The Evolution of the Mind & What It Means to Humanism

By March, Frederic | The Humanist, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of the Mind & What It Means to Humanism


March, Frederic, The Humanist


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CHARLES DARWIN'S On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859 and revolutionized how the "science and religion enterprises viewed human nature. Scientists proceeded to populate the many rooms, nooks, and crannies of Darwin's edifice with detailed evidence of the fascinating realities of evolution. Many in the religion enterprise reacted with horror and revulsion, but most came to accept evolution, however slowly and incompletely, by rewriting their theologies. One fairly recent outgrowth of Darwin's legacy is the investigation of the evolution of religion by cognitive scientists using the tools of biology, psychology, anthropology, and paleontology, with a strong dose of history and philosophy thrown in.

Cognitive science tells us that the human brain--the hardware whose software is the mind--collects sensory data, evaluates it, decides what to do, and commands action. Reflexive thought induces immediate action (rebalancing your body when tripping). Inferential thought draws on habits learned from experience with little to no analysis (voting for Sarah Palin because she fits your hero image). Reflective thought draws on the whole of one's knowledge and experience to chart a course of action (staying up all night to assess what to do about your shrinking retirement portfolio).

Religion and science are the products of reflective thought. However, all reflection begins with inferential thought. In other words, when your inferences don't seem to compute you want to think things over. For example, if you prayed to God for a puppy on your birthday three years in a row and it never came, you might reflect on the efficacy of prayer. Something like this has been happening in the evolution of intelligent human minds for a long time. But how exactly has it happened?

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Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind describes the precursor to our modern minds as one of a general intelligence enriched by specialized modules for social intelligence, natural history, and technology. As these independent modules evolved to communicate with each other, art, religion, and agriculture became possible. Citing artifact evidence from primate and human sites, Mithen explores the evidence for evolving intelligence, culminating in the amazing modern minds that painted the Chauvet Cave 32,000 years ago with stunningly accurate images of animals. Mithen calls this milestone the "the Big Bang of human culture" the time when causal thought became manifest--again, enabled by the integration of the intelligences.

Causal thought involves spirit causality and material causality. With great imagination, Stone Age people invented the material and spiritual concepts that redefined the norms of human cognition--morphing our minds into the reflective thought engines that powered the cultural evolution of civilization. Such causal thought exploited two cognitive tools from the primate past, agent detection and theory of mind.

Agent detection is a deeply imbedded inferential cognitive process by which humans and animals decide whether to ignore, fight, flee, pursue, or engage when encountering an agent (this being anything the animal or person believes acts with intent). For humans, agents include living people and their spirits after death, along with spirits and gods in nature believed to have a will and powers that can help or harm us. When an agent is detected, theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, desires, and knowledge to oneself and others) immediately comes into play by inferring how the agent is likely to respond.

And so for Stone Age people, spirits caused everything that happened on earth or in imaginary spiritual realms. Spirits caused rain to fall, rivers to flow, sun to shine, fruit to grow, herds to migrate, and enemies to invade. People invented myths for explaining the minds of those spirits, who craved gifts, respect, obedience, and adulation just like people in authority. …

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