On Sexual Selection and Extinction

Peacock

Here is a very interesting interview of biologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Prum by Rob Reid on sexual selection and the evolution of beauty.

One of the fundamental reasons birds are so beautiful is that most of them do not have penises and this creates an opportunity for female freedom of choice.

After-On Podcast Episode 33: Richard Prum – The Evolution of Beauty

Bird of Paradise

Sexual selection is not a form of natural selection as most biologists currently believe.

Sexual selection and natural selection are distinct evolutionary forces, as originally envisioned by Charles Darwin.

It’s possible for sexual selection to work in the opposite direction of natural selection which can lead to the extinction of a species. Some interesting examples are given for birds.

I’m thinking about how human females tend to be indifferent to male IQ, but strongly prefer high status males that contribute the most to overshoot and CO2 via mansions, yachts, long distance vacations, and Veblan goods.

Human male preferences tend to be benign as it’s unlikely extinction will be caused by big boobs, which Prum points out, are not an honest signal of fertility.

Donald and Melania Trump

By Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience?

Here is the latest talk by Dr. Ajit Varki on his MORT theory given April 18, 2018 at a conference on The Evolutionary Perspectives on Death held at Oakland University.

This talk repeats some content presented in previous talks, but also adds some important new ideas. There is evidence here that Varki, despite a large important unrelated day job, is still thinking about and developing his theory. That’s great news because, as I’ve said many times, MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin.

This slide depicts the emergence of the unique behaviorally modern human mind.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT)

 

This slide shows that most behaviors unique to humans no longer exist (grayed out) if you remove the adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial.

Unique Human Cognittive Features

 

This slide explains the implications of the Mind Over Reality Transition theory.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) Implications

Varki introduces a new idea that incomplete suppression of mortality salience may explain the need for Terror Management.  I wonder if Varki might be trying to get Sheldon Solomon, who has to date been juveniley dismissive of MORT, on board?

Mortality Salience Incomplete Supression

I found this slide on ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny interesting because I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics in which the human brain’s Default Mode Network is explained to be the seat of self and theory of mind, and which is suppressed by psychedelic drugs thus re-creating what may be the tripping mind of a baby. I wonder if our adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial somehow affected or created the Default Mode Network? I’m hoping a neuroscience expert will weigh in here.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

 

This new idea from Varki on sex differences resulting from MORT is, I suspect, important, but I need to digest it more before commenting.

MORT Gender Phenotype

 

At the 23 minute mark Varki addresses climate change with a quote from his co-author Danny Brower which is a very nice summary of why I created this blog. If we do not acknowledge and manage our tendency to deny reality we are doomed as a species.

Brower on Denial of Climate Change

Aside 1: The video at 15:15 that Varki took on traffic from the window of his hotel room in India is hilarious.

Aside 2: The Q&A begins at 25:00 and I observe that, as with previous talks, no one in the audience seems to get the profundity of his theory.

Aside 3: I observe that the most important new idea in science, and the idea whose broad awareness may offer the only hope for our species, has 12 views on YouTube. Apparently, the only topic more unpleasant than human overshoot is our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.

 

 

 

By Nate Hagens: Contrasts and Continuums of the Human Predicament

Here is this year’s annual Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

My introduction to last year’s talk by Nate is still valid:

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.

 

On Superior Pattern Processing, Magical Thinking, and Human Success

Cerebral Cortex

A friend brought to my attention an interesting paper by Mark P. Mattson titled “Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain“. It discusses the uniquely powerful capabilities of the human brain, and provides a partial theory for why these capabilities evolved.

Here is summary of what I consider to be the paper’s key points:

  • Humans have a uniquely powerful brain.
  • The human brain has the same structure and components as the brains of other mammals; what distinguishes the human brain is a higher quantity of neurons and synapses that enable superior pattern processing (SPP).
  • SPP is sufficient to explain unique human capabilities such as creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.
  • The human brain began to enlarge about 5-8 million years ago via a self-reinforcing feedback loop created by the synergy of increased brain power in a social species with an upright posture able to forage longer distances.
  • Human survival depended on social cooperation which created another self-reinforcing relationship between social interactions and SPP ability, and which led to an extended theory of mind with which humans understand that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own.
  • SPP led to language emerging about 100,000 years ago, and language is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens.
  • The ability to draw came after language about 30,000 years ago and enhanced the ability to communicate important spatial information like maps.
  • SPP enabled human imagination and invention which enhanced the success of humans via tool making, but also created a human tendency for magical thinking such as religious beliefs.
  • Gods were fabricated as explanations for phenomena that were not understood. As those phenomena were later explained by science those Gods were abandoned. With one exception, there is exceptional resistance to the science of human evolution and magical thinking persists on the origin of humans.
  • Psychiatric disorders result from abnormal SPP that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.
  • Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species. This suggests that only Homo sapiens evolved superior pattern processing which it used to outcompete its cousins.

So far so good, but then Mattson veers off into what feels like just so stories for his SPP theory:

  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between populations today explains why some groups prosper and others struggle. For example, Africans must have a low SPP because they are poor, and Americans, Europeans, and Asians must have high SPP because they are affluent. Mattson might be right here, but I think it more likely that the self-reinforcing relationship between early access to low-cost energy, wealth creation, and wealth multiplication via growth enabled debt is a more likely explanation.
  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between groups today is likely explained by epigenetics. For (my) example, malnourished mothers may have babies will less powerful brains.
  • Mattson concludes with a cheery prediction that humans will continue to evolve SPP which they will use to make better decisions and to invent technologies that eliminate suffering and ensure long-term survival. This sounds to me like a grade 12 valedictorian speech.
  • Mattson also concludes that we should educate everyone about how SPP works so that we can once and for all end our silly beliefs in god and the suffering this causes.  Here he seems almost as delusional as my earlier hope that awareness of genetic reality deny might help mitigate our impending overshoot collapse.
  • Finally he suggests further research into SPP might help us design better AI computers.

Setting aside Mattson’s concluding unicorns and rainbows, I agree with his earlier points. Unfortunately he spends a lot of time discussing the obvious bits and ignores the interesting bits:

  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.

All of these interesting bits, and more, are explained by Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Following are a few excerpts from Mattson’s paper that highlight ideas I thought were noteworthy, but I recommend you read the entire paper for proper context.

The cognitive repertoire of humans far exceeds that of all other animals, and understanding the neurobiological basis of this superiority is therefore of interest not only to scientists, but also to society. As humans evolved from their anthropoid ancestors, and the size of their cerebral cortex expanded, novel pattern processing capabilities emerged.

The main purposes of the present article are to describe the superior pattern processing (SPP) capabilities of the human brain, to forward the hypothesis that SPP is the neurobiological foundation of human sociocultural evolution, and to describe the roles of aberrant SPP in some major neurological disorders.

The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include:

  1. Creativity and invention, which have resulted in the development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time, and the arts (Goel, 2014; Orban and Caruana, 2014; Zaidel, 2014). Examples include all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce defense/security, and music;
  2. Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;
  3. Reasoning and rapid decision-making;
  4. Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and
  5. Magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involves beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods (Einstein and Menzies, 2004).

A major purpose of the present article is to forward the proposal that not only is pattern processing necessary for higher brain functions of humans, but SPP is sufficient to explain many such higher brain functions including creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.

 

The human brain has retained many features of brain structure and cellular organization of the brains of birds and lower mammals, but has greatly elaborated upon them by developing more robust cortical neuronal networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory patterns. As in lower mammals, being aware of one’s position in the environment, and remembering the locations of resources (food, shelter, etc.) and hazards (predators, cliffs, etc.) is of fundamental importance for the survival of humans. However, the encoding of visual inputs into “cognitive maps” of spatial relationships between objects in the environment (spatial pattern separation), and the encoding of auditory inputs, is necessary but not sufficient for the advanced pattern processing  abilities of humans including imagination, invention, and pattern transfer (language). The evidence suggests that expansion of the visual cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal—temporal—occipital (PTO) association area enabled the SPP that defines the human intellect capacity and all of its manifestations, including consciousness, language and mental fabrication and time travel. The remainder of this article describes some of the salient evidence for SPP as the basis of most, if not all, higher cortical functions in humans.

 

Thus, findings from neuroscience research has confirmed the general conclusion of Charles Darwin who proposed in The Descent of Man that the minds of humans and related species are fundamentally similar (Darwin, 1871).

Neuroanatomical and neurochemical considerations… section suggest that the superior intellectual capabilities of humans are solely or largely the result of the increase in the number of neurons and synapses that mediate enhanced encoding, integration and inter-individual transfer of patterns. There is little or no uniqueness in the structural or functional properties of the neuronal circuits that mediate intelligence in humans. Moreover, the intellectual capability of any individual requires the integrated function of pattern-processing networks distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, indicating that there is no single brain structure responsible for the mental superiority of humans.

 

One prominent phenotypic change that is believed to have occurred during the evolutionary transition from the Genus Pan (chimpanzees) to the Genus Homo (approximately 5–8 million years ago), was the acquisition of an upright bipedal endurance/distance runner phenotype (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman and Bramble, 2007; Mattson, 2012). Bipedalism also enabled the evolution of the shoulder in ways that allowed humans to throw objects accurately at a high velocity, greatly improving their ability as hunters (Roach et al., 2013). This was also the period in the evolution of our species when the size of the cerebral cortex increased relatively rapidly, which suggests that the expansion of the territory covered by individuals and groups of humans (enabled by endurance running) played a role in the expansion of the cerebral cortex. Coverage of a larger territory during the great human expansion (Henn et al., 2012) would have provided the opportunity to access more resources (food, water, and shelter), and required a greater pattern processing capacity to remember details of the location and nature of the resources. Importantly, humans evolved the ability to transfer the information acquired and processed in their brains during their journeys to other individuals via gestures, map drawing, and language. Visual and auditory patterns were likely the most commonly processed and transferred because of the ability to readily and accurately reproduce sights and sounds. Accordingly, the regions of the brain that expanded in humans are mostly involved in pattern processing of sights and sounds, and their codification as written and spoken languages. Very interestingly, specialized motor training (sports) enhances language understanding by a mechanism involving recruitment of the left dorsal lateral premotor cortex, suggesting that the language system is functionally connected to motor skill-related areas outside of the core language networks (Beilock et al., 2008). The latter findings suggest that the language SPP capabilities of the human brain co-evolved with development of organized “teamwork,” which may have bolstered functional interactions between brain regions involved in language and those responsible for specialized sensory-motor skills.

 

Emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure, and love are elevated states of arousal that enhance memory and recall of the events occurring during those emotional states (Bergado et al., 2011; Maren et al., 2013). This is a major, if not singular, function of emotions. Emotions evolved to reinforce memories of patterns of particular significance vis-à-vis survival and reproduction. Remembering the details of the events of an attack by a predator or intra-species rival will increase the probability of avoidance of such potentially deadly encounters in the future. Memories of the pleasurable experience of intercourse with fertile individuals of the opposite sex provides motivation for additional bouts of intercourse, and so increases the probability of passing one’s genes on to future generations.

….

Humans have evolved as highly social animals (Chang et al., 2013) with close emotional ties to mates, offspring, parents and close friends that enhance their survival and reproductive success (Damasio and Carvalho, 2013). As with other emotions, those associated with social interactions may have evolved to enhance SPP. In this view, there is a self-amplifying reciprocal relationship between social interactions and SPP ability. Thus, advanced PP abilities enable the development of social bonds and networks and, conversely, social interactions stimulate SPP. Success in social interactions requires that one recognize others, remember their past experiences with those individuals, and communicate their intentions. Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis of evolution of the primate brain includes the possible role of emotional attachments to mates and friends in complex social networks in the expansion of the cerebral cortex during anthropoid evolution (Dunbar, 2009; Sutcliffe et al., 2012). Because the memories of specific patterns (faces, places, conversations, etc.) can be reinforced or even embellished by emotions (Holland and Kensinger, 2010), it is reasonable to consider that evolution of the social brain was bolstered by emotional relationships. In addition to their use of complex language (see next Section), humans have added another dimension to social interactions—they are aware that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own. Humans therefore not only encode and process patterns representing their own experiences, but also the experiences of their family, friends and workmates. Social interactions require processing of information regarding the histories, behaviors and thoughts of many other individuals. Whether family members, employees or competitors, there are clear advantages to being able to know what others have done in the past, and to predict their future behaviors. Thus, inter-personal SPP is critical for success in most aspects of life, including acquiring and retaining friends, a job and a mate. Emotions reinforce inter-personal SPP, such that interactions involving anger, pleasure, sadness, etc. are retained, recalled and processed more thoroughly than interactions occurring in a neutral emotional context.

 

Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain as it involves (once learned) the instantaneous conversion of sounds to visual symbols, and vice-versa. Language is a complex behavior in which auditory and/or visual patterns learned from other individuals or perceived in the environment are encoded, processed and modified for the purpose of transfer of information to other individuals. Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. Language-related SPP can create new patterns (stories, paintings, songs, etc.) of “things” that may (reality) or may not (fiction) exist. Language-mediated encoding and transfer of auditory and visual patterns enabled the rapid evolution of the human brain and is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens. (Aboitiz et al., 2006; Berwick et al., 2013).

 

While birds and non-human primates exhibit auditory communication, their vocalizations convey general information such as danger, rather than detailed instructions. It has been proposed by Tomasello (2008) that the kinds of gestures used by great apes is an evolutionary precursor of language. Studies of infant humans further support the notion that pointing and gestures are an ontogenic precursor to language (Goldin-Meadow, 2007; Liszkowski et al., 2009). Languages involving complex vocabularies and written symbols and words are believed to have arisen in Homo sapiens beginning approximately 100,000 years ago (Berwick et al., 2013). The rapid evolution of language skills, and the underlying neural circuits that mediate language processes, is fully consistent with its fundamental role in the rapid advancement of human societies. Language provides powerful reproductive and survival advantages. A man who engages a woman in stimulating conversation is more likely to attract her as a mate than is an inarticulate man. An army whose soldiers use detailed maps and advanced communication skills is more likely to win a battle than is an army that charges forward “blindly.”

 

The importance of imagination and invention for the rapid advancement of the human species cannot be overstated. The invention of tools and technologies have dominated the recent development of civilizations throughout the world. The earliest evidence for the invention of tools by our human ancestors dates to approximately 2.5 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya where stones were fashioned into cutting tools (Plummer, 2004). At that time hominid brains were about the same size as those of apes (approximately 500 grams), whereas the brain of modern humans is nearly three times larger.

 

A fascinating aspect of human SPP is the ability to fabricate mental entities that do not exist in the real world, including magical thinking. Magical thinking can be defined as “beliefs that defy culturally accepted laws of causality. In Western culture magical thinking refers to beliefs in, among other things, clairvoyance, astrology, spirit influences, and telepathy.” (Einstein and Menzies, 2004). Superstitions and rituals are examples of types of magical thinking. The cognitive fabrication of imaginary patterns is prominently illustrated in religious beliefs which have presumably provided an adaptive advantage to many societies. Magical thinking is at the core of all major religions wherein specific life events are believed to be controlled by “God,” and the “believers” behavior is designed to please “God” and avoid “his” wrath (Bloom, 2012). Figure 3 illustrates how a type of SPP, magical thinking, has had a major influence on cultural evolution. A recent functional MRI study suggests that religious belief involves neural networks that process information regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery (Kapogiannis et al., 2009a). Transcranial magnetic stimulation focused on the left lateral temporal lobe, but not the right lateral temporal lobe or vertex, reduced magical thinking (Bell et al., 2007) providing further insight into the neural networks involved in magical thinking. Interestingly, structural differences between religious and non-religious subjects have been demonstrated including increased volume of right middle temporal cortex and reduced volumes of left precuneus and orbitofrontal cortex in religious subjects (Kapogiannis et al., 2009b). These findings are consistent with psychological theories of the evolution of religious belief which posit adaptive cognitive functions of such magical thinking (Culotta, 2009).

 

In general, psychiatric disorders result from an abnormal skewing of SPP in ways that dissolve the neural circuit-based boundaries between reality and imagination, between the realms of possibilities and probabilities. There are likely evolution-based reasons that anxiety and depression, and “paranoia spectrum disorders” are so common. Everyone experiences anxiety transiently in situations that involve real threats to oneself or loved ones; this heightened state of arousal is an adaptive response that provides motivation toward actions that can mitigate the danger. However, individuals with an anxiety disorder react to perceived threats that either do not in fact exist or are highly unlikely to occur. Depression is a state of self-doubt and hopelessness that often follows a period of chronic anxiety or a catastrophic life event. It involves a pervasive distortion of reality and an unrealistic catastrophic view of the future.

 

If SPP has played a fundamental role in the evolution of the human brain, then this should be evident in both the historical record and trajectories of different human populations throughout the world. The SPP theory predicts that populations that more rapidly develop SPP capabilities will experience accelerated accrual of resources and prosperity. The examples of major SPP abilities acquired during human evolution that were considered above (language, invention, imagination, reasoning, and planning for the future) should have each provided a survival and resource-accumulating advantage. The SPP theory therefore predicts that populations that did not develop each of these SPP capabilities would have been outcompeted by those populations with brains that did acquire, through evolution, those SPP capabilities. This prediction is supported by the fact that all surviving populations of H. sapiens use language, invent tools and exhibit imagination and complex reasoning. Hominin populations lacking, or with relatively poorer, SPP capabilities presumably failed to compete successfully, and so no longer exist.

 

The SPP theory predicts that variability in SPP capabilities among current human populations will be associated with variations in resources, health and welfare (indicators of fitness) of the different populations. Studies have documented positive associations of brain size with greater intelligence, faster decision making and greater cultural achievements between and within genetically differentiated populations of modern humans (Rushton and Jensen, 2008). This suggests that variability in SPP among existing groups of humans may be sufficiently robust to influence their relative fitness and so the future evolution of the human brain. The differential SPP-mediated development of technologies to improve transportation, manufacturing, scientific discovery and health care have resulted in the advancement of some populations above others. Individuals in populations that have most heavily utilized the SPP capabilities of their brains currently enjoy the greatest levels of prosperity, better health and longer lives. The disparities between and within countries are in some cases quite striking, with African countries exhibiting considerably less propensity for SPP, as reflected in poverty, low levels of education, high infant mortality and short lifespans. In contrast, the United States, and many countries in Europe and Asia are experiencing economic growth that is arguably resulting, in large part, from development of SPP-based technologies, with computer-based systems being a prominent example of a human invention that enables processing of information at rates many orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the human brain. Clearly, humans have recognized the central importance of SPP for their advancement as a species.

 

Finally, the SPP theory predicts that human evolution will continue to involve expansion of the prefrontal cortex and functionally associated brain regions, with resulting improvements in the brain’s ability to rapidly process information and make (good) decisions. The specific outcomes of advanced SPP for future generations remain to be determined, but may (hopefully) include the invention of technologies that eliminate suffering and help ensure the long-term survival of our species.

By Ajit Varki: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else?

Denisovan Family Tree

Ajit Varki wrote a letter to PNAS in April 2016 asking a question that is supportive of his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/17/E2354

Here is my crude attempt to paraphrase Varki’s letter in simpler language:

Behaviorally modern humans successfully bred, in more than one geographic location, with our close relatives the Denisovans and Neanderthals. All of our cousins subsequently went extinct and we, the 7.6 billion offspring from interbreeding, have retained a relatively small number of genes from our cousins, mostly related, if I recall correctly, to disease immunity. The interesting fact is that no full hybrid species persisted.

This strongly suggests that there was some unique and complex combination of genes that gave behaviorally modern humans a strong cognitive advantage over their cousins.

Here is the original text:

The tour-de-force report of Sawyer et al. (1) on genomes of two Denisovans and the accompanying editorial and figure (2) support the notion of “a web of now-extinct populations linked by limited, but intermittent…gene flow” (3): involving multiple hominin lineages for thousands of years, before the mysterious disappearance of all taxa other than us “behaviorally modern humans” (BMHs). Although attention focuses on rare introgressions of non-BMH alleles facilitating adaptation of invading BMHs to ecological challenges, there is a bigger elephant in the room.

Current genomic and archaeological data indicate that BMHs arose in Africa ∼100,000–200,000 y ago and spread across the planet (including the rest of Africa), encountering other extant hominins like Neanderthals, Denisovans, archaic African hominins, and possibly other lineages from earlier diasporas of Homo erectus. Although genomic evidence indicates interbreeding, the number of functional genes incorporated is limited, resulting in a “leaky replacement” (3), without persistence of true hybrids. Thus, our single BMH (sub)species was the “winner” in every contact/replacement event, spanning tens of thousands of years. I cannot find any other example wherein a single (sub)species from one geographic origin completely replaced all extant cross-fertile (sub)species in every planetary location, with limited introgression of functional genetic material from replaced taxa, and leaving no hybrid species. Typically, one instead finds multiple cross-fertile (sub)species, with hybrid zones in between.

Although this apparent one-of-a-kind phenomenon could have occurred by chance, the singularity allows one to posit a uniquely complex genetic/biological/cultural transition of BMHs. As Pääbo suggested (3), adaptive accumulation of an “explosive constellation” of genetic variants (alleles) could have endowed BMHs with an unparalleled combination of cognitive features, guaranteeing success at every subsequent encounter with other hominins.

Why did hybrid species not persist, at least at the geographical extremes of BMH expansion? Assuming that hundreds of new alleles comprised the BMH genotype, F1hybrids with other hominins would likely lack the complete cognitive package required to compete for mating within BMH groups. Tellingly, 10 of 10 non-BMH mitochondrial sequences are outside the current BMH range (1), suggesting that mating of BMH males with non-BMH females generated progeny that were not included within BMH groups. In contrast, progeny of female BMHs and non-BMH males may have had the opportunity to survive within BMH groups, with sufficient mating success rates to allow transmissions of a few alleles valuable to the newcomers, but related to ecological adaptation, not cognition.

Such “human exceptionalism” is currently frowned upon, as are extraordinary explanations of evolutionary events. However, unless there are other clear examples of such complete replacement of all related taxa by one single (sub)species, BMHs may indeed be a rare exception. Although environmental factors such as climate or infectious disease (4) could have generated the initial African bottleneck, the critical BMH phenotype was likely cognitive. This fits ecocultural models predicting Neanderthal extinction through competition with modern humans (5) and suggests an improbable BMH transition through a long-standing “psychological evolutionary barrier”––possibly involving initially maladaptive features such as reality denial and mortality salience, which conspired to generate the winning combination (6).

 

Note: Ajit Varki sent me this letter when he published it but I thank reader Derek Peter Carne for reminding me about it.

The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)

2-gs-photo

Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.

We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.

I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.

One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.

Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.

Here are the ten commandments:

ten-commandments-one-slide

This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.

Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.

Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.

So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.

The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.

Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.

Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.

This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad.  I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.

There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.

So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.

I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.

It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.

I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.

I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.

Dowd has invested a large amount of time creating audio versions of important books and documents. I’m currently re-reading his audiobook version of William R. Catton, Jr.’s seminal 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

First Man (2017 documentary)

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I watched this video today. It’s a dramatization of human evolution using actors in makeup and is quite well done. They covered quite a bit of detail on what is known about human evolution over the last few million years.

It was in the last 5 minutes of the 90 minute documentary that I became disappointed. They acknowledged that something important happened 100,000 years ago in one small group of hominids in Africa, and that group quickly displaced all of its many close relatives around the world, and then took over the planet. But unlike with other earlier important events like walking, running, hunting, tools, fire, and cooking, they did not even speculate what happened. Nor did they seem to appreciate its significance.

It’s amazing how many people miss the forest for the trees.

This documentary was ripped by MVGroup and is available at the usual torrent places, or you can pay for it here.

https://www.nilaya.fr/en/programs/first-man

Thirty million years ago a new group of creatures appeared on planet Earth: the great apes. From their ranks arose one family, gifted with exceptional skills: our protagonists.

This family would change the face of our world forever.

Moving upright in the trees, they were then lords of the canopy, reigning supreme over limitless forests stretching from Europe to Asia. They founded a new social way of life. They created a language. They invented education as a way of passing on knowledge to their children.

But the day came when the forest no longer sufficed to feed them. Little by little, they ventured onto the ground where they developed hunting skills, and tools to improve their skills.

This early family expanded in number, producing the need to become collectively organized. Politics reared its head. Power structures and warfare soon followed.

Some now decided to risk liberating themselves for good from the world of the trees.

Our ancestors were hungry for freedom. But on the savannah, the predators were absolute kings. So our ancestors invented weapons. And, for the first time, challenged the supremacy of the big cats. A new era had begun.

Man’s early ancestors set off to conquer the world, to explore the unknown, to adapt to every environment. And one day, to conquer fire – a discovery that made them invincible.

They built shelters. They transformed their environment. But still this did not slake their thirst for more. They sought to fathom Nature’s mysteries. They invented stories to explain the inexplicable. Now, they are Men.

Here, for the very first time in television history, is the saga of our origins, told through the story of one single family – an epic journey upon which the latest scientific discoveries shine an exciting new light.