Where will evolution take humanity
Posted: 11 March 2005 07:32 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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It seems likely that human beings have set forces in motion that could conceivably result in the next great dying, an extinction of a significant proportion of species, including ourselves (Erlich & Erlich,  2004; Meadows et. al., 2004; Rees, 2003; Rischard, 2002).  Arguably, a cause of this unhappy state is the lack of wisdom in both individuals and societies as a whole.  Wisdom - sapience - has been characterized by a number of researchers (Sternberg, 1990) as a kind of meta-intelligence/meta-knowledge property in which those few individuals who express it (and usually in later years) show a capacity to resolve apparent dichotomies, and integrate knowledge and understanding over much larger scales of space and time than most others.  Such individuals are neither too conservative or too exploratory, where the former is a typical pattern of older people and the latter is a characteristic of youth.  Rather they show an unusual ability to balance exploitation and exploration.  They have the ability to recognize novelty but find ways to integrate new things into old patterns of understanding.

Sapience appears to be an emergent facility of the current species of Homo (regardless of the hubris behind Linneaus' selection of the name sapiens for the species!).  It is also a weak facility, not often developed in individuals, and only emerges later in life when it is too late to have any substantial effect on the relative reproduction rates that would promote it evolutionarily.  Additionally, it is not clear what environmental factors would be needed to select for wisdom.

Finally, what sapience there might be in humans, like other cognitive capacities, is built on top of more primitave brain structures.  It may be the case that the prefrontal cortex provides the executive functions for sapience.  The left frontal lobes are known to mediate judgement and are involved in recurrent mediation of various limbic areas - moderating, for example, more negative emotions.  The right lobe is known to be involved with novelty and generating models and plans (hypothesis) that can be tested before implementation (c.f., Goldber, 2001).  These are facilities that are operative in most concepts of intelligence, of course.  But the current hypothesis is that sapience goes beyond ordinary intelligence in its ability to deal with much greater scales of time (long-range thinking) and space (global thinking).  It is also capable of synthesis in the face of apparent differences (thesis/antithesis).  Wise individuals are generally characterized as being able to see the "big picture" from a transcendant height (which, in part may explain the historical connection between wisdom and spiritual maturity).

Suppose sapience is a weak, but emerging facility of the human brain.  Suppose too, that some genetic factor, a specific allelle of a gene affecting frontal lobe development, is available in the gene pool, but at a low (very low!) frequency.  Under what circumstances could it be selected for in the Darwinian sense?  How long would it take to increase the frequency of the allelle to the point that we would see a substantial change in social organization due to wisdom becoming an operative factor in human affairs?

Unfortuantely these questions may be purely academic.  As noted above, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point in environmental conditions that could lead to massive dieoffs of extant species.  The greatest, in fact, since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  There is a high likelihood that modern humans would not be capable of surviving under such circumstances (Diamond, 2005).

On the other hand, is Darwinian evolution the only road forward?  Is it not possible that a meta-Darwinian mechanism might allow for the next phase of human evolution, one in which sapience has a chance to develop?  One possiblity seems to be that humans could be an operator in this meta-Darwinian scheme.  I don't mean necessarily by genetic engineering.  But rather by a concerted effort to identify the genetic factors (if any) involved in the development of wise individuals.  Identifying carriers of such factors and making preparations for those individuals to survive a dieoff might make some sense.

Other thoughts?

George

References

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse, Viking, New York.

Ehrlich, P. & Ehrlich, A. (2004) One with Nineveh, Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Meadows, D., Jorgen, R. & Meadows, D. (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vt.

Rees, M. (2003). Our Final Hour, Basic Books, New York.

Rischard, J. F. (2001). High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, Basic Books, New York.

Sternberg, R. (ed) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

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Posted: 12 March 2005 06:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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gmobus…..Hey,thanks for the note.

First , thanks for the references, I plan to check them out. Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel is a classic.

Next, thanks for the effort.  I’m afraid it’s a little difficult to engage most people I know on these issues.  Enjoyed your thoughts and would very much appreciate a reference or further discussion on the the neural basis of belief, or thought for that matter. In another post I had written about inference systems such as “does it move”, or “does it have hair” and how the brain quickly decides what it is looking at.  How is the construct system you describe similar or different.  Also you note the strength of belief is related to actual strength of neural connections between constructs.  Might it be that it is more the number of connections and possibly the emotional connections that have to do with the strength of belief.  If beliefs become hardwired,  we might postulate on the neural process of actually “changing our mind” when we reassess our beliefs.  Does everybody have the same capacity to do this?  Some pretty bright chemists stuck to the idea of phlogiston long after it was bunked.  Was it more of an emotional attachment?  I think it was Einstein who said new theories are usually accepted only when the old guard dies off. 

Your thoughts on wisdom….limited to a few, more common in old age, and ability to see the big picture.  It sure seems that way but I’m not sure I would infer that it is a relatively rare set of genes that is set to trigger the older we get.  I might argue that wisdom comes in relatively small doses to all and seems to be limited to those areas where time has showed us that our beliefs can be fallible, and hence it’s safer to try and see the “bigger picture”.  The wise politcal sage may not be so wise when it comes to making comments about his future son-in-law, for example.  I guess if wisdom was inheritable, and so far as it is related to intelligence it might be, then why not think about preserving those genes when the big “die off” comes?  In that case I think we might out-wisdom ourselves because in the event society is somehow returned to the iron age our survival will probably depend more on health and disease resistance. In primitive societies I don’t know that the wise outproduce the strong.

Forgive me if I ran some of the issues in your two posts together.

Look forward to hearing from you.    Rod

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Posted: 15 March 2005 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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If you see wisdom, or sapience, as something equivalent to mental advancement, the following bit of Theodore Dreisser’s Sister Carrie puts forth an interesting perspective:

Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. . . . [Man] wavers—neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free will. He is even as a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion, acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one only to retrieve by the other . . . a creature of incalculable variability.
It might be that our species is simply in the long process of growing up. Gould and others talk about the relative maturity levels of different species. My own subjective judgment puts us somewhere in adolescence.

____
gmobus:  “How long would it take to increase the frequency of the allelle to the point that we would see a substantial change in social organization due to wisdom becoming an operative factor in human affairs?”
____

It will take “wisdom” becoming a cue for sexual attraction. Aren’t geeks these days doing pretty well in that department? Of course, wisdom is not a synonym of geekness. I suspect that youthful wisdom has in the past equated to sexual attraction, applying to both genders. One can only hope that such a trend will continue into the future.

Dave

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Posted: 15 March 2005 03:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Hi Dave.

That is a great insight.  One of the problems with many religious views is that they hold that the extant species of humans is the epitome of evolution.  I prefer to think that we are, if anything, a stage in an on-going process of increasing the capacity of individuals in a population to process and create information.

I can imagine that the next stage involves an increase in the capabilities of the frontal lobes of the brain.  In particular, I suspect that even a small increase in the processing power of the left prefrontal cortex would significantly increase an individual’s ability to become wise (knowledgable as well as able to integrate information over much larger scales than most normal humans are now able to do).  Such an increase would include the frontal lobe’s ability to modulate the emotional centers in the so-called limbic system. 

Very specifically I would look for an ability to be better able to inhibit certain aspects of processing in the amygdala - a center for some so-called negative emotional responses (like anger).  The encouraging evidence for the left frontal lobe’s role in mediating and managing these emotions comes from some interesting research on Tibetian Buddhist monks that shows that after years of “exercise” through specific meditation techniques, they are able to manage their emotional responses to negative stimuli.  It isn’t that they don’t know they are stimulated and experience a form of emotion, its just that their neocortex is able to override the “knee jerk” kind of responses.  Practitioners of transcendental meditiation also report greater control over negative emotions. [Note: I’m not saying that the frontal lobe’s mediation of the amygdala is the only aspect, but it is, perhaps, the most dramatic!]

What I infer from this evidence is that humans have evolved the basic mechanisms for something we would call wisdom but that it is still in its nascent stage in this species (perhaps we should be called Homo presapiens!).  With concerted effort some humans are able to boost this ability to some degree, just as atheletes can develop their muscles and some people can exercise and increase their memory capacity.

So, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that further evolution along the lines of increasing wisdom should be feasible.  The problem is that there may not be enough time for ordinary Darwinian selection to work.  We are rapidly using up the Earth’s resources and polluting the environment such that life on Earth may be seriously compromised.

I’m suggesting that humans must become an active agent in the process of evolution.  We need to discover the genetic basis for wisdom (if, indeed it is a real property) and research what would be necessary to promote increases in this property.  The logistics for increasing the frequency of the allelle(s) in the population, or whatever population might remain after a possible die off, I will have to leave for more thought at a later time.

George

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Posted: 17 March 2005 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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It seems to me that in order for humans to be able to influence the development of “wisdom” in the species, the first step would be to be able to define, recognize and timely identify such a characteristic or property.

One problem is that gaining agreement on the definition may be nearly impossible.  What appears to be “wisdom” to one person could easily be regarded as “foolishness” by someone else.

Secondly, even if a clear definition were to be developed, devising a test to recognize such a trait would be non-trivial…......just look at the controversies around IQ or even the SAT tests.

Finally, “wisdom” is often not evident and/or verifiable until long after the “wise” judgments are rendered. 

For example, whether or not George W. Bush’s judgments about Iraq and the global war on terror are wise or foolish will probably not be know for decades….. long after he is dead and too late to either select or suppress his DNA in the human gene pool.

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Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful…..Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman (3 BC - 65 AD)

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Posted: 17 March 2005 08:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“Conservative Atheist”]It seems to me that in order for humans to be able to influence the development of “wisdom” in the species, the first step would be to be able to define, recognize and timely identify such a characteristic or property.

One problem is that gaining agreement on the definition may be nearly impossible.  What appears to be “wisdom” to one person could easily be regarded as “foolishness” by someone else.

Actually CA, the research on these questions is underway.  It is following the same sort of track that we’ve seen for the definition of intelligence.  Now that evolutionary psychologists are linking up with neuroscientists (esp. with imagining technology) the work is moving rapidly.  Perhaps you are familiar with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences?  Recent studies are aimed at teasing out parts of the brain active in a variety of intelligent behavior and some of these do seem to be confirming the basic premise if not the exact categorizations that Gardner proposed.

As with intelligence (and of course I am not referring to IQ or G), wisdom is coming under increasing interest by this same mix of psychologists and neuroscientists so I suspect that we can expect the questions to better resolve themselves and some answers to be forthcomming in the not-too-distant future.  Just because we haven’t had particular agreement in the past, doesn’t mean we won’t have it in the future.

Secondly, even if a clear definition were to be developed, devising a test to recognize such a trait would be non-trivial…......just look at the controversies around IQ or even the SAT tests.

Nothing about the brain is trivial.  Doesn’t stop us from exploring and looking for explanatory theories!

With respect to the definition and operationalization of wisdom, you might take a look at:
Sternberg, R. J. (ed)(1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
for an overview and snapshot of the thinking as of the 1990’s. 

In a personal communication with Gardner, he assures me these are the right people.  He is also investigating a related topic, which he calls “Societal Trustees”.  These are people who others would describe as wise.

Finally, “wisdom” is often not evident and/or verifiable until long after the “wise” judgments are rendered. 

For example, whether or not George W. Bush’s judgments about Iraq and the global war on terror are wise or foolish will probably not be know for decades….. long after he is dead and too late to either select or suppress his DNA in the human gene pool.

Just had to bring politics into it didn’t you? :D

It isn’t any single decision that counts.  It is the pattern of decisions and actions.  The future will show that the issues of terrorism and Iraqi politics have very complex webs of cause.  I doubt seriously if GWB will turn out to be a prime mover.  In any case, one must look at the total picture of a person’s pattern of thought and actions.

In the decade ahead we will be mapping the genome relation to brain function.  There is already considerable understanding of the role of the frontal lobes (executive functions) and some genes that affect the development of it (take ADHD for example).  The best is yet to come.

George

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Posted: 17 March 2005 09:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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The issue is not GWB, it is whether or not “wisdom” can be recognized with certainty in a timely manner so that it can make a difference. 

If such recognition requires that “one must look at the total picture of a person’s pattern of thought and actions”, I do not see how a “wise” person could be identified until long after they have had those thoughts and/or taken those actions.

Furthermore, it seems to me that any such broad examination of the “total picture” would inevitably result in total subjectivity and unscientific, unrepeatable conclusions.

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Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful…..Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman (3 BC - 65 AD)

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Posted: 17 March 2005 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Well, CA, read the book.  Read the lit.  Don’t take my word for it.

BTW: How is it we have words for wisdom and intelligence?  Are these socially constructed concepts?  Are are we responding to something real, if somewhat ephemeral, like body language or any number of other social behaviors that are grounded in neurology?

Your position seems to come from the conventional belief.  Perhaps your handle speaks volumes about that.

PS. by book, of course, I’m refering to the reference I provided, not the bible!

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Posted: 23 May 2005 03:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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I found this old thread deep in the science topic.  It looks like CA has a long history of getting people to offer him/her literature sources by spouting his opinions.  Then, instead of actually doing some research he spouts more argument then abandons the thread.  Is this guest, guest #2 and me the only ones who have offered this guy/gal some serious reading and have him/her quit the discussion when he is faced with serious work?

Actually, I thought this thread had an interesting idea.

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Posted: 23 May 2005 03:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Interesting to me was something about recent studies of neurons in adolescents, showing that they had alot of “noise” in their brains, alot more neurons firing, alot more synapses, alot less ability to concentrate or focus,  while alot more ability to make new connections and learn.

Apparently this profusion of neurons firing and synapses decreases with age, making it easier to focus on issues but harder to learn new things.

So, is this the difference between intelligence (the ability to learn) and wisdom (the ability to apply what is learned in a focused rational way)?

Just wondering since it seems conventional “wisdom” says that as you age you become more “wise”.

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