brain


Toccata

      "A neighbor in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches. Otherwise they could hit me with invisible darts that will get inside my veins and poison my blood.

      "A shaman burns tobacco leaves in front of a row of statuettes and starts talking to them. He says he must send them on a journey to distant villages in the sky. The point of all this is to cure someone whose mind is held hostage by invisible spirits.

      "A group of believers goes around warning everyone that the end is nigh. Judgment Day is scheduled for October 2. This day passes and nothing happens. The group carries on, telling everybody the end is nigh (the date has been changed).

      "Villagers organize a ceremony to tell a goddess she is not wanted in their village anymore. She failed to protect them from epidemics, so they decided to 'drop' her and find a more efficient replacement.

      "An assembly of priests finds offensive what some people say about what happened several centuries ago in a distant place, where a virgin is said to have given birth to a child. So these people must be massacred.

      "Members of a cult on an island decide to slaughter all their livestock and burn their crops. All these will be useless now, they say, because a ship full of goods and money will reach teir shores very sohortly in recognition for their good deeds.

      "My friends are told to go to church or some other quiet place and talk to an invisible person who is everywhere in the world. That invisible listener already knows what they will say, because He knows everything.

      "I am told that if I want to please powerful dead people—who could help me in times of need—I should pour the blood of a live white goat on the right hand side of a particular rock. But if I use a goat of a different color or another rock, it will not work at all."

Thus begins Chapter 1 of a book by Pascal Boyer, "Religion explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought" (2001). The back cover asks "Why do we have religion?" "Until recently [2001, that is] most anthropologists would tell you that isn't even a valid question. But in fact, the intellectual tools for addressing the question simply didn't exist. Now they do."  
3

"The explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work," wrote Prof. Boyer. Atheists' minds included. This property of mind supports all sorts of variations in religious beliefs. "Having a normal human brain does not imply you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it." Atheists, so it appears to me, have a hard time to understand those fellow human beings who believe in a living God, the supreme being who created and rules the universe and is the judge of human mores. It is a notion that defies all logic. And monotheists tend to ridicule those who believe in a pantheon of gods and spirits with power over nature.  4

According to psychologist Alfred Adler (1870–1937) inferiority complex underlies the personal traits of all human minds and that the character of the individual is formed by a drive for superiority to overcome inferiority by a blend of responses.*  5

I am not suggesting that today's evolutionary psychologists either agree or disagree with Adler on this; I simply don't know. But the notion of a property of mind made me think of the language instinct, a widely accepted capacity described by Steven Pinker that all humans have for acquiring language.* As for inferiority complex, the term does not appear in the subject index of Boyer's book.  6

The foregoing led me to acquire another book by Pascal Boyer, "Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create" (2018). A reviewer wrote "I particular like his balance and even-handedness in evaluating contending social theories." Prof. Boyer has been described as an evolutionary psychologist. Wikipedia tells us that:

      "Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations—that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution.

      "Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Some evolutionary psychologists apply the same thinking to psychology, arguing that the modularity of mind is similar to that of the body and with different modular adaptations serving different functions. These evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments." (
Ref.)

Quite a mouthful that is. Reading the article made me aware that I must be doubly careful choosing my words to not get into the hot water of virulent contention. Oh, before I forget, the term "inferiority complex" does not appear in this book's subject index either.  7

* * *

I am an old fogey who not only rambles a lot, but also associates a lot. It seems that a long life with many and varied experiences has given me much to associate. And so it may well be that me associating music with writing the way I am doing here strikes people as off the beam, so to speak. Without young peoples' urgent need to make a living, I do not quite share the same concerns to the same extent as they do. Maybe that is part of the reason why old old fogeys are habitually relegated to the sidings of everyday life.  8

Organ
J.S. Bach, Toccata and fugue in d-minor.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines toccata as a composition for a keyboard instrument, intended to exhibit the touch and technique of the performer, and having the air of an improvisation. It underwent its highest development in Germany where it culminated in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. The word toccata derives from the Vulgar Latin toccare, to touch. In music, fugue is defined as a contrapunctal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts. And in psychiatry, fugue is a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy. The word derives from the Latin fuga, flight. Human sensory perception is said to associate the d-minor chord with serious, pious, ruminating. melancholy, feminine, brooding worries, contemplation of negativity.  9

I am associating the power of toccata with the power of logic and fugue with a flight from seemingly logical reasoning to the underlying subconscious regions of innermost feelings; closer to such properties of mind Boyer and Pinker talked about, both of which, among many other properties underly the personal traits of all human minds. Properties are properties, be they physical or mental. Whether or not I am able to express such associations is not for me to judge. All I can do is give it a try.  10

* * *

Fugue

You may recall these lines from Yuval Harari's "A Brief History of Humankind" which I quoted in a previous piece:

      "About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
      "About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce ino complex structures called atoms, wich then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.
      "About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.
      "About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these cultures is called history."  11

Harari is an historian. Good for him, but understanding the subsequent development of these cultures calls for a more perfect objectivity. I am reminded of these lines by the Scottish bart Robbie Burns:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Humans are fortunate that the giftie gave us science. The science of evolution lets humans step away from ourselves in the here and now although, wrote Boyer, "doing science is also difficult and frustrating, and in many ways goes against the grain of our spontaneous way of thinking.  
12

It is a groping in the dark to seek a solution to a problem without understanding what that problem really is to begin with. This goes for problems among humans, societal problems, as well as for other kinds of problems, those addressed by physicists, chemists, and biologists; from the Big Bang up. As for the many seemingly intractable problems among humans, Pascal Boyer wrote that there is no good reason human societies should not be described and explained with the same precision and success of a thoroughly probed piece of research as applied to the rest of nature. Here are just some questions begging for answers:

   • Why do people believe many things that are not true?
   • What explains morality?
   • What makes people cooperate or not?
   • Why do people want other people to be more like themselves?
      Remember Henry Higgins in the 1964 motion picture "My Fair Lady"?
                  Mrs Pearce, you're a woman ...
                  Why can't a woman be more like a man?
                  Men are so decent, such regular chaps.
                  Ready to help you through any mishaps.
                  Ready to buck you up whenever you are glum.
                  Why can't a woman be a chum?
                  Why is thinking something women never do?
                  Why is logic never even tried?
                  Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
                  Why don't they straighten up the mess that's inside?
                  Why can't a woman behave like a man?
                  If I was a woman who'd been to a ball,
                  Been hailed as a princess by one and all;
                  Would I start weeping like a bathtub overflowing?
                  And carry on as if my home were in a tree?
                  Would I run off and never tell me where I'm going?
                  Why can't a woman be like me?

   • What causes many people to be of a conservative, others of a liberal bent of mind?
   • What makes politicians avoid or downplay the opinions and advice of experts?  
13

Beginning with a much simpler question: Why do so many people crave sweets? A spontaneous, common-sense answer: They like the taste. No argument there. But an evolutionary psychologist digs deeper: Humans evolved in environments in which sugar was so rare that taking all you could was a good strategy. Those who did extracted more calories and on average would thereby have a better opportunity for reproduction. Boyer:

      "In more accurate terms—some genes provided organisms with a moderate interest in ripe fruit, while other variants provided a keener motivation to eat them and greater pleasure in their consumption. The latter genes gradually became more frequent in human populations. That is all we mean when we say that a strong craving for sugar is an evolved property of today's humans."

To be sure, this short paragraph overlooks deeper-going details. Boyer then goes on

      "This evolutionary logic, so easy to understand and even easier to misunderstand, is a key to explaining human behaviors, including the way we live in societies."  
14

The Covid-19 pandemic makes the last one of those questions ("What makes politicians avoid or downplay the opinions and advice of experts?") stand out above the others. But even so, it is in entangled with our livelihood, or, more broadly speaking, "the economy," which I began addressing in the previous essay, "Rhapsody in Blue."  15

Another key to understanding the behaviors of a person is realizing that environment includes fellow humans as well as the body and mind of that very person himself/herself. The desire to light up a cigaret may be stimulated by somene else smoking and/or it may override a desire to reach for something sweet. Putting it differently, everything but the particular human property an evolutionary psychologist attempts to explain is considered its environment.  16

Going well beyond some simple act as, say, lighting up a cigaret, humans engaging in agriculture, or subjecting themselves to rulers, or learning technology, or what-have-you, extract much of their information from other humans—from educators, from collegues, from casual contacts, and so on. I could expand this paragraph to all sorts of human inclinations or drives, but I believe that by now you have a rudimentary picture.  17

It is common experience that we do not detect all of the information our environments provide all of the time. We'd go bananas. I don't care what outfit Suzie is wearing when I am sniffing a wine. The particular piece of information we seek is determined by one of our evolved detection systems. Dung beetles carry on eating and digesting dung entirely oblivious to what quails and warbles find important. (Yes, I stole this line from Boyer as I did the next example.) Salmon and eels can detect subtle changes in the concentration of salt in their surrounding water which is vital information for organisms that migrate between fresh and salt waters. But supposedly more complex organisms like ducks, otters and human swimmers do not detect such changes.  18

Observing a person's eyes can tell us what a person is looking at and thereby tell us something about a person's mental state such as is whether he or she is paying attention to you or to something else. It is process that involves many steps including an estimate of the ratio between the areas of the white scelera left and right of the eyes' irises, some subtle trigonometry for computing the direction of the gaze, the assumption that there is an unbroken straight line from iris to what is viewed. But, but, but, but ..., I'll copy here a paragraph from a story about how and why Westerners and East Asians—the Chinese in particular—view the world differently.

      "For example, while most British people look at a person's eyes when they are talking to them, Chinese people are much less likely to make eye contact. 'This can leave the British person feeling uncomfortable and distrustful .... On the other hand, the Chinese person would consider eye contact to be potentially disrespectful and impolite'." (
Ref.)  19

Late in the year 2013, I began taking an interest in our Senate and then began writing an essay about what I learned about this part of our government and about how I feel it could serve Canadians better. It has received some favorable comments and yet, my recommendations bore no fruit. Ever since I have wondered just why that would be so. Might evolutionary psychology have already evolved to the point it can tell us why?  20


References

Inferiority complex  *   fn1


Steven Pinker, "The Language Instinct" (1994)  *   fn2

The space below serves to put any hyperlinked targets at the top of the window

Valid XHTML 1.0!     tux     mveMVE

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
--
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Above space serves to put hyperlinked targets at the top of the window