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January 28, 2010

History and the Brain

We humans are not only the most recently evolved mammals, we are also the most dependent on our brains for survival; not that there aren’t several other critical attributes; upright posture, for example. Recent fossil discoveries have provided evidence that considerable primate evolution must have preceded the eventual migration– first of Neanderthals, and later of our own ancestors- out of Africa.

In many respects, the realization that we had evolved began with Charles Lyell, and other geologists, whose writings were well known to Darwin and without which, his critical observations could not have taken root. Indeed, so important has been the impact of Science on human behavior that, In many respects, the whole span of human history predating the Industrial Revolution can be seen as but a prelude to the present day, one in which record numbers of humans are locked in a struggle for mastery of the planet with weapons inventories that are deadlier than ever; made more so because a substantial fraction of one camp is so willing to commit suicide to deliver them.

Not only has the past been prologue, its cognitive errors and false assumptions have shaped the present in ways that were not- and probably could not could not have been- anticipated by our ancestors. Only recently have we acquired satisfactory descriptive terms for the responsible cognitive phenomena. Because they might not be understood as intended, I'll use capitals and italics: Cognitive Dissonance is a mental quirk allowing the simultaneous embrace of mutually contradictory ideas. Denial is our all-too-common refusal to recognize when a dangerous degree of Cognitive Dissonance has developed. Finally, Path Dependence postulates that to the degree any system undergoes directional change, substantial alteration becomes increasingly difficult. Thus the more profound a logical mistake and the longer it was believed within an organization (or body politic), the less likely its amicable correction.

The final realization needed for an understanding of the modern human dilemma is that our brains had been set up long ago for it by the separate evolution of the emotional and cognitive centers residing within each of us. However, It wasn’t until Science gave us the ability to reproduce to a dangerous degree while still continuing to compete in the same old ways that the situation became truly desperate.

For those still cherishing the myth of an all powerful creator, whatever happens becomes His Will, and thus nothing to get too excited about.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at January 28, 2010 06:01 PM