Emotional Fossils – II – “too harsh for a human being”

Having determined that the various mental illnesses were all reflective of evolved segments of normal emotion, and that the majority of these illness – the anxiety and depression disorders – reflected motivation by aversion to the fears of separation and being trapped, I concluded that much of normal human behavior is inhibitory of primate aggression with the function of creating stronger and more productive social bonds.

Primatologist, Frans de Waal has spent the latter part of his illustrious career emphasizing fairness and empathy in chimpanzees.  However, one’s first impressions are usually the most correct (cf. Blink.)  When he started working at the chimpanzee colony at Arnhem, Holland, he had the following dream he related in his book, Chimpanzee Politics.

“I clearly remember the first dream I had about chimpanzees. In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent. During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside. The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me.  Yeron, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand.  Rather impatiently he listened to me request to come in.  He refused point-blank.  That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.”

It became clear to me that the evolutionary meaning of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in humans is their inhibitory function.  These painful emotions have repressed antisocial behavior and have replaced it with coordinated behavior.  Please note that I used the word coordinated and not cooperative.  Group selection produces the unity of  coordinated behavior, with the implication of centralized, “neurological”  command and control, whereas selection at the level of the individual produces cooperative behavior of mutual self-interest, the hallmark of which is decentralized, local communication.  This is the crucial distinction to be grasped.

I will end with a question that is also a clue.  Why is it that dogs are the only other species that come close to us with respect to suffering from the same debilitating anxiety and depression illnesses that we do?

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Mental Illnesses as Emotional Fossils, I – Overview

After observing severe mental illness for 20 years, I concluded that they all represented different types of emotional hyperactivity that had escaped from regulation.  Illnesses that included symptoms of lethargy or lack of initiative, such as some forms of depression and Schizophrenia, were manifestations of a “shutdown response” to underlying emotional hyperactivity.  Crucial to this conclusion was the observation that all physical treatments in psychiatry modulate emotional hyperactivity and are inhibitory, including those that are apparently stimulating like amphetamines and electro-convulsive treatment (ECT.)

I realized that mental illnesses, far from distorting normal emotions, actually magnify and exaggerate certain discreet segments of normal emotional function as if putting them under a microscope.  I decided that the specific clusters of emotion that were “spun out” in mental illness had relevance to the deep evolution of our emotions.

For example, a general observation is that the most common mental illnesses, the anxiety disorders (life prevalence ~ 30%) and the depression disorders (life prevalence ~ 20%) are painful emotions which, when they are functioning normally, motivate us aversively by avoiding them.  Furthermore, I determined that the two principal fears that drive all the anxiety disorders as well as the two poles of major depression respectively – Atypical Depression and Melancholia – are the fear of separation and the fear of being trapped. 

It is clear that separation anxiety, originating in the mother-infant bond, has been the staple emotional glue in the construction of group living in primates for the past 50 million years.  It is entirely reasonable and parsimonious to consider that separation anxiety has always been a relational, group selected entity.  It has been relationships with separation anxiety that have been selected, not individuals.

The reasons why I determined that the fear of being trapped was also relational and commandeered by group selection would go beyond the scope of a single blog.  By means of group selection, the fear of being trapped outside the group as if up against the wall of banishment created social groups in the shapes of funnels in which freedom is perceived as moving up and in towards the center of groups.  So, as one moves from the center of a group out and down towards the periphery, both the fear of separation and the fear of being trapped increase, motivating a centripetal direction.

If you doubt that the fear of being trapped is a fundamental motivating human emotion, consider that our nation is founded on the idea of freedom from the trap of tyranny in all its many guises.  Then consider your emotions when you watched those souls on 9/11 fling themselves out into the thin air with ties streaming upwards like thin little banners of liberty.   


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Let’s accept the premise, without understanding it exactly, that, by a mechanism similar to sexual selection, the dominance mentalities of 20-30 monogamously mated hominids began to be selected at the level of their group to select obedience to the essence of the  Ten Commandments in all of their submissive mentalities.  In addition to obedience to  “thou shalt not,” the combined dominance mentality of the group proceeded to be selected to select obedience in all the submissive mentalities of the group for the most efficient coordination of gathering and distributing food. 

The question then is, having accepted this form of “strong” group selection, how would the combined dominance mentality of this group (authority,) which then would become Will of the organism, communicate its (His) intentions to the submissive mentalities of the group, which had become the organs of this organism? 

            Such a communication would be triadic, similar to a musical band trying to follow the melody of the composer (the organism’s intentions) by listening to each other’s music intently and continuously making small adjustments in order to “stay on the same page.”  This process would demand that everyone be constantly communicating with everyone else in order for each individual to collectively fathom the proper coordinated behavior at each moment for the welfare of the group organism.  Communication would be a constant collective searching for expressions in each other for what comes next for the good of the group.

            Such a communication system would be novel and would demand very large quantities of information to be exchanged continuously, for, in effect, it would serve as the group organism’s neurological system. In all other animals, the signalers in communication (as opposed to those  reading the signals, because much more information is always inadvertently transmitted than is intended) are limited to only two evolutionary types.  One are group-selected reflexive and instinctual “calls,” such as “Watch out; there is a snake!” All other signals are selected at the level of the individual and therefore are attempts to manipulate others.

            This new kind of communication in which everyone is adjusting their expressions to each other in order to comprehend how to coordinate their behavior for the good of the group is called language.  In its early gestural form, it immediately demanded upright posture in order for the group to constantly fathom the intentions of the  mind of  the group organism of which they all had become its organs.   

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Two Dimorphisms and an Ascension

To me, Charles Darwin’s discovery of sexual selection rivals that of natural selection. In natural selection, the selecting is done totally by nature and change is rendered through chance mutation of genes.  In sexual selection, a portion of the power to select is seized by one of nature’s creations, usually the female of a species, and the result is the construction of a micro-ecology between chooser and chosen with rules that sequester a small portion of evolution from the monopoly of chance.  

 Sexual selection occurs because virtually all animals (and plants) are sexually dimorphic.  There are many hypotheses for the ubiquity of sex a few of which rise to the level of theories.  It would seem inevitable, perhaps even a natural Law that, given any dimorphism in which the differences between the two types are determined by their reciprocal interaction, eventually one type would evolve to select traits in the other.

 A second such dimorphism indeed does exist in nature and its origin is much more obvious than sex.  This other dimorphism exists not in physical characteristics but in the behavioral, emotional, and mental sphere, which is my province as a psychiatrist.  It arose from the inhibition of the atavistic fight and flight responses in order to enable the benefits of living in groups.  Here I refer to the temperaments of dominance and submission.  Dominance and submission exist in most social animals, but for 50 million years primates have become “specialists” in the hierarchies produced by them. The rules within these hierarchies, similar to those in sexual selection, has created an internal ecology.

The central idea in this book is that sexual selection in early hominids created just the right balance between the temperaments of dominance and submission such that the dominance temperaments began selecting the submissive temperaments for traits that were for the good of small, monogamous groups. It was in this manner that dominance in the individual Ascended to become the force of authority over the group.        

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Monogamy: Ardi and the Ants

Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed Ardi, is arguably the most significant fossil find in the history of paleoanthropology due to its completeness and antiquity – 4.4 M. years, just 1.6 M. years after the last common ancestor with Chimpanzees.  The theoretician of the group, Owen Lovejoy hypothesized that the reduction in the size of the male canine teeth and the near equal sizes of males and females was an indication of reduced male aggression and monogamy.  Lovejoy pointed out that apes had been going extinct due to deteriorating climates, but also declining birth rates, and that monogamy is an efficient method to boost birthrates.  The energy formerly spent by males competing for females would have been put to good use assisting with the provisioning of their pair bonded female mates and offspring. 

Lovejoy reasoned that this transformation occurred by means of sexual selection.  First conceived by Charles Darwin, sexual selection, exemplified by the peacock’s tail, occurs when the females of a species (mainly birds) are selected for the ability to select a trait in males. Once this process is initiated, the offspring of this increasingly selective mating produces ever stronger capacities in daughters to select certain male traits, and ever more pronounced expressions of these (“sexy”) traits (in this case lowed aggression and monogamy) in males.

            Lovejoy has been criticized because he published the same hypothesis in 1981 on the basis of other early hominids.  Clearly the eminent paleoanthropologist, Tim White and his distinguished team of experts, who had poured over this fossil find in secret for a decade, believe that Lovejoy got it right the first time and that Ardi only strengthened his case.

            E.O.Wilson makes the calculation in his co-authored book, The Superorganism, that the world total biomass of humans and ants are about equal.  Clearly there are many commonalities in the reasons for the success of the “eusocial” insects (ants, wasps, bees, etc.) and humans.  In light of these similarities, Lovejoy’s monogamy hypothesis got a shot in the arm from a study by William Hughes in May of 2008 in which he analyzed the ancestral lineages of eusocial insects and found that, no matter how odd their mating patterns ended up including social systems with sterile castes, that all of them started out monogamous.  So, perhaps, as much as we humans have strayed, that does not mean that our success is not based on the monogamy forged by the founding mothers of our hominid Family.     

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Sigmund Freud Meets Charles Darwin in Prison

While in my residency, Freudian psychoanalytic theory was still dominant. There are several cornerstones from my training that, through all the vicissitudes of my career, remained as foundations. First and foremost is the validity of the mind as a subject of study as opposed to the brain. This was difficult to maintain when psychiatry was turning to drugs and neurotransmitters. Then there is Freud’s emphasis on the predominance of two aspects of human emotion and behavior. One was his recognition of the sheer prevalence of anxiety apart from his theory of neurosis. The other was his celebrated observation about the ubiquity of sexuality in humans, much of it unconscious in his Victorian era. Finally self-evident is Freud’s view of the mind as involved in an emotional dynamic between the Id, consisting of primitive, atavistic impulses, and the superego representing the inhibitions of society.

I became interested in the various psychoanalytic theories as to how the superego becomes installed into the developing child and came to the conclusion that the concept of identity was the key. Very briefly, in the process of identity, social prohibitions become internalized into the child’s mind through a combination of fear and attachment to key parental figures . I later became convinced that a more general conception of identity both actively underlies our thinking process throughout life and had been at the center  of the hominid evolutionary narrative since the beginning.

So, It was with these basic Freudian assumptions that I began my career at a high security prison. I immediately observed in prison that the organizing social principle was dominance and submission ordered roughly into feudal hierarchies. As I examined these vertical relationships, I became immersed in Darwinian evolutionary psychology. I became aware that dominance and submission is a core structure in most social animals, particularly primates, and represented inhibited forms of the fight and flight responses and thereby permitted the advantages of social living.

By that time, I had transitioned into thinking about human evolution instead of the growth and development of individuals. I had the simple insight that, over the course of the 6 million years of hominid evolution, the external dominance-submission relationships in apes somehow  became internalized into a single mind producing not just a dynamic akin to Freud’s superego and id, but enabling the internal interaction of self-conscious thought. By means of some evolutionary mechanism a very basic external primate relationship had become an internal one inside a single human mind. As Alfred Wegener later wrote when the idea of continental drift (now plate tectonics) first struck him in 1911, “A conviction of the fundamental soundness of the idea took root in my mind.”

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It would logically follow that:

1. The single most important characteristic that identifies an ape as a hominid – BIPEDALISM -  would be central to the function of this innovation.

2. This innovation enabled early hominids to “INDOLENTLY THRIVE” – they grew huge teeth and grazed on low quality foods for 3½ million years in a large variety of African environments and underwent remarkable speciation (a new species of hominid is found practically every year.)

3. This same innovation was instrumental in propelling the Genus Homo, starting 2½ million years ago, far beyond all other life in the ability to MAKE TOOLS and GROW HUGE BRAINS.

4. This same innovation formed the foundation for the unique human attributes of SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE and SELF AWARENESS.

Apes, Ants, and Ancestors is about this miraculous evolutionary innovation and all of its implications.

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E. O Wilson Throws Down the Challenge.

My book, Apes, Ants, and Ancestors, is a response to this challenge by E. O. Wilson to draw a “new mythos” based on the facts of evolution.

“For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will refuse to yield to the despair of animal mortality. They will continue to plead, in company with the psalmist, Now Lord, what is my comfort? They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive.

…We are a single gene pool from which individuals are drawn in each generation and into which they are dissolved the next generation, forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.”

Edward O. Wilson, Consiliance (1999)

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Group Selection

The central thesis of this narrative of human evolution is quite simple.  The distinguishing feature of our 6 million year old hominin Family from the beginning is the common heritage of evolution by a unique mechanism resulting from a rare and controversial form of natural selection that occurred at the level of small groups.  I will now carefully describe the idea of group selection because, having grasped it, you will be able to understand from the outset the general outline of how it is that God could have emerged on earth by means of a natural evolutionary process.

            E. O. Wilson’s specialty is entomology, which is the study of insects.  He has recently coauthored a book entitled The Super-Organisms (2009) on “eusocial” insects, which include bees, ants, wasps, and termites.   These relatively few groups of species, by virtue of their vast numbers are by far the most successful on our planet (except, as Steven Gould was so fond of pointing out, bacteria.)  The success of eusocial insects is related to Adam Smith’s insight that all wealth is produced by the division of labor through interdependent specialization. During the course of a hundred million years of evolution, group living achieved a sufficient level of interdependent specialization that the survival of a swarm or colony as a whole became more important to the survival of each individual insect than the competitive survival of each within their group.  This meant that with each generation, these insects were naturally selected not according to traits that increased their individual capacity to survive and reproduce, but according to their small contribution to their colony’s ability to survive and reproduce.  In a sense, a colony of ants becomes the organism which is submitted to natural selection and the individual ants become the “organs” of this “super-organism.”

            The central kernel of this narrative can be grasped by a thought experiment of imagining that you could ask an individual ant a philosophical question as to the meaning and purpose of her (it is sisters that do the heavy lifting) hard-working life.  Of particular interest would be her thinking about the source of her motivation to labor so intently.  Why is she working so hard? After slowly rubbing her antennae together in contemplation, she would tilt her head profoundly and explain that her entire conscious world consists of thousands of her relatives with whom she exists in a constant state of intimate communion, and that the source her motivation emanates from the whole of them as a single entity.  When asked what she calls this global source of her animation, she replies without hesitation, “God.”

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Lincoln God and History

Shortly before he was assassinated in his Second Inaugural Address , our greatest president offered up this meditation on the role of God in history:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

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