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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Seeing a Canyon Between Animal and Human Minds, They Call It a Little Crack

The origin of the human mind is a great problem for conventional thinking about evolution. The problem is that relatively suddenly there appeared a species with many traits that had never been seen before, things like insight, imagination, spirituality, language, mathematical ability, and abstract thinking. If such things had very gradually appeared over the course of five million years, it wouldn't be such a problem. But such things seem to have appeared rather suddenly at a time about 100,000 years ago. At the time the human population was very small, and the smaller the population of a species, the less likely it is to be beneficially transformed by random mutations. We might call this the “canyon problem.” It is as if the human species magically jumped over a canyon about 100,000 years ago, a vast gulf separating humanity and the other animals.  Exacerbating the problem is the fact (discussed here) that quite a few of the uniquely human mental characteristics seem to be things unrelated to survival value, making their appearance not explicable through natural selection. 

Conventional Darwinists have long had a strategy to try to minimize this credibility problem, a strategy that one might call “trying to shrink the canyon.” The strategy typically follows two general rules: try to humanize the animals, and try to animalize the humans.

The “humanize the animals” part works like this: attempts are made to emphasize human-like characteristics in animals, to make it look as if animals are not all that different from humans. The “animalize the humans” part works like this: attempts are made to depict humans as being quite like animals, rather like apes in business suits and dresses. An example of the “animalize the humans” approach was the best-selling book The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. An example of the “humanize the animals” approach is the recent book Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals by by Nathan H. Lents, a professor of molecular biology. I find this subtitle to be rather like some title of Finding Lunar Nature Inside the Sun or a title of Finding Canine Nature Inside Humans.

Lents goes wrong on the very first page of his book, by stating, “The thesis of this book is that underneath even our most complex behaviors are rather simple, genetically coded predispositions that we share with many other animals.” That's misbegotten, since our most complex behaviors include things like building rocket ships, creating physics theories, writing books, programming computers, filling out income tax forms, and posting things to the Internet; and it is not at all true to say that underneath such behaviors are predispositions that we share with animals.

Showing that he will rely on a much-criticized and over-hyped line of research called behaviorial genetics, Lents then starts talking about “behavioral programs,” trying to imply that genes code some program for human behavior. They do not. While genes may have some influence on human behavior, anything like a “behavioral program” would require some storage medium using a language vastly more sophisticated than the bare-bones language used by DNA, which is a language merely for stating which amino acids should make up a particular protein.

Here is some very lame reasoning used by Lents to support this idea (he refers to the tendency of newborn ducklings to follow the first organism they see after being born, whether it be a mother duck or a human):

It seems unfathomable that mere DNA and protein could control emotion and behavior, but what else could control them? Anyone who has ever seen a brood of ducklings follow their mother has borne witness to the power of genetically programmed instinct in directing behavior.

This is fallacious “what else could the answer be?” type of reasoning kind of similar to this district attorney reasoning to a jury: “It may seem utterly impossible that the defendant could have committed the murder, but who else could have done it?” We do not understand the cause of animal instincts. But we do know that there could not possibly be any rule in DNA such as, “Always follow your mother,” or “Follow the first thing you see after being born,” because concepts such as “follow” or “mother” or “the first thing you see after being born” cannot be expressed by DNA, which can only state the constituents of proteins. As for the question “what else could control them?” the answer for now must be: “some aspect of biology or nature we don't understand.”

The modern biologist keeps using this dubious “where else could it be?” logic again and again. He will typically assume that memories are stored in the human brain, using “where else could they be?” logic, even though there is no place in the brain suitable for storing memories lasting for five decades (as discussed here), because of factors such as very rapid molecular turnover in synapses. The modern biologist will also typically assume that the body plans of organisms are stored in DNA, using “where else could they be?” logic, even though there are very good reasons why body plans cannot be stored in DNA (as discussed here), such as the fact that the extremely meager DNA language is completely incapable of expressing either complex three-dimensional blueprints, or sequential instructions for making complex three-dimensional objects. You cannot establish that X is in location Y using “where else could it be?” reasoning, in any case where Y is not a place that can feasibly be storing X.

Chapter 2 of Lents' book is entitled “Animal Systems of Justice.” But he does not demonstrate that animals have such a rarefied thing as a “system of justice.” An animal may dole out punishment or reward to another animal, but it is rather laughable to call such behavior a “system of justice,” as if our hamsters, hares and hyenas were Hammurabis constructing codes of justice.

Chapter 5 is a 42-page chapter entitled “Do Animals Fall in Love?” But the chapter is almost all about other things, and does not justify any claim that animals do fall in love like humans.

Other chapters try to show that animals can be jealous, greedy, or capable of grief or fear. This does not add up to a case justifying the “Not So Different” title of the book. For there are still the following differences to consider:

  • Humans use language, and animals don't.
  • Humans have complex abstract ideas, and animals don't.
  • Humans design and build complex things, and animals don't (with the possible exception of beavers, who build dams that aren't very complex).
  • Humans create representational art, and animals don't.
  • Humans feel awe when they look at the stars and wonder when they look at a sunset, and animals don't.
  • Humans form religious ideas, and animals don't.
Having read Lents promise at his book's beginning that he would discuss genetic “behavior programs,” I looked at the “G” part of his book's index. Was there an entry for “gene for aggression” or “gene for love” or “gene for building behavior” or anything like that? No, the relevant part of the index looks like this:

geese, 190
genetic diversity 95-97
giraffes, 135-136

That was to be expected, because while the human genome has been exhaustively studied, there has been no series of replicated studies that found a gene specifying a particular complex behavior. There is no aggression gene, no philosophical thinking gene, no creativity gene, no spirituality gene, no sociability gene, no “build things” gene or anything of the sort.

Lents book relies on a foundation of behavior genetics. Below is an excerpt from a review of a book on behavior genetics:

Panofsky’s history of behavior genetics is about a
science gone wrong. It is a science whose proponents
rely on “flawed reasoning and research of people using
counterfactual models of genetic reductionism” (Lerner,
2015b; p. 68). In the end, we are drawn to the
important question raised by Lerner (2006). “Why do
we have to keep reinterring behavior genetics or other
counterfactual conceptualizations of the role of genes
in behavior and development” (p. 337) ? Why indeed,
given the many nails driven into its intellectual coffin
the now classical accounts of Gould (1996) and
Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin (1984) and the more recent
critiques by psychologists such as Douglas Wahlsten
(2012) whose assessment must surely be the final word:
All hope of discovery has been lost.”

This essay by a PhD (entitled “The Crumbling Pillars of Behavioral Genetics”) discusses the failure of behavioral geneticists to deliver on their promises to find evidence of genes that control behavior.  Scientific American columnist John Horgan complains that behavioral genetics has a “horrendous track record.” He points out that claims to have discovered a gene for some particular behavior are not well replicated. Horgan states:

The methodology of behavioral geneticists is highly susceptible to false positives. Researchers select a group of people who share a trait and then start searching for a gene that occurs not universally and exclusively but simply more often in this group than in a control group. If you look at enough genes, you will almost inevitably find one that meets these criteria simply through chance.

Lents ends his book by quoting Darwin, who said, “Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” This assertion itself is certainly false. A human mind that can use abstract reasoning, contemplate the mysteries of existence, design cities, compose symphonies, and create physics theories is obviously a different kind of mind than the mind of an animal; the difference is not at all merely one of degree.

The “canyon problem” I referred to remains, and Lents has failed to shrink the canyon. 

human minds
 Postscript: One of several ways to try to deal with this "canyon problem" is to appeal to the possibility of extraterrestrial interference in human evolution.  The fairly sudden appearance of the more refined human mental traits is probably a better point of favor of such a hypothesis than any of the archaeological items that are frequently mentioned on the Ancient Aliens television show.