Posts Tagged ‘the brain’

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Accidentally Right” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

The first sermon I ever gave on Evolution had in its closing statement the line “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  At first blush that can seem a bit grandiloquent, but it is actually a reliably true statement.  Before Darwin (used in the inclusive sense of the important ideas that he famously made widely known) we were guessing at how life had become so varied and strange.  Before Darwin, even our scientists turned (with understandable consistency) to metaphysical explanations for natural phenomenon.  After Darwin, we had a means of seeing life as it really exists.

The reason we still hold Darwin in such high esteem (and the reason that creationists revile him so completely) is that his ideas turned out to be grounded in testable knowledge, and the scientific work that was able to follow and build upon his ideas has turned out to confirm the essential “rightness” of his theory of natural selection.  The same cannot be said for the medieval alchemists, the medical theories of the ancient Greeks, nor, I should say, the creation myths of any ancient religion (at least when taken literally).

Like the biologists that were (and are still) able to begin their research from the solid foundation of Darwin’s theories, I have found that same knowledge consistently helpful in making sense of my own experience of life.

For it turns out that there is, after all, a certain “harmony” to life.  From an evolutionary point of view, this makes perfect sense, as every process that exists tends, over time, to create a sort of balance between the forces that are in competition for space and resources.  Resources are a part of that balance, as are a myriad other factors from climate to geology to storms on the sun.  Though there continues a constant cycle of expansion and extinction of populations, both large and microscopic, and though the earth has experienced several global, mass extinction events, life itself will inevitably settle into some semblance of stability.

We understand the forces that create weather on our planet, but still find it incredibly challenging to predict it!

Stability is, of course, nothing but an impression — a perception that is available only to us humans (and other cognitively complex animals) when we observe the world we live in.  The sun rises, the sun sets.  December is cold (here in New Mexico, anyway), and June is hot.  The rains come on the fourth of July, and apples and chile are harvested in the fall.  But these are simplistic perceptual shorthand for the cumulative effect of uncountable ongoing processes both vast and microscopic: patterns of weather that are shaped by the rotation of the planet, fed by the heat of the sun that pumps solar energy into the vast ocean currents, and which then determines whether we’ll have floods or drought.

To the mystically-minded, the weather is an act of God.  (It might as well be for all the power we have to “change” it).

The fact is that life on earth (including our own lives) persist because we — like all life — are adaptable and able to change (either through genetic mutation through sexual reproduction or, in the case of humans, through the use of technology to alter our living environments and landscape).

I read an article once stating that most economists seemed to accept evolution from the neck down, and therefore failed to take human irrationality into account in their predictions of the behavior of markets.  I think most of us do this:  we fail to see that the “harmony” that we observe on the planet is really just a sort of a snapshot of a moment in time —  a stop-motion glimpse of the ever-renewing natural product of the living processes that create stasis only in the balance between competing forces.

Because we humans have the ability to observe and analyze our world, we frequently come to believe that our brains have somehow found a way to transcend their biology — that they are not subject to these natural forces.  They haven’t, and they aren’t.

There are many that hold that such a materialistic view of human nature degrades us to the level of animals (as if that is, a priori, a bad thing).  Nevertheless, I hold just such a view of my own (and others) behavior.  And I go further in believing that holding a falsely elevated view of ourselves is the root of many of our discontents.

Going into any situation with the conviction that our brains are the perfected product of a divine creative intelligence can be a set up for disaster.  How can we (and our poor brains) but fail to live up to that sort of performance expectation?

For if I’m honest with myself (which I always — in the end, anyway — want to be), I am wrong about something almost all of the time.  And when I’m right, I am right — as it were — by accident.

How can it be that I have survived this long (with as many loving, business and social relationships as I have) being so wrong?  Well, because the social relationships that we have — that are so essential to our own survival — are no different than the profligate and messy nature that surrounds us.

Let me explain my meaning:  Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we understand that being right all the time is not at all essential to the survival of a species — being right just a bit more than the other poor son of a bitch is.  Mostly our “false positives” are fear-based (which is another way of describing “survival” or “fight or flight” responses).  What this comes down to is that it is far better for us to be wrong and run away a hundred times than to be wrong and not run away the one time we were right!

When I stop and look at the first impressions I get — the initial reactions my monkey-mind comes up with — they mostly get things wrong.  Now sometimes they can be just a bit “off”, but other times they can attribute the absolute opposite meaning to something someone has just said to me (it is a standard joke of mine that a woman can turn anything a mans says to her into an insult, and a man can turn anything a woman says to him into a compliment).  If you examine your own thoughts, I’m certain you won’t have to look very far to find your own examples (if you don’t, it likely means you’ve got an added layer of self-delusion in your particular mix — also a very standard bit of human perceptual bias).

It’s humbling for me to realize that even when I do the right thing with another, my actions are motivated by my perception of a situation that forms the basis a sort of predictive mental picture of what outcome my actions will produce.  This is how our brains work: they constantly make “snap” decisions and “predict” the short-term future, and then give us our marching orders (for more on this, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).  It is only afterwards — when things have gone wrong or not turned out as we imagined — that we have to do the forensic work to understand the “why” of the failure.  But I am finding that even when things turn out right, I was wrong in almost every way imaginable about the reasons that the other person went along with my idea!

This is startling to realize.  It makes me wonder how in the world we ever make satisfying connections with each other when we are seeing things so differently!  But of course we do find satisfying connections, so clearly getting things perfectly “right” is not the most essential component of our social relations.

We humans are wired by our evolutionary past to seek out relationships with each other.  Therefore we are motivated to make the allowances for the errors in our perception and communication with each other.  The greater the desire for connection, the wider the target we present to the arrows of Eros (in the case of romantic attraction): the lesser the desire, the harder we make it for another to “get it right”.

So what’s to be done about this?  Our brains are able to take in information and reach conclusions about hundreds of situations each day with incredible speed.  This processing takes place in a mid-level of our brain just below the more recently-evolved frontal lobes (the seat of our reason).  This mid-part of the brain is the part that makes most of our quick decisions and only afterwards sends a memo to the conscious, analytical mind (more as a sort of courtesy, to let it know what the body is already doing based on the snap decision it just made).  As Malcolm Gladwell points out, in many ways the conscious, analytical “we” are the last to know what our deeper mind and body are up to.  To expect perfect accuracy from such a system is pointless.  We operate, by nature, on a sort of two-stage system of cognition, and it is the second step of that process (the rational, analytical part) that we tend to place our confidence is as the be-all and end-all of the evolved animal brain.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the frontal lobes.  I like that I can analyze my actions and (after some years of practice) actually observe my middle-brain in action.  This does not, of course, liberate me from that mid-brain (and the emotional roller coaster ride it sends my body on at times).  But it does allow me to put just that tiny bit of distance between my instant reactions and the actions of my body or voice.

I, like many others, have long carried a secret belief that I could be just that much closer to perfect in my thoughts and actions than the next guy.  And though we like to talk about the problem of “perfectionism” we always do it in a way that is really aimed to get the spotlight off our behavior as quickly as possible so that we can get back to making ourselves “better”.  This makes sense: our fears and our instincts are what have kept us alive for millions and millions of years of evolution.  Do you think that a few centuries of social progress and civilization are going to make all of those instincts go away?

Now I have to say that our brains are good at certain kinds of prediction: I often know when someone is about to cut me off in traffic, or not stop at a red light.  In such cases my predictive brain is responding to cues and signals of a kind that would also help me stalk my neolithic prey.  But when I take that next step and try to imagine what is going on in the mind of the jerk driver I want to flip off, I can be pretty certain I have no friggin’ clue as to what that other individual’s actual thoughts or motivations were.

How can I?  Human behavior and thought is as complicated as the forces that combine to make weather, and I can’t predict that very well either.

The reality we find ourselves in is a complicated one without potential for actual resolution: we are alive because we are fearful animals, but that fear can actually interfere with our essential social relationships with our fellow humans.  In the end, the best we can truly aim for is the same sort of harmony that exists amidst the struggle for life in nature: a perception of stasis, a modicum of predictability and a dash of temporary permanence.  All of which are only imaginative approximations that allow our predictive brains to plan the next step or the next words we speak.  Even if they are only accidentally right!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The God Who is Always There” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On one level it is impossible to say that God does not exist, even if He exists only as an idea.  For ideas have a certain presence in our world, and when ideas are shared by so many, their presence is multiplied.  But can such an idea be multiplied to the point that it becomes a self-standing reality, independent of its cognitive creators?  No.  I don’t think so.  No more than our personalities — no matter how large — can survive our own physical death.  That is the realm of metaphysics, not measurable reality.

So what are we to say, then, to the innumerable people who have had deep “personal experiences” of God and spirit: who have felt that sense of another presence at a time of crisis, or that familiar voice in our head (that is not often a voice so much as an impression, word or idea)?  And what artist or creator has not known “inspiration”, where an idea seems to arrive fully formed from out of nowhere?

Of course none of these nearly-universal experiences comes from “out of nowhere”.  So far all of the evidence of science tells us that they come from our physical brain.  And our physical brain is certainly a “somewhere”.

Because we have a multilayered brain, it can do more than one thing at a time.  And that is precisely, in fact, what it’s doing all of the time.  We don’t have to think about making our heart beat or telling our muscles to walk or grasp any more than we have to consciously manage our breathing or digestion.  It seems to “just happen”.  But we know these automatic impulses are not “just happening” at all, but are being “directed” (or ordered) by processes in our brain.  And yet that part of our brain that performs the 24/7 management of our body is hardly what we would call “conscious”.  It is the primitive “lizard” brain responding to the input of the senses and the nerves and the chemical signals that are the literal lifeblood of our self-contained organism.  Is this, then, God?

We could call it that.  But we have yet a higher level of consciousness that operates just below the conscious brain.  This is the source of our emotions and desires and the generator of our “fight or flight” response.  This is the part that hears something, or sees something, and sets off the chain reactions of adrenaline and awareness that gets us ready to run or do battle before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.  Is this, then, our Guardian Angel?

Given the chance, we almost always go for the God in the sky.

I keep making these comparisons between the natural processes of our brains and our conceptions of spirit and the divine for a reason: because of our long history with religion, our mental/emotional default setting is to maximize any and all possibility of God working in the world, and minimize the possibility that everything that we experience of existence has a physical, earthly and/or biochemical basis.  In short, we have a natural confirmation bias toward spiritual causality.

But here’s the deal: we have so much going on within our brain that it is incredibly easy for us to project a part of ourselves outside of ourselves.  We do it all the time, and we do it quite naturally: we externalize an internal reality.

How can we do this?  Think about it: we are capable of not just our own conscious behavior, but of observing our own behavior, and commenting on it.  We can notice our selves, almost as if we were outside of ourselves watching the things we do.  That’s how we can say “I can’t believe I just said that!”, or some such.  But beyond that, we have several layers of mind always at work below the level of consciousness.  These are also parts of our “self”.  So is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse an aspect of our self for someone (or something) else?  No.  Especially if you add in the mind’s ability to identify with one part of our personality over another (meaning we will often try to make a distinction between our “true” self and an aspect of our personality or behavior that is causing us social harm).  This, I submit, is a very likely source for our ideas of the minor demons and troubling spirits that populate our religious literature and folklore.  (The major ones perhaps inspired by the more extreme manifestations of severe mental illness).

(You’ll notice, I hope, an important thing here: I am not discounting the reality of our experiences of these phenomenon.  I am only quibbling about our attribution of their actual source.)

So why is it that our first impulse is to identify any and all of these phenomenon as God?  Habit and hope.  For whatever reason, it remains much more appealing to most of us to find in everyday phenomenon evidence of an external spiritual presence.  Makes sense, actually, for animals as social as we are to not want to be alone, ever.

(There have always been those few for whom the idea of an outside presence reading their every thought is oppressive.  These are only too willing to dispense with the God idea.  But for the rest of us it’s usually problematic in some way, and it often requires some terrible experience of tragedy or disappointment to trigger a declension from faith.)

The greatest problem for the religious is not that the God that their religion is based upon doesn’t exist, but that the “God” that does exist (as a shared idea) is not the one that they suppose is actually there.  As long as the idea of God exists, however, then God, too, will exist.  But as an idea: a receptacle for our anomalous experiences of consciousness.  And those experiences will continue as long as we do.  And as far as it concerns us humans, that’s as good as eternity.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “My Three Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

How can something that is not “real” have “real” consequences?

The brain takes in perceptual data and works like the dickens to make sense of it.  As Gary Marcus points out (in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind — reviewed this blog) the brain works in a contextual framework — meaning that it pulls from past experience any potentially applicable memory to match up with new stimuli.  The results can be amazing, tragic, generally helpful or humorous.  That this “system” works as well as it does may be more a testament to its sheer computing power than its perfection: our brains most assuredly are not perfect, but they are big.  And they are fast!  (How fast?  Read “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).

So what about the times when the brain gets it wrong?  By the time our firing synapses return a faulty “mental Google” search from the dusty shelves of memory, our brain has already initiated the creation of a chemical response to the situation it thinks we are in (again — see “Blink”).  For those of us with “anxious” brains, this usually means a sudden fear response: a chemical climate for fight or flight.  So although the mental perception is false, the physical response is none-the-less real.  With the result that we can easily perceive a non-threatening situation as threatening (or fill in your favorite response here) aided by the evidence of our body chemistry, which is pretty damn hard to ignore.  (As Joni Mitchell sings: “It’s hard to tell, when you’re in the spell, if it’s wrong or if it’s real.”)  This, in short, is how we make ourselves crazy: this is where we get the idea that we create our own reality.

Yes, we humans have huge brains!

This is what we deal with by having the brains we have.  We are completely capable of reacting — or more to the point, over-reacting — on a regular basis.  We now know why this happens:  We are still animals at our core, with a more recent, rational mind layered on top.

We are like a mental three-layered cake, and when our finely-tuned senses make that snap decision that the chips are, indeed, down, the animal takes over and the rational brain is bound, gagged, blindfolded and taken along for the ride.  Only in the safety and calming that follows can we analyze what just happened and figure out whether we were right to run.

The survival implications for the persistence of such an extreme fear reaction are obvious: the ones who run with a few false positives survive — the more thoughtful who linger just once too often, don’t.

But the implications for our modern life are enormous:  in short, we are not well adapted to the safe, comfortable lives we actually lead.  We are anxious and ready to defend ourselves in a world where that magnitude of response is rarely truly called for (unless you have a pride of saber tooth cats living in your garden).

Road rage, domestic violence, mental anguish, panic attacks.  If we added up all of these emotional/psychological events and measured the proportionality of the response to the actual (physical) threat to our life that each triggering event represented, do you think we would see anything resembling an equal scale of input to response?  Of course not.  We all know this.  We understand it.  But we are nevertheless subject to the continued discomfort of what we’ve now labelled as stress, anxiety and a portion of our mental disorders.

It’s a challenge — one of the many of living with the quirky brains we actually have (as opposed to the perfect brains we’d like to think we have).  I heard Garrision Keillor once quip that “There’s no “off” switch for genius”.  True, that.  But there is also no “off” switch for our brains: even while asleep, they are churning away.

So there are reasons that our neurosis are so damn tenacious.  But external reality is not always one of them.  It is more often our perception of the world, and recognizing that we are animals bred for wariness can’t help but give us that much more leverage when it comes to calming ourselves enough to enjoy these rather remarkable lives of relative luxury and ease that we now live.

Civilization has been the means of our move away from individual violence (which, contrary to popular perception, is historically much lower than it was in our past).  As we have domesticated ourselves, we have learned to extend trust to strangers, and that trust has allowed us to create the wealth, safety and ease we now experience.

But our brains have millions of years of experience being wary.  It turns out to be our natural state (in fact, the chemicals of love and bonding work by suppressing our natural wariness of strangers).  Perhaps it is the counter-force to our propensity for belief in the irrational (which is likely merely an by-product of our social natures that make us want to believe anything a trusted person tells us).

So even though you and I live mostly free of the threat of real violence, we have television, the internet and popular entertainment that trade in murder and mayhem as if it were the air we breathe.  It may turn out to be that — in some fundamental way — we don’t really ever want to let our guard down, no matter how cozy our living room, plush our recliner, or seemingly content our pet cat.

Maybe our ice-age brains are still not quite convinced that the world has changed.  You and I may be modern people living in a globalized world, but the deeper parts of our brains have seen the ice sheets come, or the crops fail, or a war overtake the land.  And that ice-age human brain lives alongside the modern and the ancient lizard in our crowded skulls.

All three of our brains working together, trying to figure out what’s really going on.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Shrinking Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that we modern humans have brains about ten percent smaller than our ice-age parents.  Because that’s what science is telling us.  After millions of years of growing our huge brains, they are now moving in the opposite direction.

I can look around on any given day and find any number of current human behaviors to blame on this cranial shrinkage: bad driving, talk radio, Sarah Palin.  But in the biology of life — in the “progression” of evolution through natural selection — things are never quite so simple.

The obvious fact is that there is a reason we have been able to dispense with ten percent of our brain.  Otherwise, we’d still have it.  Conversely, if our lives had become steadily more challenging, it’s a pretty sure thing our brains would actually be growing.  But what has changed so much that has changed us so much?  For in nature, there is pretty much never an evolutionary change that is not a selection for a better-adapted trait in a changing environment: if environments aren’t changing, species won’t change.  It takes the introduction of a new variable to push animal evolution: a new and invasive species, a climate shift.

In our case the best explanation seems to be our own domestication.

Now when we think of domesticated animals, we think of cows and sheep, dogs and cats and married men.  But the reality is that we humans have been domesticating our social selves for quite a while now.  Think about it: there was no New York City in the Pleistocene.  In those days we lived mostly in blood-kin bands of hunter-gatherers.  And no matter how much we’d like to make a comparison between the violence of our modern American culture and that “brutish and short” world of our Ice-Age forebears, the fact is that we humans manage a near miraculous daily feat of living cheek to jowl with masses of our fellow creatures with an historically unprecedented lack of person-to-person violence.

The n.s.r. bob ponders our shrinking brains...

In short, as we’ve learned of the enormous (mostly economic) benefits of living together, dividing our labors and extending trust to strangers, we have been submitting our genes to the selective forces of evolution.  It may turn out that we humans turn out to be even greater domesticators then we’ve given ourselves credit for by virtue of performing that task upon ourselves.

This fact confronts — in a broader sense — our continued mass denial of the reality of the evolutionary process.  A great deal of this resistance is based in belief, with most of that religious in nature.  Such belief holds that seeing ourselves as “merely” organisms adrift in some random natural process will strip us of all human dignity, and undermine any sense of universal (and therefore enforceable) morality.

To the first point, there is no “merely” about the evolutionary process.  And neither is anything at all about our biology “simple” or “base”.  I would argue that it is only ignorance that allows us to regard reductionist bronze age mysticism as a superior intellectual stance in the face of the actual wonder and mystery of life in the universe.

As to the argument for human dignity, the presupposition is that animal life is somehow worthy of disdain in any form other than human.  So the problem is not that we debase ourselves if we abandon our “special status” as divinely-created superbeings, but that we have constructed a false hierarchy for purely egotistical reasons.  For how does it truly lower us to recognize that we are walking, talking ecosystems of bacteria, viruses and cells whose chemical and electrical processes are facilitated by the metals and minerals that were born in the births and deaths of ancient stars?  (The writers of ancient holy books would have peed their pants were they to have had any inkling of such ideas to incorporate into their cosmology!)

And what of morality?  This is the big one.  The religious insist that our sense of right and wrong is divinely given.  Of course it’s not.  It’s clear from nature that morality exists in all social species.  And that is the key here: we are a social species.  Which means that if God were to vanish tomorrow (and with Him, all religious belief) there would indeed be many who would feel a certain freedom to pursue their hedonistic fantasies without restraint.  They would, however, immediately run up against the true barrier to dissipation: other humans.  The genuine control on human behavior is our own social natures: our desire — nay, our need — to be part of the group.

(The only humans truly free of this need are the psycho- or sociopath — and this is a genetic disorder, leaving those humans devoid of certain critical wiring that would normally make them give a shit about what their fellow humans think of them).

In short, were we to lose religion tomorrow, nothing at all about human morality would change.  Every single one of our human-to-human transactions would still require the same negation it does now.  Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

Another unanswered question about evolution in our time is the effect of sexual selection on the species — now that women have had access to both better education and more control over their reproductive lives.  We already surmise that women are the most likely force behind producing the human male that has a larger penis (by body size) than any other primate.  And there is surely no difference between the human selection process for attractiveness or fitness and that of the bower bird or the peacock.  And now that technology is progressing at an ever more incredible rate, there is no reason to think that it, too, will not soon add its own selective pressures on the species.

Obesity is another evolutionary issue.  For there is nothing about our evolutionary past that endowed our entire species with the tools for resisting the brain-altering cravings that unlimited sugars trigger (the same parts of the brain hijacked by alcohol and other addictions).  To the end that we may be experiencing a rather dramatic selection process where a great many humans (that are prone to obesity under our modern industrialized diet) may soon be selected “out” of the gene pool.  There’s no reason not to expect that a mutation (or series of mutations) that give one a capacity for functioning well on the crap we now eat may soon spread through the population, giving those individuals that slightly-higher-than-average success rate that translates into thriving young.

All of this gets back to something I said in my very first sermon on Charles Darwin’s birthday: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  The theory of evolution has proven to be the best means of making sense of life on both a global and personal level.  And though it can be impossible to observe in an individual life, we have now accumulated enough data and insight to see evolution in action.  In scientific terms, we call it a theory.  The religious read that to mean “a man-made idea that’s not really true”.  What it means to scientists is a description of reality that has yet to be proven false.  Quite a difference, that.

The religious like to trot out the old aphorism that “Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist”.  But the same can be said of evolution and natural selection.  The difference between the two, of course, is that evolution is the description of reality that is actually based in reality and evidence, and therefore does not deserve to be compared on equal terms with belief-based explanations for life.

But then, after these last twenty-thousand years of evolution the belief centers of our brain seem not to have diminished by even that (above-mentioned) ten percent.  But then, it may be that our capacity for religious belief was one of the traits that helped in our domestication.  Maybe it’s a cognitive leftover of evolution, like my tailbone, or my appendix, or that weak spot in my lower back that still isn’t quite used to walking upright.  And maybe I’ll just have to keep using the ninety-percent of brain I still have left to work around it.

t.n.s.r. bob