Monday, April 14, 2008

Head vs the heart

Reviewed by Prof Ashok Vohra

Emotion: The Essence of Life — An Evolutionary Explanation
by Kuldip Kumar Dhiman. Unistar.
Pages. XVI+160. Rs 295

Emotion: The Essence of Life — An Evolutionary ExplanationLong before psychologists and other social scientists, philosophers recognised that emotions are important part of human personality and play a significant role in understanding human beings and their actions.

Emotions not only describe and illuminate causes/reasons of human actions but also motivate human beings to act in the way they do. They don't necessarily have a positive impact on human personality. Because of the sway they hold on human beings, emotions make one prone to excessive and violent acts. They weaken human resolve by impeding judgement, making it irrational.

In the moral domain, emotions by detracting us from the path of duty deviate us from good deeds; whereas, according to Kant and the Bhagvadgita, for example, duty alone determines what is good. They play a significant positive role in the field of art. However, whether emotions play a positive or negative role would depend upon whether they are conceived as impulses without thought or intentional content, or as having some sort of cognitive content.

Emotions are distinct both from bodily appetites, such as hunger and thirst, and from objectless moods, such as irritation and endogenous depression. The first distinction between emotions and moods is that while emotions last for a short time, may be a few seconds or even less, moods and their cognates last for a longer duration. The second and more important distinction is that unlike moods, emotions have objects, for example, one is angry or pleased with something.

Emotions play a major role in the making of our descriptive beliefs, for example, what is happening in the world, as well as evaluative beliefs for example our attitude towards those happenings. So they affect our way of not only seeing an object, but also of our appraisal of that object. For example, all religions advocate emotions like compassion, pity, and charity. But philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche and many others argue that these emotions hurt the self-esteem of the suffering person.

Philosophers' views have now been supported and enriched by advances in cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis and anthropology. Each discipline has developed its own method of studying, classifying and scrutinising the effects of emotions. After providing conceptual clarifications from early Greek thinkers to Paul Ekman in our times, Kuldip Dhiman in his book defends the nascent methodology of 'evolutionary psychology'. Unlike the traditional methods which lay excessive emphasis on 'objectivity' and 'rationality', the evolutionary psychology is based on the axiom that emotions are not a hindrance in understanding the self, rather they contribute a great deal in our understanding the unknown, hidden aspects of human personality. They provide a key to many of the hitherto unexplained human psychological phenomena.

Dhiman argues that evolutionary psychology is a "very useful framework" and "very dynamic method" of psychology. The defence of Evolutionary Psychology by Dhiman is not for its own sake but with a view to support his own conviction that "the essence of life is individuality, and this sense of individuality comes largely from our emotional profile" because "emotions are involved in an organism's survival" itself.

The author relying upon the insights from anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, neurosciences, cultural studies and other allied branches of knowledge proves that reason and emotions are perfectly compatible. To say that we ought to be solely guided by reason is as wrong as to say that our judgments and ensuing actions should be based on emotions alone. He establishes that through emotion management—emotion expression, emotion regulation, and emotion inhibition—we can develop an effective communication and build a better world around us.

One can whole heartedly agree with Dhiman's conclusion that evolutionary psychology has a great potential and that the in-depth study of emotions which is its starting point is "not only useful and necessary for our existence", but "crucial to our survival".

The book puts in lucid language some of the complex technical terms used in the recent developments in the philosophy of mind in general and more particularly in the area of evolutionary psychology. Each of the illustration by the author is of great help in understanding the emotion under discussion. The book shall be of great interest to experts and the layman alike. The publishers deserve to be congratulated for excellent production at an affordable price.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Ignoble Savage

Why does man, considered to be the most intelligent creature on this earth, indulge in inhuman acts of violence, arson and genocide as witnessed in Kashmir, and caste-related violence in other regions? Why does this so-called rational being behave so irrationally? It is generally believed that most people are by nature kind and noble and they behave like animals only when they are corrupted by those with a vested interest, like political leaders. This viewpoint is naive and simplistic, says Kuldip Dhiman

  "ULTRAS massacre 17 in Doda. According to the police, a group of 10 militants entered Ludar village and dragged 20 males belonging to one community out of their homes and shot them."

You switch off the television in sheer disgust, but such news stories keep appearing with increasing frequency. Whether it is Kashmir, Punjab, the North-East, or the distant Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Palestine, etc., it is the same old story that has been repeating itself for centuries— men killing men. But why? Why does the most intelligent of species in the world behave in such a barbaric fashion? Why are humans so violence-prone, and why is the violence chiefly communal? Why can't we all live amicably?

Religion and politics are often named as the main causes of communal disharmony. We blame the priests and the politicians for exploiting the 'innocent' masses for their own selfish ends. This may sound very convincing, but the fact is no one can exploit unless there is something available to be exploited.

While the minorities are in continual fear of being annihilated, the majority group is equally afraid of being overtaken by the minorities some day. Both groups are uneasy and uncomfortable with real, and often imagined, fear. They thus live in mutual suspicion about the motives of the other group. Political leaders are well aware of this distrust, and know that in a multiracial society only a tiny spark is required to flare up communal violence. Throw a piece of beef in a temple, a cigarette butt in a gurdwara or a piece of pork in a mosque, and a riot starts.

It appears that hatred towards the other group is universal. At a broader level, there is aggression between countries, especially between immediate neighbours; at national level there is aggression between states; at state level between districts and villages. In villages, there is aggression between families, between two tribes, between two villages, between families, between members of the same family such as between husband-wife, or between siblings, between genders, between the same gender and, finally, aggression against one's own self.

It is generally believed that humans are by nature kind and noble, and they behave like animals only when they are corrupted by people with a vested interest— like political leaders. This viewpoint has been challenged by thinkers over the ages.

One scientist, who devoted a lot of his energies studying the aggressive aspect of human nature, was Conrad Lorenz. He reinforced the belief that there is an innate drive for intra species aggression and it finds expression every now and then.

Konrad Lorenz was born on November 7, 1903, in Austria. In 1966, he wrote On Aggression in which he argued that aggressive behaviour in animals is motivated by survival, while in the case of humans aggressive behaviour may be channelled or modified. In 1973 he won a Nobel Prize (shared with Karl Von Frisch & Niko Tinbergen) for his studies on human and animal behaviour.

Borrowing Freud's hydraulic model of the brain, Lorenz argued that when pressure builds up in an internal system, rather like the water in a toilet cistern, the threshold for tolerance might be reduced and just a little stimulus is needed to trigger off aggressive behaviour. What is alarming is that in extreme cases, it may 'overflow' with no external stimulus as we often see in the case of two different communities who suddenly turn against each other in spite of having a fairly long record of peaceful co-existence.

After studying the behaviour of animal and birds, Lorenz came to believe that, like many other animals, we have an innate drive to aggressive behaviour towards our own species. This, he argued, is the only possible explanation of the conflicts and wars throughout all human history, of the continuing unreasonable behaviour of supposedly reasonable beings. Taking a Darwinian perspective and Freud's theory of the death instinct, Lorenz tried to explain this ugly aspect of human nature.

Since food and other resources are scarce, and humans have to compete with the other species for their own kind for survival. Even between members of the same species, such as humans, there is always competition for food, territory and power. Nature's laws are merciless — they favour the strong and that's why aggression seems to be innate in us. Aggression, like any other weapon, is a double-edged sword. To a certain degree it is good for us, but we often lose control of ourselves and indulge in all sorts of inhuman acts.

In his well-argued article Lorenz on Aggression, in the book Ten Theories of Human Nature, Leslie Stevenson observes that the most destructive human violence is not between individuals but between groups, whether organised as in war or unorganised as in communal massacres. At a certain stage of their evolution, our ancestors had more or less mastered the dangers of their inhospitable environment and the main threat facing them came not from predators, but from other human groups. "The competition between tribes," avers Stevenson explaining Lorenz's viewpoint, "would have been the main factor in natural selection, so there would be survival value in the 'warrior virtues.' At this postulated prehistoric stage, those groups that bonded together best to fight other groups would tend to survive longest. Thus, Lorenz offers to explain what he calls 'militant enthusiasm,' in which a human crowd becomes excitedly aggressive against another group perceived as alien and loses all rational control and moral inhibitions. This tendency, he suggests, has evolved from the communal defence response of our prehuman ancestors.

Although we know that most animals tend to fight with one another, the victorious contender seldom kills the opponent if the latter makes appropriate gestures conceding defeat. Humans are the only one, as far as we know, to indulge in systematic mass killing of rival groups (although there have been recent reports about systematic warfare among different groups of monkeys). This is quite perplexing because, according to Darwin's theory, the main duty of all species is to survive and to propagate their own kind so they have more members of its type and, hence, a better chance of survival. Explaining Lorenz's theory, Stevenson says there was no evolutionary need for very strong inhibition mechanisms to stop fighting between ape-men. The more heavily armed animals need such inhibitions to prevent injury to each other, but others do not, at least in their normal environments. With human beings, cultural and technological developments put artificial weapons in our hands— from sticks and stones of prehuman ancestors, through arrows and swords of history, to bullets and bombs, chemical and nuclear weapons of today. The biological equilibrium between killing potential and inhibition is upset. This is how it is that human beings are the only animals to indulge in genocide of their own kind.

Appeals to rationality and moral responsibility have been notoriously ineffective in controlling human conflict. Lorenz reiterated that aggression was innate in us: like the instincts of Freudian id, it must find an outlet in one way or another. Reason alone is powerless; it can only devise means to ends that we decide in other ways, and it can exert control over our behaviour only when it is backed by some instinctual motivation. So, like Freud, Lorenz saw a conflict between the instincts implanted in us by evolution and the new moral restraints necessary to civilised society. He speculated that in prehuman groups there must have been a primitive morality that condemned aggression within the group but encouraged 'militant enthusiasm' against any group perceived as alien.

Being medical men, it was natural for Freud and Lorenz to explain aggression from a biological perspective. But there are others who believe that environment has its own share in shaping human nature.

Lorenz's theory, though brilliant and convincing, is not without problems. His critics accuse him of being unscientific because, as with the Freudian theories, Lorenz's application of the concepts of drive and instinct are not testable by observation and experiment.

To be fair to Freud, Lorenz and other such thinkers, we must not forget that although neuroscientists have done a lot of work, there is very little we know about the mind and how it works. The method of observation, measurement and testing works as far as physical things such as chemicals, solids, or even human organs like the heart, liver etc., are concerned. With modern instruments, we can now very accurately measure a person's heartbeat, or blood pressure. But we still don't know how to measure and test mental processes such as thought and emotion. You might love your spouse or your child, but how can you ever measure it or test it? Sure, one day we might find ways to measure mental processes, but until then we have to make do with whatever theories we have, unscientific though they might appear to be. Besides, thinkers are often way beyond their times and theories that were once rubbished once were later proved to be true. When Einstein presented his two theories of relativity, the scientific community laughed at him because his theories just did not make sense to them. Besides, they were impossible to test at that time as he dealt with space-time and gravity. Ways were found to test them only many years later.

While not taking credit away from Lorenz, it must be mentioned here that he was not the first to suggest that aggression in humans and animals was innate. Over the ages, thinkers have recognised this human trait. Nietzsche was quite vocal about it when he coined the phrase "the will to power," and when he observed that humans are in a continual state of war, and that peace was just a pause in war.

Freud himself devoted his attention to aggression, in fact his concept of the id, ego and super-ego is nothing but a recognition of internal and external conflict in all of us, leading to "collective neurosis."

In the book, Civilization and its Discontents, Freud admits, "In all that follows I take up the standpoint that the tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man, and I come back now to the statement that it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture. At one point in the course of this discussion, the idea took possession of us that culture was a peculiar process passing over human life and we are still under the influence of this idea. We may add to this that the process proves to be in the service of Eros, which aims at binding together single human individuals, then families, then tribes, races, nations, into one great unity, that of humanity. Why this has to be done we do not know; it is simply the work of Eros. These masses of men must be bound to one another libidinally; necessity alone, the advantages of common work, would not hold them together The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all and of all against each one opposes the programme of civilisation. This instinct of aggression is the derivative and main representative of the death instinct we have found alongside of Eros, sharing his rule over the earth. And now it seems to me, the meaning of the evolution, of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of and so the evolution of civilisation may be simply described as the struggle of the human species for existence."

The instinct of destruction, argued Freud, when tempered and harnessed (as it were, inhibited in its aim) and directed towards objects; is compelled to provide the ego with satisfaction of its need and with power over nature. Since the assumption of its existence is based essentially on theoretical grounds, it must be confessed that it is not entirely proof against theoretical objections. But this is how things appear to us now in the present state of our knowledge; future research and reflection will undoubtedly bring further light which will decide the question.

Thinkers and scientists often take extreme viewpoints while arguing their postulates. Some believe that humans shape the environment, while behaviorists such as J. B. Watson and Skinner go to the extent of denying the human mind altogether and emphasising that environment is the only factor that shape human nature. Change the environment and you change the being. With hindsight, we can say that both these extreme approaches are partly wrong. Nature and nurture influence each other mutually, and we cannot ignore one at the expense of the other. In this connection, we might refer to the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

When Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, in 1976, the book further heated the debate over whether humans were ruled more by nature or nurture. He noted that discussing the evolution of birds without looking hard at the evolution of their nests, or at beavers, without considering the evolution of their dams, would be prima facie ridiculous. Each is essential to the survival of the other. It is the combination of bird and nest, the combination of beaver and dam, that gives a competitive edge to the animals who build them. Not only does the body of an organism march to the orders of its genes, but so do the artifacts the organism builds or uses. In this sense, the egg uses both a chicken and a nest to make another egg, and so the nest, too, is an evolutionary extension of the egg.

Though our disposition to be aggressive is genetic, it is further reinforced in our minds in our childhood by our parents, teachers and peer groups. Children grow up believing their race, religion, social group, caste and culture are far superior to that of the others. Highly charged stories of heroic victories and humiliating defeats are often drilled into our minds quite early. Vengeance is glorified to an extent that the new generation feels duty bound to settle old scores. Hence society and culture also have a hand in moulding our behaviour. It is a two-way traffic — organisms and environment affecting each other. We cannot afford to ignore either of them if we wish to study behaviour.

Language and memory are unique features that are responsible for the tremendous cultural and scientific achievements made by humans. Yet language and memory are the cause for our misery. Although most animals get violent with members of their own species, they don't appear to have long term memories — they fight and forget. Humans are condemned not to forget. While a strong animal might not go to the extent of killing his antagonist if appropriate gestures conceding defeat are made, humans can't afford to take the chance, fearing that if not the opponent his son or friend might catch up with him some day on a lonely stretch. And for this reason, often an entire family or tribe is massacred. On a broader scale, history books never let us forget the past. Heroic tales and folk songs of wars keep the flame of vengeance alive.

Exterminating the other group, even if it is possible, does not work because new schisms in the new homogenous group develop. Even if India were inhabited by just one race that followed one religion, divisions would soon develop. The best way out might be to have a healthy competition between diverse groups in preference to mindless violence in order to dominate the rivals.

Yes, aggression is innate in us, but it does not mean that intolerable behaviour and bloodshed are justified. A scientist's job is to observe, experiment, test and state the fact however unpleasant they might be because once we know the cause of the problem, we have a greater chance of finding a solution to it. Secondly, when observers say that aggression in us is innate, it does not automatically mean that all of us are violent and aggressive by nature. All it means is that we are susceptible to it in certain circumstances. For instance, most of us are quite capable of committing murder, theft, and other nefarious activities as such tendencies might be in our genes, however, by and large, we don't do these things because other factors such as upbringing, education, or religion inhibit us.

Our upbringing can either turn us into highly intolerable beings, or shape us into a 'noble savages.'


Monday, April 7, 2008

Philosophical Issues in Evolutionary Psychology

First Chapter from
Emotion: The Essence of Life
By Kuldip Kumar Dhiman
Published by Unistar Books, Chandigarh


volutionary psychology or evolutionary cognitive psychology got its name from psychologist Leda Cosmides and her anthropologist husband John Tooby, though they are not necessarily its first proponents. In this chapter theoretical foundations and philosophical issues about this theory are laid out, so that what follows in other chapters is better understood.

The argument of this theory is that cognition, which includes perception, memory, language, thinking, emotions, and so on, is best understood within the context of human physical and social evolution. Robert L. Solso explains: 'Take any common event, say the chance encounter with an acquaintance of the opposite sex. Your ability to perceive, evaluate, and remember his or her characteristics is based on our long-standing evolutionary history at work. Thus, cognition (for example, memory) and emotions (for example, lust) are understandable in the man's quest for procreation and survival.'[1]

At the outset it must be stated that evolutionary psychology is not a subject within psychology, such as the study of memory, child development, or social behaviour. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it such as memory, cognition, and emotions. It is a paradigm.

Based on a multi-disciplinary approach, evolutionary psychology is a method of studying and understanding the design and function of the mind on the principles and conclusions drawn mainly from evolutionary biology and cognitive science, but it also includes insights from anthropology, ethology, neuroscience etc. Modern evolutionary psychologists are trying to understand all cognition, as well as brain structures that support the process within the framework of biological evolution and universal environmental forces. Using it as a paradigm, evolutionary psychologists apply it to all the sub-fields that come under it from sensation, to perception, to pattern analysis, to language, to problem solving, to thinking.

The concepts of survival and procreation are central to the evolutionary theory. Inspired by Malthusian ideas, Darwin argued that in principle all organisms could produce much more offspring than they usually do but they do not do so, this is because resources are limited and there is a stiff inter-species and intra-species competition for them. In the face of this stiff competition, individual survival is built in an organism's system. The organism has to survive for as long as it possibly can. Since all life is mortal, the other method of continuing to survive is by passing on its genes to the offspring. It is in this sense that Richard Dawkins coined the much-abused phrase 'the selfish gene'[2]. The core issue is that if an organism is not 'selfish' enough to seek its own survival, nothing would ever get done. The struggle for individual survival and procreation are the fuel of evolution. The concept of survival is a very complex one, and it includes altruism, selfless service, self-sacrifice, celibacy, homosexuality, and other such activities which appear to be contrary to the 'selfish' nature of the gene. Dawkins has argued cogently that what appears to be unselfishness and self-sacrifice are in the final analysis for the good of the individual gene. For want of space, these issues cannot be argued here.

We may now proceed further and note that in order to survive, various organisms have adopted different means, some went in for quantity by rapid procreation, others went in for quality by producing fewer but more complex offspring. This concept has been captured by life history theorists who argue that individuals can enhance fitness in two ways: They can invest in traits that affect age schedule of mortality, or they can invest in traits that affect the age schedule of fertility.[3] Humans invested in a large brain size, the outcome for which was a mind which evolutionary psychologists argue is the single most important element in our success as a species. But we must remember, every evolutionary adaptation is a double-edged weapon; it cuts both ways. The brain makes only two per cent of the human body mass, but it consumes 20 per cent of the body's energy — a very expensive organ indeed in a world short of energy. The mind too, which is a correlate of the brain, is an extremely useful and beneficial adaptation, but it creates problems too, as we shall explore in the forthcoming chapters. Before that, we must ask what is brain? What is mind? Are they two different things? What does evolutionary psychology say?

The Brain and the Mind

The human mind and the way it shapes our behaviour is one of the most fascinating areas of study, yet it is also the most difficult and elusive enterprise. That is because, 'A science of mind,' says Henry Plotkin, 'is an extraordinary idea because the ability we have to do science is dependent upon the properties of our minds.'[4] And this is a major philosophical problem: can a system reflect upon itself?

But, if there is a mind in the first place, it certainly cannot be studied like the other organs of our body. Even so evolutionary psychologists tell us, it is also shaped by evolution. As our brain is the most developed among all the known creatures, it is our major ally in our survival. No feature of humans has played such an important part in human evolution as the brain and mind. This makes the brain-mind complex a prime focus of intellectual investigation.

Evolutionary psychologists see the brain and mind as two aspects of the same system. The assumption is that the brain is like hardware and the mind like software. Way back in 1976, Richard Dawkins drew this analogy in his book The Selfish Gene: 'Brains may be regarded as analogous in function to computers. They are analogous in that both types of machine generate complex patterns of output, after analysis of complex patterns of input, and after reference to stored information.'[5] This information is stored in the form of a highly sophisticated memory and other features like cognition, perception, and emotions that humans have. These in combination make the marvel that is the mind.

Continuing the analogy, Cosmides and Tooby observe that the brain is a machine designed to process information. From this perspective, one can define the 'mind' as a set of information-processing procedures (cognitive programs) that are physically embodied in the neural circuitry of the brain. For cognitive scientists, 'brain' and 'mind' are terms that refer to the same system, which can be described in two complementary ways — either in terms of its physical properties (the neural) or in terms of its information-processing operation (mental).[6] .

Though the brain is a very special organ, there are certain misconceptions about it that must be cleared up at the outset. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that all human and animal organs both external and internal are designed for a specific function; eyes to see, nose to smell, heart to pump blood. These organs cannot perform what they are not designed to do, a nose can't see, for instance. All this seems so obvious that no one bothers to comment upon it, yet when it comes to the brain, traditional theories of psychology have tried to define it as a general purpose mechanism that is capable of cognition, memory, feelings, emotions, problem-solving and so on. These assumptions are challenged by evolutionary psychologists. To them the brain/mind is composed of specialised domain specific circuitry, with each domain performing one specific function only. 'Traditionally, psychologists have assumed that people come equipped only with a set of relatively domain-general faculties such as memory and reasoning, which are applied in equal fashion to diverse problems. Recent research has begun to suggest that human expertise about the natural and social environment, including what is often called semantic knowledge, is best construed as consisting of different domains of competence.'[7] Evolutionary psychologists conceptualise the mind packed with domain-specific programs specialised for solving problems that humans faced in their evolutionary past.

But just as a good workman does not use all the tools in his toolbox when, say, tightening a screw, the mind also chooses specific programs for solving specific problems, otherwise nothing will ever get accomplished. We shall later see how emotions are crucial in letting an organism decide which program to activate at the right moment.

Another important way in which evolutionary psychology differs from most traditional thinking is that it accepts the existence of innate physical and mental features. Following John Locke, the Standard Social Science Model sees the human mind as a tabula rasa, a modelling clay that is moulded by society and culture alone. On this view, innate or inherited traits do not exist at all or are not important. But evolutionary psychology has shown that the traditional narrow view of the human mind though sounds politically correct, is fundamentally flawed.

Environment is a very important factor for evolutionary theorists, so there is no point in asking which is more important the organism or the environment. In The Birth of the Mind, Gary Marcus says that genes are useless without an environment, and no organism could make any use of the environment at all if it were not for its genes.[8] As evolutionary psychology takes the organism and the environment into account, it is markedly different from other schools of thought, which have viewed human nature in isolation. Evolutionary psychology is a holistic approach as it takes into account the smallest unit of evolutionary change, the gene, and also the largest, the environment. Thus it avoids unnecessary fruitless arguments about whether or not a particular behaviour is genetically or environmentally determined.

Let us now consider the presuppositions of evolutionary psychology:

Principle 1: The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits or modules are designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environmental circumstances.

Principle 2: Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during their evolutionary history.

Principle 3: Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg according to evolutionary psychology. Seemingly mundane activities like walking, talking, or opening a door are, as robot designers tell us, actually extremely complex activities involving millions of neural computations per second, something far beyond the capacities of the most advanced computer so far designed. Yet, even children perform these activities with ease and almost unconsciously, leading many to falsely believe that mental processes are simple.

Principle 4: Different neural circuits are specialised for solving different adaptive problems as in the example of a Swiss army knife given earlier. This means that the brain is designed on a modular basis; each module is specifically designed to undertake a specific task.

Principle 5: Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind. The argument is that cultural environment keeps changing too fast for our brains and minds to cope with the change. The world has changed dramatically over the past 10,000 years and especially in the last 200 years, yet this period is just an eye-blink on an evolutionary timescale for evolutionary changes usually take place over millions of years. True the human brain has produced artistic, scientific and technological marvels, but it is still governed by the evolutionary forces that existed about three million years ago.

There are certain other conceptual issues that need some clarification. First, we ought to mention that when evolutionary psychologists compare the human mind with a computer, modules, programs and so on, the analogy should not be extended too far. Steven Pinker argues that computers are serial, doing one thing at a time, brains are parallel, doing millions of things at once Computers are fast; brains are slow. Computer parts are reliable, brain parts are noisy. Computers have a limited number of connections brains have trillions. The claim is not that the brain is like commercially available computers. Rather the claim is that brains and computers embody intelligence for some of the same reasons.[9]

Why should we expect the mind to be modular in the first place? One reason is the way evolution works, that is by adding new structures to the existing ones as there is no point in starting from the scratch all the time. 'No one supposes that there could be a general-purpose sensory organ,' argues Peter Carruthers, 'which could fulfill all of the functions of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. On the contrary, what we expect to find — and what we do find — are distinct organs, specialized for the distinctive structure of each domain, and which have been shaped by natural selection to fulfill the function in question. . . . . Likewise, then, in the case of the mind: one should expect that distinct mental functions — estimating numerosity, predicting the effects of a collision, reasoning about the mental states of another person, and so on — are likely to be realized in distinct cognitive learning mechanisms, which have been selected and honed for that very purpose.'[10]

But, in the same volume, Fiona Cowie and Jim Woodward while agreeing that mind is shaped by natural selection, disagree on the point that the mind ought to be modular. They say that it is simply wrong to suppose that modules are invariably superior to general-purpose devices. There would have been considerable selective pressure favouring the evolution of cognitive mechanisms allowing the rapid assimilation of new information and behavioural flexibility, rather than innately specified modules.[11]

A majority of theorists, however, are now convinced that the mind is modular. But the mind is what the brain does, but not everything it does, for the brain does other things such as metabolising fat and giving off heat. Besides, unlike other organs, the brain has a special status which comes from a special thing the brain does, which makes us see, think, feel, choose, an act. That special thing is information processing or computation.[12] And this information processing is an outcome of evolutionary forces, hence the justification of basing the assumptions of evolutionary psychology on theory of evolution.

What does evolutionary psychology say about emotions which are the main subject of this thesis? Like other mental processes, emotions are also evolutionary adaptations which play a crucial role in our survival. Though the mind has domain specific tools to solve certain type of adaptive problems, we cannot activate all the tools at the same time. If we did that, they would cancel out each other's advantage. Not only minimal number of programmes have to be activated, but also the right programs ought to be used. When two or more problems arise, such as hunger and a dangerous predator, the mind ought to get its priorities right. In this, the mind needs a program to assist it, and emotions are such programs. They are among the most important allies in our survival, and this will be discussed in forthcoming chapters.

Beyond this, it is emotions that give us the feeling of being alive, of experiencing the richness of life, they are the very essence of living.

Major concepts in the Theory of Evolution

Before we study emotions on a psycho-evolutionary perspective, it would be worthwhile looking into the philosophical issues in evolutionary theory and clarifying widespread misconceptions and controversies that have dogged it ever since it was first proposed in a systematic manner by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. For these objections come not only from those who are unfamiliar with science, but also from highly educated scholars, some from the scientific community itself. It would not be possible to deal fully with the objections here, as the issue is not only vast but also equally complicated.

People often ask what has evolution, which is a modern biological theory (and by implication a materialistic one), to do with something as abstract as the mind, and how can one propose to examine the role of emotions, which are some of our most subjective experiences, on this theory. This philosophical problem has confounded many thinkers. Susan Langer, for instance, wonders: 'The vexing question in the philosophy of the biological sciences is how something called 'feelings' enters into the physical (essentially electro-chemical) events that compose an animal organism. . . . The fact that we feel the effects of changes in the world about us, and apparently in ourselves, too, and that all such changes are physically describable, but our feeling them is not, presents a genuine philosophical challenge.'[13]

My endeavour here is to show that there is perhaps a way to answer this 'vexing' question, at least partially, at least a little better, and the way is being shown by evolutionary psychologists.

First of all, one might ask what is evolution and what interest has the student of philosophy of mind in it? That the world is ever changing is a fact that was known to ancient Indian and Western thinkers. Heraclitus in the 6th century B.C. said everything is flux, and we can't step into the same river twice. On evolutionary terms we can say that the world changes but it changes in a gradual manner, and so do the living organisms in it. And since philosophy, as George Thomas White Patrick put it, is an attempt to understand the world, our interest in evolution will depend upon the extent to which it adds to such understanding.[14]

Whether we take a dualist or a physicalist approach to study mental processes like thinking, believing, and feeling, one thing seems to be becoming more and more apparent: we cannot leave the body out of the discussion. It is now not too shocking to state that human nature and culture both have biological roots. In their book Human Evolutionary Psychology Barrett, Dunbar and Lycett declare: 'Unless you are a Creationist, you have to accept that humans have been subject to the same processes of evolutionary change as all other living things on earth. A full understanding of human nature therefore requires an understanding of biological as well as sociological processes . . . . We are products of an interaction between biology and culture, or to put it in its more familiar guise, nature and nurture, genes and environment. To separate the two is a false dichotomy. Many would argue that human nature cannot be reduced to mere biological processes — and they would be right. But to infer from this, as many do, that biology is now completely irrelevant . . . is to commit an egregious logical error.'[15]

Therefore, to study human behaviour by studying its animal origins on evolutionary principles makes sense. This does not, as many fear, reduce humans to animals; rather it can enrich our insights into human psychology and behaviour, and possibly even help us overcome human frailty. And far from reducing the mind to a mere lump of flesh, advances in neurosciences have awoken us to the magnitude of the complexity of the brain and its processes, something no one ever could have imagined before.

Knowledge only takes the myth out of our conception, not the sense of wonder. But knowledge does not necessarily make people give up old belief systems. Evolutionary theory does evoke very strong antagonism among people as it is counter-common sense. In the September 27, 2004 issue of Newsweek, Steven Pinker wrote an article How to Think About the Mind. He said that every evening our eyes tell us that the sun sets, while we know that, in fact, the Earth is turning us away from it. Astronomy taught us centuries ago that common sense is not a reliable guide to reality. Today it is neuroscience that is forcing us to readjust our intuitions. In Galileo's time, the counter-intuitive discovery that the Earth moved around the sun was laden with moral danger. Now it seems obvious that the motion of rock and gas in space has nothing to do with right and wrong. Yet to many people, the discovery that the soul or mind is the activity of the brain is just as fraught, with pernicious implications for everything from criminal responsibility to our image of ourselves as a species. Turning back the clock on the ultimate form of self-knowledge is neither possible nor desirable. We can live with the new challenges from brain science. But it will require setting aside childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas, and thinking afresh about what makes people better off and worse off.

The problem with the theory of evolution is that right from the day it was published it got mired in controversy because people who do not do much serious philosophic and scientific thinking such as journalists, amateur scientists and others got interested in it and began writing on it leading everyone to think, as Jacques Monod put it, that they understand it. Very few of the critics have actually read Darwin's seminal work, their passions are aroused by amateurish interpretation of it in the general media. Another reason for the uproar against it was that it took God out of the conception as He was not necessary. And because biology does not depend upon mathematics too much, most people read books on biology and think they have become experts. While no layman would dare say he is qualified enough to find fault with quantum mechanics, general relativity or Goedl's incompleteness theorem, almost everyone thinks they know enough biology to challenge evolutionary theory. This is because, as humans we think we have a firsthand experiences of our bodies, feelings, thoughts and other mental processes which are 'obvious'. How could we ever be wrong about them? True the subatomic world as shown by quantum theorists is also counter-common sense: all rules of logic and commonsense are turned upside down there, but we don't argue with a physicist because we are not qualified physicists, and as the world of subatomic particles is far removed from ours, we don't care. But it is not the same when we talk about humans and their nature.

Coupled with this is our traditional anthropocentric worldview, the reversal of which is hard to digest. George Thomas White Patrick suggests that 'much of the unhappy and needless antagonism to the theories of evolution in the last century could have been avoided, if Darwin had spoken not of the descent of man, but of his ascent. It all looks quite different when we think of man as the crowning masterpiece of nature's evolutionary methods.'[16]

Another reason for the opposition towards evolution was that, like the Copernican revolution, it was a totally new way of thinking. Darwin seemed to entirely disregard all philosophical traditions that preceded him. He 'started from a new basis by completely eliminating the last remnants of Platonism, by refusing to admit the eidos (Idea, type, essence) in any guise whatsoever.'[17] But he did not stop there; he even disregarded Aristotle's final cause or teleology. Thus in one stroke, he seemed to revolt against the two major systems in Western thinking, the Platonic and the Aristotelian, and this caused great consternation among the orthodoxy. They just did not know what to do with this theory other than condemn it outright.

Some of the so-called scientific objections to the theory were raised in 1859 itself. Darwin answered most of them, and the ones he couldn't were later answered by successive revolutionary breakthroughs made by science. Microbiologists have shown that though evolutionary changes can take millions of years in higher animals, we can see evolution actually happen in front of our eyes at very high speed as in the case of a virus adapting to its antidote. Evolutionary theory has come a long way, but the critics, and especially some philosophers have not updated their knowledge, and still go on criticising Darwin for what he said 150 years ago.

Although in a different context, physicist Stephen Hawkins laments about this slow pace of philosophers in his A Brief History of Time[18]: 'Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.' Expressing similar sentiments about evolutionary theory, Dawkins laments that philosophy and the subjects known as 'humanities' are still taught almost as if Darwin had never lived.[19]

So, like the aficionados of the Flat Earth Society, uninformed sceptics still go on asking questions that have already been settled. The ignorance about evolutionary theory is so common that even advanced thinkers evaluate Darwin only as a biologist, and besides raising invalid objections, insist that he has nothing to do with philosophy or the science of the mind whatsoever. This is a gross underestimation of Darwin's theory for it has changed the way we think about the world. Writing about the wide impact of Darwin's ideas in the introduction to the 1964 facsimile version of On The Origin of Species Ernst Mayr says: 'Yet few writers in the last 200 years have had so profound an impact on our thinking. This holds for logic, metaphysics, and ethics. It has taken 100 years to appreciate fully that Darwin's conceptual framework is, indeed, a new philosophical system.'[20]

How exactly has evolutionary theory changed our conceptual framework? As mentioned earlier it did away with teleology and goal. Aristotle had taught us that everything has a purpose, but Darwin postulated that evolution has no goal or purpose, though evolution is often linked with the idea of progress, and development towards particular goals. But these apparent tendencies are illusory from the evolutionary perspective. Instead of travelling towards a fixed goal, each species follows an evolutionary journey that has no set duration and no certain destination. Richard Dawkins[21] argues that the basic element of evolution, the gene is blind. It only knows its immediate survival.

But evolutionary theory itself seems to be evolving, and now some theorists are not only filling up the lacuna left by Darwin but also modifying his original postulates. For instance, John Bowlby believes that it is no longer a scientific heresy to say that organisms do have a goal or purpose. In Attachment and Loss, he shows that in talking about behaviour of living beings and also self-correcting machines like guided missiles, we have to take into account the age-old problem of purposiveness and the modern concept of feedback.

Purposiveness is the purpose for which a thing is made, and on the Aristotelian hypothesis, everything in this world had a purpose, even inanimate things. The special feature, Bowly explains, that enables an organism or a machine to behave in a purposive way to achieve a predetermined goal is called feedback. This is simply a process whereby the actual effects of performance are continuously reported back to a central regulating apparatus where they are compared with whatever initial interaction the machine was given; the machine's further action is then determined by the results of this comparison and the effects of its performance are thus brought ever closer to the initial instruction. The simplest form of control system is a regulator or a thermostat, the purpose of which is to maintain some condition constant.

Thus differing from other evolutionists on teleology, Bowlby asserts: 'At one time to attribute purposiveness to animals or to build a psychology of human behaviour on the concept of purposefulness was to declare oneself a vitalist and to be banned from the company of respectable scientists. The development of control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile, has changed that. Today it is recognised that a machine incorporating feedback can be truly goal-directed. Thus it comes about that nowadays to attribute purposiveness to behaviour and to think if not teleologically, at least, teleonomically . . . is not only common sense, as it always was, but also good science.'[22]

Another major charge against evolutionary theory is that of biological or genetic determinism. From the recent success of the Genome Project and other developments, we learn that genes are related to behaviour, and how they work. This has led some to raise unwarranted fears about genetic determinism. Human nature is a very touchy subject, and James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, says, 'Passions inevitably run high when science threatens to unsettle or redefine our assumptions about human society and our sense of ourselves — our identity as a species, and our identities as individuals. What could be a more radical question than this: Does the way I am owe more to a sequence of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs inherited from my parents, or to the experiences I've had ever since my father's sperm and mother's egg fused together many long years ago?[23]

Even the geneticists concede that genes only partially determine our behaviour, for they are the agents of nurture as well as nature. Experience is a huge part of a developing human brain, the human mind, and a human organism. We need to develop in a social world and get things in from the outside. It's enormously important to the development of human nature. But how much of it is nature and how much instinct, that actually depends on how we look at the problem and what we consider as nature and what as instinct. Darwin himself realised this when he said that 'some actions which at first performed consciously, have become through habit and association connected with reflex action, and are now so firmly fixed and inherited, that they are performed, even when not of the least use, as often as the same causes arise, which originally excited them in us through the volition'[24]. Thus, the boundary between nature and instinct is actually a blurred one.

The fear of genetic determinism arises because of misinformed reports and conclusions about it in the popular press. Theorists have tried to dispel these fears in recent literature, such as Gary Marcus's The Birth of the Mind[25] in which he says that almost everything that is written about genes in the popular press is misleading in one way or another. He argues that in order to understand the way genes shape behavioural traits, we must first abandon popular metaphors like blueprint and recipe. In blueprints he says there is a direct correspondence between the drawing and the building, this is not the case with genes and the cells and structures that make up an organism. If a blueprint is one per cent different from another one, then the building made from it differs by one per cent, but if a genome is just one per cent different from another, it gives rise to a totally different mental apparatus. Then, identical genomes do not make identical nervous systems, for instance the brains of identical twins are similar but are not identical, this applies to their minds as well.

Even if it were possible in theory to produce two exactly people with identical genetic and physical structure, they would soon develop differently because of the unique individual environment in which they would grow, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, which will be discussed in Chapter III.

Now we can consider environment. Emphasising the importance of environment in our development, Matt Ridley writes in Nature via Nurture: 'You can't describe human nature without it. But that process is itself genetic, in the sense that there are genes in there designed to get the experience out of the world and into the organism. In the human case you're going to have genes that set up systems for learning that are not going to be present in other animals, language being the classic example. Language is something that in every sense is a genetic instinct. There's no question that human beings, unless they're unlucky and have a genetic mutation, inherit a capacity for learning language. That capacity is simply not inherited in anything like the same degree by a chimpanzee or a dolphin or any other creature. But you don't inherit the language; you inherit the capacity for learning the language from the environment.'[26]

Then there are others who quietly accept that biology is destiny. As Stephen Jay Gould put it, 'If we are programmed to be what we are, then these traits are ineluctable. We may, at best, channel them, but we cannot change them either by will, education, or culture.'[27] This claim though looks justified is actually unwarranted and evolutionists have been trying to counter it for decades. In The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins explains that people don't selfishly spread their genes, genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the genes try to make sure they get propagated in the next generation. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal of the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all but about health and lovers and children and friends.

In his paper Genetic Determinism and Gene Selectionism Dawkins says that human nervous systems are so complex that in practice we can forget about determinism and behave as if we had a free will. 'Neurons may be amplifiers of fundamentally indeterminate physical events; The only point I wish to make is that, whatever view one takes on the question of determinism, the insertion of the word 'genetic' is not going to make any difference. If you are a full-blooded determinist you will believe that all your actions are predetermined by physical causes in the past, and you may or may not also believe that you therefore cannot be held responsible for your sexual infidelities. But, be that as it may, what difference can it possibly make whether some of those physical causes are genetic? Why are genetic determinants thought to be any more ineluctable, or blame-absolving, than "environmental" ones?'[28]

James D. Watson observes that this tendency to prefer explanations grounded in 'nurture' over ones rooted in 'nature' has served a useful social purpose in redressing generations of bigotry. Unfortunately, we have now cultivated too much of a good thing. The current epidemic of political correctness has delivered us to a moment when even the possibility of a genetic basis for difference is a hot potato: there is a fundamentally dishonest resistance to admitting the role our genes almost surely play in setting one individual apart from another.[29]


We discussed the basic principles of evolutionary psychology in this chapter. It was argued that although evolutionary theory is a biological one, its assumptions can be successfully used to explain the mental realm. The mind, like the biological organs of a creature is an evolutionary adaptation to help in survival and procreation. And just as every biological organ like hand, nose, eyes, which are designed for a specific purpose, the brain is also composed of highly specialised domain specific micro-circuits, each designed to solve a certain class of adaptive problems.

We saw that though the mind has domain specific tools to solve certain type of adaptive problems, we cannot activate all the tools at the same time. If we did that, they would cancel out each other's advantage. Not only minimal number of programmes have to be activated, but also the right programs ought to be used. When two or more problems arise, such as hunger and a dangerous predator, or even two or more matters of value, the mind ought to set its priorities right. In this, the mind needs a program to assist it, and emotions are such programs. They are among the most important allies in our survival, and this will be discussed in forthcoming chapters.

It was shown that evolutionary psychology accepts that we come into this world with some features that are innate. Some innate programs are closed, while others are open, that is, they can be shaped by learning. This way, the environment is given as much importance as innate programs. It was shown that explaining the mind on evolutionary terms does not reduce it to biology, rather it makes our understanding of it rich. And by understanding the workings of the mind, we could hope to make better use of it, and also learn to solve the problems that it might create.

But we must accept that in psychology, we cannot be very exact and precise in putting forward and testing assumptions as is the case with physics and chemistry. Actually even the so-called 'pure' sciences are not as exact as they claim to be. The problem with the sciences of life and mind is that right from birth, each organism grows in its own special environment, and is influenced by such diverse and abundant stimuli, that it is virtually impossible to go back into the past and point out the cause of present behaviour. 'If we were dealing with laboratory rats,' points out James D. Watson, 'we could conduct a set of simple experiments, involving breeding and rearing under specified uniform conditions. But, happily, humans are not rats, so illuminating data are hard to come by. . . . But a free society should not shrink from honest questions honestly asked; And what is critical is that the truths we discover are then applied only in ethical ways.'[30]

If human nature were like the material world, the whole experience of being human would be lost. We live and enjoy life because we feel we are individuals and not atomic particles going about in a fixed path. Imagine if all humans behaved in exactly the same predictable way. Life would lose all its charm and meaning. The essence of life is individuality, and this sense of individuality comes from our emotional profile which is unique to us. This is the theme of this thesis, which I hope to defend through the principles of evolutionary psychology.

[1] Robert L. Solso; Cognitive Psychology ; Pearson Education, 2001, p30

[2] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; Oxford University Press 2005, p2

[3] Kaplan and Gangestad; Life History Theory and Evolutionary Psychology; David Buss, (Ed.); The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2005, p69

[4] Henry Plotkin; Evolution in Mind: An introduction to evolutionary psychology; Penguin Books 1998, pvii

[5] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; Oxford University Press 1981, p49

[6] Cosmides and Tooby; Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions, in Lewis, Michael and Haviland-Jones, M Jeannerette (Ed).; Handbook of Emotions, Second Ed; The Guildford Press 2000, p97

[7] Boyer and Barrett; Domain Specificity and Intuitive Ontology, in David Buss (Ed.); The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2005, p96

[8] Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind; Basic Books, 2004, p7

[9] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works; Penguin Books, p27

[10] Peter Carruthers, Chapter 15; Hitchcock, Christopher (Ed.), Contemporary Debates in philosophy of Science; Blackwell Publishing, p300

[11] Cowie and Woodward; Chapter 16; Christopher Hitchcock, Contemporary Debates in philosophy of Science; Blackwell Publishing. © 2004 BP. p313

[12] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works; Penguin Books ©1997 SP, p24

[13] S Langer; Mind: An Essay on Human Feelings; The John Hopkins Press 1967 (Quoted by Bowlby in Attachment and Loss, p106

[14] George Thomas White Patrick; Introduction to Philosophy; Surjeet Publications 1999; p121

[15] Barrett, Dunbar & Lycett; Human Evolutionary Psychology; Palgrave, p2

[16] George Thomas White Patrick; Introduction to Philosophy; Surjeet Publications 1999; p123

[17] Ernst Mayr's introduction to On the Origin of Species on Natural Selection (A Facsimile of the first edition published by Appleby and Co 1859) ; Harward University Press, 1964, p xi

[18] Stephen Hawkins; A Brief History of Time; Bantam Books, 1997, p184-85

[19] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; Oxford University Press 2005, p1

[20] Ernst Mayr's introduction to On the Origin of Species on Natural Selection (A Facsimile of the first edition published by Appleby and Co 1859) ; Harward University Press, 1964, p xviii

[21]Richard Dawkins; The Selfish Gene; Oxford University Press 1976, p25

[22] John Bowlby; Attachment and Loss; PIMLICO; p41

[23] James Watson, (with Berry, Andrew); DNA: The Secrets of Life; Arrow Books, London, 2003, p393

[24] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; D. Appleton and Company, 1905, p39

[25]Gary Marcus,; The Birth of the Mind; Basic Books, 2004, p5-7

[26] Matt Ridley, Nature Via Nurture; Foutrh Estate, London © 2003, p

[27] Quoted by Dawkins in Genetic Determinism and Gene Selectionism; Burley and Harris (Ed.); A Companion to Genethics; Blackwell Publishers; 2002, p254

[28] Richard Dawkins, Genetic Determinism and Gene Selectionism; Burley and Harris (Ed.); A Companion to Genethics; Blackwell Publishers; 2002, p254

[29] James Watson, (with Andrew Berry); DNA: The Secrets of Life; Arrow Books, London, 2003, p382

[30] James Watson, (with Andrew Berry); DNA: The Secrets of Life; Arrow Books, London, 2003, p394