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The Domesticated Brain: A Pelican Introduction (Pelican Books) Kindle Edition
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There were some irritating omissions/errors re prehistory. Humans lived a settled life in the Paleolithic, before the glacial pushed them south. People had to co-operate to hunt large animals in the Paleolithic. ---Mesolithic: co-operation to erect huge wooden pine rows and build halls. Neolithic: immense co-operative action to carry out massive landscaping projects from Orkney to York vale to south coast. Bronze age co-operative long distance trade. No firm evidence that paleo/ meso/ neo people were aggressive but possible killing of non cooperative thieves/freeloaders.
The brain possible got smaller as Neanderthals struggled to reproduce as quickly as sapiens, and sapiens predominated in the population. The critical diet factor was fat. Brains are made of fat, (nuts and marrowfat) not meat (protein). It also got smaller in the Neolithic (6000BP) due to poorer diet, people were 6 inches shorter than in the mesolithic. A classic example of how ‘civilisation’ benefited those in power at the expense of the masses.
Some serious lack of clarity re selection, inheritance and epigenetics. Misanalysis of game theory. John Nash’s major point was the win-win situation not the theoretical equilibrium of loser/winner. We all benefit if we cooperate; that has driven the evolution of humans/society. We cooperated because it increased survival of all,against great odds in the glacial. We also cooperated with other scavengers, dogs in hunting (37,000 BP) and possibly birds, which identified dead animals, carrion. It may have been the weaker hunters who had to scavenge more, so were the ones who replaced muscle with intellect. (survival of the ‘weakest’!) It may have been coevolution with dogs that drove our own taming.
Genetics has moved on 150 years from Darwin and Lamarck. Selection is not actively for anything, it is a passive effect of reproductive rates. Epigenetic patterns of DNA methylation/acetylation are not Lamarkian. Epigenetic effects due to stress, fade within two generations, but can ricochet, overcompensate, before equilibrium is gained. They are not ‘selected’ out. The point is that living organisms evolve with their changing environment, and each new generation is a new combined DNA-environment-social experiment. Geneticists believe that the neutralisation in offspring of epigenetic markers built up over an adult lifetime, enables the next generation to respond and adapt to changing environments more rapidly.
If the book intended to propose a serious theory for the shrinking brain it did not succeed in this, but if it certainly got me thinking about how and why cooperation failed, and thus signalled the end of that phase of evolution. For that I am grateful.
This is why we feel things like shame and embarrassment (emotions that have not been detected among our nearest relatives). We see how peer culture shapes children’s development. Parents are right to be concerned at what sort of company their children keep. To the age-old question of whether it is nature or nurture, then the answer is that it’s both, but with a twist. Your environment can determine which genes are switched on – epigenetics. These in turn can be passed to your offspring. It’s still Darwin and not Lamarck – if you are blacksmith, your children won’t inherit your muscular biceps. But if you have a gene for strong arms, you might pass that on, if the gene for them is activated, and they might grow strong biceps, if they make use of them. The same goes with the brain. What happens in early life can trigger latent genes that otherwise would not otherwise have been expressed, if the environment were not right. This can have all manner of implications as to what sort of life you have.
Other animals are social but their brains have evolved nothing as complex as language and culture. The cacophony of bells and whistles one can hear in nature, such as birdsong, despite its splendour, conveys a limited range of messages – mostly to do with fending off rivals or attracting mates. Human language by contrast conveys a stunning range of ideas. Attempts by primatologists to demonstrate that chimps have such a thing as culture (as opposed to learning a set of patterned behaviour, like basic tool making) are unconvincing: chimps’ observed behaviour shows nowhere near the range we see in human beings. Nor is there much evidence of genuine altruism among any other species, in the sense of doing others favours without expectation of reward or reciprocation. Only humans are known to do this. There is of course plenty of selfishness among human beings. Perhaps there are ways or rationalising this by evoking the survival advantages of cultivating a reputation for promise-keeping and trustworthiness. But the very existence of altruism in the sense described above is remarkable.
There is of course a dark side to all this. We can be social within a group, but treat others who live outside it disregard or worse. Groups come in all forms – nations, football teams, clans, cults, religions and much else. You can belong to more than one. And not all groups exclude others. But one can show exemplary heroism and altruism within the group, and the worse kind of barbarism to those outside it. Manipulative, Machiavellian individuals can twist group dynamics to perversely appeal to the best instincts in order to do our worst. Many of us can think of times when we compromised ourselves – in the playground or the workplace - in order to fit in with a group
The author presents a good introduction to the issues outlined above, rooted in empirical data gathered from neuroscience and developmental psychology. It’s probably of interest to anyone interested in the relationship between the brain and social and individual psychology and behaviour. It is thought-provoking, too: it helps one to reflect on what this all means in one’s day-to-day relationship with other people. It’s of practical use, too. Therefore, if you are not a hermit, and if you are interested in what makes you and other people tick, then I can recommend this book.
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