Saturday, July 22, 2017

on evolution, Sagan, Blake, superstition, belief, fear, enemies, friends, decency

I am pasting here the top and tail of an opinion piece "Don't believe in God, Maybe You'll Try U.F.O.s" published by the New York Times on 21 July 2017. My comments below.

and here is a screenshot of the end of the article.

That seems to me appalling, a sad reflection on the limits of social science or the capacity of a social science department in a state not religious institution in the US, looking no further than the end of his religious tract for explanations. Psychology does not float like a green mould on a strange Chinese soup. It has to connect with science, neurology, evolutionary biology, especially if it ventures thus into Big Questions.

I have to recommend, as I have before, the triune brain theory, which is based on some reality not superstition and is called a theory because that's what happens with science, as distinct from faith.

There's some history of the triune brain theory here.

A rebuttal here. But there you see he's arguing against rigidities in MacLean's concept, while laying out again in different form the way we have ancient brains... [screenshot from text at link]

Here's a link to Carl Sagan's wonderful The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, which did much to popularise MacLean and gave it a broader philosophical and evolutionary science cast. Do try to find a copy.

 And a link to another, kindly, write-up on MacLean.

For present purposes, let us step away from rigidist scientific sniping. Acknowledge that no, we do not have hat on hat on hat as in MacLean's image taken literally.

But let me suggest these ideas:

  1. There are deep in our brains elements shared with dinosaurs, other reptiles (and ants). For practicality call this the reptilian complex or R-complex. These give rise to ganging up, building walls, calling names, taking to arms, exclusion, hostility, fear and violence. And underpin beliefs which are exclusive and rigid. 
  2. There are, next, elements of our brain which we share particularly with mammals, but evident far beyond, which elaborate emotions and ... and things we are inclined to call humanitarian, though they actually are found far beyond Homo sapiens. Our vanity and limited vision calls them humanitarian. 
  3. Then, the third element, the big frontal brain, of which all kinds of creatures have some, even our guts have some, but which broadly speaking come out absolutely trumps in the human brain, inside the human skull. 
(I note in passing, as before, Peter Godfrey-Smith's wonderful writing on cephalopods – squids and octopuses – whose brains match those of dogs, and are brains evolved from only the most remote common pinprick ancestor with ourselves, and who appear to be full of emotions and cunning and wit. Since reading his book I've stopped eating cephalopods.)
Pardon the cephalopodial digression. My point about 3 above is that it is in this brain that we get the power to reason and explain. Without necessarily understanding that about which we set things out. Which you are entitled to say about me. Every human seems to have some element of this, the Book of Genesis offers a particularly interesting insight into the Eurosemitic psyche, where god supposedly tells Adam that he must not use god's name, but he can name and control everything else. 

My own notion is that we are descendants of awkwardly upright, inadequately hirsute hominids on hot African plains. We were able to develop big brains because we learned to cook meat. And those who developed really big cooling devices on the tops of their heads were the ones who survived in the heat. Evolution is not purposive: if there is anything that should be bedrock of theory it is that the neocortex, this super-fatty (40% cholesterol), easy-cooling front and upper part of the brain did not develop because someone said "We need to build a Bill Gates." The uses of the neocortex followed and include of course wonderful and bizarre explanations of existence, reasons for going to war, justifications of different diets and articulated doctrines for going to a religious institution on certain days. These are interpretations by the front brain of things it doesn't understand of pressures arising from other brain areas. The capacity to communicate does not in itself mean understanding or rectitude, though these are the first claims made by us all. I run with doubt and questions.

We are only recently emerged from centuries where my left-handedness let alone weird ideas like this would have had me burned at the steak years younger. William Blake, natural scientist, wrote in poetic form, hand engraved his books writing backwards on copper plates in an unusual approach to etching, then circulated his books privately... so as to avoid being hung drawn and quartered for seditious thoughts in the late 1700s in England. (Note that beheading remained legal in England until 1973, ISIS please not, you are not all that medieval.)

(I may never cook with cumin again)

We may be moments from return to dark times with the power Trump, Putin, Erdogan, the Polish parliament and far too many others, all the way down to east to Australia's own Peter Dutton
This is not a joke picture, it's an Australian prime minister
representing force, security, fear and creatures clearly representing the reptilian brain,  2017.
Screenshot from excellent piece by Elizabeth Farrelly.
We should not presume that we are on a constant upward slope. Back here in 2004 I quoted the late Norman Mailer — he was speaking against going to war in Iraq, a war that has stolen half our brains:


I shudder to think what language Mailer would use now if still alive.

I am no longer fit, nor able to organise, what has to be done to keep us going forward. 

Silence is acquiescence. 

I write. What do you do? 

What we face is NOT some fiddledy-dee little question for a psychologist to leave open in North Dakota (see the ND Trump vote here).

It's about the future of civilisation and dangers much greater than Kim Jong-un, inside our heads.


Consider things done in some places now, compare what happened to Simon de Montfort, jumped up little earl who thought as king he could establish a mildly representative parliament in England in the early 1200s. Having lost a battle, thus dealt with:

Mind you, Simon's kids got a vengeance on Henry of Cornwall, son of the new king who did in Simon, as I recorded in 2010 from Viterbo:-

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