant generation of dogma will survive for many years. Fifty years from now there will be psychologists who will claim, "The human is an intelligent creature, therefore, if healthy, its behavior depends on education and cultural environment."

There are people even today who claim the earth is flat.


The following is a reply received on the "Evolution, Psychology and Pandora" submission to the Behavior forum. It is printed here because it contains elements not well explained, some not even covered, in my submission. It also represents a different viewpoint of the subject and suggests some of the pitfalls that will be encountered in the pursuit of joining knowledge about evolution and genetics with current behavior knowledge.


The Engineering of Brains

by John Fentress, 3/24/98

I found John Stevenson's comments both insightful and fascinating. We are in a revolution of thought that probably none of us can fully comprehend. Psychology today is not at all what psychology offered yesterday, and tomorrow's psychology awaits discovery.

Yes indeed! Psychology has long paid lip service to genetics and evolution (and developmental biology). Today those lips are swollen from years of "mis-speak". [Its neuroscience, not genetics, that describes human mind through reference to billions of neural cells; genetics asks where these nerve cells come from, within an evolutionary (but not developmental) context. But that's a comment at the level of squabbles over typos.]

I do not see nerve cells, as currently understood, as saying much about "discrete but overlapping behavioral functions". Indeed that phrase represents a major current conceptual struggle: how can things/events be BOTH discrete and overlapping? Its an easy question to throw away. Its answers depend upon the framework employed in discussion and analysis. It borders on paradox. Its a puzzle. Nerve cells can reveal the mechanisms of the puzzle, but conceptual (and systems thinking) advances are needed as well. {Crick's ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS is a good source here; see also Edelman's NEURAL DARWINISM for a quite different perspective.) "Moving from the idea of the brain being a knowledge bucket to learning how it developed into its now visible far more complex structure and function will be a painful one", is right on. See, for example, the current issue of BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES.

Of course there is the HUGE problem of how we relate levels of order, and co-order. Debates about "reductionism" VERSUS "holism" can become tedious. Levels of nature may have a dialogue that we simply don't get. But that's another issue.

I have never seen a psychologist (or anyone else) with a pure mind. I have seen many, from many disciplines, jump on "blank slate" and, the opposite, "predeterminism" models of minds. Neither works. I have seen many suffer from the arrogant fallacy of immaculate perception (as in direct pipeline to God, or the gods - your choice.

We do not even understand the relation between instruction and selection as these terms are used in the biological sciences. We do not understand the bases of embryology. We can only speculate, and argue.

As far as "intelligence" goes, the term has so many definitions that it has none. Spinal cords are "intelligent" by some definitions; geniuses can be remarkably stupid by other definitions. Intelligence is a term like consciousness: it means everything, and nothing. Chimps are smarter at being chimps than I can ever be. They are bloody geniuses (and thus stupid, too). I would not like to have a contest with a Monarch butterfly in a race from the mid west to Mexico. A salmon can beat me in seeking a given stream from the middle of the ocean anytime. I can read about the chimp, and Monarch, and salmon, however. I can also admire them, and I do. But I am a zoologist (and thus allowed to partake in such foolishness).

I don't do this reading about other creatures through a reading gene. I do not attack my neighbor through an attack gene. I behave on the basis of population codes in my brain that no one understands. So John is right: we need to shake up our old (linear, single cause) ideas. The question is how to do this. If we knew, we wouldn't need to argue. Perhaps we do need to argue though, if for no other reason than to make it clear that we do not understand. Who cares if we are wrong. We are! Goes with the territory. (At least, we are incomplete in our knowledge; sounds nicer.)

Human mind "mutations" are more than genetic in a functional sense. Sure, gene mutations affect neurons and neural circuits, and lots of other biological stuff. But if variations in early circuits are modified and selected, then mutation is not a bad metaphor to consider....embryological or performance mutations. I know the dangers of analogy. I know the dangers of jumping across vast levels: such as genes to brains to minds to........ , and so on. We all do, I suspect. But selection models are interesting to think about, not only in evolution or immunology, but also in brain and mind (cf. Edelman). Its all controversial stuff, but fascinating.

To change streams somewhat: Its truly AMAZING that John, and I, and all others who play with this site are expression phenomena that, for our own lives, began as a single fertilized cell. My genes at age two were what they are now (except for those pesky mistakes that developmental genetics offers). I don't feel like I am two. So something must have happened between age two and now. Same genes, different (temporary) product. Screaming "genes, genes, genes", doesn't in itself answer that. We need more.

But what is "more"? I suspect we can defend our "more" against other "mores" by being eloquent and even obnoxious. That's good old-fashioned primate behavior: scream the problem away, and smack those who scream a different tune. But, like John, I think we need different tunes.

One of my favorite past-times (I am a masochist) is to push ideas until they crash against alternative walls. Push light as a wave until particles seem better, then switch the game. Push continuity until I see discontinuity; push change until I see stability; push reductionism until I see emergence; push genes until I see an embryo; push the embryo until I see the adult. Push brains until I see minds until I see behavior until I circle back to evolution yet again. Each push flips my mind into a somewhat different space, and each new space shows me how imperfect all of my previous spaces have been. I go out and buy a vacuum tube for security only the old ideas can give.

Who knows, maybe the whole universe really "is" being run by a little green giant, with lots of puppet strings. That we will never know, and personally I could care less. What I do care about is ideas, even (perhaps especially) the clash of ideas. Let's take the selectionist stance here: provide frameworks that promote "better" ideas at the expense of "worse" ones. Let the good one's multiply, and wish the less good ones happy resting at their termination.

Then we can squabble (forever?) over the frameworks. Frameworks within frameworks, within frameworks......contextual variables never stop. We have to stop them artificially or we end up saying nothing about everything and everything about nothing. So, how do we set frameworks up against each other?

We do this by trying to show where they clash. And they clash everywhere we look. But only if we keep our eyes open. We have a framework of nature in pieces and nature as interconnected, for example. If pieces are separate they are not connected, and if they are connected they are not separate. But they seem to be both.

I submit that it is RIGHT HERE that we find one of our major conceptual stumbling blocks: a universe (or brain, or mind, or embryo) as containing modules that operate in contexts. Its not just that modules compose the contexts, but are also molded by their contexts. Whamo - a conceptual bootstrap with no fixed points. Crash. Start again.

John is right that sponge models of brain/mind are silly. He is right that modules do exist. He is right that these modules have genetic roots. He is right that these modules do not always cohere well. But every module can be modulated by context. At least its performance can be modulated. Mutual modulations then occur, and bootstraps return. Human minds get stuck and create artificial boundaries - or pretend that the universe is indeed a big mushy sponge.

John's example is good: Different communication "modules" are worthy of much study. They often fool us. They are more than mush; more than single buckets. Helen Neville in Oregon found brain "modules" in deaf signing children that occupied the same locations as auditory "modules" in speaking children. What was fascinating is that these specialized modules were constrained not by modality but by their "interest in" semantic content. The constraints were not where most had expected them to be.

This means that an alternative taxonomy had to be established. Modality specific was replaced by function specific. Function was semantic processing, whether verbal or via sign.

Modules by modality seemed to miss the point. But then the puzzle runs deeper, for these modules do different things (in detail) depending upon other modules to which they are directly and indirectly connected. Increase the emphasis upon connections, and the idea of autonomous modules gets shaky. That much is obvious. The solution is not.

But this problem does not directly address (or even connect obviously with) genetics, preformationism, plasticity, or a host of other things. It only addresses levels of constraint in the developing individual. Much of this constraint results from experiences at cell, tissue, organ, and organism levels. Jumping from genes to ultimate constraints can thus be little more than a throw away phrase in the guise of explanation.

Since I am not a "psychologist" I feel quite comfortable when psychologists are represented as vacuum tube models of intellectual activity. Hell, if its good enough for engineers........ ! But, psychologists, like engineers, come in many flavors, and these flavors are changing with new information, and with new generations. I certainly hope that "psychologists" in the future will not think like their brethren think today. They won't. I personally don't give a damn for academic labels. Our labels should reflect our interests, and our approaches. Within psychology there is a huge diversity. Some within this pile are also biologists, or (believe it or not) engineers by inclination.

Some are genetic preformationists. Some are blank slate artists. Fortunately these two extreme camps are disappearing. Each left out the other half of the universe. The question is: How do we make a whole universe of inquiry? "How many problems are there out there? There must be multitudes." You bet! Now, ain't that cool.

Multitudes of separate questions in a single universe. Yea, that's cool. Let's not take our own partial glimpses as stories of the whole universe.

Great to have an engineer on board! Think I'll now go up and turn on my old MacIntosh amplifier: its got some cool vacuum tubes that still work after 30+ years. (I think it also has some transistors; is that possible?)

John Fentress fentress@is.dal.ca


URL: http://www.onelife.com/psy/pandora.html