The Imprinted Brain

How genes set the balance between autism and psychosis

Evolutionary Paradise Lost? Don’t Adam and Eve It!

Cognitively our past was no paradise.

An unfortunate implication of evolutionary psychology's emphasis on the way we are adapted more to the past than to the present is that it suggests that our primeval hunter-gatherer environment was some kind of Garden of Eden to which our ancestors were uniquely adapted and from which we have now been expelled with punitive consequences. It's actually a modern version of Adam and Eve: having tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we lost our original paradise forever by discovering things like agriculture, urbanization, sanitation, and science. Furthermore, as the hygiene/old friends hypothesis proves, there is much truth in the story: at least where the immune system is concerned.

Evolutionary psychology’s Garden of Eden myth appeals in part because it seems to let those who believe in it off the hook where three worrying issues are concerned:

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1. Since the evolutionary Eden was in Africa, we are all of one--essentially African--race (so no problems with accusations of racism).

2. Given that the evolutionary Eden is long gone, our evolution is over, so natural and sexual selection are no longer operative (so no problems with social Darwinism or sexism).

3. Because the modern world is so different from our original environment, evolution has only marginal relevance today (so no need to take it seriously in a modern context).

But something must be wrong here because the ultimate factor in evolution is reproductive success. Genes which promote the reproductive success of their carriers are by definition selected and those that don't, aren't. It's as simple as that. So how come human numbers have vastly increased since paradise was lost? Why have we evolved to become the dominant species on the planet? And why is human health, wealth, and longevity remorselessly increasing? And most of all in the industrialized world, definitely not in Africa!

As I point out in a chapter in an important new book on evolutionary psychology, evolution can explain this, but only if you realize that something unexpected has happened in human cognitive development. According to the imprinted brain theory and its distinctive diametric model of cognition, human beings have evolved not one, but two parallel cognitive systems: mentalistic and mechanistic cognition

Mechanistic cognition evolved for adaptation to the non-human, physical world of inanimate objects and natural forces. Mentalism evolved to enable interaction with other animate beings. This would have been mainly people, but perhaps animals, too, to the extent that they share our cognitive abilities. For example, knowing when a predatory animal was going to pounce or a prey animal was going to bolt could literally have been a matter of life or death in our primeval past, and both involve prediction of behaviour epitomized as an understanding of intention--itself a key factor in mentalism (and one symptomatically deficient in autism but hypertrophied in paranoid or erotomanic schizophrenia). 

Cosmologists have resorted to a theory of inflation in the early universe to try to resolve some of the paradoxical findings of their science, and it seems to me that we have to do something analogous in evolutionary psychology if we want to explain the anomaly of the modern world.

One possibility is that once intentional, mentalistic thinking evolved, it evidently underwent an enormous inflation that projected it out onto the natural, non-human world in the form of magic, superstition, and religion. Now not just the truly animate world of people and animals was filled with intention, meaning, and emotion, but the inanimate world of objects also acquired mental agency in the form of spirits, ghosts, and gods. Religion, magic, and superstition became institutionalized and normal in all human societies, and--according to the diametric model of the mind--our collective cognitive configuration became dangerously unbalanced in the psychotic direction. Contrary to what evolutionary psychology seems to imply, the primeval past did not correspond to a well-adapted, balanced, and normal mentality. Historically, human cognition was notably hyper-mentalistic, to coin a term.

An obvious advantage of this way of looking at things is that it makes belief in the supernatural transparent, and immediately resolves the many paradoxes religion raises where evolution is concerned. But a second major benefit is that the mentalistic inflation theory explodes the myth of a Garden of Eden in our primeval past, with its implication of cognitve maladjustment to the present. Instead, it suggests that our cognitive maladaptations were worse in the past, and indeed are only now resolving. 

Only since the Enlightenment and the rise of science and technology has the balance begun to swing back towards a more normal condition in which mechanistic cognition has reclaimed territory originally lost to mentalistic inflation, such as cosmology, medicine, and our understanding of our place in nature. No wonder human numbers have increased exponentially and that human health, wealth, and longevity have reached unprecedented levels. If there is indeed a Garden of Eden as far as human cognitive adaptations are concerned, it is much more likely to be in the here-and-now, and even more likely to be in the future than it ever was in the past!

Christopher Robert Badcock, Ph.D., is author of The Imprinted Brain: how genes set the balance between autism and psychosis. 

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