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May 26, 2008

Neuroscience, Cognition and Extinction

Over the second half of the Twentieth Century, “Neuroscience” has gradually evolved into the term most often
used for the still-expanding, somewhat motley cluster of disciplines studying the brain with particular reference to behavior. That some of those disciplines are strange bedfellows is both obvious and understandable: as more became known about the physical brain in the mid Twentieth Century, it attracted increasing interest from “hard” sciences like Neurophysiology, Molecular Biology, Pharmacology, and Genetics. To the extent behavior later became an issue, “softer” disciplines like Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology were called on to contribute. Several other fields, Economics and Criminology, for example, although not traditionally thought of as sciences, became involved as their behavioral implications became more appreciated.

Also, declaration of a federal “war” on illegal drugs almost forty years ago has had a number of sweeping, and generally under-appreciated, influences on both Amercan and global behavior.

There is now general awareness that our unique cognitive function is what allows humans to choose a particular course of action from among several alternatives. Although many other animals also make choices; none do so to a comparable degree; our modern ability to store information in digital form and then retrieve it using computers was foreshadowed at least three million years ago when an early hominid ancestor began walking upright. More recently, in the past 100,000 to 200,000 years, still younger ancestors began migrating from Africa and eventually spread worldwide. At what precise point they became Genus homo and developed speech is unknown, but impressive Cro-magnon cave art began appearing in Europe thirty thousand years ago; and though we don’t have solid evidence of writing for another several thousand years, we know it was at least four thousand years after the last Ice Age is thought to have ended.

All the above information was unknown to the “modern” humans who started the separate Agricultural Revolutions that took place in a variety of hospitable temperate climates around the world over an extended interval. Unfortunately, most who write aout the “agricultural revolution” as a phenomenon seldom stress the (obvious) fact that
similar insights had to have occurred in several different parts of the world and then developed in conformity with local conditions.

The complex relationships between agriculture, modern belief systems, writing, and human organizations become obvious when we realize that without the security, stability and leisure provided by a guaranteed food supply, modern societies would simply not have developed. On the other hand, the development of densely populated cities in several different parts of the "ancient" world over a span of thousands of years has provided anthroplologists, historians, archeologists, and linguists with an abundance of information about the belief systems under which they both prospered and declined. The accumulated evidence discloses that while human interactions have always featured the same elements they do  today, namely competition, warfare, natural disasters, and epidemics, there was also "progress" of a sort in terms of irregular trade and cultural exchanges between regions. However "globalization" didn't really begin until the Fifteenth Century when the aggressive European voyages of exploration and conquest that would extend to the entire globe and usher in modern times became enabled by the first stirrings of modern Science.

Within a relatively short time, the combination of religion, advances in transportation, and European colonization  had produced the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth Century that would profoundly shape our modern world by expanding its population while mindlessly pursuing policies of short term exploitation on the basis of racial and religious beliefs.

In the next installment I'll go over why evidence from an opportunistic study of pot users suggests human behavior is not only flawed by its emotional component, but it's that component we need to compensate for if we hope to give ourselves (our species) its best chance for long term survival.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at May 26, 2008 12:21 AM